Billy Wilder is my favorite filmmaker of all time. Hands down, no contest, as far as I’m concerned. He’s made so many classic films, it’s almost hard to know where to begin describing his canon. They’re so varied, so creative, and so damn smart. I love his filmmaking in that blind way, when I find myself forgiving otherwise weaker projects. I’ll argue that a “lesser” Wilder film, like One, Two, Three (1961), is still better than most. But One, Two, Three came after a very special period in Wilder’s career. Starting in 1950 and ending in 1960, Wilder yielded one of the most awe-inspiring runs any filmmaker before or since, has delivered.
It started with Sunset Boulevard in ’50, and wrapped with The Apartment 10 years later. Between them, you have Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), and several more. In 10 years, one filmmaker mastered all these films, and then some. This doesn’t even include the amazing Wilder films produced either before or after this period: Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Irma La Douce (1963). I thought I had seen all of the great Wilder films (and even some of the not-so-great), but it always nagged me that I’d never caught Ace in the Hole.
Released in 1951, Ace in the Hole was sandwiched chronologically between two of Wilder’s greatest: Sunset and Stalag. When you admire an artist as much as I admire Wilder, you look at the career to follow each project as a linear story of its own. How did Ace in the Hole fit into the Billy Wilder story? Rarely available these days, I could never find out. That is, until the Criterion Collection released a hefty double-disc for the film on July 17. This weekend, I watched it. And now, my 1950s Wilder fascination is complete.
Unlike The Seven Year Itch (1955), this is a Wilder film from that era which does not disappoint. At all. A commercial failure (but a screenplay Oscar nominee) when it was originally released, Ace in the Hole is startling in its timeliness for 2007. More than that, it echoes Wilder’s penchant for snappy dialogue as well as some harsh criticism of “the establishment.” The chaotic tale of one reporter’s (Kirk Douglas) thirst for fame and fortune when a New Mexico man is trapped in a mountain, Ace in the Hole is the portrait of a society gone mad with media fire, and the man fueling those flames. Sort of like Wag the Dog-meets-“Baby Jessica.” Douglas’ reporter, Chuck Tatum, is a charismatic cocktail of witty banter and dark motives. Like other Wilder protagonists, Tatum is an occasionally despicable anti-hero. Douglas, however, is a joy to watch as he inhabits this prickly character. He descends into madness while literally playing ringmaster for a media circus. The conclusion of the film, and Tatum’s fate, could not be more satisfyingly clever.
Ahead of his time in ways we’re still discovering, Billy Wilder appreciation would be incomplete without Ace in the Hole. It’s a film that speaks volumes about Wilder’s talent and showcases some of his greatest strengths as a storyteller/collaborator. I’m also convinced that it’s one of the best Wilder films from the 1950-1960 period, which is nothing to sneeze at. How does Ace in the Hole fit into his filmography? The power of Wilder’s work, is that it feels so distinct from so many of his other films, yet it’s indisputably a Billy Wilder picture. That’s what happens when you watch the work of a gifted artist. That’s what happens when you watch classics like Ace in the Hole.