Why Billy Wilder’s ‘Ace in the Hole’ is Still Relevant Today

By  · Published on May 6th, 2014

Paramount Pictures

Some movies, no matter how old they are, never age a day. Their situations and themes remain as relevant now as when they were first released. Watching them today, they reflect and comment on our present in ways they couldn’t possibly have anticipated.

Every month we’re going to pick a movie from the past that does just that, and explore what it has to say about the here and now.

Today, Billy Wilder’s entertainingly cynical 1951 film, Ace in the Hole, gets a gorgeous Blu-Ray treatment from Criterion, and it’s a perfect movie to start this column with. In it, a down-on-his-luck reporter, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) stumbles upon a story about a man, Leo (Richard Benedict), trapped in a mountain tunnel. Tatum decides to sensationalize, exploit, and manipulate Leo’s misfortune into a media frenzy to help resurrect his career.

While the kind of print journalism we see in Wilder’s film may be dying, its representation of media and its consumers translates perfectly to our age of pay walls, YouTube and digital subscriptions.

Here are five ways Ace in the Hole evokes not only its own time, but ours.

The Battle of Content Styles

There’s two kinds of journalism at war in Ace in the Hole. On the one side is Jacob Boot (Porter Hall), the editor of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. He cares less about how many people read his paper than he does about the quality and integrity of what they read. On the other side is Tatum (Kirk Douglas), who cares only about how many people read his writing. He achieves that with sensationalist, manipulative content that’s cynically designed to draw as many eyeballs as possible.

It’s the very same battle currently playing out between two content models: outlets that value quality writing that compels with ideas, and places like BuzzFeed that value writing that props up GIFs and quizzes designed solely to generate as much traffic as possible. Tatum is a linkbait pioneer.

Our Love of Viral Sensations

When hundreds of people catch wind of Tatum’s coverage of Leo’s story, they flock in droves – in cars, buses, trains – to experience the sensation for themselves.

Consider this: picture the Mountain of the Seven Vultures (where Leo is trapped) as a piece of online content, each of the cars pulling into its parking lot as a click of a mouse button, and every person as a unique page view. Now you’ve got yourself a perfect visual representation of behavior around an online viral sensation.

Internet may not have existed when Ace in the Hole was released, but the movie understands how content that amazes or outrages ignites our interest fast. What’s more, it understands why: our insatiable need to be in the know.

The Dangers of Journalistic Overreaching

The degree to which Tatum in Ace in the Hole pursues and inserts himself into his story is undoubtedly hyperbolized. But it isn’t implausible. Even today. Watch Douglas’ character keep pushing his story until it eventually results in a death, and it’s easy to recall this year’s controversy around Caleb Hannan – a Grantlandreporter who kept pushing a story until it resulted in a death.

On a lesser scale, there was also how Jezebel made itself the news when they offered $10,000 for untouched images of a Lena Dunham Vogueshoot. What should have been a worthy story about magazines’ tendency to digitally manipulate actresses images, became all about the outlet instead.

All of which recalls a point in Ace in the Hole where Douglas’ character says, “I don’t make things happen. All I do is write about them.” His eventual betrayal of that is perhaps the movie’s greatest cautionary tale. It’s a warning that’s clearly still worth listening to today.

“Everybody in This Game Has to Make Up Their Own Mind”

Towards the end of Ace in the Hole, Herbie Cook, the young Albuquerque News-Bulletin photographer, finds himself with a career choice: stay with Boot or go to New York with Tatum. The specifics of Cook’s decision may not readily apply to our media careerists, but the situation does. Aspiring writers now are presented with no end of diverging paths. One of the most significant ones was highlighted by Entertainment Weekly’s announcement that they would move toward not paying writers, but instead offering vague promises of prestige.

Some people argued it’s worth it for aspiring writers to work for free in order to build a portfolio so they can eventually move on to paying gigs. Others argued writers should never write for free and doing so damages the profession for everyone. Which is why Tatum’s sentiments feel truer now than ever. Increasingly writers – like Cook – are going to have to think hard about what they’re willing to do to achieve the success they want.

What’s News Today is Ancient Tomorrow

“It’s a good story today. Tomorrow, they’ll wrap it in fish,” says Tatum, predicting the fate of his own story. He’s proven right. The moment Leo dies, the army of rubberneckers – who gathered to be near Leo’s sensationalized plight – disappear as quickly as they appeared. Their return to their normal lives restarts the moment their cars hit the road.

It’s a familiar phenomenon today: our interest in news events can flare up as suddenly as they’re extinguished, moving on to the next outrage or story in the 24/7 news cycle. And then we forget so easily. How often do we think about the victims of a tragic event months after press coverage has dwindled? Or, consider this: are we as invested now in the horror of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 as we were several weeks ago? It’s not a pleasant truth about human nature, but it is one Ace in the Hole understands, and one that’s grown all the more true: No matter how captivating a story may be, it can be quickly forgotten when we move on with our lives and stop peering into the keyhole of someone else’s.