There are some classic movies that have stood the test of time because of how idiosyncratic they are. Some stand the test of time because of how influential and important they were in the history of filmmaking. And then there are some that predict the future, and seem even more relevant today then when they were filmed. Billy Wilder’s 1951 masterpiece, Ace in the Hole, fits the third description.
Kirk Douglas stars as a frustrated former big-city journalist, Chuck Tatum, now stuck working for a cautious and dependable local Albuquerque newspaper. In a clever open shot we see Chuck riding in his car and reading a newspaper while his car is attached to a moving tow truck. We know, without any exposition, that Chuck is desperate, poor, and interested in public events. As the film moves a long, we find out much more about Chuck’s back story like how he got fired from multiple jobs from alcohol abuse, adultery, and many other charges. He is an extremely flawed man, and he decides to move out west to “start his life over.” At least that’s what we think at first. It will become relatively clear early on, that he is still the same flawed man who is driven by selfishness, greed, and the need for acclaim. Early we see Chuck, in a desperate attempt to gain publicity by selfishly exploiting a story about a man trapped in a cave. However, the situation quickly escalates out of control and things go off the rails. This is what drives the story, and it is a non-stop thrill ride until the very end.
It’s always funny watching older movies of Kirk Douglas, because he resembles his son Michael Douglas so much. Watching a movie like this, I couldn’t help but think it was like watching Michael go back in time. They look, act, and sound so much a like. It was obvious Michael admired and looked up to his father so much. Kirk was an exceptional actor. I always preferred his more villainous roles, like his role in this film because he embodied control and dominance like few actors of his time, or since. Roger Ebert described his performance in a very fascinating way: “The movie stars Kirk Douglas, an actor who could freeze the blood when he wanted to, in his most savage role. Yes, he made comedies and played heroes, but he could be merciless, his face curling into scorn and bitterness. His focus and energy as Chuck Tatum is almost scary.” Tatum is a very unpredictable and loose cannon of a character, and Douglas portrays him in a very intimidating way, but somehow we are still fascinated by him and want to see more. It is very hard to play an unethical character, who is the protagonist, and somehow still be interested in the characters motivations and actions, but that’s exactly what happens here.
I could go on about the brilliance of Billy Wilder as a director, or the incredible screenplay and dialogue that floods this story, but what is most impressive about this movie is how relevant it is today. This movie really predicted how news and our culture would change and really defines modern-day media perfectly. In our media today, someone can be a hero one day, and tomorrow yesterdays news. In other instances the actual story being reported becomes secondary to what is going on around it. If you watch the news, 9 out of 10 times it is about something that is very tragic and despairing. It is almost never about the good that is going on in our world. And this is what drives Chuck to publicize the man stuck in the cave. He understands that people will be more interested in an unfortunate/tragic event, even if he has to throw in a few fibs here and there to spice up the story.
Billy Wilder was known to create many movies that have stood the test of time, and Ace in the Hole is certainly one of those. The powerful lead performance from Douglas, the extremely quotable script, and super relevant themes are what makes this film a masterpiece and must-watch. Ace in the Hole teaches us a lot about what drives our media and even ourselves. It’s the continuing complexity of our character as a society to always want to please others, gain recognition, and be successful. Much is the reason why Ace in the Hole, which came out over 60 years ago, still holds up extremely well today. This film predicted the unethical tricks that people will go through just to gain publicity and followers. For example, we see many websites online that use “click bait” to attract readers to their content. Someone can click on an article with a specific title that seems intriguing, but go on to find out that the article and what is being reported has nothing to do with the title at all. Kirk Douglas’ character immorally does what ever he possibly can to gain publicity just like the writers/editors of those articles. He also believes that the more tragic the new story, the more people will be interested in it…And people wonder why CNN only shows the appalling events in our world.