The Charles Revives a Lost Masterpiece of Media Manipulation
Of the late Billy Wilder's many lasting contributions to film history, Sunset Boulevard is perhaps the writer/director's masterpiece among masterpieces, a challenging examination of faded fame that met with immediate critical and popular acclaim upon its release in 1950. Anticipation for his next project must have run high, and the following year he delivered another dark, well-crafted drama in the Boulevard vein, starring Kirk Douglas as an unscrupulous reporter.
And yet, Ace in the Hole bombed. Critics howled, audiences stayed away, and the film languished in obscurity even as Wilder's auteur rep flourished in the ensuing decades. It has been somewhat rehabilitated in recent years, recognized by critics and film historians as a biting satire of American mob mentality that may be more relevant today than it was in the early '50s. (Rumor has it that Spike Lee recently considered doing a remake.) Still, audiences have had few chances to share this rediscovery because Ace in the Hole remains the only one of Wilder's 25 films yet to enjoy home-video release--making the Charles Theatre's rare screening of the film June 8, as part of its ongoing Saturday-afternoon repertory series, something of an event.
Ace in the Hole's continuing unavailability can be traced to the film's original reception: unusually hostile reviews and lack of studio support. In the years before television, print reviews greatly determined how studios placed and promoted their films. In Cameron Crowe's 1999 book Conversations With Wilder, the older filmmaker summed up the critical response: "[T]hey never, at the time, gave it a chance. Somebody in an editorial, I think, in Life magazine said that 'Mr. Wilder should be deported.'"
Many reviewers blasted Ace was too dark and hostile, a charge that seems spurious in the context of Wilder's career. Not only had he just made the dark, hostile (to Hollywood) Sunset Boulevard; he had also recently directed films about abject alcoholism (1945's The Lost Weekend) and a murderous insurance scam (the 1944 noir classic Double Indemnity), each a landmark in bringing gritty subject matter to the silver screen. The wry comedic classics for which he is arguably best known (The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) were still years in the future.
No, Ace in the Hole was gored by the press because its target was the press. In any event, Paramount slapped a new name on the film--The Big Carnival, a title Wilder detested, and that most prints still bear--in an unsuccessful attempt to recoup their losses before shelving the film.
It's not hard to see why journalists took umbrage at Wilder's portrayal of their profession, represented here by Charles Tatum (Douglas), a former big-city reporter whose dubious morals have relegated him to a small-time daily in New Mexico. Tatum relentlessly pursues human-interest stories, noting to colleagues that one person's travails are more gripping and memorable than stories of mass destruction. He finds such a story in Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a man trapped in an underground crevice in a Native American burial ground.
Tatum quickly earns Minosa's trust by talking to him. Simultaneously, he ensures that the man's rescue will be slow, the better to stretch over several days' worth of front-page exclusives. Due to Tatum's manipulative articles (embellished with hints of a Native American curse), Minosa's tiny hometown quickly becomes a press-saturated tourist attraction. Early in the film, Tatum declares, "I don't make things happen, all I do is write about them." Wilder then proceeds to illustrate exactly how Tatum does make things happen--by choosing what to write about, what to omit, and which angle to take.
Most revisionist critical responses to Ace in the Hole have focused on the notion of the media circus, and the degree to which newspersons fall prey to sensationalism. In the era of O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, JonBenet Ramsey, and Elian Gonzalez, the implication that the icons human-interest stories create eclipse more meaningful reporting is even more damning. In Ace in the Hole--working title: The Human Interest Story--the public's fascination with Minosa is no more than a sporting interest in his survival. No one is concerned about the details of his small-town life, such as the poverty that led him to dig in a dangerous spot for artifacts to peddle.
When his films flopped, Wilder usually agreed with his critics' harshest assessments. He dissented only on Ace in the Hole. Until his death this past March, the director considered it a fine, misunderstood film that, as he told Crown, "deserved better." A former tabloid reporter in Berlin, Wilder was perfectly qualified to craft this prescient critique of the profession. But his past also makes one wonder why he didn't understand, even expect, critics' highly personal hatred of the film. Distillers probably didn't like The Lost Weekend much either.