Chuck Tatum arrives somewhat haphazardly into Albuquerque New Mexico-in a car being towed-looking for a newspaper job. The only problem is he's a flashy, problematic hot-shot used to the big news and the big life and now he's in a town where people mistake Yogi Berra for a religion, a ship in a bottle for liquor, and where the biggest story is a rattlesnake hunt.
Tatum, played by Kirk Douglas, is confident when he arrives in the newspaper office-he talks fast and lights match with typewriter slide-but he's also out of place and knows it. "No shows, no South Pacific, no 80th floor to jump from when you feel like it," he complains, and yet he knows after his reckless behavior in the big cities that this is the only place he can get a job. As soon as he gets hired, Chuck is sent out to cover a story, yet on his way he comes across a man named Leo who's trapped in a cave and realizes that he's stumbled upon a potential break that will get back into the big leagues. "Bad news sells best cause good news is no news," he says as he begins to cover what will end up being a media sensation.
Released in 1951 to tepid reviews, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole has, like so many movies that were initially derided, aged beautifully. It's a fascinating account of the ways in which people utilize a situation for their own advancement at the expense of their own moral integrity. Tatum is vicious and uncompromising in the way he turns one man's misfortune into a national frenzy. His greatest crime though is not so much bringing attention to the scene, but ordering the drillers to work from the top of the cave because it will take longer and thus extend his moment in the spotlight. He doesn't just bring in the media from around the country, but masses of common folk who simply want to be a part of the spectacle. At one point a train arrives and hordes of people jump off it and dash towards the scene. Wilder uses a crane shot that slowly pans from the train to the cave, the travelers running like hungry animals craving to be in on the action. While these people aren't necessarily consuming anything, the image reflects the American consumerism mentality that was starting around the time the movie was made and is as prevalent today as ever. It's not all that different from a anxious crowd fighting to get into Wall Mart on Black Friday.
The scene becomes a circus, and everyone is so wrapped up in themselves that they almost forget there's a man in the cave on the verge of dying. Tatum wants to get back into one of the big papers, the sheriff of the town sees this as an opportunity to get re-elected, and Leo's wife is happy because she's finally making money at the family restaurant. Even one of the faces in the crowd can't keep from talking up his insurance business when he's interviewed. Ace in the Hole presents a cynical view of humankind in which every man is on a team by himself and will do whatever it takes to win.
And that's ultimately what makes it such a compelling movie. Like Tatum himself, the film is relentless in its attempt to engage the viewer with the idea that there's no such thing as a selfless action. Part of the film's legend is built around the way it depicts the media as a force of power, but really I think the movie has more interesting things to say about mankind as a whole. Like the drillers at the top of the cliff trying to rescue Leo, Ace in the Hole is a pounding, unremitting force; when it finally reaches a moment of peace, it's too late, all hope's lost. Wilder gives us a long shot of Leo's father--the only one not driven by influence or personal gain--walking slowly, somberly towards the deserted cave site as a shattered Tatum looks on. The crowd is gone, the desert air is still, and it's one of saddest, most desolate shots in all of film.
And yet while the film itself reaches the tragic proportions of Shakespeare, it would be unfair to label it a downer. Wilder has made a film that's visceral and suspenseful, that tackles something that's true in all men not just to investigate our nature, but to make a movie that's both shocking and thrilling. And the conclusion, which is quite logical, should not be seen simply as a gut punch to the viewer, but as a triumph for Wilder.