Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole Movie Newspaper

Some movies, no matter how old they are, never age a day. Their situations and themes remain as relevant now as when they were first released. Watching them today, they reflect and comment on our present in ways they couldn’t possibly have anticipated. Every month we’re going to pick a movie from the past that does just that, and explore what it has to say about the here and now. Today, Billy Wilder’s entertainingly cynical 1951 film, Ace in the Hole, gets a gorgeous Blu-Ray treatment from Criterion, and it’s a perfect movie to start this column with. In it, a down-on-his-luck reporter, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) stumbles upon a story about a man, Leo (Richard Benedict), trapped in a mountain tunnel. Tatum decides to sensationalize, exploit, and manipulate Leo’s misfortune into a media frenzy to help resurrect his career. While the kind of print journalism we see in Wilder’s film may be dying, its representation of media and its consumers translates perfectly to our age of pay walls, YouTube and digital subscriptions. Here are five ways Ace in the Hole evokes not only its own time, but ours.

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Culture Warrior

Tomorrow, the Sacha Baron Cohen-starring, Larry Charles-directed The Dictator opens. Unlike the previous two docu-prank collaborations between Charles and Cohen, the humor of the fully staged Dictator doesn’t so much rely on the reactions of ‘real people’ to an idiosyncratic foreigner as it uses its fish-out-of-water arc to chronicle the pseudo-enlightened changes that its eponymous character experiences (this is all based on the film’s advertising – I have yet to see it). With its riches-to-rags narrative, The Dictator seems to be the newest iteration of a long tradition in Hollywood comedy: the story of the redeemable asshole. It’s rather appropriate that the teaser trailer for Anchorman 2 will be premiering in front of The Dictator.  Will Ferrell has made the redeemable asshole into something of an art form in his collaborations with Adam McKay. Ferrell’s often narcissistic, privileged, ignorant, and empathy-challenged creations should, by any measure of any other genre (audiences are far less tolerant of asshole protags in, say, dramedys) be reviled by audiences. But we ultimately find something redeemable, even lovable, in Ferrell’s jerks, even if this surface-level redemption overshadows the fact that they never quite achieve the level of self-awareness that would actually redeem one from assholedom. These are characters we would likely avoid in nearly any real-life circumstance, but yet we go see movies about them learning life lessons which add up to little more than common knowledge for the rest of us. The redeemable asshole is often a white male who is conniving, manipulative, entitled, […]

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Criterion Files

Welcome to the fourth and penultimate installment of Guest Author month at Criterion Files: a month devoted to important classic and contemporary bloggers. This week, Matthew Dessem, who keeps himself quite busy writing his way through every single title in the Criterion Collection at The Criterion Contraption, takes on Billy Wilder’s oft-overlooked masterpiece Ace in the Hole (1951). Tune in next week for an analysis of a different title from a new author, and you can take a look at the previous entries from guest contributors here. We all know the story: deep underground, there’s been a terrible accident. Lives hang in the balance! Time is of the essence! But if everybody pulls together, if we all really believe, there’s a chance we can bring the lost back, blinking, into the sunlight. The important thing—whether we’re talking about Floyd Collins, Kathy Fiscus, or Jessica McClure—is to pay attention. We all know the story—and apparently we love it. The Wikipedia article about last year’s Copiapó Mining Disaster is 10,500 words long. William Shakespeare only rates 6,800. What on earth is going on? In his breathtakingly cynical masterpiece, Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder suggests some answers—but you’re not going to like them.

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