Ace in the Hole: Billy Wilder's Personal Disaster

Sensationalism and disregard for victims' privacy has come to define the very existence of media coverage. However, can we say with conviction that we crave only for hard news to keep ourselves informed?

Ace in the Hole: Billy Wilder's Personal Disaster
Photo by Jeremy Yap / Unsplash

For a man who could not speak English when he landed in the US in the 1930s to escape the Nazi persecution back home in Austria, Billy Wilder took to Hollywood like a fish to water. Impressed by Billy's craft in the 1944 noir film Double Indemnity, Satyajit Ray sent him a 12-page letter. Though Ray never got a reply, Billy had done what only one auteur could do for another: Making Ray fall in love with American cinema for what they entertained, and later for what they taught, leading Ray to consider cinema as a distinct form of art.

Fight against code

Billy Wilder was a key figure in the struggle waged by the Hollywood auteurs to gain freedom from the censorship committee, which constrained the free-flow of artistic expression by imposing various restrictions. This purportedly self-imposed censorship was called the Hays Code, named after the president of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, William H Hays. The code was in existence in Hollywood between 1934 and 1968, and laid down the dos' and donts' in film making. It was essentially a moral code that governed the onscreen depiction of alcohol, violence and lust, among other perceived vices.

Now, let me tell you a story of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, who left the profession as his heart was not into it. William Burke Miller was a low-paid newspaper cub reporter sent to cover the story of a man named Floyd Collins, who was trapped in a cave after its roof collapsed and a heavy rock pinned him down. Even as the rescuers were making frantic efforts to rescue Collins, Miller used his diminutive figure to wriggle into the cave, talk to Collins, bring him food and even pray with him. Miller reported the incident with a personal touch in the first-person narrative. His write-ups were lapped up by the American readers, and soon enough, the entire US was eagerly awaiting news on Collins as reported by Miller. Over the course of a fortnight, Miller became a national sensation; Collins, a hero. However, the story met with a tragic end when after 15 days of hard work, the rescuers could reach only Collins' dead body. However, Miller rode the wave of his newfound popularity to bag the Pulitzer Prize a year later in 1926. Miller soon left journalism and became an ice cream retailer.

An offer the editor could not refuse

It is Collins' and Miller's story that inspired Billy Wilder's 1951 directorial Ace in The Hole. We see Kirk Douglas playing an unscrupulous, but an ambitious journalist. Douglas' character named Chuck Tatum lands at a newspaper office with a peculiar proposal for the editor. His offer is accepted and he finds himself a job, which he sees as his ticket back to the big town, among the big boys. As a year wears by, Tatum has not laid his hands on any major story that would bring him name or fortune. It is in this despondency that he is sent on an assignment with a rookie photographer to cover a rattlesnake hunt.

At a fuel outlet, Tatum accidentally learns about a cave collapse, leading to an artifact hunter named Leo Minosa getting trapped. Tatum realizes his big break has arrived and sets about manipulating the entire rescue operation such that he gets to cover the event exclusively. Billy draws a rather scathing picture of the journalistic ethics with Tatum. Tatum becomes the representative of the malaise that has afflicted the entire industry: Baiting readers with a tragic story; milking emotions of the gullible than offering help to the victims; treating a mishap as a personal fiefdom than letting others in to amplify the impact of a wider coverage.

The big carnival

Tatum manipulates (bribes) the town sheriff to deputize him in the rescue efforts, and misuses his powers to prevent other reporters from accessing the site or the relatives of Minosa. Having already established contact with Minosa in the cave, Tatum projects himself as the former's friend and assumes control over the rescue operations. The contractor who assures that Minosa can be rescued in a day is arm-twisted into adopting another method to prolong the operation such that he can milk the last drop of tear the story could elicit.

