Monday, April 2, 2012

Day 348 - Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole (1951) directed by Billy Wilder

Do you remember the Chilean mining accident where 33 miners were trapped in a mine for over two months back in 2010? It's hard not to since it was in the news practically every day. It just goes to the old adage "There's no news like bad news." Perhaps no movie ever captured this sentiment better than Ace in the Hole, a movie about the shady nature of the news and the world that consumes it. Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, a would be hot shot journalist working for a small time New Mexico newspaper. He's been stuck in this job for over a year when he suddenly gets his big break. On his way to a rattlesnake competition, he stops at an out of the way town where he discovers that a man, Leo Minosa, is trapped in an abandoned mine in a cave-in. Realizing the potential of this story, Tatum jumps into action covering it and exploiting the situation to his advantage. The key moment of the film comes when the engineer tells him that it should take about sixteen hours to rescue Leo by shoring up the tunnels with timber. Wanting to milk the story for as long as he can, Tatum suggests that they instead drill from the top, a long and arduous process that will take seven days. That is seven days for more stories, interviews and pictures and more importantly getting Tatum's name out there as the main man behind the scenes. In an early scene, Tatum's young faithful photographer points out that they don't make the news; they just report it. Tatum knows that in the real world that people make their own breaks as evidenced when he puts Leo's life at unnecessary risk to make his story.

This isn't just a movie about sleazy journalism. It is also about why it is allowed to exist. People love low brow stories and for this reason are just as responsible for what is put into newspapers as the people who publish them. While Tatum creates a media circus with his stories, people come all across the state and country camp outside the mine. Leo's wife Lorraine even gets the idea of charging people money for entering the site, even allowing a literal circus there making it a freakshow spectacle. It is a sort of ridiculous satire but not that far from the truth.

This is a terrific film all the way around. It starts with Kirk Douglas's performance as Tatum. What makes a great character is part the actor but also part the screenplay and here they match up perfectly. Tatum is such a lowlife (sort of reminds me of Sidney Falco from Sweet Smell of Success) that you kind of have to appreciate his tenacity even though you obviously hate him for being such a scumbag. Douglas plays him with such confidence and intensity and is pretty awesome. (Yes, pretty awesome. I'm clearly the worst) Jan Sterling as Lorraine, Leo's bitch of a wife, is also great. She plays the classic underhanded woman that populate film noir and hardboiled stories. There is also of course Billy Wilder, the director of many great films (For this project I've seen Double IndemnityWitness for the Prosecution. Other notable films include Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment.). I love the look and feel of his movies and also the harsh feel of his dramas. But perhaps above all is the fact that Ace in the Hole is over sixty years but still feels completely fresh and current. Even another one hundred years from now this film will still feel relavent because it understands the nature of the news so well. There is no news like bad news and as long as there is an audience for it, there is someone to tell it.

Grade: A

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