Despite being released in 1951, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is as relevant today as it was over sixty years ago. That’s a characteristic few films can claim hold to, reflecting and commenting on our present in ways no one could’ve anticipated back when they were making it. While the medium of journalism may have changed, the message remains the same, and perhaps it’s these differences that help highlight its relevance today. As that old saying goes, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a skilled reported with a drinking problem that has been fired from eleven different papers for a mixture of slander, adultery, and boozing. His car breaks down in Albuquerque and he cons his way into a job at the local paper. His big break comes a year later when he stops in a desert hamlet and discovers that a local man has been trapped in an abandoned silver mine. Tatum manages to talk his way into the tunnel and speak to the man, whose legs are pinned under large pieces of timber, and when he comes out again, he sees the future: he will break the story, spin it out as long as he can, and milk it for money, fame and his old job back East.
Although the film is sixty years old, it still feels fresh. Someone could take this script, remake it today and it would be just as relevant. It hasn’t aged a day, and that’s because Wilder and his co-writers were so straightforward in their storytelling. They knew what they wanted to attack and went right after it, no frills necessary.
There’s a line in the film that speaks much to Tatum’s character, as well as the state of modern journalism: “I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” And that’s exactly what Tatum does. Not content with the drama of a man trapped underground, Tatum discovers the mountain is an Indian burial ground and adds speculations about a mummy’s curse just to get a couple more days out of his story.
There are two kinds of journalism at war here. On one side is Jacob Boot, the editor of the local paper. He cares less about how many people read his paper than he does about the quality and integrity of what they read. On the other side is Tatum, who cares only about how many people read his writing. He achieves that with sensationalism, manipulative content that is cynically designed to draw as many eyeballs as possible. It’s the very same battle we see playing out today: outlets that value quality writing about actual news, then places like Buzzfeed that value writing that only serves to support GIFs designed to generate as much traffic as possible.
Ace in the Hole is a portrait of rotten journalism and the public’s insatiable appetite for it. It would be easy to just blame the media for its portraits of self-destructing celebrities, corrupt politicians, and stupid criminals, but who loves these stories? We do. Wilder, true to this vision and ahead of its time, made a movie in which the only good men are the victim, the priest, and the doctor. Instead of just blaming the journalist who masterminds the media circus, he is equally hard on the sightseers who pay 25 cents just to watch it unfold. Gawkers are arriving from all over the country, as well as those who have arrived to exploit them: hot dog stands, cotton candy vendors, and entertainers, a big media carnival with a merry-go-round.
But this whole thing is just a flash-in-the-pan, and Tatum knows it. “It’s a good story today. Tomorrow, they’ll wrap it in fish,” he says at one point, predicting the fate of his own story. By the film’s end, he’s proven right. The moment the trapped man dies, the crowds disappear as quickly as they appeared. They return to their everyday lives the moment they turn on their cars to leave.
It’s a phenomenon we still experience today. Our interest in news events can flare up as suddenly as they’re extinguished, moving on to the next outrage or story in the 24/7 news cycle. And then we forget so easily. How often do we think about the victims of a tragedy months after the press coverage has ended? Think about it: are we as invested now in the disappearing Malaysia Airline flight as we were several weeks ago? Or did CNN’s endless coverage and speculation desensitize us to it?
It’s not a pleasant truth about human nature, but it is one the film understand and one that’s grown more and more true: no matter how captivating a story may be, it can be quickly forgotten when we move on with our lives and stop peering into someone else’s.
“Ace in the Hole” is currently available on DVD/Blu-Ray as part of the Criterion Collection.