Like many people, my viewing tastes have lately skewed escapist. I don’t want to watch anything new, anything difficult, anything mean, anything sad. I don’t want to watch Serious Films or Important Documentaries. I don’t want long faces and muted lighting. Give me Ethan Embry in Can’t Hardly Wait on the neon-lit bench with Jenna Elfman’s sad stripper dressed as an angel. Give me Kurt Russell hanging on to the bottom of a semi truck in a polo shirt and chinos in the 1997 road-trip thriller Breakdown. Give me Spike and Buffy fighting and making out in a crypt. Give me the surreal insanity of the singing ninjas and their nonsensical backstories in Miami Connection. Give me anything that activates my endorphins but doesn’t engage my neurons in any real complex thought.
So when I started watching Billy Wilder’s off-puttingly bitter Ace in the Hole, I was worried. Here was a film with no possible escape. Hell, the film revolves around a man who is literally trapped underground when a cave-in occurs, rendering physical escape impossible. You could also say that the film revolves around a different man, one whose cynicism and lack of belief in anything but cold hard cash has exiled him from the profession he exploits to stay alive, and who is therefore trapped in an undesirable job without hope of an easy exit. Or you could make the argument that Wilder’s film is really about the thousands of extras that the studio hired among locals in Gallup, New Mexico—extras who were paid 75 cents an hour for a 10-hour day to portray gawking Americans forking over cash to attend a literal media circus centering on the “human-interest story” that is a man dying needlessly alone in a cave—Americans trapped in a corrupt, heartless, oppressive system they don’t even have the perspective to understand. Any way you slice it, it’s not a film that you watch to, you know, take a break from the pressures of daily life. Both form and function here are claustrophobic.
I thought of the infamous first line of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.
If there were ever a film that didn’t dream, it would be Ace in the Hole. So, then—is it a film that has slipped so far into absolute reality that it has rendered itself (and/or its audience) insane? Or does it simply dream in a way most people can’t detect?
A brief but necessary plot summary, in case you haven’t seen the film: Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has gotten himself fired from just about every newspaper in America thanks to what sounds like generalized asshole behavior. He’s wound up in Albuquerque, the absolute last place an Ambitious, Cultured, Condescending New Yorker wants to be, working for peanuts for an irritatingly morally superior man named Boot (Porter Hall). Tatum wastes away for a year at the paper, growing increasingly unraveled, until he catches a break when a rest stop on the way to a rattlesnake festival yields an overheard conversation, an unfolding situation—a man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who owns the run-down trading post and restaurant where Tatum and his young photographer Herbie have stopped, is trapped in a cave nearby. Tatum jumps on this opportunity, caring not so much about Leo as about the potential to spin Leo’s fate into a national front-page news story. But it’s not enough for Tatum to spend the projected rescue timeline of 12-16 hours observing, interviewing, researching, and ensuring that his story is the best it can possibly be. No, Tatum wants this to be a story that sticks around for a while, with new developments every day for a week or more. He wants tension, suspense, drama, even fear.
So he inserts himself into the process. He casts doubt on the rescue method that would get Leo out safely in a day. He colludes with the corrupt sheriff and sees a potential ally in Leo’s jaded, callous wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who only married Leo based on a half-truth and a hope for a future that didn’t actually exist. He forces a scenario—drilling down to Leo from the top of the mountain, a process that will take a full week—that will benefit his career, threading the needle with Leo’s life. Tatum runs the clock down as much as he believes he possibly can to milk every drop out of the story, counting on the perfect, last-minute save to crown his dream narrative with eternal glory. Thousands of people gather, camping out, selling ice cream, riding an impromptu Ferris wheel, trampling the earth, scrambling to get a chance to be interviewed on the radio.
In case you were getting your hopes up, there’s not a happy ending.
