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DVD Reviews

HTF REVIEW: Ace in the Hole

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#1 of 15 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted July 08 2007 - 12:57 AM

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Ace in the Hole
Directed by Billy Wilder

Studio: Criterion
Year: 1951
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 111 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0
Subtitles: EHD
MSRP: $39.98

Release Date: July 17, 2007
Review Date: July 8, 2007

The Film


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 Even after the movie was withdrawn, a new ad campaign conceived, and the film retitled The Big Carnival, Paramount still couldn’t give away tickets.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.

Video Quality


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.

Audio Quality


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.

Special Features


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.

In Conclusion

5/5 (not an average)

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.

Matt Hough
Charlotte, NC

#2 of 15 OFFLINE   Paul_Scott


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Posted July 08 2007 - 01:48 AM

Great news on the transfer- One of my favorite films of all time, and I just can't wait to see it again. Thanks Matt!

#3 of 15 OFFLINE   TravisR


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Posted July 08 2007 - 04:47 AM

You nailed all the reasons why I love this movie. Posted Image

#4 of 15 OFFLINE   Eric Peterson

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Posted July 08 2007 - 05:34 AM

Matt, You are one lucky man having this disc in your hands already. This last week is going to be one of the longest weeks in a looooooooooong time. Great review, and you have upped my anticipation to a level that I did not think was possible.

#5 of 15 OFFLINE   Gordon McMurphy

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Posted July 08 2007 - 08:37 AM

It's a withering, merciless masterpiece. I am stoke about this release. I acquired a bootleg DVD-R last year, but I couldn't watch it.

#6 of 15 OFFLINE   oscar_merkx


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Posted July 09 2007 - 10:46 AM

can't wait for this
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#7 of 15 OFFLINE   Mark Edward Heuck

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Posted July 09 2007 - 10:37 PM

I don't go to church; kneeling bags my nylons. But I'm praising the Lord for this DVD!
"As I looked back over my life, I realized that I enjoyed nothing--not art, not sex--more than going to the movies." -- Gore Vidal

#8 of 15 OFFLINE   Richard M S

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Posted July 10 2007 - 01:07 AM

Oh yes, this summer is turning into the best yet for new DVD releases of hard-to-get films. I pre-ordered this months ago from Amazon, I can hardly wait for this to be delivered next week.

#9 of 15 OFFLINE   Charles H

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Posted July 10 2007 - 02:39 AM

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Posted July 10 2007 - 09:36 AM

Great review Matt, I think it's been around 30 or more years since I have seen this film and on a 15" black & white tv to boot. This will be a welcome addition to my collection.
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#11 of 15 OFFLINE   Neil Middlemiss

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Posted July 10 2007 - 12:54 PM

Matt - You are one of the hardest working reviewers on the web today and your reviews are a ceasless parade of quality - thanks as always!
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#12 of 15 OFFLINE   Dave B Ferris

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Posted July 20 2007 - 04:07 AM

I'm a little surprised there have been no additions to this thread since the DVD hit the streets on the 17th. Did the DVD live up to the expectations of those folks who purchased it? I'd particularly like to know whether the DVD lived up to Eric's expectations.

#13 of 15 OFFLINE   Eric Peterson

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Posted July 20 2007 - 04:18 AM

I keep hoping that Universal will figure out what they own and release their own Wilder boxset including the first three that you listed and maybe a re-release of "The Lost Weekend" & "The Emperor Waltz". Double Indemnity is best left as the stand-alone 2-discer that we received last year. I'm holding out for the early BrackettnWilder scripting efforts also. Where is "Arise My Love", "Hold Back the Dawn", "Midnight", & "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife"??

Back to "Ace in the Hole"

What an incredible set. I've been through all of the extras and half of the commentary so far. I have to say that this is the best commentary on a Wilder film thus far only rivaling the Criterion commentary on their "Some Like it Hot" LD. I thought that I owned every book ever written on Wilder, but apparently I'm missing Mr. Sinyard's Book. (It's not even listed on Amazon and I've never seen it on Ebay and I've been regularly searching for Wilder for going on 8 years) I'll have to track that one down as he is extremely knowledgeable on Wilder and pointed out little things that I thought only I noticed.Posted Image

Apparently the footage from "Portrait of a 60% perfect man" has been previously licensed as I've seen much of this footage in other documentaries including the American Masters special on Wilder that is not available on DVD. Therefore this was a minor letdown, but still some great footage of Wilder at his cantankerous best!

The Douglas interview was interesting but after awhile it turns into a "Billy was a Legend" over and over and over

There were a few interesting nuggets in the audio interview with Walter Newman.

I really liked the postscript with Spike Lee, especially his comparision to "A Face in the Crowd" as I always thought there were interesting parallels between those two films myself. Somebody should tell him that "Ace in the Hole" is the original title though.

My only serious disappointment is that there was no more mention on the film's assesment of the Press and how it has proven to be a fairly accurate portrayal 55 years later. Some comparisons to the Baby Jessica or Pennsylvania Miner's incident from a few years ago would have been very interesting. Also, some history on the Floyd Collins incident that inspired the film, would have proved beneficial.

#14 of 15 OFFLINE   Steve Schaffer

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Posted July 20 2007 - 06:47 AM

I'm one of those who remember last seeing this film on tv some 30 or more years ago, but it left one heck of an impression. Many movies seen long ago and fondly remembered have proven to be disappointments later, but in this case the opposite occurred. This should be required viewing for all journalism students.
Steve S.
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#15 of 15 OFFLINE   TravisR


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Posted July 20 2007 - 08:17 AM

I'll definitely echo that statement. I'd have been happy just to have a movie only disc but what's on this set is excellent.

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