Directed by Billy Wilder
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 111 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0
Release Date: July 17, 2007
Review Date: July 8, 2007
Billy Wilder’s über-cynical exposé on the scavenger-like press and its manipulative hold on a sensation-craving, gullible public gets the ultimate workout in Ace in the Hole¸ one of the writer-director’s greatest achievements and probably the one film in his oeuvre that is the least well known to the general public.
Kirk Douglas stars as down-on-his-luck journalist Chuck Tatum who takes a $60 a week job on an Albuquerque newspaper in order to work his way back to the top of the newspaper rackets. He and his staff photographer Herbie (Bob Arthur) stumble on a man trapped in a cave-in while he was digging for some Indian burial ground pottery. What should have been an 18-hour rescue job turns into a week-long affair with Tatum manipulating the situation from every angle while he files exclusive stories from the site of the accident as the media goes into a frenzy covering the rescue operation and while a circus-like atmosphere changes a dire situation into a party crashed by thousands of curious sightseers.
Wilder’s distaste for everyone and everything knows no bounds as he skewers the press (both print, radio, and TV journalists all come in for a fair share of invective), the public, the wife and family (who are getting rich selling rights to the spectacle), law enforcement (the sheriff is running for reelection), even the rescue company (who chooses to drill with expensive equipment for a week instead of bracing the walls and getting the man out in less than a day). Little wonder that the film bombed stateside on its initial release. There’s ugliness everywhere, and the one or two redeeming voices are quickly shouted down and banished from sight. Even after the movie was withdrawn, a new ad campaign conceived, and the film retitled The Big Carnival, Paramount still couldn’t give away tickets. The film’s dire view of man’s grasping for the brass ring at the expense of everything else was not one folks wanted to think about then.
Today, of course, this film, even more than the cynical Chicago which shares similar themes but with a more lightly sarcastic tone, seems way ahead of its time. Wilder’s script, co-written with Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, seems positively prescient when we think of the media circuses that spring up like clockwork around any current celebrities who make a misstep. Things haven’t changed at all, but Wilder was among the first to point fingers and to do it so viciously.
Kirk Douglas came into this film after his sensational Oscar-nominated turn as the embittered middleweight boxer in Champion, and while his Midge Kelly in that film spouted bile by the bucketful, he’s not in the same acidic league with Chuck Tatum. Douglas holds the screen with that dynamic magnetism that he seemed to exude effortlessly, and even if he wasn’t front and center through the entire movie, you’d still find it hard to take your eyes off him. Jan Sterling as the glum wife of the trapped man is reminiscent in some ways of Lana Turner’s unhappy, conniving wife in The Postman Always Rings Twice, all selfish posturing and calculating coldness. Richard Benedict is heartbreaking as the trapped man, blindly trusting Chuck to save him, and Ray Teal as the unctuous sheriff who has a pet rattlesnake couldn’t be more distasteful.
The film’s 1.33:1 aspect ratio is presented in a stunning video transfer that is among the best black and white representations on DVD I’ve ever seen. The focus is sharp as can be (apart from two brief scenes which look as if they were taken from some other source, not a mistake with the video encoding), and there isn’t an artifact in sight. The grayscale is crisp with vivid blacks and contrast that’s perfection. Shadow detail in the caves couldn’t be richer. As is Criterion’s custom, the feature is very slightly windowboxed, and the opening and closing credits are much more distinctly windowboxed to adjust for possible overscan. The film is divided into 26 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack is once again set at eardrum-shattering levels, and the listener is warned to adjust his equipment accordingly before beginning the feature. For a mono soundtrack, the sound is quite robust, and there is no hiss or flutter to mar the listening experience.
On the first disc in this set, the film is accompanied by an audio commentary by film historian Neil Sinyard. It’s a scene-by-scene analysis and fairly dry for much of its length, but he does occasionally offer tangential information about the actors in a scene or compare shots or themes to other Billy Wilder pictures.
The film’s theatrical trailer is also presented on the first disc. It runs about 2½ minutes and is in fair condition with some speckling and scratches present. It is presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio of the original film.
The majority of the supplements are contained on the second disc in the set. Paramount among those extras is a 58-minute video interview conducted by Michel Ciment in 1980 and directed by Annie Tresgot. The 4:3 film, somewhat grainy and faded, gives us a tour of Wilder’s home and his office (where we see six Oscars and awards from Cannes among other prizes) all the time talking about a few of his more notable films. There are no film clips in this interview; only stills from the films under discussion. The title of the documentary is Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man: Billy Wilder.
An additional 23½ minutes is given over to an audience participation session at the American Film Institute in 1986, led by George Stevens, Jr. There is information here that was not mentioned in the previous documentary.
Ace in the Hole’s star Kirk Douglas was interviewed in 1984, and excerpts from that interview that referred to Billy Wilder and working on this one film are offered in a 14-minute featurette, again in 4:3 format.
Co-writer Walter Newman spends 10 minutes talking about working with Billy Wilder prior to the final script preparations on the movie and then their working relationship during the formation of the screenplay. This 1970 audio interview was condicted by Rui Nogulira whose very thick accent makes understanding some of his questions very difficult indeed.
Director Spike Lee offers a 5-minute appreciation of the film and admits to some borrowings from Wilder’s masterwork for his film Malcolm X. Criterion has intelligently placed this feature on disc two so Lee’s discussion of certain elements of the film don’t spoil its impact for first time viewers. (Would that they had been so thoughtful with Terry Jones’ too-appreciative remarks on the Jacques Tati films in the Criterion Collection.)
There is a stills gallery on the second disc with behind-the-scenes shots as well as staged moments from the movie and scenes from the film’s premiere in Hollywood.
Rather than a booklet in the set, Criterion has published a four page mini-newspaper with a celebration of the film by critic Molly Haskell and a profile on Kirk Douglas by Guy Maddin. There are also a few stills in the newspaper, some of which were also in the stills section of the DVD.
It’s bitter; it’s angry; it’s nasty for most of its length. It won’t be for all tastes, but I consider Ace in the Hole to be one of the best movies that you’ve probably never seen. It gets a hearty recommendation from me.