Feeling bummed out yet? But wait, there’s more! Lest you wanted to perhaps root for Leo himself, the entire reason he is stuck in the cave is that he routinely takes trips in, against both the advice and the will of the indigenous people, to dig up Native artifacts that he will then sell at his trading post. It’s a gross bit of cultural appropriation, and one that shows just how wide Wilder has cast his net of cynical commentary. The cave, you see, is part of an ancient cliff dwelling regarded as sacred by some native people and historically vital by others. But Leo has no qualms about disturbing the bones of buried men and unearthing items buried with them by their families just to make a quick dime. He doesn’t operate “Minosa’s Indian Curios” because he has any real interest in the history of the indigenous population—he just thought it was a good way to make a buck out in the middle of nowhere. And Tatum, of course, is even worse in this regard. He decides to use the history of the place as fodder to elevate his story’s “human interest,” exaggerating rumors of a stereotypically racist ancient curse (“The Curse of the Seven Vultures”) to sell more papers.
Oh, and Lorraine? She’s a real piece of work. Hates Leo, hates New Mexico. She is perhaps a hand-to-God sociopath with no capability for empathy. She warms up a bit to Tatum when she thinks he can help her out monetarily (which he does—the trading post is soon overflowing with clientele drawn to the morbid spectacle of a man suffocating underground), but the potential for that relationship is dampened with a violent kiss, a near-strangulation, and then her own comeback: a proper scissors-stabbing right in the gut, which will slowly kill Tatum during the final act of the film. She leaves quickly, catching a ride out of town, heading out to wreak her acts of careless destruction on people somewhere else. In that sense, I suppose someone does escape—but one gets the sense that her life is not on an upward trajectory.
You can see why this film was largely a critical and commercial failure when it came out. Even in the new idealistic blush of the early ‘50s, no one wanted to watch a movie that managed to condemn the media, the government, capitalism, love, and human nature all in under two hours.
I have a tendency to skew dark and cynical in my outlook on life. It’s always been a defense mechanism of sorts—a way to insulate myself from inevitable pain. If I’m expecting the pain, it won’t hurt as bad when it comes, right? I brace myself for emergency room visits with my children. I text people expecting no response. I mull over what will eventually happen when I’m unable to get a job, when I fail as a friend, when I can’t meet my goals, when the small sore does become cancer, when the late-night drive ends in sirens and cones on the side of the highway.
Up until March of this year, my worst-case scenario thinking was frequently proven wrong, which validated the more rational and optimistic people around me who would tell me that I was being too negative or failing to envision all the possible futures. I was working on believing that, sometimes, the 10% chance of rain is just that—a 10% chance—not an inevitable outcome. I was practicing feeling hopeful. I was trying to react to positive occurrences instead of proactively expect negative ones. And then.
You know what comes next. The news story you’ve been following nervously unfolds in precisely the way your worst-case scenario brain predicted. The climate change accelerates. The marks your friends told you we wouldn’t hit were hit and passed. The job becomes an impossibility. The death toll rises. And now what? Now what—when your worst-case scenario thinking has been proven true? Now what, you want to ask your therapist, but don’t. How do you stay sane in a world that’s living up to all of your worst expectations?
Searching for signs of sanity, escape, and the possibility of dreaming in Ace in the Hole is not an easy game to play. Kirk Douglas certainly doesn’t play Tatum as someone who’s entirely squared away with his brain. Douglas’ expressions in the film range from grim determination to unhingedly grim determination, and one gets the sense that Tatum’s every action is a direct result of obsessive, solipsistic calculations: What move will advance my career? What choice will result in more money, a higher status? He has no moral compass outside of his desire to serve himself.
One gets the sense that Tatum doesn’t dream when he sleeps. He lies down, blacks out, wakes up alert. He doesn’t imagine other worlds. He’s never woken up into a reality that’s been tinted slightly brighter thanks to a deep brush with surreal and fantastical hope. He’s missing whatever part of the brain daydreams, fantasizes. He sees nothing but the worst in his surroundings.
The uptight publisher he works for, Mr. Boot, is no better—he simply falls on the opposite end of the spectrum. His cross-stitched commands to TELL THE TRUTH (he has not one, but two of these in his office) reveal a mind with little imagination, a mind that—like the film’s cinematography—operates in black and white. No one can be that “good” and stay connected to something bigger, wilder, and more fantastic in the world—something that reminds you that binary choices are never the only ones, that life unfolds on a spectrum, not a two-sided coin.
