#228. Ace in the Hole (1951)

Interesting timing: Ace in the Hole, directed by Billy Wilder, was released just a year after his previous movie, Sunset Boulevard, so they appear really close together on the List. Almost a double feature (which is interesting on its own, but not what I’m talking about). And I happen to be watching this now just a couple days after finishing Patton Oswald’s memoir, Movie Screen Fiend, in which he talks about his obsessive moviegoing, with special emphasis on the New Beverly, a famous second-run theater in LA, currently owned by Quentin Tarantino, where Oswald binged on movie marathons through the 1990s while building himself up as a TV writer and comic. Oswald says his moviegoing was directed, in large part, by the checklists supplied in five different books he kept about film. He’d go see one of the old movies cataloged in a book, head back home, crack the book and go to that entry and check it off and feel, as I do, a kinda fetishistic gratification. He’d watch three or four movies a day with ease, relish.

Adding a pic because everytime I mentioned the book to somebody they seemed to know the face, but not the name. This is Patton Oswald.

If he were doing what I’m doing with the Project he would probably be done by now. He talks about a weekend marathon at the New Beverly where he watched twelve movies in two days and, by the end of it, was practically a zombie, staggering out of the theater, the plots and casts and scenes of all those movies garbled up in his min. He ultimately refers to his love of movies as an addiction because he was alienating everybody around him, feeling no compulsion to connect, retreating into his dark moviehouse and his snobbery and I guess celebrating his kindship with the folks on screen.

The reason the timing is so strange is because, first of all, I think I’m getting a little more hermetic than I was in the past, and this unsocial moviegoing that Oswald describes is starting to sound mighty familiar, but also because Oswald begins his memoir with a direct address to the reader about visiting the New Beverly for a Billy Wilder double feature: Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole, the first of which is great and the other one very good.

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard

I’d not seen either one when I read that and now, thanks to the List, I’ve seen both. In quick succession.

And I agree with him: given the haste with which one title followed the other, Ace in the Hole — though it just nearly achieves greatness all on its own — lives int he shadow of Boulevard, that noir of noirs (following his previous noir of noirs, Double Indemnity), even though Ace showcases that same intense, elegant, brooding portrait of people who ask for our attention.

It was the people of show business that Wilder examined in the last movie, and now it’s the people of the press. And if there’s a major difference between his approaches to the two subjects it’s that Sunset Boulevard, while mostly dark, is also pretty funny. Ace in the Hole, on the other hand, is pretty fire-and-brimstone. A full-on indictment.

The two movies do, however, complement one another. Boulevard is about the superficiality, the coldness, the artifice and delirium of Hollywood, with everybody looking to play a part in a story, while Ace in the Hole — which focuses on a journalist (Kirk Douglas) imposing sensation and spectacle on a man who doesn’t necessarily want it — shows the other side of the Hollywood equation: the audience. Their morbid curiosity, how they gawk; it shows, I think, a more rounded portrait of the media cycle: there are people who want to tell stories, there are people who want to hear stories, and there are people who have to become the story.

When a guy goes searching for Native American pottery in the depths of a mountain, and then finds himself trapped during a cave-in, Douglas stops in to have a look at the scene while he and another journalist are on te road for another story. Something rural and tame. Douglas, a restless reporter in search of something juicy, decides to make a story out of the situation at hand: Joe Everyman is trapped in a mountain just days before his wedding anniversary.

As he predicts, the story becomes a national sensation. Pretty soon he’s got the local sheriff on his side (a smarmy guy who stands to be made a hero for overseeing this rescue just weeks before election), fanning the story’s flames. Suddenly, when it looks like the guy might be rescued too soon, Douglas and the sheriff start manipulating circumstances so that the story will go on. The longer they can keep the guy trapped, the more they stand to gain.

Dude dies as a result of all their fucking around. Douglas bangs the guy’s wife, she stabs him, and we’re made to believe that — as with our hero/narrator of Sunset Boulevard — he dies for his greed, his manipulations, his exploitation of a person in need (although, as Vince Gilligan is clinging to as the one-time showrunner of Breaking Bad and current showrunner of Better Call Saul, we never saw Walter White die, we only saw him collapse of a mortal wound; same goes for Douglas here).

I was mentioning to Pavel that Ace in the Hole — first movie on the List to feature a television crew — feels relevant today, in the age of Trump and social media and alternative facts, and he pointed out that, having first seen it so many years ago, it’s always felt like a movie that becomes more relevant as it ages. Made more sense in the ’60s than it did in the ’50s, and more sense in the ’80s than it did in the ’70s.

That eagerness for sensationalism does seem to fit with my sense of what the first couple years of the 1950s must have felt like for a big portion of the country: oddly quiet. There was the war in Korea and the new Red Scare but, following a solid 20 years of turmoil (Great Depression leading into World War II), it would make sense that the public should feel ill-at-ease with no galvanizing horror to check up on. Some ongoing national drama.

Douglas and the douchebag sheriff

Like maybe it feels weird and lonely not to have one — but they’re pretty tired of having to deal with real ones.

So in a way, though it does get more poignant with our times, Ace in the Hole also feels very much like a product of its own.


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