Bad news sells best because good news is no news.
Oh, Criterion Collection, what are you doing to me? Sometimes you give me junk, sometimes gold, this time it’s a silver classic. It’s a story about a jaded newspaper reporter who plays fast and loose with the truth. Is this another movie about how the news media is slowly degenerating into entertainment and “human interest”? Yes it is, but it’s not about TV or the internet. It’s that solipsistic, self-righteous medium with all the news that’s fit to sell–the newspaper.
Ace in the Hole (1951), directed by Billy Wilder who has done some of the best comedies of the 40’s and 50’s, is about newspaper man (or is that news paperman) Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), who’s been fired from more newspapers than you’ve read. Here he is, bottom of the heap, in Albuquerque. He wants to make a splash so he can go back to a real newspaper. The splash takes a little more time than he expects (a year) and is more of a crunch than a splash. The ace in the hole is called Leo (Richard Benedict), a Indian curio hunter/scavenger, who’s trapped in one of those underground cities carved into the side of a cliff. On their way to a rattlesnake hunt (?), Chuck and Jimmy Olsen stand-in, Herbie (Robert Arthur), come by just in time to see the action unfold.
A snap, crackle, and pop later, Chuck’s got a story going and the humans are interested. But it’s just one man, says Herbie. “Better one than eighty-four…. One man, that’s human interest.” That turns out to be the case. Leo’s wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), is ready to leave now Leo’s indisposed, but Chuck needs a grief-stricken wife and that’s how it’s gunna be. He promises her the kind of cash that Leo’s trader’s shop is going to rake in while this thing goes on and that’s enough to convince her. She ain’t clever, but she’s mean.
Things don’t get much better for Leo and things literally turn into a carnival outside. The movie is about journalists who stage the news. At first, it’s just your typical, cynical reporting. “I’m not wishing for anything. I don’t make things happen, all I do is write about ’em.” Yes, you’re right, that is better. Then things go downhill in the morality department. We can get Leo out in about 12 hours, but that’s not really enough for the story, what if we drill into the mountain? A week? Suits me and Leo isn’t going anywhere. Reporters show up from all over, maybe there’s a way to keep this story exclusive. Corruption ensues. Everybody’s cashing in, including Lorraine. The old city used to be free to visit–scratch scratch scratch–make that two bits entrance fee. The price doesn’t go down.
There’s a movie similar to this one, called Mad City (1994), in which Dustin Hoffman finds himself in a hostage situation and he takes some advantage–but Hoffman keeps his soul. Chuck/Douglas doesn’t keep a strong grip on his for virtually all of the film. But when things get as bad as they can get, he realizes that he’s done something rather impolite and he was a fool to think he could control it. Movies about journalistic ethics aren’t uncommon–I reviewed one a couple weeks ago–and this one doesn’t really provide an answer outside of what we might call obvious morality.
As far as craftsmanship is concerned, we’ve got it all in this movie. Douglas gives an excellent performance with great range and is so cruel but lost my sympathies only once. Sterling provides the only other acting role–everyone else is basically central casting–and she’s just as strong, though with less gripping material to perform, as Douglas. The direction is good. I was getting sleepy, but that’s more a function of the repeated five AM wake-ups this week. There are no purely gratuitous scenes and the comedy is strong throughout in that 50’s brand of comedy way that Wilder always provides.
I read a review that faulted the movie for (a) poor plot construction and (b) absurdity. First, the plot is really quite simple and I saw no problem in the way it was put together. Second, to say a movie is unbelievable or somehow strains their credulity just too far annoys me most of the time. It’s possible that a plot point can be so crazy as to become a flaw, but this comes nowhere near it. Crowds form around terrible events and people are callous sometimes.
To say this is about “human nature” or cynical or misanthropic is to mistake the characters for the film and the film for every person ever. Sure, thousands showed up, but many more thousands didn’t. Yes, Chuck is cynical, but Herbie isn’t. If this was about hating people or people failing us, then the movie would be utterly pointless. Who is the “us”? The audience. And we know what’s right.