Presence of Malice
Billy Wilder tours journalism's pus-filled heart in the long-lost Ace in the Hole.
Wilder would later play his cynicism about newspapers for laughs in his creaky 1974 remake of The Front Page, but there are no laughs in Ace in the Hole. The forces for good—Leo's parents, the Sun-Bulletin editor and staff, the other late-to-arrive newspapermen—are powerless against Tatum's venality.
Wilder establishes Tatum's villainy from the beginning and seldom lets up. But the narrative unfolds entirely from Tatum's point of view. As cinematic sociology, Ace in the Hole regards the masses as stupid, ugly, vulgar, without scruples, easy to manipulate, and hungry for Tatum's fakery. If moviegoers took Wilder's view of the crowd personally, they returned the insult by ignoring Ace in the Hole. It bombed in its original release.
Although set in the early 1950s, Ace in the Hole feels contemporary, detailing the mechanics of how the press turns news ripples into tsunamis, and rides the ratings and the copies sold to the bank. Not to let my print brethren off the hook, but it's easy to visualize Charles Tatum as a cable network producer deploying camera trucks whenever a child tumbles down a well, a white woman goes missing, a shooter opens fire, a nut takes hostages, or a full-chested drug-taking celebrity drops dead. The press invites the nation to camp out and ride the Ferris wheel until the story finally dies. (Greta Van Susteren's Fox News Channel Web page documents how she keeps turning the big wheel even after the masses stop taking the ride.)
Ace in the Hole thrills and mortifies journalists because it shows how essential Tatumism is to their business. The drama of human interest. The showmanship of clever headlines. The pathos of artful photographs. When Tatum turns in his Sun-Bulletin resignation to take a better job, his ethically decent boss doesn't want to accept it. Even though he says Tatum trades in "phony, below the belt journalism," he knows that reporters who go too far—way too far—are often worth the bother. That he's kept Tatum on his payroll for a year speaks to his own embarrassing compromises.
Journalists don't want the laity to know, but some of the best reporting is fueled by the ambition that grows inside venal reporters like Charles Tatum. Now there's a thought to scatter all the monsters sleeping under your bed.
If Ace in the Hole doesn't make you sick to your stomach, sip a couple of reels of Sweet Smell of Success. Detour, by Edgar G. Ulmer, isn't about journalism, but I puke every time I watch it. Send the titles of your favorite vomitous journalism movies to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)