People always say that there are classic films which, when viewed now, seem ahead of their time. Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole is one of those films.
A relatively dark turn for Wilder (Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard), the film stars a snake-in-the-grass Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a newspaper man who is looking for the chance to blow the place he’s currently trapped in: Albuquerque, New Mexico. He’s got a penchant for getting back to New York, to his old desk where he was fired from after a libel suit, and after spending a year at a small town newspaper where “telling the truth” is the motto they live by, he seizes an opportunity to make the headlines once more.
This opportunity is all thanks to the greedy Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) who, while digging in an Indian burial tomb for riches, suffers a cave-in which partially buries him alive. Leo, of simple mind, seems to believe this freak occurrence is because of his persistent meddling with and stealing of dead Native Americans burial artifacts. But ghosts are the least of his worries when Tatum rolls up on the scene. Tatum sees this as an opportunity to make the headlines, and he does just that by sewing up the story to give himself exclusivity and at the same time putting Leo’s life on the back burner to prolong the emergent situation and help foster a national media circus for his own gain.
And a circus is exactly what it soon becomes, as the spectators arrive in droves and Indian burial grounds admission goes from free, to $.25, to $.50, to $.75, to a dollar. Soon, there’s literally a carnival on site as well as people camping out, radio reporters, hot dogs, pop corn and a special train line diverted just for the event.
The film, which apparently fared better overseas than it did in the States, was later retitled as “The Big Circus.” (Too kitschy a title, but obviously apropos.) For me, (and Spike Lee), the best part of this hard-boiled film which is set mainly in desert daylight, is the final shot in which Tatum crashes to the ground dead – open eyeball mere inches from the camera lens it seems. Lee mentions in an afterword on the Criterion disc, that he was obviously inspired by this scene when shooting Malcolm X where Denzel Washington pulls off a similar celluloid feat.
Anyway, now that I’ve given it away, yes, Tatum dies at the end of the film. Actually, pretty much everyone dies at the end of the film, if you are counting the two main actors. Tatum having not realized it, facilitates the slow, maddening death of his subject/martyr/muse Leo. Leo’s wife played by Jan Sterling could care less in all of this, having tried to get away as soon as she found out her husband would be unable to chase her down for the first time ever.
She ends up not getting the jump on Leo after all, when Tatum convinces her to stay and reap the benefits of the steadily increasing spectator revenue. She also acts though as a sort of conscience for Tatum, who appears oddly conflicted about her dislike for the trapped Leo, and her obvious growing attraction towards himself. He masks his hatred for her coldness though (in the need for her to play the part of the devastated wife and keep the charade alive), but secretly I believe hates her for all the same reasons he hates himself – his unscrupulousness and ability to essentially kill for his own gain without (immediate) remorse.
Throw in the addition of a corrupt small town, rattlesnake-loving, Sheriff looking for re-election, some all-to-obvious 1950s American gluttony and you got yourself a really smart, incisive, dramatic picture which in concept still very much is relevant today, but in plausibility seems a little heavy-handed and even dated.