Blu-ray Review: Ace in the Hole - The Criterion Collection

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A bracingly relevant film even 63 years after its original release, director Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (now on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection) was inspired by a pair of real-life events that demonstrated the capacity for the media to exploit tragic stories. The earliest is directly name-checked in the film by ambitious journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas)—the trapped cave explorer W. Floyd Collins. Reporter William Burke Miller won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1925 coverage of the attempted rescue of Collins from a collapsed cave.

Closer to the film’s actual production was the 1949 story of Kathy Fiscus, a three-year-old who fell into a well. Both events were closely followed by the press, with Fiscus’ ill-fated rescue broadcast live on television. Ace in the Hole posits a similar situation. Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is caught in an underground Native American burial tomb (which he had been raiding for artifacts).

The focus here, as with the real-life events that inspired it, is the morbid fascination the public exhibits whenever the media seizes on a tragic “human interest” story. Chuck Tatum, a former New York City big shot, has been toiling away at the small Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin for a year when he and photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur) are assigned to cover a rattlesnake display outside of town. By pure luck, they happen upon the site of Minosa’s misfortune. Tatum instantly seizes the opportunity to have his own W. Floyd Collins-type story and a shot at the Pulitzer.

Ace in the Hole 1 (380x300).jpgBefore long, Tatum is quarterbacking the entire rescue effort, hand-delivering cigars and other provisions to Minosa, whom he interviews and photographs while risking his own life in the unstable structure. The Sun-Bulletin experiences a drastic upswing in circulation as the Minosa rescue quickly becomes the top story. With local Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal) in his back pocket, Tatum holds onto his exclusive with an iron grip. As reporters from around the nation converge on the rescue site, they all have to go through Tatum for information.

Abusing his position of influence, Tatum actively hinders the rescue attempts, drawing the proceedings out in order to continue milking the story. The surroundings become a veritable circus, with thousands of onlookers setting up camp. Amusement park rides are installed to keep the children busy, while musical performers entertain with a song written especially to mark the occasion, “We’re Coming, Leo.” Meanwhile, Minosa’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) sees a chance to flee New Mexico using the money that’s rolling into their restaurant/souvenir shop from all the tourists. Her attitude troubles Tatum, since it doesn’t fit the “worried, devoted spouse” angle he needs to help sell his story.

Ace in the Hole is unrelentingly bleak, but never less than entirely believable in its cynical depiction of a society feeding off the misfortune of others. Kirk Douglas is a live wire as the glory hound Chuck Tatum. Even as he corrupts young Herbie and faces the disapproving scrutiny of the Sun-Bulletin publisher Jacob Boot (Porter Hall), Tatum continues his career- and ego-building pursuit with reckless abandon. Jan Sterling manages to convey world weariness far beyond the actress’ own age (30 at the time). Wilder and co-screenwriters Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels’ indictments go far beyond the media itself, questioning the very nature of the general public’s reaction to human suffering. Their screenplay was honored by with an Academy Award nomination.

Ace in the Hole 3 (380x214).jpgCriterion’s Blu-ray presentation offers an image, framed at 1.37:1, transferred from a 35mm duplicate negative. According to the notes in the booklet, portions of the film were sourced from a 35mm acetate. Perhaps this explains the occasional variations in sharpness and contrast levels, but on the whole this is an excellent presentation. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Charles Lang’s work has been restored with very pleasing results (he won not for this, but for 1932’s A Farewell to Arms).

The only audio option is the LPCM mono English soundtrack, which is strikingly crisp (though it spills, at times, into mild edginess during some of the more loudly-shouted dialogue). Oscar-winning composer Hugo Friedhofer’s dark, subtle music is mixed well with always-intelligible speech. (Friedhofer won his Oscar in 1946 for The Best Years of Our Lives.)

Criterion packs in a lot of supplements, mixing vintage material and pieces created for their 2007 DVD release, for this Blu-ray/DVD dual format release. Film historian and Billy Wilder biographer Neil Sinyard contributes an audio commentary. Portrait of a 60% Man is an hour-long 1980 documentary focusing on Wilder’s career, with great info about Ace in the Hole. Vintage interviews with Wilder (24 minutes; 1986), Kirk Douglas (15 minutes; 1984), and co-screenwriter Walter Newman (11 minutes; 1970) are featured as well. Director Spike Lee offers his thoughts in a brief “Afterword.” There are also still galleries and an extensive booklet.

Even without the biting social commentary that maintains its fresh aura, Ace in the Hole would be well worth watching for the searing performances of Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling. The Criterion Collection’s new edition is easily the recommended method of viewing.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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