By most accounts, Billy Wilder became a director not so much because he was interested in the visual craft of filmmaking but because he felt it the best way to ensure that what he wrote in his scripts would been seen in the final cut. Yet he's still earned himself a place in the pantheon of film directors, if for no other reason than he put Billy Wilder scripts on the big screen. Regardless, Wilder's visual talents, though certainly secondary to his calling as a writer, have been underrated by many; his style, as honed and sharp as his dialogue, serves the same purpose as illustrative passages in novels, to communicate setting and character in a way that speech cannot, complementing story and action with engaging prose.
Consider the first scene of Ace in the Hole, Wilder's disturbingly prescient look at media circuses. Chuck Tatum, disgraced big-city journalist, is stuck in New Mexico with a broken-down car. We see him being towed, a visualization of his uselessness and dilapidation, yet Tatum sits in his car lackadaisically reading his morning paper, having turned the ignominy of being unable to fix his vehicle into making the tow driver into some sort of chauffeur. Without a word, Wilder establishes the character who will subsequently walk into the office of the Albuquerque paper he was reading and proudly crow that he's a "$250-a-week newspaperman" and doesn't look a touch humbled when he offers to work for $50, even $45, as a result of his numerous firings for slander, alcoholism and other issues. Played by Kirk Douglas, Tatum exudes even more sleazy arrogance; Douglas is the reigning monarch of cinematic slime, capable of playing the noble hero (both of his films with Stanley Kubrick) but in his element playing, in his own words, "sons of bitches." He practically seeps manipulation and avarice, acting traits he somehow passed on to his son Michael, who may be the last great anti-hero.
Tatum plans to stay in Albuquerque just until he can latch onto a story to propel him back to the big leagues, at which point Wilder abruptly cuts to the cocksure journalist still stuck in town a year later. Riding out with an idealistic young photographer, Tatum still maintains his bravado but can scarcely contain the look of hunger when the two happen upon a small town where a man has become trapped in a local mine while excavating Native American relics. No one on the scene will enter the unstable cave, but Chuck immediately volunteers to enter. Upon finding the man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), Tatum displays a heretofore unseen soft side, reassuring the trapped man and speaking in a higher register as if parodying the stereotypical "'50s voice" of the fresh-faced innocent. When Chuck suddenly brandishes a camera, however, he exposes his facade: he just wants this man for the story, and the smile he gives Leo is genuine, but it comes not from concern for the man but a vision of the attention his byline will receive when he starts writing about this jackpot.
Made in 1951, Ace in the Hole came out in a time when radio had set in motion a shift in newspaper writing, away from the yellow journalism wars that actually created real conflicts at the turn of the century: with radio and -- as the decade wore on -- television satisfying the demand for sensationalist news by providing sight and sound to items that always relied on dramatic thrust, papers refined their approach, sharpening writing to concise, factual bursts with just enough style to make sure people read the substance. More than ever, you could open up a paper and trust that you were reading a true story and an important one.
Into this world Wilder introduces Chuck, a 21st century muckraker having traveled back in time to wreak havoc upon the public trust. Upon reaching the Albuquerque paper, he looks at an embroidered cloth reading "Tell the Truth" hung over a desk with such mocking smugness it's a wonder he can even speak kindly of it sarcastically. He immediately turns Leo's situation into national news, aware that, if he can stretch the story into a human interest series, not only can he attract the attention of the major papers, he might put himself in for a Pulitzer. So, he commits what must surely be one of the most monstrous acts in cinematic history, one committed not by a lurking vampire or a mustache-twirling bandit but a man charged with informing the public: he strong-arms the engineer tasking with digging through to Leo to use a procedure that will take six days rather than a far quicker one that will have the man out and safe in six hours. Before you can even wrap your mind around the sheer, unabashed evil of that action, Chuck then coerces the seedy local sheriff (played by a deliciously greasy Ray Teal) into granting him exclusive access to Leo, thus giving him all the relevant stories. In one fell swoop, Wilder anticipates the sensationalist, gossip-driven media climate in which we find ourselves today, and he does not limit the attack to Chuck alone: when other reporters arrive and find themselves blocked by the authorities, their outrage seems to bubble forth from their jealousy that Chuck got there first. They don't give a damn about Leo, either, but they want their share of the circulation-increasing story. "We're all in the same boat," one journo coos to encourage Chuck to drop the blockade. "I'm in the boat," Chuck replies, "you're in the water."
Yet the most damning aspect of Wilder's misanthropy is how he prevents his story from playing as a mere screed. He does not make Tatum into a symbol so much as simply the eruption of dormant public desire for thrilling news. Critics at the time, who all would have been newspaper writers, lambasted the film for its cynicism, but would any of them deny that, if one didn't know what strings Chuck was pulling behind the scenes, that Leo's story is truly compelling? Would any one of them not read such a story -- the scenario of Leo being trapped was itself taken from the real story of one W. Floyd Collins, whose unfortunate mishap in a Kentucky cave in 1925 won writer William Burke Miller the Pulitzer -- and not be moved? No, Wilder undercuts Tatum's vile nature by making him a writer who knows what makes great news.
