The celebrated divot points manfully toward the crest of the next hill, and the next, and the next, and to the horizon after that. Always forward! Into the sunset! Kirk Douglas is on the move: a wagon train of grimace, howl, and unlaunched sputum. What a range of expressions Douglas has stored in his utility belt! Whether he’s chopping maniacally at redwoods in The Big Trees (1952), pruning his ears in Lust for Life (1956), languishing on his cruciform in Spartacus (1960), or hurtling down a mountain pass with Cyd Charisse at the wheel in Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), he manages to best even the most energetic of his parodists. (The most energetic of his parodists is, of course, Joe Flaherty of SCTV, who always seemed on the verge of his own “stroke of luck” as he and his prosthetic chin grappled with Kirk’s storehouse of facial gymnastics.) Ace in the Hole (1951) might be Kirk’s best-of album, though: from his feeding of Platonic shadows to Richard Benedict’s imprisoned cave schlub (and to the reading public outside) to his jolly, echoing rendition of “The Hut-Sut Song” to his unlikely last-act transmogrification and sacrifice, Douglas, like his character, sells by overselling. And we buy!
Pitched at 95 Miles an Hour Plus
Kirk was obviously determined from the outset to give the very best of his very best to Billy Wilder and Ace in the Hole, but then when in his career was he not? (Perhaps he took a breather during the making of 1977’s Holocaust 2000.) Still, he is pitched at ninety-five miles an hour plus for the duration of this movie, and when his fame-drunk newspaperman barks out, “Pulitzer Prize!” the twin p’s are like dumdum bullets from an ack-ack gun. Chuck Tatum’s mirror duets with hapless spelunker Leo Minosa (whose name suggests a fruity and inoffensive morning-bracer cocktail, and whose manner does nothing to dispel the notion) are conducted in the style of, say, a theatrical presentation of the work of Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, or of a group of children telling ghost stories with a flashlight held under their chins; but Kirk’s acting transcends even this Wilderian hyperstylization.
Wilder’s effects and Douglas’s priapic performance are in the service of a story that was lambasted as hopelessly cynical by the critics of the day. Since most critics considered themselves newspapermen and therefore within the target range of the movie’s furious contempt, this makes a certain sense. But the picture isn’t cynical at all, it’s spot-on! There’s no denying it travels darker territories: the secret wish of a bored housewife, for example, to have a hundred tons of rock dumped on her Baby Duck–and–Minute Maid husband, or the parents happy to offer their children ringside seats to death because it could be “very instructive.” Of course, the main theme is the rapacious hunger of tabloid news gatherers for their scoops, and of a public for blood (an appetite in this case as sexy and naked as it was in Caesarean times). But these things are nothing more than accurately represented in the movie. The earnest young shutterbug who starts the picture as Tatum’s nemesis is utterly corrupted by him within seconds; the lad’s whiplash transformation from annoying goody-goody to sycophantic ponyboy puts the Oscar-winning mutative wizardry of Rick Baker to shame. Others within Tatum’s orbit—the sheriff and the contractor, particularly—undergo Fredric March–like personality shifts as well, though the cave rat’s wife, the perfectly cast Jan Sterling, appears to have come pre-hoovered of all scruples. By the time the Great S&M Amusement Corp. rolls in, poor, mad Minosa is clearly doomed to die like a dog in his cave.
It would have been tempting to put the blame for all this on Chuck Tatum, who is fictional and cannot fight back; and lesser directors and actors than Wilder and Douglas would have done that. But Douglas pulls the choke out and persuades us that the power behind Tatum’s ability to enthrall comes not only from his sharp tongue, city manners, and sociopathic ambition but also from his genuine exuberance for a good story well told. We never doubt that he’s good at his job, whereas Sidney Falco, the analogous character in the tonally and thematically similar Sweet Smell of Success (1957), doesn’t ever come off even as a particularly good publicist. There’s something about Tatum that raises him above the scurrying, amoral silverfish so common in American postwar cinema. His self-removal to deepest New Mexico is itself proof of that; other newsmen desperate for a scoop might have stayed in places where news actually happens, but not Chuck. Ethically blinkered and deeply self-loathing he may be, but clearly he’s an optimist, not a cynic.
Add to this his single-minded dynamism and you have one of the most perfectly Yankee Doodle–fied characters ever created. When I began to bemoan the passive all-Canadian male leads who were doughnut-holing my own early pictures, it was Chuck Tatum (along with that homuncular proto-Douglas James Cagney) who provided the road map for the creation of a genuine chest-thumping Americaner in my movie The Saddest Music in the World. Steal from the best! And, of course, we went further than that, also purloining both Tatum’s protracted fate at the point of a blade and his uncomplaining determination, post-stabbing, to get all his business done before succumbing to the wound. It was only my inability to dig a hole in the concrete floor of my factory-cum-studio that kept me from slavishly, and shamelessly, re-creating the final face-plant of Ace in the Hole—the best fall in movie history!
It is when the gravel whine of Douglas’s voice cracks in agony that you really know he’s in the zone, and it does so memorably several times in the course of Ace in the Hole. An astonishing scene early in the picture, in which Tatum soliloquizes his frustration with the lack of hard news in Albuquerque, seems untoppable, but Douglas and Wilder only crank up the frenzy from there. The voice cracks more and more often, until it nearly topples into its own chasm, and the face, the concavity of the chin dimple echoing the mouth of the hole in which the ace is trapped, contorts in increasingly Picasso-esque grimaces. It is at rest only in the cave sequences, in which Tatum, peeking through a hole into Minosa’s soon-to-be tomb, appears to be a magic-mirror figure, wearing an expression of calm concern and spouting bromides and outrageous falsehoods. Tatum is a sulfurous devil whose very presence causes fuller’s earth to cascade down upon Minosa’s face; he consigns Minosa to death by his monstrous ambition and cuckolds him in the bargain, yet in the helpless dirt-locked chump’s final moments he’s convinced that Tatum is his best and only friend. Only a master of expression and vocal nuance could pull this off, and Douglas, and by extension Tatum, are more than up to the task!
With Kirk Douglas, whose body has always seemed made up of a series of triangles, whose face is a sizzling griddle cake of unconcealed emotion, and whose voice is a rising staccato spiral of agony, you always know what you’re going to get, but it’s always far better than you anticipate. Burt Lancaster, with his experience as a tumbler, may have been the most physical actor of his generation, Robert Ryan the barkiest, Robert Mitchum the sleepiest, and Chuck Heston the most authoritative and bewildered, but in facial acrobatics Kirk easily takes the gold. And didn’t Norma Desmond, in Wilder’s earlier masterwork Sunset Boulevard (1950), tell us in no uncertain terms that faces were what the movies were all about? And wasn’t this film banned in Singapore? And don’t Wilder and Douglas, here in their only collaboration—it must have exhausted them beyond considering future projects together!—call down fire from the very heavens and put it on film in a hellish carnival of poisoned humanity and angry, dashed dreams? She did, it was, and they do, and now it is we who must deal with the bowl of tasty hemlock that is Ace in the Hole.
Guy Maddin is a filmmaker who has made ten features, including Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1989), Brand upon the Brain! (2006), and My Winnipeg (2007), as well as many shorts. He holds the position of Distinguished Filmmaker in Residence at the University of Manitoba and is currently working on the feature Wise Trumpets of the Milky Midnight. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2007 DVD edition of Ace in the Hole.