Kids remind themselves of what sort of monsters they are by imagining fiends and venomous snakes under their beds. Journalists do something similar by talking up Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder's rarely screened desert noir from 1951 about a New York City reporter exiled to the drowsy Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Starting this week, everybody can live the nightmare thanks to the Criterion Collection, which has released Ace in the Hole on DVD, its first appearance in the United States on home video.
Ace in the Hole disturbs journalists because they recognize too much of themselves and their colleagues in the film's loathsome protagonist, Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas). Like most classic film noir tough guys, Tatum is running from a sordid past. He's stranded in Albuquerque with no money and a car with bad tires and a burned bearing, so he ambles into the Sun-Bulletin office and pitches the straight-laced editor for a job. Tatum brags of having been fired from 11 papers. In New York, he says, a libel suit got him cashiered. In Chicago, it was a dalliance with the publisher's wife. "In Detroit I was caught drinking out of season," he says. When Tatum says, "I'm a pretty good liar. I've done a lot of lying in my time," he says it proudly. The truth about Tatum is surely much worse than he lets on.
Tatum craves a big story that will catapult him out of this "sun-baked Siberia" and back to New York newspaperdom on his own terms. Luckily for Tatum, journalism is a profession that extends lots of second chances, even to scoundrels. The editor gives Tatum a job, but a year passes before he finds a story he can plunder for career gain. Stopping for gas at a trading post/motel in the sticks, he learns of a tunnel cave-in that has trapped Leo Minosa, who runs the trading post with his floozy wife and his parents.
Janet Malcolm became famous in 1990 for writing in The Journalist and the Murderer that the journalist is a "confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, bargaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." Wilder's story anticipated her finding by four decades. Tatum takes charge of the rescue by postponing it. The rescue crew could pull Leo out to safety in a day by shoring up the tunnel, but Tatum needs time to turn the simple accident into a media circus. He convinces the corrupt sheriff, who is running for re-election, that a media circus managed by Tatum will make him a countywide hero. The sheriff blackmails the lead engineer into drilling down to Leo's tomb through solid rock, a process that will take a week.
How many journalistic sins does Tatum commit? He takes his time about telling anybody he's a journalist. He endangers the life of an innocent man for his own gain. He makes a slimy deal with the crooked cop. He repeatedly lies to Leo about the progress of the rescue. He smacks Leo's wife, who wants to escape the desert hell, and later shags her. When he writes her up in his stories, she's the "broken-hearted wife." He corrupts the Sun-Bulletin's boy photographer. And all the while he pretends to be a passive participant in the action. "I don't make things happen. All I do is write about them," he says.
And more: Tatum gets the sheriff to deputize him so that as an official member of the rescue team he can cut the other pressmen out of the story. He cynically calls the half-buried man his "ace in the hole." He exploits Indian superstitions about the mountain's aggrieved spirits with a circulation-building headline: "Ancient Curse Entombs Man."
Tatum is a vulture, except that genuine vultures know how to soar.
An instant city of 3,000 descends upon the scene by car and train to keep the vigil. Wilder frames the arriving hordes from above, making them look like hungry insects charging toward a meal.
The Leo rescue story catches on, first across the state and then nationally, and additional reporters from radio, television, and print set up shop. Leo's wife, Lorraine, played to a hardboiled crisp by Jan Sterling, charges admission to the spectacle. The scene becomes a literal circus when a passing carnival pays Lorraine to set up a Ferris wheel. As the rescue effort builds, Tatum quits the Sun-Bulletin and leverages the story's climax to a former boss in New York for the return of his old job.
If film noir illustrates the crackup of the American dream, as Rick Thompson has written, Ace in the Hole is an exemplar of the form. Wilder and co-writers Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels disparage society's institutions—the police, the press, marriage, the nuclear family, and even the church—as shams. Lorraine Minosa delivers an ice-cold excuse for avoiding church services: "Kneeling bags my nylons."
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.)
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