Here, Neil Fox takes an extensive look at Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole, which was recently released on Blu-ray as a part of Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema imprint.
I live in a country where newspaper journalists and editors have recently been charged with phone hacking including one barbaric accusation of tampering with the voicemail of a missing girl. I live in a country where secret deals and payments between the press and the police are not the stuff of movie lore but it seems, a sad and common reality. I live in the UK. A country historically renowned for its journalistic integrity. And certainly the past couple of days have seen fantastic journalism in the form of The Guardian uncovering the depth of the UK’s involvement in Prism and this is not to say there aren’t brave, crusading, talented investigative reporters working because there certainly are. But we don’t live in a mythical All The President’s Men utopia of reporters always being ethical and media outlets consistently holding power to account. True, was it ever really thus? However a film like Ace In The Hole no longer feels like a cautionary tale or minority voice but an eerie vision of a once future, now sad present.
Billy Wilder’s film opens with Kirk Douglas’ egotistical Chuck Tatum being towed into Albuquerque. It’s an apt metaphor for the broken down, complacent journalist breezily being carried along in a state detached from the reality of the situation. His ego in crushing contrast to his reality. He talks himself into a job with a local paper and from the start we bury the question of how come such a hot shot writer is here in the desert begging for a job that must be beneath him. He is brazen about his previous mishaps and misdemeanors and we take it for chutzpah. His charm ensures we fall for this egotistical but enigmatic wordsmith, this Newspaperman.
We live in a time where Warhol’s notion of famous for 15 minutes feels increasingly generous. We are led to believe that news is always coming like a waterfall. As Tatum declares ‘bad news sells best, good news is no news’. The idea is not new, but it feels different nowadays because a lot of the time what we are watching and reading is not news but hypothesis, conjecture, vague opinion and counter opinion or the subjective voice of news personalities. The 24-hour news cycle means that there always needs to be news. In the dust bowl of Albuquerque Tatum learns that sometimes there is no news. By news I mean events that are in the public interest. Public Interest. That line we are constantly fed as our eyes drift across front pages of skinny celebrities and philandering sports stars. For Tatum there are no Internet pages to fill repeatedly, there is no rolling breaking news feed that needs constant feeding. All there is this man, this journalist.
He needs the news. Without it he must face real life and in real life he is a disaster. He heads down into the cave where Leo Minosa is trapped in search of his own holy grail, the Pullitzer Prize, and the validation that comes with it. He only sees readership figures, only hears the buzz of the wire feed as it sends his copy across state lines. He is already preparing his acceptance speech and fitting out his corner office.
He tells the young photographer Herbie who follows him round like a puppy that he doesn’t ‘make things happen’ he ‘just writes about them’ and we go with it, even though deep down we don’t believe it. We believe he is part of a grand tradition that wouldn’t exploit a situation or an ordinary person for selfish gain. Here the masterstroke of casting Kirk Douglas as Tatum shines brightest. That grin, those eyes, that timbre. We are putty in his hands and we fall in line as he trudges heroically deep into the belly of the mountain on his daily visits to the trapped Minosa. The bittersweet moment where he literally pours sugar on the idea of drilling in from the top, instead of shoring up the walls and going in directly, is one of my favourite moments in all of cinema.
Then there’s Minosa’s wife Lorraine. She doesn’t buy Tatum’s byline. She is as trapped as her husband and Tatum and she sees the glorious spin being uttered by Chuck as her ticket out. She knows his game from the first moment. She doesn’t go to Church claiming ‘kneeling bags my nylons’ and is blatant about her desire to leave scolds ‘you like those rocks as much as I do’ in reference to the boulders that encase her spouse. She uses Tatum but she doesn’t know how deep his pain and ambition goes, though she soon finds out first hand. When he slaps her it’s chilling. The actress Jan Sterling seems genuinely shocked as if that moment was not revealed to her in advance. She sees the depth of this man’s despair and the lengths he will go to for this story, his ticket out, his misguided redemption. It’s crystal clear to us all now. As an audience we try to seek comfort that it’s not real life, just a story, that a journalist would never be so callous. And then we shudder because in the news that day the trial is announced of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson who were in charge of the News of the World newspaper at the time missing girl Millie Dowler’s phone was allegedly hacked and voicemails deleted causing false hope of her survival to dawn on her hysterical family.
This moment, the hard sound of his palm colliding with her face jolts us out of our innocence. Things have shifted. Tatum shows no loyalty to the paper that gave him a chance he didn’t really deserve. He quits them in the middle of the story to sell his services to the most illustrious bidder, New York. It feels risky. He has already gone too far, he’s in too deep. The reality of the situation quickly spirals out of control and though he has a pang of guilt and a ripple of conscience he knows it’s too late so he buries it like the central figure of his elaborate yarn and drills on regardless. He twists everything to his own view of the world ‘Not below the belt, right in the gut’ and starts talking about himself in the third person ‘Tatum made sure of that’.
Tatum realises he can’t control the human element of human interest and that you can’t own the news. In the glaring heat and all encompassing dust of the desert he realises this truth too late. In the modern era the news feels owned. The media outlets that control the majority of information flow ensure that. Business demand that reduces content to stockholder pleasing data, figures, readerships, page views and subscribers, in ways beyond the comprehension of the tragically misguided Chuck Tatum have created such a focus and demand on the amount of news being released that the content is all but lost. Currently. The truth is that even today the news is not owned by anyone despite how loudly news providers shout to the contrary. You can convey the belief that you do, like Tatum does, and for a while people might believe you but it’s like time, language, oxygen. At some point it will squirm away from you and leave you at its mercy.
There are murmurings of this in my country where we have one of the last bastions of ethics; the BBC. This is a proud organisation that by all accounts ignored the rampant deviant abuse of young girls by one-time television star Jimmy Savile and others for decades. The screen has been pulled back and now people are more aware, more suspicious, less trusting. So right now when it’s reporting issues such the Occupy Gezi protests we are skeptical and we call it out for its lack of equal representation, its bias, its agenda. We see it more clearly, our innocence is lost. The murmurings may currently be confined to social media but they are the loudest I have ever known them. We see the control mechanism at work and we don’t like it.
Leo Minosa may not be the perfect husband but in the scheme of things he is an innocent man. An innocent man who is ruthlessly exploited for personal gain by his wife, by Tatum and by the gaggle of journalists circling the mountain like vultures. He certainly doesn’t deserve what happens to him even as he displays clear guilt over past actions. It’s Tatum though that must carry the guilt of his actions now and they weigh on him like the pile of rock that his story is buried under. He attacks Lorraine viciously, projecting his guilt onto her, never facing his actions like a man. When he does belatedly try and be honest it’s too late. No one believes him. He is the man who cried wolf.
But who could believe it? It’s too heinous that a journalist would risk the life of an innocent man in pursuit of a story. And we shrink back in our seats muttering repeatedly ‘it’s the media, it’s Hollywood’, ignoring our own complicity in the act. We assumed it would end well, because it’s Hollywood, because we trust our newspapermen, it can’t end badly. We buy into it. We are spectators at the circus.