Billy Wilder’s über-cynical exposé on the scavenger-like press and its manipulative hold on a sensation-craving, gullible, and avaricious public gets the ultimate of brutal workouts in Ace in the Hole, one of the writer-director’s greatest achievements and probably the one film in his oeuvre from his three decade glory years that is the least well known to the general public.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English PCM 1.0 (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 51 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-raybook-like pasteboard case in cardboard slipcase
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 05/06/2014
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 (Richard Benedict) 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 an almost 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.
The Production Rating: 5/5
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 (Jan Sterling who is getting rich selling rights to the spectacle though the pious mother and father seem to be apart from the circus and only want their son back safe and sound), law enforcement (the sheriff played by Ray Teal 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 Even after the movie was withdrawn, a new ad campaign conceived, and the film retitled The Big Carnival, Paramount still couldn’t give away tickets.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 everyone and everything else was not an idea 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 and feeding frenzies 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 unblinkingly. He’s also made the film much more cinematic than was his norm at the time. There are bracing overhead shots of the multitudes coming from far and wide to gawk at the spectacle, and the interior sets of the cave really seem like the real thing.
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 at the time to exude effortlessly, and even if he isn’t front and center through the entire movie, you 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. Bob Arthur is most appealing as the wide-eyed innocent who gets dragged into Chuck’s orbit, and a host of terrific character actors like Frank Cady, Porter Hall, and Frank Jaquet add lots of color to the proceedings.
The film’s theatrical 1.37:1 aspect ratio is faithfully reproduced in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The focus is as sharp as can be apart from a few 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 controlled whites and contrast that’s close to perfection. Shadow detail in the caves couldn’t be richer allowing us to see lots of expressions in the low light levels without an increase in the grain structure. The film has been divided into 26 chapters.
Video Rating: 4.5/5 3D Rating: NA
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix is generally fine with only intermittent low level hiss and some occasional tinniness in the upper registers during some dialogue exchanges to distract. Hugo Friedhofer’s score and the effective sound effects never impair the listener’s ability to discern every word.
Audio Rating: 3.5/5
Audio Commentary: film historian Neil Sinyard offers a scene-by-scene analysis which is 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.
Special Features Rating: 5/5
Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man: Billy Wilder (58:30, HD): a video interview documentary conducted by Michel Ciment in 1980 and directed by Annie Tresgot. It 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.
American Film Institute Appearance (23:39, HD): an audience participation session with Billy Wilder at the American Film Institute in 1986, led by George Stevens, Jr. There is information here that was not mentioned in the previous documentary.
Kirk Douglas Interview (14:18, HD): excerpts from a 1984 interview that referred to Billy Wilder and his working on this one film are shown.
Walter Newman Audio Interview (10:09): co-writer Walter Newman talks 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 conducted by Rui Nogulira whose very thick accent makes understanding some of his questions very difficult.
Spike Lee Afterward (5:40, HD): Director Spike Lee offers an appreciation of the film and admits to some borrowings from Wilder’s masterwork for his film Malcolm X.
Stills Gallery: a step-through gallery of behind-the-scenes shots as well as staged moments from the movie and scenes from the film’s premiere in Hollywood.
Theatrical Trailer (2:22, HD)
DVDs: two discs featuring the film and its extras included in this dual format release.
Four-Page Newspaper: 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. Cast and crew lists are also included.
Timeline: can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
It’s bitter; it’s angry; it’s nasty for most of its length. It won’t be for all tastes, but Ace in the Hole most assuredly ranks as one of the best Billy Wilder movies that you’ve probably never seen. Make it a point to watch this terrific new Blu-ray release. Highly recommended!
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
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