A few terrible months ago, when the UK death toll from Covid was still climbing at the rate of hundreds or even thousands per day, it began to seem inexplicable that these shocking figures were not denting the popularity of Boris Johnson and his government. For those scrabbling around for rationalisations, it became commonplace to quote Stalin’s dictum: “If one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”
Stalin’s brutal statement contains a bleak but universal truth, which applies not just to public opinion in general but to journalism in particular, and has rarely been better summarised than by Chuck Tatum, the ruthless journalist played by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. Tatum is a washed-up East Coast reporter who finds himself in Albuquerque working for the Sun-Bulletin (a paper which prompts him, after a first cursory perusal, to offer the memorable put-down: “Even for Albuquerque, this is pretty Albuquerque”).
Sent into the desert to cover a rattlesnake hunt, Tatum is not impressed when his young acolyte Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) says this could be a “pretty good story”.
“Big deal,” Tatum scoffs. “A thousand rattlers in the underbrush. Give me just 50 of them loose in Albuquerque… The whole town in panic. Deserted streets. Barricaded houses. They’re evacuating the children. Every man is armed. Fifty killers on the prowl. Fifty. One by one, they start hunting them down. They get ten, 20. It’s building. They get 40, 45. They get 49. Where’s the last rattler? In a kindergarten? In a church? In a crowded elevator? Where?”
“I give up,” Herbie says. “Where?”
“In my desk drawer, fan,” Tatum grins. “Only nobody knows it, see? The story’s good for another three days.”
In the 70 years since the film’s release in June 1951, there have been plenty of stories of tabloid misconduct to remind us that British journalists, too, are happy to keep the occasional metaphorical rattler in their desk drawer. Tatum is the archetype of them all. “I know what makes a good story,” he tells the admiring Herbie, “because before I ever worked on a paper, I sold them on a street corner. You know the first thing I found out? Bad news sells best.”
It’s a line that has the authentic Billy Wilder flavour: the same gloomy wit runs through Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), films which had somehow combined noirish pessimism with box office appeal. These had turned the youthful Wilder, within a few short years, into one of the most revered and bankable directors in Hollywood, and Ace in the Hole shows how emboldened he felt as a result.
Before they get as far as the rattlesnake hunt, Tatum and his sidekick chance upon the ultimate human-interest story in Leo Minosa, an ordinary Joe trapped by rocks while scouring for Native American relics in local caves. Guessing that the story needs a full seven days to build and run, Tatum connives with the corrupt sheriff to keep Leo trapped there by mounting a needlessly complex rescue operation. Sure enough, the story goes viral. Sensation-hungry spectators start rolling in to catch a ghoulish glimpse of the action. Soon there are hundreds of caravans parked outside the cave. A funfair has been set up to keep the crowds amused. The local diner’s tills are ringing endlessly. But Tatum has miscalculated his victim’s chances of survival, and the story doesn’t get the happy ending those crowds (and newspaper readers) demand.
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Ace in the Hole was a huge flop for Wilder, prompting him to spend most of the 1950s playing safe by filming successful stage plays. The studio even changed the film’s title without his consent prior to release, hoping – in vain – that The Big Carnival would look more enticing on the marquees. Commentators have tried to explain the commercial failure of this (in many ways magnificent, cogent, persuasive) film by flagging up its “bleakness” and “cynicism”. They sometimes home in on Tatum’s ruthlessness, sadism and contempt for people, but I don’t think that’s why it bombed. Ace in the Hole is not a “satire”, as it is sometimes called; it’s a classical tragedy, and Tatum is a classical tragic hero. He redeems himself in the final act by rediscovering his humanity and deciding to end Leo’s ordeal, but by then it’s too late. His hamartia, his tragic flaw, has already done too much damage, and the final virtuoso shot of him falling dead at his editor’s feet has all the wrenching inevitability of Hamlet’s or Lear’s demise.
If Tatum, then, is actually the hero of the film, who is its villain? Ray Teal’s malign, crooked sheriff is one obvious candidate, but there is another, and in my view this is what accounts for the film’s emphatic rejection by its contemporary audience. Step forward Al Federber, as played by Frank Cady. The Federbers – Al and Nellie (Geraldine Hall) – are a couple who have read Tatum’s first report in their newspaper, and take a detour on their holiday to check out the scene of the tragedy. Beaming all over their guileless faces, these are the people Tatum must ensnare. As he explains to Lorraine, Leo’s wife: “To you, they’re a couple of squares, huh? To me, they’re just the beginning. To me, they’re Mr and Mrs America… They’ll eat it up. The story and the hamburgers.”
Here is the real target of Billy Wilder’s scorn: not the tabloid press – Chuck Tatum is just another hustler trying to make a living – but “Mr and Mrs America”, the cheery couple, unburdened by shame or self-awareness, whose desire to give meaning to their lives by following a “good story” is the compulsion that fuels the tabloid machine. No wonder the film did badly at the box office. Who wants their own ugly face reflected back at them in such stark, high-contrast black and white?