Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)

Scathing indictment of media overhype and journalistic practice? Is the sky blue? All you need to do is look at how this likely no-story of guy-trapped-in-a-mine becomes a spectacle, with the carnival music and the 25 cent to $1 admission to the ferris wheel and merry-go-round to the concession stands, to see why media companies were none too pleased with Mr. Wilder when this was released. I’d like to use that ridiculous building up of the rescue and the circus it becomes as a criticism that the movie’s over-the-top, but isn’t this exact thing happening as we speak with those miners in Utah? Let’s face it…we crave the bad news and the spectacle and the bizarre and the extraordinary, and Wilder hit it right on the head. All the ridiculousness going on outside is made even more scathing when compared to Minosa’s slow deterioration inside the cave, which Wilder portrays with the utmost seriousness. It reminded me of the contrast between the dark humor and the bloody surgeries in MASH. It’s movies like this and The Apartment where Wilder finds a balance between humor, bleak cynicism, and dead-serious indictment of the American way.

And Kirk doesn’t chew the scenery in this movie. He bites off the scenery’s head, shits it out, and has sex with the newly-formed orifice in the scenery’s bloody torso. Sometimes it works perfectly with the just as over-the-top hype surrounding the cave “rescue”, sometimes he overdoes it so much the movie loses that tiny ounce of realism it had in the first place, to the movie’s detriment. What I really liked about his performance, though, was how he and Wilder never quite revealed whether his gradual urge to get Minosa out of there means he actually cares for the man, whether he just wants fame and his beloved New York job more and more, or a combination of the two. A lesser director and screenwriter would’ve gone the easy way and make Chuck learn the error of his ways and see the light, but ambiguity’s the name of the game here, despite the more than obvious ridiculousness of what you see evolve in this sleepy little town. As typically over-the-top he is, Chuck Tatum has a surprising amount of depth as the story goes along, conniving, manipulation, beating Minosa’s wife not withstanding.



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