Ace in the Hole (Criterion Collection) (Blu-ray)

Just a year after scandalizing Hollywood with the classic Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder added to his reputation as a director interested in exposing the darker side of life with Ace in the Hole. This marked the first time Wilder was credited as a writer, producer, and director; Ace in the Hole was his first film after breakup with long-time writing partner Charles Brackett.

Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a newspaper reporter whose alcohol problems have sent him on a downward spiral. He’s gone from working at big publications in Boston and New York—he’s been fired from eleven papers—to talking his way into a job at the small Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Tatum sees his job in Albuquerque as a way to reestablish his career and reputation. He works there quietly for several months, bored out of his skull. Things change when he’s sent to cover what initially appears to be a typical rattlesnake hunt. Tatum learns that a man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a mineshaft in Old Indian Cliffs.

Sensing the potential for his big break, a snarling Tatum (as only Kirk Douglas can) grabs a flashlight and thrusts himself intothe darkness, determined to locate Minosa and get exclusive rights to the biggest story to hit Albuquerque in years. As word of Leo’s plight begins to spread,other reporters and curious onlookers descend on the scene, quickly creating a media circus,complete with carnival rides and souvenirs.

The engineers fear it will take a full day to sure things up enough to safely rescue Leo. But for Tatum, one day is lousy. How can he create an exciting narrative? In control of the situation, Tatum manipulates everyone around him to create the best story possible. He convinces the rescue workers to take an alternate, longer route—Minosa is a strong guy, he can take it. Even Minosa’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) hopes to cash in on her husband’s misfortune and the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal) is hoping to ride the rescue to reelection. However, as the days pass, it becomes increasingly clear that Leo is not likely to survive; a realization that begins to tear Tatum apart as he deals with the fact that his selfish actions caused a man’s death.

Like the majority of Billy Wilder’s films, Ace in the Hole possesses an incredible sense of visual storytelling and great writing. There’s no other way to read Ace in the Hole other than an uncompromising condemnation of the media. Wilder always shot straight from the hip, with little in the way of a filter. He had scandalized Hollywood with Sunset Boulevard a year earlier, now he was blatantly going after the media. Perhaps his boldness is why Ace in the Hole was his first critical and commercial failure. Perhaps it hit a little too close to home for those critics whose job it was to write about movies and the people who made them for a living.

Whatever the case, more than sixty years after its release, Ace in the Hole is considered by many to be among Billy Wilder’s finest films and seems more relevant than ever. Kirk Douglas exudes a dynamic magnetism that makes his ‘get the story at any cost’ attitude believable, while Jan Sterling is superb as the conniving wife of the trapped man, just pure, calculating, coldness. Actor Ray Teal played a lot of sheriff’s in his career and does a fine job as a crooked one, here. Character actors Frank Cady, Frank Jaquet and Porter Hall contribute nicely to the proceedings.

Presented in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s 1080p transfer is wonderful. Image clarity is superb, with no artifacts in sight. The grayscale is crisp with vivid blacks and controlled whites. Contrast appears to be spot on. Shadow detail is stunning, becoming particularly noticeable in scenes inside the caves.

The LPCM Mono track is quite good, though there is an intermittent, low level hiss and occasional tininess in the upper registers. Despite those issues, dialogue can always be heard. Sound effects and Hugo Friedhofer’s score are well mixed, but never overbearing.

English SDH subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

  • Audio Commentary: Recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2007, film scholar Neil Sinyard, coauthor of Journey Down Sunset Boulevard: The Films of Billy Wilder, offers a largely scene-by-scene analysis of the film, but he does share some information about specific shots, scenes, and the actors.
  • Portrait of a “60% Perfect Man”: Billy Wilder (HD, 58:30) In this 1980 documentary directed by Annie Tresgot, Wilder discusses his life and career, working in the studio system, the production of Ace in the Hole, the characters in his films, his love for art, etc.
  • Billy Wilder at the American Film Institute (HD, 23:39) In these excerpts from an interview conducted by George Stevens Jr. at the American Film Institute in 1986, Wilder discusses his career. There is information here not touched on in the above documentary.
  • Kirk Douglas (HD, 14:18) In excerpts from this 1984 interview, Douglas discusses his character in Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder’s work ethic, the director’s attitude towards actors, etc.
  • Walter Newman (10:09) In this audio interview conducted in 1970, co-writer Walter Newman talks about working with Billy Wilder prior to the final script preparations on the movie and their subsequent working relationship during the formation of the screenplay.
  • Spike Lee Afterword (HD, 5:49) Director Spike Lee explains what makes Ace in the Hole such a unique film.
  • Stills Gallery(HD) A collection of production stills and rare behind the scenes photos.
  • Trailer (HD, 2:22) Original theatrical trailer for Ace in the Hole.
  • DVDs: two discs featuring the film and its extras included in this dual format release.
  • Four-Page Newspaper: Rather than a booklet in the set, Criterion has published a four page mini-newspaper with a celebration of the film by critic Molly Haskell and a profile on Kirk Douglas by Guy Maddin.
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