Billy Wilder’s 1951 Ace in the Hole, widely conceded to be the most cynical Hollywood movie ever made, brings the hammer down on journalism in a way that ought to synch with today’s rising distrust of the media — although that’s not what Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz meant when he called it “one of the great movies about journalism” during its COVID-19 quarantine broadcast.
Ironically, Ace in the Hole is a cult favorite, a dirty little secret among journalists. But there’s a catch — the insurmountable egotism of commanding-heights media — that makes the film’s cynicism part of the problem it pretends to critique.
Wilder, best known for Sunset Boulevard, The Seven Year Itch, and Some Like It Hot, turned his celebrated wit against the character of Charles Tatum, a disgraced New York scribe who lands at a small-town rag in New Mexico, where he attempts a comeback by manipulating a local man’s accident into a story that will put Tatum back in the Pulitzer Prize stakes. It is actor Kirk Douglas’s ultimate performance as a post-WWII heel, twisting the actor’s considerable talent and the force of his charisma into a spectacle of contempt. This Hollywood hoax encourages our own leering fascination that isn’t much different from Tatum’s sneering condescension.
Our identification with Tatum’s temperament and drive becomes more repugnant as the story develops. Tatum’s journalist careerism is like poker strategy. He keeps his “ace,” a Mexican-Catholic trading-post owner, trapped in a cave that collapsed when he was robbing artifacts from a Native American burial site. He plans to build curiosity for the grand, human-interest rescue story he stokes in the press.
Reviewers, which is to say, second-tier journos, love Ace in the Hole because Wilder’s acerbic view of human nature (the world reduced to con men and their dupes) appeals to their own professional envy and its flip side, their Not-Me vanity.
But Tatum’s type is not just legion. These days it’s celebrated — perverting the investigative-reporter ideal into gotcha journalism, in which reporters pursue the fame that Watergate brought to the egoistic Woodward and Bernstein, thus creating an aberrant media class.
So when Wilder uses Tatum’s smartness against him, he also uses the movie against us. Smart-ass cynicism, an irresistible card trick based on the sense of superiority felt by many crusading journalists — and attention-grabbers who call themselves journalists — also tricks moviegoers who relish the opportunity for easy umbrage. That’s the problem with Wilder’s moralizing movies from Double Indemnity (1944) to The Apartment (1960) that set out to expose social ills through a supercilious perspective. This know-it-all-ism anticipated the social-justice-warrior attitude that prevails in today’s media.
Douglas’s Tatum personifies what Brendan O’Neill calls the “political infantilism of the Left.” Tatum claims, “I don’t make things happen. I only write about them.” Now, when journalists claim that their job is to “hold public officials accountable,” it’s the same humble-brag, shrugging off moral responsibility and hiding partisanship while demonstrating the boastful habit of activist-journalist narcissism.
Could Wilder, who left Nazi Germany as a principled, life-saving moral choice before he became a Hollywood heavyweight, conceive the arrogance we see in the out-of-control White House Press corps who are held accountable only by the president they assail? Wilder makes Tatum a scapegoat for the media’s sins and isolates that threat in a single man because he naïvely believed in the integrity of the press (along with the notion of a solitary Hitlerian fiend).
Wilder’s dullest scenes feature a moralizing editor named Boot lecturing Tatum about ethics. He’s a drudge opposite Douglas’s electrifying exhibitionism and its ugly, opportunistic reality: the moment Tatum ensnares a corrupt sheriff, warning, “You play along with me and I’ll have you reelected. If you don’t, I’ll crucify you!” However, that threat has no imaginable equivalent among today’s journalists who collude with political power in the interest of progressive social engineering.
Ace in the Hole’s legacy is challenged by the concept of fake news, which recognizes that contemporary journalism has become consciously manipulative fantasy. Hollywood no longer competes with the news media because the two industries have merged. (You see this in Wilder’s portrayal of the victimized Minosa family; they’re pitied and ennobled just like today’s social-justice-warrior “black and brown community” stereotypes pushed by the media.)
Wilder’s view of personal and social corruption falls short of the Shakespearean complexity in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil from the same era; this is closer to Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust apocalypse but focused on journalism rather than Hollywood. The film is also known as The Big Carnival, a better, less snide title. And in scenes of crowds gathering by the carload to observe Tatum’s hideous contrived spectacle, Wilder nearly predicts the mass hysteria that today’s media can easily foment, turning public interest into venal thrill-seeking, insensitivity, and hapless groupthink. (“This is instructive,” a father reasons, explaining why he is bringing his kids along. Today he would say “educational.”)
Thus, Ace in the Hole is a companion-piece follow-up to Wilder’s best film, Sunset Boulevard, a self-sentimentalizing gothic-noir about the fate of a fellow screenwriter. Only here, Wilder unloads on a figure for whom he has no compassion, just judgment — that smart-ass journalist disease of the comfortable profession (pace H. L. Mencken).
After last week’s column on Network, a reader asked, “What would you consider a more accurate and sharp film that shows the media as what it is?” We’re unlikely to see a new movie criticize journalism even on the mild level of 1981’s Absence of Malice. But we need more than a clever twist on megalomania. Today, we need an unglamorized cautionary tale about the profession that gambles with the commonweal.