Ace in the Hole Review
Starring Kirk Douglas and directed by probably my favorite director ever Billy Wilder, Ace in the Hole is a drama released in 1951 about the moral callousness of the press and thanks to its dark themes, it can also be called noir.
It is about Tatum, a reporter who does not want to help a man trapped in a cave just to prolong the story for the newspapers. The plot is great, smart and filled with terrific themes. It wonderfully explored to what lengths a reporter could go to regain his job, it explores the dark side of the press powerfully and it shows just how emotionally void people can get. Due to those dark themes and sometimes a bit violent plot points, it is definitely part noir, which I failed to recognize early on. It has a fascinating subject matter and a story that is always engaging and smart. But in terms of storytelling, it could have been better. And by that I mean that the ending is definitely not up to par to with the rest of the picture. It somehow feels unfinished and overall not as powerful or as satisfying as it should have been. And it should have been more subtle in its execution instead of having sometimes too straightforward approach, but more on that later.
The character development is very good, as expected from Wilder. Tatum is of course the standout as this troubled and deeply self-centered protagonist. His dilemma and his dealing with what he’d done in the third act is very well done and he is a grounded, very real and wonderfully realized character. Lorraine is another terrific character because not only is she well acted and portrayed, but also she is as bad as Tatum is, her relationship with him as well as her husband is greatly explored and she is a very realistic character, wonderfully reminiscent of the heroines and femme fatales from earlier noir films. As for Leo, he is wonderful as this loving and deeply tragic figure, he is probably the only positive character in Ace in the Hole and his doom is deeply affecting.
Now, the acting. Jan Sterling is excellent in her role that is sometimes reminiscent to noir female characters, but at times also to Bette Davis both in her looks and behavior. Another quite solid performance comes from Richard Benedict who portrayed Leo quite well. But I have to be honest and say that Kirk Douglas is the weakest link here. He is at times quite good, but also often very obvious in his performance and even incorporating some unfortunate overacting. I could often see that he was acting and that is never a good thing. And as I mentioned earlier and now I will clarify – he is the reason why the movie feels too simplistic and as subtle as an earthquake. Instead of being subtle, he makes those evil faces in crucial scenes, thus making his character essentially a villain and making a movie too straightforward and that was very unfortunate.
The directing from Billy Wilder is, as always, amazing and the pacing is mostly good. The music is also well done with some catchy country tunes, well fitting the location. The dialogue is solid, but not one of the director’s best. And the message and themes overall are great. As for the cinematography, it is well shot and overall the film looks fine.
Now I have to make some comparisons. First, there is the evident connection to ‘Nightcrawler‘. Although the two movies are divided by more than sixty years in release, they share the same moral as well as thematic approach. But age is essential as Ace in the Hole is just dark, while ‘Nightcrawler’ is more disturbing. Comparing it to director’s other works, this is certainly not ‘Double Indemnity’ or ‘The Apartment‘, but although inferior to his ultimate classics, it is still a very good movie that in other directors’ filmographies would be in the top. But here it’s far from that which just goes to show what an amazing director Billy Wilder is.