A potential comeback to the mainstream, escalating far faster than this budding hero can manage, Ace in the Hole presents a somewhat literal tale. With a man trapped inside a cave, frustrated journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) attempts to spark life back into his flagging career by exploiting the story and drumming up interest. What follows is a cavalcade of brilliant iconography of that post-war period and the rise and rise of typically sleazy screen journalists looking to accelerate their career any way they can. Billy Wilder brings this to the big screen with all the power to be found within his style and command of the screen, and to say audiences are in safe hands with this Douglas and Wilder pairing is a sincere understatement.
Key to the workings of this story is that Tatum is not entirely absent of conscience or morals. His rise to the top is a clear shot, and he sets his sights on it well. Anything in his path is dealt with harshly and with a rather violent antagonism, but deep within is a sense of turmoil. Move past the physicality of Douglas’ performance and you find a frightened, manic demure. He knows this is his final chance at barging his way back into the mainstream, and he doesn’t want to go out without a fight. Wilder pairs this frenzied rush with his natural tact for direction, an engaging array of scenes from outside the cave, hopping from rabid journalists mulling over a story to ghoulish citizens carrying themselves with false pride when the radio interviews approach them. What follows is a marvellous series of events that prey on the mind of not just the man trapped inside the cave, but the man confined to spinning the story into something far larger than it is.
Yet Ace in the Hole cannot bring this same exceptional quality to its supporting performers. While the role of Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling) is well written and tremendously performed, it offers little to the dynamic, other than a walking, talking, occasional punch bag that riffs off of Douglas’ disgusting violence. But that is indeed the point of support, to build up Tatum as a cocky big-timer falling on hard times, his actions have more consequences now that he’s scraping the bottom of the barrel. If it weren’t for Sterling and budding young journalist Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), then Tatum wouldn’t be half as engaging as he is.
Violent, villainous and filled with venom for his fellow man, Tatum doesn’t care for the human nature, he cares for hitting his deadlines and tailoring his story to the best-case scenario. He gets his comeuppance sooner or later; Ace in the Hole shows the swift breakdown of a leading man trying to claw his way to where he simply doesn’t belong. Where his next destination is, who knows, but there is a sense that this is indeed the final shot Tatum has at the big leagues. These stories come by once in a while, biding your time is crucial, but Douglas does a sincerely great job of showcasing how easy it is to drink away and destroy a great lead.