Journalism, for Wilder in this film, does not offer any sort of escape or breath of sanity for the people writing or reading it. Much has been written about Ace in the Hole‘s cynicism towards the media, towards law enforcement—towards the human tendency to make other people’s pain and tragedy a spectator sport. Decades before reality television, Wilder understood the dark part of the soul that thrives on seeing other people fight, cry, hurt each other, drink too much, lash out, embarrass themselves, fail, lose, die. He saw the ways we invent stories to serve our own character arcs that end up rippling out into the lives of those around us, Gatsby-like, great but for the broken bodies washed up in our wakes. He perhaps overestimated how much viewers would enjoy watching a film forcing them to confront their own complicity in the very American cycles of capitalistic and hierarchical corruption—or perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps he never believed the movie would “succeed” with its viewers in that way. Watching the film, it’s easy to imagine him hoping he would piss people off with it. The film practically seethes with a tamped-down, barely-controlled misanthropic rage.
Sterling’s Lorraine, too, moves through the film in a trance of disillusionment and jaded hopelessness. Trapped by the store she hates, her gender, her unhappy marriage, her social status, and her own inability to believe in something bigger, Lorraine is a fitting, if troubling, counterpart to Tatum. She spits out one of the film’s most infamously cynical lines: “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.” (Ace in the Hole’s stance on religion needs a different essay to unpack; suffice it to say that Wilder seems to put Jesus’ ability to save in line with any other idealistic but illogical system of belief.)
Although Lorraine is the only person in the film to actually get out of town—to wriggle out of the handcuffs of her circumstances—her departure is less of a transcendence than a collapse. A cave-in on the level of the soul. Back against the wall, neck in a stranglehold held by not one, but two men—Tatum pulling tight the vise of Leo’s anniversary gift, an ugly fur she hates and that, to her, represents everything keeping her from being the person she once imagined she’d be—she realizes: the only way out is through. She stabs him in the gut with scissors, a wound that he could have kept from being fatal had he not been so immersed in prideful obsession. We see her on her way out of town: a woman who could only creep out of the corner she’d been backed into by becoming something worse, something less human, something unattached from all hope or faith or promise.
When I walk away from my computer for five minutes, the pre-programmed landscape screensaver comes on. I love it. I watch the sand dunes and the glaciers and the forests glide slowly across the screen for longer than I need to.
Before my kids go to sleep, I lie down on the floor of their room and play nature sounds—crickets by a forest river, bird trills and thunderstorms, frogs by a waterfall. I close my eyes and imagine myself outside, pleasantly cold, face turned up to a darker sky.
The last place I went before we couldn’t go places anymore was Albuquerque. I was there for a work conference but I tried to grab a few hours to walk around, breathe in the specific New Mexico air, look at the mountains. I have traveled to and fallen in love with Taos, with Santa Fe. There’s an electricity in New Mexico that seems to connect person to land in a more vital and tangible way than anywhere else I’ve been, except maybe Yosemite. Perhaps I only felt it because, as a tourist, I was subconsciously looking for something like that. Perhaps it was real.
When I imagine making a movie in New Mexico I see the land unfolding before me like a note found tucked in the pages of a used book—a window looking out onto something beautiful from the walls of a deteriorating stronghold.
Wilder doesn’t give much voice to his indigenous characters, and, for the majority of the film, holds back from filming any sweeping vistas. Most of Wilder’s films are city films. His characters spark their repartee back and forth over bustling city sounds, in busy offices, down apartment hallways. Ace in the Hole’s cynical message would seem suited to such an environment—one of cutthroat ambition, where everyone’s trying to get ahead. But the film doesn’t take place in a city. It doesn’t even unfold in Albuquerque. Its action progresses miles outside of any real town, any real hub of residential or commercial life. This backdrop is, of course, a purposeful juxtaposition to Tatum’s ugly city morality—and a call to our own blindness to what really matters. It is also, I think, there to communicate a pretty radical message (for its time) about white America’s exploitation of the land and of indigenous people.
As Tatum enters the offices of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin for the first time, he passes a Native American employee and smirks an exaggerated “How” at him, complete with a condescending stereotypical hand gesture. “Good afternoon, sir,” says the man in return, without missing a beat. It’s one of our first glimpses of Tatum’s attitude towards others; that Wilder chose to highlight his superior attitude to an indigenous professional is no accident.
