Monday, May 12, 2008

Monday Movie Review: Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole (1951) 10/10
Down on his luck newspaper reporter Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) takes a job at an Albuquerque paper. His hope is that some big story will bring him back to the attention of the major urban papers. When a man (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a cave, Tatum sees his big break, but if Mimosa (Benedict) is rescued too soon, Tatum can't play the story for all it's worth. Tatum persuades the local sheriff and construction chief to use a slower rescue method while a media circus gathers. Directed by Billy Wilder.

This is a dark, cynical story of corruption and self-interest. It was honestly hard to watch, and yet it was compelling and I can't fault it in any way. None of the main characters are likeable, certainly not Douglas's Chuck Tatum, who is a son-of-a-bitch from the opening scene and only gets worse. Jan Sterling as Mimosa's wife is unpleasant through and through, and yet strangely sympathetic. She doesn't want to fool anyone or play any games for fame or even fortune, she just wants enough money to get her out of town and away from an unhappy marriage.

The sheriff (Ray Teal, who is painfully familiar from having been in everything ever) is a thoroughly despicable guy. Tatum easily convinces him that appearing heroic to the media will get him re-elected, and of course, good media depends on Tatum. With that little detail handled, Tatum owns the town and the story.

Forgotten in all of this is Leo Mimosa, trapped, pinned, and thoroughly isolated. He seems, from what little we see, like a decent guy; trusting, direct, a veteran, and pathetically trying to be a good husband despite knowing how badly his wife wants out. Of course, Leo matters to know one except his parents; not to Tatum, not to the sheriff, certainly not to the thousands of people who gather and set up camp to participate in the spectacle. Media circuses have only gotten bigger and gaudier, so as dated as this movie might appear in terms of technology and style, it is up-to-the-minute in terms of its opinions and observations about the way media attention buries (hah!) stories it tries to tell.

The actors chosen for this film, except for Douglas, are not stars, and they are not beautiful. The sense of ordinariness is perfect; everything feels present and immediate. This is important in building the sense of claustrophobia; for Leo, trapped in a cave, for Tatum, trapped in the media circus he created, for everyone playing out roles and telling lies. Whenever Tatum walks through the growing crowd into his quiet room, it's like a breath of air, and the parallel to the trapped Leo is a constant subtext.

Tatum is a bastard, and sometimes he talks too much like a Billy Wilder bastard, all snappy dialogue and hard edges, but he is also thoroughly real. How different is he, truly, from Chris Matthews, or Joe Scarborough, or any of these guys who love the fact that there's a story more than they care about anything happening inside the story? Tatum wants to write a story, and he wants to sell it, and he wants it to be his ticket back to New York. That Leo grows weaker with each day is secondary. That Lorraine Mimosa wants out is never a consideration at all. It's all just a story.

(Cross-post in the Hole)