Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole ★★★★½

Ace in the Hole not only feels like Billy Wilder’s angriest film, it feels like the most ferocious film of the ‘50s. It cynical and misanthropic, as was Wilder’s want, but it also is completely grotesque. It is also probably the most reasonable presentation of media on film. Only Sweet Smell of Success is its equal in both. This is the flipside to All the President’s Men or Spotlight, where halos have been replaced by fame.

Kirk Douglas’ reporter begins the film on his way down, his manic personality, his drinking, his general horribleness, all combine into one loathsome whole; he spots an opportunity, with a man trapped in a cave, to run with a story that will put him back on top, by manipulating the drama to his own acidic ends. Ace in the Hole is a lurid drama that only feels heightened in its dialogue. No reporter is this witty, or honest. While, the story seems completely believable.

The film clearly fits into Wilder’s view of humanity; greedy, venal and hopeless. It was shocking at the time, it seems packs a punch now. You, as an audience member, do not expect Kirk Douglas, with his movie star looks, to be this much of a git, but he plays it all the way. While, Jan Sterling is every bit his equal. Sterling plays the character that everyone remembers from Ace in the Hole, she gets two of the best lines of dialogue of the era (“I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.” And “I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you - you're twenty minutes.”). Her interactions with Kirk Douglas are absolutely magnetic, you cannot look away while two terrible people trade Wilder dialogue.

Ace in the Hole feels like the continuation of the darkest themes of Sunset Bvld. I just wonder where Wilder would have went from here, had this film been a success? Imagine how dark he could have become. Instead, he recalibrated, and came back with some classics, but of a lighter shade. As a thought exercise I like to imagine the film that would have followed a hit version of Ace in the Hole – it wouldn’t have been pretty, certainly.

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