Thursday, December 2, 2010
Those media jackals
Billy Wilder's 1951 film Ace in the Hole is a cynical, noir-ish tale about cunning newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), who stumbles upon a rescue operation to free a man trapped in a cave, then manipulates events to make the rescue take much longer than it should. This allows him to file many more stories about the rescue effort, increasingly lurid and sensational, enhancing- as planned- his own reputation as a reporter who sells papers.
While a fairly riveting movie, laced with style and dark humor, in the end the story might be a little dark for its own good. While the film functions as one of the earliest warnings that the growing mass media of the mid 20th Century might not be entirely altruistic, by having such a bleak conclusion to both the central plotline and the path of reporter Chuck Tatum (don't worry, I won't get more specific than that), the result may have been somewhat counter-productive. The film, being perceived as too depressing, failed at the box office, limiting the effect of its message.
Also limiting viewership at the time was the possible sense that the film's criticism of the media, while worth considering, might have gone a little too far. After all, while no one would doubt that newspapers and the other major media in 1951 wouldn't hesitiate to sell more ads if a disaster they were covering increased their audiences, would they really put people's lives at risk to keep the disaster from being addressed?
Of course, Ace in the Hole is also the story of one reporter and his personal decisions, so even if the central message is somewhat overcooked, the movie still works fine as the story of Kirk Douglas' Chuck Tatum character, and the events he sets in motion. You can always enjoy the movie just on that level, and take as much of the media-criticism theme to heart as you deem appropriate.
Not surprisingly, Ace in the Hole looks and sounds wonderful on the Criterion DVD I watched, and, also not surprisingly, there are a variety of wonderful extra features on the second disc, as well as a decent commentary track by film historian Neil Sinyard on the disc containing the movie. My favorite among the second-disc special features was an almost hour-long program, produced in 1980, featuring extensive conversations between Billy Wilder and film critic Michel Ciment. Mr. Wilder tells some great stories to Mr. Ciment, providing wonderful insights into the creative process and motivations behind his many films.
If you don't feel like buying or renting the DVD, Ace in the Hole also shows up from time to time on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which is carried by most cable services.