Billy Wilder was a hero in Hollywood following classics like Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). When 1951 came around, Wilder brought out Ace in the Hole, a film widely remembered today as “one of the most scathing indictments of American culture ever produced by a Hollywood filmmaker,” to quote Criterion. It was one of WIlder’s most unapologetic films and, subsequently, his biggest flop, hardly seen by anyone for decades.
Ace in the Hole is a bleak, hard-edged examination of society by an immigrant director who, despite his success, never became disillusioned by the American dream. The film is full of scathing dialogue and character interactions that constitute the stuff of noir, but are delivered by non-noir characters in non-noir settings. There are more scenes in bright daylight than dim, shadowy sets. It isn’t a story about a weak man under the coercion of a strong, conniving woman, or a character running ragged from the woes of life, as are so many of Wilder's leading men. Ace in the Hole’s Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) may have been fired from eleven jobs with major newspapers around the country, but he commands and carries himself like the most important man in the world. Strutting into an Albuquerque paper after disembarking from a broken car hooked to a tow, he convinces the paper boss Jacob Boot (Porter Hall) to hire him on the grounds of generosity -- Tatum is a $250/week newspaper man, deigning to work at this small-town outfit for only $50. Tatum is not the traditional image of a noir antihero, particularly within Wilder’s library of genre-defining staples.
Instead, Ace in the Hole exists as a noir primarily thanks to its dialogue and character behaviors.
When Tatum first arrives in that Albuquerque office, his self-pitch to Boot is fast, witty, full of natural direction, and character-establishing language. It is the kind of dialogue one expects coming from the mouth of a noir detective in a smoky office, not a self-absorbed newspaper man in broad desert daylight. But Tatum is past the point in his life where he’s concerned with morals, resorting to a “do whatever it takes” attitude. His banter with Boot is the type of verbal fencing Wilder is known for, which not only sets up a structure for the film, but establishes two prominent characters and the warped relationship between them. Boot is a man of integrity, even if his old-fashioned take on news reporting renders his circulation irrelevant. Tatum has worked in every major American city and represents the future of journalism, integrity and honesty aside. A needlepoint sign hangs outside Boot’s office which reads “Tell The Truth,” standing as a set piece with thematic significance Wilder will explore in spades.
A year after being hired, Chuck stumbles upon a small hamlet where a man named Leo (Richard Benedict) is trapped within an Indian burial ground. Seeing the potential for exploitation and media frenzy, Chuck jumps on the opportunity and causes both to happen. Soon after, he meets Leo’s unhappy wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who takes Leo’s predicament as a chance to skip town while he is unable to follow her. Chuck forces her to stick around for the sake of his story, using revenue from the inbound publicity swarm as motivation, but also so Lorraine can operate within the film as Chuck’s cynical counterpoint. She is a wretched a selfish creature who occasionally projects Chuck’s worst qualities back on himself, which he tends to slap away and justify under the practices of his profession. In the tradition of Wilder noir, Lorraine may not be swindling Chuck for her own benefit, but she has more brains than she is given credit for -- instead, people only pay attention to her looks. "She's so pretty," Leo tells Chuck from his hillside tomb. Later, "I bet she'll look a million." It is all about appearance, which is part of Lorraine's contempt.
Both Chuck and Lorraine deliver lines that feel like noir but exist outside the genre’s framework. The Dissolve writes, Lorraine “isn’t a classic femme fatale, because she isn’t trying to get anything out of Chuck; she just wants to escape, and he annoys her because he’s in the way. Ace In The Hole looks and feels like a noir in the characters’ attitudes and snappy chatter, but it doesn’t follow the conventions, which is one reason it feels so unique. I love Chuck and Lorraine’s exchange, when she realizes exactly how unsentimental he is: “I met a lotta hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you? You’re 20 minutes.” “Is that a boost or a knock?” he shoots back. “’Cause I haven’t time to figure it out.” This is classic moll-and-gumshoe banter, coming from people who don’t fit those roles.”
When someone says “name me a noir film,” Ace in the Hole is almost certainly never going to be the immediate response. It isn’t a picture that showcases all the stampings of the genre in a way that helps define its meaning. It is a twisted drama, a noir that contains the darkest of comedy through its serious delivery of satire.