From 1970s classics like All the President’s Men, to Howard Hawk’s romantic comedy His Girl Friday, to the 2016 Best Picture winner Spotlight, Hollywood has traditionally celebrated newspaper reporters. The great exception is Ace in the Hole, the Austrian Jewish expatriate Billy Wilder’s savage take down, not only of the American media, but of American culture as a whole. If you’ve never heard of it, there’s a reason. This is not a film that the ruling class wants you to see.
Ace in the Hole opens with Chuck Tatum, a down on his luck sleeze bag played by Kirk Douglas at his obnoxious best, walking into the offices of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin looking for a job. They’ll be getting a bargain, he argues. He’s written for big time newspapers in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. He’ll work cheap. Jacob Q. Boot, the paper’s owner, editor and publisher of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, seems like an honest man, yet he’s either a complicit liar or a self-deluded fool. Chuck Tatum is evil, but he’s no hypocrite. He lets you know what he is the moment he opens his mouth. Boot hires him anyway.
Tatum gets his chance to get back into the big time a year later. On the way to cover a rattlesnake hunt – Wilder doesn’t exactly pull his punches about Americans – he stops for gas at the “Minosa Trading Post.” There he and his photographer Herbie Cook discover that Leo Minosa, the owner, has gotten trapped underneath a 400 year-old pueblo while poaching artifacts from an Indian burial ground. God bless Billy Wilder. He even calls bullshit on the way American capitalism profits off genocide. While Minosa could easily be rescued in a few hours – a construction crew simply needs to brace the walls before excavating the rubble blocking his escape – Chuck Tatum has other plans. The longer Leo Minosa remains trapped underground, the better a story it becomes, and the more newspapers he can sell for the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin.
What happens to Leo Minosa is not even fiction. From the Floyd Collins affair to the balloon boy hoax, American newspaper and television reporters have always been willing to turn a “human interest story” into a highly profitable media circus. After Tatum convinces a local sheriff that the publicity will also be good for his reelection, and the sheriff bullies Minosa’s would-be rescuers into a long, drawn out, and utterly unnecessary attempt to rescue Minosa by drilling over 100 feet out of their way, the grounds around Minosa’s Trading Post become a literal circus. There are rides. There’s music. There are newspaers and TV crews from New York and Los Angeles. Lorraine Minosa, Leo’s cold-hearted bitch of a wife — who’s fully prepared to run off to New York after she’s milked her husband’s slow, agonizing, suffocating death for all it’s worth — makes a killing off thousands of rubes who come to the Minosa Trading Post from all over the Southwest. In the end, Chuck Tatum becomes the first, although certainly not the last, reality show host. He also gets exactly what he deserves.
In Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder’s hate is not only pure, it’s 180 proof pure. An immigrant to the United States, he bit the hand that fed him. Then, like a vicious pit bull, he locked on tight, and tore the whole arm off. I can’t begin to describe the sheer, magnificent clarity of this film. See it any way you can.