After being fired from several high-profile newspapers across the country, abrasive news reporter Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) finds himself in New Mexico with no money. Flaunting his crackerjack portfolio, he bullies Albuquerque News boss Boot (Porter Hall) into giving him a job, and after spending a year covering small-town news, Tatum stumbles upon a local story he knows could be his ticket to the top: a nearby cave housing ancient Native American dwellings has collapsed, and local roadhouse owner Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has become trapped deep within it. While Minosa’s parents try desperately to free him by calling in the authorities, his bored, brittle wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), sees his predicament as an opportunity to leave him and the life she has grown to hate.
When Tatum learns that the complicated process to extract Leo might take 24 hours, he manipulates the mining engineers at the scene to prolong the rescue attempt into a week-long process, and then entices Lorraine and the local authorities to stick around. Tatum’s tabloid skills lead to best-selling news stories about the desperate Leo and his heartsick family, and it isn’t long before the roadhouse and its grounds attract national interest, luring spectators and other journalists in droves. Tatum carefully feeds the media circus by conducting exclusive interviews with Leo inside the cave, and Lorraine begins raking in money at the roadhouse. It’s clear that Tatum and Lorraine understand each other, and the tension between them erupts when she, impressed by his incredible opportunism, makes the now-famous remark, “I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you, you’re 20 minutes.”
Ace in the Hole was ignored by audiences upon its release in 1951, prompting director Billy Wilder to refer to it later as “the runt of my litter.” But this scathing indictment of the media as a parasitic presence in American life was far ahead of its time, and seems even more relevant today. Astute, unflinching and crackling with incredible dialogue (written by Wilder, Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels), the film was Wilder’s followup to Sunset Boulevard, and to make it he called upon one of Hollywood’s most trusted cinematographers, Charles B. Lang Jr., ASC.
Lang had collaborated with Wilder on A Foreign Affair (1948), and he worked closely with the director to give Ace in the Hole the bold, tabloid quality it needed without drawing attention to the camera. The monochrome picture comprises sharp contrasts with a tight gray scale to convey the often-stark exterior lighting juxtaposed against the shadows of the cave where Leo waits for rescue. So successful was this collaboration that Wilder and Lang would reteam on Sabrina (1954) and Some Like It Hot (1959), both of which would earn Lang Academy Award nominations. (Lang, the recipient of the 1991 ASC Lifetime Achievement Award, earned 18 Oscar nominations in all, winning only once, for 1934’s A Farewell to Arms.)
Previously unavailable in the U.S. on any home-video format, Ace in the Hole recently made its much-anticipated debut as a two-disc special edition from The Criterion Collection. The high-definition picture transfer is generally excellent, offering great contrast and a solid, visible gray scale. With the exception of what appears to be a damaged shot in the source material (at the 42:22 mark), Lang’s stark images have been exceptionally well preserved for home screens. The audio is solid, with good monaural tonality when played through the center channel and a slight increase in surface noise when run through two-channel stereo.
In addition to the feature presentation, disc one contains two of the package’s many supplements, the film’s original theatrical trailer and a dense audio commentary by scholar Neil Sinyard, who offers a close analysis of the film’s thematic elements. Disc two contains Annie Tresgot’s 58-minute documentary “Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man: Billy Wilder” (1980), which features interviews with the late director and some of his collaborators; a 24-minute interview with Wilder conducted at the American Film Institute in 1986; a 14-minute interview with lead actor Douglas recorded in 1984; a 10-minute excerpt from a 1970 audio interview with co-screenwriter Newman; a small gallery of stills; and, finally, a slight but amusing anecdotal afterword by filmmaker Spike Lee.
The supplements are impressive, but the DVD’s conceptual design and packaging are really outstanding. The package insert — a sharp, newspaper-style pullout with essays by critic Molly Haskell and filmmaker Guy Maddin, chapter lists, and credits peppered with stills and fun advertisements that reference the film — is clever and unique.
This terrific treatment of one of Wilder’s most cynical dramas will easily please longtime fans and is likely to win scores of new ones. This American classic is a welcome addition to any DVD library, and certainly a high note on this year’s release calendar.