Ace in the Hole opens on a young Kirk Douglas behind the wheel of a convertible, carelessly engrossed in a newspaper, as the New Mexico desert sun drenches the setting through the blazing light of the black-and-white imagery. When the camera pans to reveal a tow truck pulling the car, Billy Wilder’s fingerprint jumps off the screen – no shot is wasted and there’s always something more to see in every scene. Wilder’s wry sense of humor sometimes disguises the somber themes in his work, similar to Wilder’s direction in Sunset Boulevard, the comedy and leading man draws the audience into a false sense of comfort before exposing the darker intentions at the core of those sentiments.
When Chuck Tatum introduces himself to the editor of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, he makes no qualms about his intentions or his character. Before recounting a professional history including a libel case and an affair with a past superior’s wife, he declares his motivation for seeking employment. Tatum’s plan is to bide his time at the paper until he strikes gold with a story that will initially go unnoticed by other publications. Meanwhile, Wilder does not disguise his intentions either, displaying block lettered banner images of the phrase “Tell the Truth” on the walls of the office. Those cross stitched edicts contrast with Tatum’s dubious bravado, setting the stage for the struggle between self interest and human decency about to unfold.
Ace in the Hole’s examination of the role journalism plays in the American psyche feels timely to a modern audience, but it’s possible this is a perennial concern if Citizen Kane is any indication. Is the goal of the news media to entertain or inform? Does the press serve to validate their reader’s interests or challenge readers with difficult facts? Which of these priorities is most likely to reach the broadest audience? Tatum is a capitalist and opportunist, he is eager to paint a picture that entices readers and he’s less interested in communicating the truth. It is Leo Minosa’s great misfortune that Tatum stumbles across his entrapment and manages to seize total control of the situation. Of course, this isn’t Tatum’s first turn as a ringleader of the media circus – he knows which palms to grease, who to blackmail, and how to paint the crisis to benefit anyone who might stand in his way.
The name of the mountain and its relationship to the title of Tatum’s article is critical, “The Curse of the Seven Vultures.” While the surface justification for this framing of the story is an ancient Native American hex, which Minosa believes is responsible for his fate, the moniker can be applied to the jackals who exploit Minosa’s tribulation for their own gain. The first and most obvious vulture is Chuck Tatum himself, whose self interested motives have been made explicit, and who finally lands the story that brought him to New Mexico in the first place. Tatum is rapidly joined by Minosa’s own wife, Lorraine, who has legitimate reasons to be disgruntled with her marital situation. Next, the town sheriff and contractor jump on board with the scheme to leave Leo languishing in the cave, after Minosa demonstrates how doing so will benefit them. The young photographer Herbie Cook is the next to move from a concerned bystander to a vulture after his images of Leo start gaining national traction. Finally, the spectators looking for a thrill come pouring into town, and the other opportunists sensing a chance to cash in follow the crowd. What Wilder demonstrates via Tatum is the power of leveraging selfishness in order to foster mob mentality, especially when the person at the helm of tragedy is a narcissist equipped with a powerful megaphone.
While the vultures circle and the frenzy grows, Leo remains pinned in the cave, haunted by the droning beat of the drill burrowing toward him. The expansive, inescapable heat of the desert sun penetrates the scenes above ground, while the dank darkness of the cave is shadowy and cramped. This again is classic Wilder, and again reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard. While firmly entwined with noir traditions, the shadowy and dark conventions of the genre are juxtaposed with a certain brightness. That brightness should not be mistaken for levity, but instead seen as an amplification of the twisted underbelly that lurks beneath seemingly good intentions.
When Leo’s fate is sealed and Tatum realizes he bears responsibility for the man’s death, that power he wielded collapses onto Tatum’s conscience, and the guilt overpowers his egotism. At first, he projects that guilt onto Lorraine and he nearly suffocates her with Leo’s anniversary gift. Tatum’s initial instinct is to seize and execute power, to control and abuse Lorraine in order to displace the remorse he feels onto her and deflect from his role in Leo’s tragedy. When he reveals Leo’s fate to the hordes of spectators, divulging his scoop to competing journalists, his path to contrition is cemented.