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The simple fact is Ace in the Hole is an often hilarious, mean, nail-biting, soul-searching indictment of today’s click bait culture that plays like Funny or Die’s first foray into feature-length drama or an extended, especially vicious Daily Show segment. Just imagine the deliciously stark black-and-white cinematography as an Instagram filter; when the talk turns wires to front pages, hear it as retweets and Facebook shares. Sure, it’s cynical and biting view of media and the people who create could hardly be considered exclusive these days, but you’ll never see the dark truisms yanked straight from our daily feeds presented in a sharper, more thrillingly, or more entertaining manner than they are here.
And what about that word: Exclusive. We have become all too used to that silly descriptive— it creeps across most every Internet story like kudzu in a forest. As a concept, it has grown as toxic and useless as aspirin that’s three years past its expiration. While it’s hard to imagine Internet news without empty claims to exclusivity, it’s not like the idea was born on Twitter. As made clear by Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, the concept of exclusivity has been a poisonous idea since they first started stringing telegraph wires on poles.
The quote-unquote exclusive that’s at the coal lump that is the heart of Ace in the Hole is an invention of Chuck Tatum, a self-proclaimed “thousand-dollar-a-day newspaperman” whose various acts of lying and philandering have driven him out of every big city paper that would meet his price. When his car breaks down in Albuquerque, he big foots himself into a reporter’s job then stumbles upon a souvenir hunter trapped in cave collapse. This is what is known by those of us in the “exclusive” business as “low-hanging fruit.”
Sure enough, Tatum plays the situation like the maestro of a dark symphony of his own devising, manipulating a corrupt sheriff to both dangerously prolong the rescue effort so Tatum can milk it for all its worth and also have the cop strong arm other reporters so the story will be his and his alone. Soon, papers across the country are carrying Tatum’s byline on their front pages and the once desolate stretch of desert is host to an actual carnival of lookyloos. The dude stuck in the cave? Yeah, whatever— as long as he doesn’t get in the way of a good time and a great story.
Tatum is a hero cut from the same cloth as Walter White, the fellow Albuquerquean he presaged by nearly six decades. You relate to his drive and desperation, even if you hate to admit to that dark corner of your heart even existing. Douglas has played Spartacus and Van Gogh and possessed an almost supernatural ability to pick parts that perfectly fit his particular skill set, but this may have been the consummate Hollywood survivalist’s best ever performance. Here, he calls to mind not so much other movie actors as Keith Moon’s drumming in the Who: he brings a kind of savage energy and feral intensity that cannot be reigned in even by a Svengali as iron fisted as Billy Wilder or Pete Townshend.
Ace in the Hole was an anomaly for Billy Wilder at the time: a big fat flop. (It may have been film noir at its core, but it’s cost for the period was closer to Titanic.) People felt Wilder’s cynicism and dark understanding of the ways of media were over-the-top and grotesque. The truth is, he could not have been more spot on; he just happened to be delivering his scoop a half century early.