Later in the film, we see glimpses of a family who prides themselves on being the “first” to the scene. (The YouTube commenter energy is palpable.) The couple has two boys, who dress up in feather headdresses and “Indian” costumes; Wilder’s framing of them calls to mind the way Bong Joon-ho shoots the similarly commercialized bastardization of native dress in Parasite. The effect is the same—a scathing condemnation of the upper-class blindness to the exploitation, oppression, and genocide that got them where they are today: on land they stole from others and no longer understand how to connect with.
One of Tatum’s early monologues is a paean to city living, a sneering dismissal of rural life that manages to be violent, misogynistic, arrogant, and ugly all at once:
You know what’s wrong with New Mexico, Mr. Wendell? Too much outdoors. Give me those eight spindly trees in front of Rockefeller Center any day. That’s enough outdoors for me. No subways smelling sweet-sour. What do you use for noise around here? No beautiful roar from eight million ants—fighting, cursing, loving. No shows. No South Pacific. No chic little dames across a crowded bar. And worst of all, Herbie, no 80th floor to jump from when you feel like it…When I came here, I thought this was gonna be a 30-day stretch, maybe 60. Now it’s a year. It looks like a life sentence. Where is it? Where’s the loaf of bread with a file in it? Where’s that big story to get me outta here? One year, and what’s our hot news? A soapbox derby. A tornado—that double-crossed us and went to Texas. An old goof who said he was the real Jesse James—until they found out he was a chicken thief from Gallup by the name of, uh, Schimmelmacher. I’m stuck here, fans. Stuck for good. Unless of course, you, Miss Deverich, instead of writing household hints about how to remove chili stains from blue jeans, get yourself involved in a trunk murder. How about it, Miss Deverich? I could do wonders with your dismembered body.
As the empty land fills up with cars, and the quiet dissipates into carnival songs and radio announcements, the viewer feels a loss deeper than they would if the cars and radio announcements had already been there. The sign at the entrance to the region declaring “VISIT OLD INDIAN CLIFF DWELLINGS / 450 YEARS OLD / OK TO TAKE PICTURES” changes its tune from “FREE” to “50¢” to “$1.00.” We are American. We take things that are sacred and beautiful and wring them dry to turn a profit, to buy a bigger house, to share a popular picture on social media. No, the “Indian curse” that Tatum invents is not real. But yes, Wilder seems to say, there was something holy about this place, its existence. There was something possible.
There was a window.
The last shot of Ace in the Hole is uncompromisingly bleak. It’s composed carefully and angrily. Tatum, having failed at absolutely everything he set out to do, having bled out slowly—both physically and morally—during the last act of the film, is back in the Albuquerque newspaper office, posturing and proud even in the final moments of his destructive life. He falls over, finally, his head blocking out nearly everything else from the frame. Wilder ends his film as claustrophobically as possible, giving viewers no escape from the capitalistic, self-serving hole he’s revealed us all to be trapped in. Yes, he says, we are all slowly suffocating on the dust of this country, on the oxygen-less air of American exceptionalism. No one is coming to drill us out.
That’s certainly how most of the movie feels: crowded, blind, heartless, repulsive.
But the people leave. The signs come down. The tents collapse. The drills stop. The cars drive away. And, yes, in the darkest sense, we feel the grief and desolation of Leo’s father, looking out one more time on the land that claimed his son. We feel the way everything sacred was ruined. We feel the weight of the litter on the ground, the remnants of a crowd feeding on other people’s pain, the loss of a historical site, the futile, insane way all of this happened for no reason.
But we also might feel something else. A breath. A breeze. An original pause.
Wilder may not believe in people, but does he believe in the land? Cliffs without voices, ground without vehicle tracks, sky without factory smoke, Earth without people.
Even if you give in to the voice telling you our worst expectations are real, even if you find yourself with your eyes screwed shut in bed at night understanding that the fantasies we were peddled are nothing more than that—fantasies, lies, veils over some essential evil—there are still stars overhead, mountains to the north, oceans waiting to finally swallow us, tall grasses to lie down in. There is still an Earth, and maybe it is better off without us. There are flowers and rocks and rushing lava. There are caves no one will ever find. Leo Minosa’s father might see it, standing alone amidst the vacuum of the circus that fed on his son until he could no longer breathe.