Welcome to The Noirvember Files, a new series dropping the spotlight on essential film noir selections. The titles celebrated here exemplify the style and substance of cinema’s grimiest, most-relatable underbelly. In this entry, we’re digging into Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.
In the late 1940s, when the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating alleged political subversion in Hollywood, director Billy Wilder was among its fiercest opponents. He played a hand in the short-lived resistance movement led by a group of actors and directors, championing freedom of speech and press. When the group known as the Committee for the First Amendment dissolved — mostly out of an increasing reluctance to be associated with communism — Wilder continued to channel his frustrations with American society into his work.
Wilder’s 1951 film noir, Ace in the Hole, reflects the atmosphere of suspicion sowed during the HUAC hearings and further entrenched during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red scare years. A satire of American media, the film is a ferocious, almost agonizing addition to the canon, a portrait of a depraved big-city journalist who takes a job with a scruffy Albuquerque newspaper and milks a local story until it ends in tragedy. Ace in the Hole (under the title The Big Carnival) was rejected by audiences, its cynical assessment of the American journalist too much even by film noir standards.
Played by a menacing Kirk Douglas, Charles “Chuck Tatum” arrives in New Mexico having just lost another newspaper job. Was it the libel suit, the adultery, or the alcoholism? It doesn’t matter; he’s about to score a position at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, a modest, mid-sized paper that will be his ticket back to the big leagues, preferably New York or Chicago. “I’m a $250-a-week newspaperman,” Chuck tells the boss, Mr. Boot (Porter Hall). “I can be had for $50!” He’s gangster-like and impossibly arrogant, swaggering around the office, addressing his news colleagues as “fans.”
What makes Chuck so frightening a presence is that his talent is undeniable. And it’s not just his knack for writing copy. He can disarm almost anyone with his charisma — if not, he’s an effective blackmailer. He somehow towers over men much taller than he is, and he has an exact understanding of the relationship between the American media and its audience. He gloats that reputation is beside the point for journalists as skilled as he. “When they need you, they forgive and forget,” he tells Boot.
After a year on the job, a bored Chuck stumbles upon a story ripe for embellishment: a man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped inside an old mining cave, his elderly parents fretting after him, and his wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) cursing his folly. Chuck steps up, filling a power vacuum. Bullying a police officer into letting him venture inside the cave where Leo is pinned down by fallen rocks, Chuck presents himself as a savior and a friend. “Don’t worry, Leo,” he says. “I’m your pal.” He schemes to organize the search effort himself, ensuring that Leo will be kept trapped for longer than necessary so as to extend the story’s shelf life.
It’s a heinous plan, but Ace in the Hole is onto something brilliant. Chuck settles into his role as puppet master, positioning himself as a mediator between all of the institutional representatives involved in the rescue: the contractor responsible for drilling through the mine, the sheriff managing law and order, the doctor tending to Leo’s fragile health, and even his big-city newspaper nemeses who are on assignment. In the film, the operation can’t exist without the journalist who functions as its central organ — not unlike the idealist’s vision of American democracy, which claims a free press as its beating heart.
But because Chuck is sour, everyone around him turns sour too. Some have it in them more than others: the Sheriff needs momentum for his reelection platform, whereas the young, impressionable photojournalist Herbie (Robert Arthur), Chuck’s shadow through much of the film, is taken in by their sudden celebrity. Chuck’s moral rot exists in everyone, just bubbling under the surface. Wielding his charms and his authority as a newsman, Chuck upends all of the fundamental values of honest journalistic work: he lies to the public, deceives a vulnerable source — and, it is implied, sleeps with his wife — dragging out a life-threatening predicament for his own personal enrichment. The people are along for the ride, flooding the grounds near the mine where Leo is trapped, frenzied over the next national story.
In many ways, Ace in the Hole seems like a response to the media’s failures during the HUAC and early McCarthy era: exhaustive coverage without analysis, a campaign of lies running virtually unchecked. But its sharpest achievement is that it pinpoints a damaged relationship between the press and the people as a turning point in society’s degradation, one that was somewhat rehabilitated during Watergate but has been in steady decline since. So it’s no surprise that the story is a prescient illustration of today’s relationship between Americans and the media.
Most viciously, the film assesses the tendency towards news-making for entertainment’s sake and our gleeful consumption of it. Chuck explains to Herbie that people want a “human interest” story about a single individual onto whom they can project their own fears and desires. He identifies his prey early on: the Federbers are the first tourists who make the trip to witness Leo’s plight. Chuck calls them “Mr. and Mrs. America” because they’re the target of his operation, the starry-eyed common folk who eat up the sensation that he’s handing them on a silver platter. They put faith into an institution they trust, but they are taken in by people like Chuck who slip through the cracks and poison the well.
But Chuck isn’t the only bad egg; Lorraine is a worthy femme fatale to his antihero. Not because she’s virtuous where he’s corrupt, but because she’s just as opportunistic and selfish, banking on her husband’s suffering to make some extra dough at their nearby trading post/restaurant. Chuck loathes her for it. As Imogen Sara Smith notes in her essay on the femme fatale, “[Lorraine] reflects back at [Chuck] the worst of himself, and despite his cynicism, he can’t face the truth, so he takes out his own mounting guilt on her.”
Chuck’s facade crumbles the more time he spends with both Leo and Lorraine. Leo adores her, the poor man, but she has nothing kind to say about him in return. What Chuck can’t accept is that his dynamic with Leo is virtually the same: he uses his source like a pawn, but Leo believes Chuck to be his only true confidant, the only person who cares about him, a trusted friend. Even as Chuck gains momentum professionally, the truth begins to drive him mad, tenfold when he realizes that Lorraine’s sick ways are his own.
The irony of Chuck’s desire to find a “human interest” angle for his story is that he effectively dehumanizes Leo. His sensationalistic reporting makes everything spiral out of control: as Leo’s health deteriorates, the crowd outside his cave turns the grounds into a carnival, a stomach-churning display of phony support. Leo becomes an indiscernible symbol for a culture with the wrong priorities, and his rescue mission an exercise in absurdity. Chuck has ruined him in ways he never intended; when the news cycle ends, will Leo go with it?
In Ace in the Hole’s opening scene, Chuck is tickled by an embroidered sign hanging on the wall of the Sun-Bulletin office. “Tell the Truth,” it reads. He laughs it off as small-town naïveté: “Wish I could coin ‘em like that.” But the phrase isn’t meant to be an instruction or a principle. It’s a warning. What unravels between his first and last look at that sign is a cautionary tale of American culture’s pollution, a film that so sharply embodies the post-war cynicism of the 1950s.
As Chuck tells Mr. Boot during a final confrontation, “I don’t belong in your office; not with that embroidered sign on the wall. It gets in my way.” Guilt-ridden to the point of madness, Chuck finally wants to tell the truth. But nobody will believe him; nobody sticks around long enough to hear him tell it.