And, there is this complicated character of Minosa's wife, Lorraine, played with dexterity by Jan Sterling. Lorraine at first wants to escape from the godforsaken land with Minosa's money, but Tatum stops her. Tatum takes control of Lorraine and makes her the 'heartbroken wife' in his writings that are already creating a storm, with a bevy of national newspapers salivating for their share of the spoils. Enamored with Tatum's magnetic personality, Lorraine enters into an affair with him, and starts dreaming of a life in a big city with Tatum by her side.  

Lorriane does not want to live in a place where the only witness to her charms is an unforgiving desert, but when curious readers start thronging the place and Minosa's ramshackle food joint starts raking in the moolah, she stays put to collect the windfall. As days pass, more and more people start coming to the place, giving it an atmosphere of a big carnival. The entrepreneur in Lorraine wakes up to the opportunity, and she starts charging entry fees from the curious visitors.

Meanwhile, Tatum resigns from the local paper and strikes a deal with a New York major, getting paid $1,000 a day for his exclusive coverage. On the fifth day, a doctor accompanying Tatum diagnoses Minosa with pneumonia. Now starts the amazing transformation of Tatum. Tatum now wants to hasten the rescue operation, but is told by the contractor that it is impossible, as his instructions to prolong the rescue operation have pushed the alternative out of the picture. Realizing that Minosa is running out of time, Tatum gets riddled by guilt. He finds out that Minosa is head over heels for Lorraine, and has arranged a special anniversary gift for her. Minosa realizes that his time is up and requests Tatum to bring a priest.

Torn by remorse that he is responsible for Minosa's plight, Tatum tries to strangulate Lorraine with a fur shawl that Minosa wanted to gift her; Lorraine stabs him with a pair of scissors in self-defense. A mortally-wounded Tatum drives to a far-off church to bring a priest to Minosa, who dies shortly afterwards. Drunk and injured, Tatum goofs up his gig for the New York major and loses out on the exclusive story that was his ticket back among the big players. Finally, Tatum races against time to reach his previous employer's place with another extravagant offer, and collapses in the office.

True of our times

Billy's Ace in the Hole made its debut on the silverscreen in 1951, but his portrayal of how media circus functions is reflective of  our times, too. Sensationalism and disregard for victims' privacy has come to define the very nature of media today. However, can we say with conviction that we crave only for hard news to keep ourselves informed? Do not we all like a human interest story, where the underdog beats all adversities against heavy odds? A little tearjerker for good old humanity's sake?

A scene in Ace in the Hole showing people jumping out of trains, buses and cars to reach the site of the rescue operation is true of our times as well, only difference being technology delivering the developments in excruciating detail right to our doorsteps! Ace in the Hole dissects those reporting the news and those consuming it, and presents a rather ominous, albeit true, picture of both. Those bemoaning a rather sad and untimely demise of journalistic ethics only need to watch this movie to understand that the virtues they are extolling did not exist even a century ago!

While Ace in the Hole qualifies as a tragedy, apart from Tatum, all others, including the corrupt, get what they want. The depiction was as close to reality as possible, for the transformation of the protagonist eventually proves to be his undoing. There is no moral lessons to be derived out of Ace in the Hole, for it is as clinical and unemotional as Jack London's To Build a Fire. Ace in the Hole is verily a cinematic marvel, a study in realism.

A disaster

Billy did not have a smooth run with his Ace in the Hole. Prior to making this cinema, his long time associate Charles Brackett parted ways with him. Moreover, shortly after its release, the script became subject of a courtroom drama over plagiarism, which Billy eventually lost. The set of Ace in the Hole was the biggest created for a non-war cinema at the time, and it also was Billy's foray into cinema as writer, producer and director. He also ran into trouble with the Hays Code for depicting an alcoholic hero, a licentious woman entering an adulterous relationship and the corruption in the police department.  

Despite all the pains he took, Billy's Ace in the Hole was a commercial disaster. There were not enough people willing to spare their money or time to watch Billy's directorial masterpiece combined with compelling acting by Kirk Douglas. The film failed at the box office and Kirk Douglas' one of the greatest onscreen exhibitions was forgotten.      

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