Ace in the Hole (1951)
Written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman
Directed by Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder was wildly prescient when it came to the worst of mankind. Long before 24-hour news cycles became a thing, Wilder was already foreseeing a time where a small incident could be exploited by the media into something more substantial. The forces of entertainment would find ways to prolong human suffering because it makes such a compelling narrative to the public. Wilder makes no bones about how he believes humans often succumb to their worst impulses and delivers a noir film that doesn’t need Los Angeles to give it atmosphere.
Chuck Tatum is a reporter who has burnt every bridge he ever had. That’s what has brought him to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he manages to weasel his way onto a local newspaper. He uses his big city bonafides to acquire the job, but his new boss knows the score and warns that this is a legitimate operation. A year later and Tatum is pulling out his hair over the mundanity of this place. Things turn around when he stumbles across Leo Minosa, a local man trapped in a collapsed cave while trying to swipe Native American artifacts. Tatum sees this as a captivating human interest piece that can propel him back into the big leagues. The problem is that there’s an easy solution to extracting Minosa from the cave. But Tatum manages to convince the sheriff and the engineer over the rescue to give him some extra time and delay their plans.
Wilder obviously holds everyone in contempt in this pitch-black movie. Even Minosa’s wife uses his predicament as an excuse to pack her bags and leave before Tatum convinces her otherwise. The film was a financial disaster domestically, and I can see why general audiences would not enjoy this movie. It is a little too honest about American society, the way people crave news stories that dissect a person with a dishonest scalpel.
The purpose of such stories is merely to reinforce cultural norms and never challenge preconceived notions. People get hurt, but eventually, the authorities can save them, so trust your overlords. What makes it even more palatable is the literal circus that amasses outside the caves. Vendors hawk their wares, and people come to gawk, aw shucks-ing to radio interviewers coming to get the pulse of the man on the street.
Wilder plays with our expectations in a beautifully cruel manner. There are moments where it appears Tatum is developing an affection for Minosa and his plight. We believe this is the moment where he will call for the madness to stop. But of course, the audience is just like the gawking public on-screen, assuming this story is one thing when it’s something totally different.
Tatum is an irredeemable monster, a being so consumed with himself and elevating his status that he doesn’t care about anyone else. He joyfully forces Minosa to suffer, legs pinned under rocks while soaking in being declared a hero by the public outside the cave. Even Minosa kept ignorant of what is happening beyond those walls, comes to see Tatum as his best friend in the whole world.
Wilder understood that Noir is not a collection of tropes (detectives, femme Fatales, Los Angeles) but a philosophy. That particular philosophy is a nihilistic one, a belief that given a chance, humanity will default to its worst impulses each and every time. Making films amid the staid and artificial 1950s, Wilder was tearing down the veneer and the lies of an American dream. The director escaped the tyranny of Hitler and the Nazis, and he knew the dark heart of people when they began to think as their leaders told them. Everything about Wilder’s portrayal of police, the media, and people, in general, is so spot on it makes you shudder.