And boy does this story make for great news. After the first article runs in the paper, a few curious tourists show up, speaking of offering their concerns but also willing to spend money and gawk at the site. By the end of the week, thousands have converged upon the excavation site, and a literal carnival has sprung up to match the media circus. It has often been said (rightly) that gossip tabloids and the like only cater to a market fueled by public demand. If one paper refuses to engage in the current fascination with celebrity and tearing down celebrity, another five will shove their way into the gap and make money that papers can't afford to lose. We are all in this together, and when even the kind, innocent young photographer is drawn into the party atmosphere and crows that his photos might earn him a spread in Life of Look, Wilder goes far beyond any facile summary of his cynicism and into a terrifyingly realized realm that looks only more acute today.
If the shadows weren't a big giveaway -- and Wilder was one of the great masters of shadow -- that Ace in the Hole is as unorthodox yet bona fide noir as Sunset Boulevard, then the character of Leo's wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), proves it. Chuck is a singular anti-hero in noir, and he requires an equally original femme fatale, but Lorraine delivers in spades. When Chuck heads over to meet her while working on his first story, the young bleached blonde reveals that she's planning to use the opportunity of her husband being trapped to leave him. Chuck convinces her to stay because he needs her looking supportive to sell what must end a happy tale for maximum effect with the readers, and he sways her by pointing out how much money she can make off the visitors.
Together, Tatum and Lorraine make for a despicable pair, each filled with as much loathing for the other as they are for everyone around them. Even Tatum marvels at Lorraine's open hatred for her humdrum husband and her desire to escape him for a more rowdy life, disgusted by her glee over the matter. She smiles like a schoolgirl telling him of all the cash she's taken in, and Tatum tells her to wipe the smile off her face before going back out to face a crowd that will notice her joy. To ensure she does, he slaps her twice with such unexpected force -- there is no pullback, and Wilder only shows Sterling's face as Douglas' hand moves back and forth across it, preventing us from reading his face and anticipating the strike -- that you feel it too. This pattern of abuse turns Lorraine against Tatum, and whatever trace of vulnerability, however perverse, existed in her is purged by the time she comes to him a few minutes later and quietly but forcefully tells the writer, "Don't ever slap me again."
Sterling forms a key foil to Douglas, matching the acrobatics of his over-the-top facial expressions with an endothermic scowl. She moves with an alien stiffness, playing the part of the shocked spouse until she gathers enough cash to satisfy her before leaving. Her sinister plotting anchors Douglas and enhances both performances because the actor is free to ham it up, to visualize the sheer madness of the public fascination with death and their belated wish for everything to turn out OK, while Sterling reveals that such behavior is not the product of people like Tatum but of her. People like her start the ball rolling with their non-expressive reactions, and it snowballs until someone like Chuck has to project of all of the pent-up emotion just to vent the collective schadenfreude and avarice of the public.
Naturally, one expects good writing from a Billy Wilder film, but this may be his leanest work. Entire characters can be defined in a single line, such as Tatum pointing out that the head of the Albuquerque paper wears both a belt and suspenders, signifying that he is overly cautious and wary. Later, Chuck encourages Lorraine to go to church to keep up appearances, but she replies, "I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons." These cast-off bits of wry observation fit the tone of a film about journalism: concise but powerful, telling you everything you need to know in a few sentences. (Wilder, like nearly all the great film writers of the classic age, started out as a newspaperman himself.)
It's a miracle this film got made, even with the wild success of Sunset Blvd. essentially guaranteeing Wilder whatever project he wished to make. The Hays Code office intervened, of course, forcing the director to soften the corruption of the town sheriff, but this is one of those films where you're glad someone stepped in and made sure the bad guy got what was coming to him. Chuck Tatum could very well have gotten away with all this today, plagued by a small pocket of guilt he could drink away upon returning to New York. Instead, he bleeds out just after Leo finally dies, stabbed in the gut by Lorraine after abusing her one too many times. Having finally felt some pang of remorse for his actions, Chuck nevertheless is beyond forgiveness, and he dies a moral Antichrist, his death damning his profession for all time instead of pointing the way to salvation. As ever, Wilder saves the best for the very last, as Tatum staggers back into that local paper for one final moment of self-indulgent triumph. "I'm a thousand-dollar-a-day newspaperman," he gasps defiantly at Mr. Boot, "But you can have me for nothing." Then, this wretched beast finally collapses, falling down dead and staring at the camera into the audience who will cluck and rage over the movie then fulfill its dire vision. Billy Wilder was the master of endings, but none stick with you quite like this. And thank God; one such case is haunting enough.