Ace in the Hole

On the AFI’s Wednesday night broadcast, multiple movies directed by Billy Wilder are likely to make the new list. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), SUNSET BLVD (1950), and THE APARTMENT (1960) all made it into the top 100 back in 1998. However, one of Wilder’s worthiest films, ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), did not make the list in 1998 and is damn near certain to be shut out again this year. Alternatively known by the title THE BIG CARNIVAL, ACE IN THE HOLE tells the story of Chuck Tautum, an opportunistic newspaper reporter (played with animal energy by Kirk Douglas) who exploits the suffering of a man trapped inside a New Mexico cave for his own personal gain.

If my first pick, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, is unabashedly sentimental in its view of American history and culture, then I offer ACE IN THE HOLE as a brazenly cynical counterpart. And if HIS GIRL FRIDAY (Jon’s selection and truly a brilliant film) suggests that punchy journalism, social justice, and heterosexual romance can all go together hand-in-hand, then ACE IN THE HOLE—which is also set in the world of newspaper reporters hungry for a good story—suggests the opposite. The capitalistic imperative for a newspaper to sell (and earn its star reporter lots of money) will inevitably find itself at cross purposes with journalism’s responsibility to tell the truth and our moral responsibility as human beings.

ACE IN THE HOLE overtly stands as a critique of the modern media, but the film can be better understood as an allegory for the entertainment industry as a whole. Inside the door of Tatum’s editor hangs a framed, embroidered sign that reads “Tell the Truth.” For Tatum, the slogan is just as irrelevant as the embroidery is quaint. “Tell the Truth” the mantra of the journalist, but also of the artist. But what happens in Hollywood—when all works of art must be marketable and commercial? What happens when you see the world with a jaundiced view in which every human interaction might be a story to be exploited? Beyond journalism and showbusiness, ACE IN THE HOLE critiques an egomaniacal culture in which empathy and honesty has been tossed aside for the pragmatic and selfish question of “what is in this for me?”

ACE IN THE HOLE also offers a sly and astute criticism of another central aspect of American history: the treatment of Native Americans by whites. ACE IN THE HOLE reveals the way in which 20th century American culture relegated the role of Native Americans yet simultaneously exoticized, appropriated, and exploited Native American culture. Leo Minosa enters the mine that traps him not to dig coal, but to raid the site for buried Indian treasures and art. The mine serves a sacred burial ground to the Native American tribe, but it represents property open for the taking to the whites—the same mentality applied to land throughout American history. Exploiting the exoticism associated with Native American culture, Tatum titles his story “The Curse of the Mountain of the Seven Vultures.” But the threat of a supernatural curse does not loom threateningly enough to keep away the thousands of tourists and literal circus that come to the mine. When the first of family of tourists pull up in their station wagon and attached trailer, two children pop out of the backseat wearing Indian feather headdresses—a further indicator of the wholesale marketing and appropriation of Native American culture.

ACE IN THE HOLE is by no means flawless in its depictions of race. The Native American characters do not have any agency or significant voice in the film—unlike later movies like Samuel Fuller’s RUN OF THE ARROW (1957) or Jonathan Wacks’ POWWOW HIGHWAY (1989). But in revealing the way Native Americans were both marginalized and fetishized, ACE IN THE HOLE tells us something valuable about American racial relations nonetheless.

Even more shocking than all of this: ACE IN THE HOLE is a comedy. A dark comedy to be sure, the film affords innumerable pleasures. In Chuck Tatum, Kirk Douglas finds his greatest screen role. The actor’s natural charisma becomes entangled with a frightening megalomania. And there are so many wonderful moments to savor. Like when Kirk Douglas strikes a match on moving typewriter before drawing the match to a cigarette dangling from his lips. It’s a simple act that says it all about his character—his self-importance, supreme self-confidence, and disregard for the principles of respectable writing. Douglas’s cigarette-typewriter bit certainly goes down with the all time great cigarette lighting moments in Hollywood history—up there with Burt Lancaster quipping “match me, Sidney” in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS or Bacall and Bogie getting things smokey in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. Hey, AFI, now here’s a new list idea for you: 100 YEARS...100 PUFFS!

Fans of Billy Wilder remember ACE IN THE HOLE as the film in which Wilder revealed the full capacity of his cynicism. But California lawyers remember ACE IN THE HOLE for a far different reason. In 1949, a writer by the name of Desney phoned Billy Wilder’s office on the Paramount lot and pitched his secretary his fantastic idea for a movie based on the well publicized case of Floyd Collins, who was trapped in a mine back in the 1920s. Desney told the secretary that he expected to be paid if Wilder used the story. Wilder’s secretary took down the pitch in shorthand and told Desney she would discuss it with Wilder. Flash forward two years later—Desney learned that Paramount had made the basic movie he pitched to Wilder without his permission or any compensation. Desney sued Wilder. In the landmark 1956 case Desney v. Wilder, the California appellate court ruled in Desney’s favor and established the precedent of “implied contract.” An implied contract existed between Desney and Wilder at the time of Desney’s pitch that Desney would be compensated if Wilder made a movie based on his idea. Because Desney was pitching an idea over the phone, he was not protected under copyright law, which only protects the written expression of ideas and not ideas themselves. However, the Desney v. Wilder precedent of “implied contract” provided screenwriters greater protection from being ripped off and provided lawyers even more employment opportunities in the state of California (as if there were not enough already!). Desney v. Wilder remains an important and influential decision to this day.

The fact that Billy Wilder ripped off his dark, biting movie about the unscrupulous natures of journalism and showbusiness from another guy’s pitch is, needless to say, ironic. Is Wilder the character of Tatum in the way he serves himself and steps over other people in the process? Or is it Desney who is Tatum—think of all the threatening claims Tatum makes to other journalists that the story is “his” when, after all, the Floyd Collins cave-in was a highly publicized event? The truth is neither metaphor really works. And even if Wilder did take the original idea of ACE IN THE HOLE from Desney and should have compensated him accordingly, Wilder made the film his own and his imprint is felt in every frame. But what this back story and these legal battles really demonstrate is the way Hollywood movies—even at their best and most critical, even the ones we love with all our hearts—can never exist fully outside the legal, industrial, and historical contexts that produced them. American movies do not simply reflect American culture. Nor do they simply produce culture through a dissemination of ideology. In a very real way, American movies participate in the shaping of our country’s legal and business policies, participate in the shaping of history. Celebrating the history of American cinema demands we address and acknowledge this additional component of the movies.

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