Masters Of Cinema #82 - Ace In The Hole - Blu-ray Review

'As the cogs in the film’s tale continue to turn, the sense of an inevitable implosion and catastrophic downfall is built up ever more intensely by Wilder; Douglas meanwhile subtly and continually develops Tatum'.

Six decades before Vince Gilligan made sleepy Albuquerque the setting for his story of deception and opportunism in Breaking Bad, Billy Wilder did just the same with Ace In The Hole. And whilst Wilder’s focus is on the newspaper industry rather than the illegal drug trade, his protagonist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a clear forerunner to the ruthlessness and exploitation seen not only in Walter White, but also in a great many other contemporary badasses of big and small screen.

From the opening moments of Ace In The Hole, Douglas as Tatum is a screen presence domineering and captivating, oozing from every pore an arrogant charm that will have you utterly hooked. Tatum is a fascinating blend of down-and-out chancer and cynical egotist, believing himself to be better than everyone he finds himself surrounded by in Albuquerque despite the fact that, by his own admission, he has been fired from eleven newspapers prior to talking his way into a job at the offices of local rag, The Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin.

Tatum’s journey from the uncomfortably amoral to the patently immoral throughout gives Wilder a robust and engrossing narrative thread around which to build his film. Thanks to a sharp script that constantly effervesces with dry asides and whipsmart lines, Tatum is expertly crafted as an archetypal opportunistic journalist, brimming with sass and willing to do anything to escape the “sun-bleached Siberia” in which he finds himself trapped. “I don’t make things happen; all I do is write about ‘em” he declares at one point early on, but the path Tatum travels that makes this further and further from the truth is key to what makes Ace In The Hole such a fascinating experience.

Douglas’ performance is central to the success of this approach, never putting a foot wrong and making Tatum a character of authenticity who simultaneously could only ever exist in the world of cinema. His noir credentials are brilliantly outlined by Lorraine (Jan Sterling): “I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life but you - you’re twenty minutes!” Tatum does indeed appear for a significant stretch of the film to be entirely impervious to humanity and sentiment, seeing every person and situation he comes across as a potential step towards regaining his status as a high-profile reporter. And yet as the cogs in the film’s tale continue to turn, the sense of an inevitable implosion and catastrophic downfall is built up ever more intensely by Wilder; Douglas meanwhile subtly and continually develops Tatum, slowly but surely allowing cracks to show in his veneer. As Tatum realises the consequences of the choices he’s made, the stability of his emotions - and indeed his world - begins to crumble, leading to a climax painfully inevitable but utterly irresistible.

Around Douglas, Wilder constructs a film that offers a great deal more to like. The cynicism doesn’t end with Tatum, with almost every character here either out to gain for themselves or brought under the spell of the selfish nature of others. The director perfectly captures the cutthroat mentality and sensationalism of tabloid journalism, as well as the general public’s ability to be manipulated and exploited by the media in a way that feels as fresh and relevant as ever. The media circus Tatum sets in motion and - for much of the story - wholeheartedly relishes is a grand spectacle in itself, and one which Wilder measuredly allows to organically grow on screen. If there is a criticism of Ace In The Hole, it is perhaps in the broader strokes Wilder uses in painting the characters who maintain their moral code: Leo (Richard Benedict), the man whom Tatum builds his entire plan around, feels a bit too good to be true, especially in his final scenes; and the Sun-Bulletin’s editor, Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall), feels more like a collection of ideals than a believable character, especially with him sharing most of his scenes with Douglas’ Tatum.

Any criticism here is minor, however. Over sixty years after its original release, Ace In The Hole is a comprehensively outstanding cinematic experience anchored by a true powerhouse performance from Kirk Douglas. Billy Wilder’s messages, both moral and cultural, resonate just as much now - if not even more so - as they first did in the mid-20th Century.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

Ace In The Hole is released in the UK on Monday 5th May 2014

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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