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January 30, 2010

Ace in the Hole (Classic Film Pick)

Ace After a string of successes which included "Double Indemnity" (1944) and "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) Billy Wilder defied Hollywood expectations with a scathing indictment of the American media that still stings today. Wilder based his story on a 1925 media circus. The nation followed the trials of spelunker  Floyd Collins, trapped in a cave in Kentucky. Collins died, but unorthodox reporter William Burke Miller won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the story. In “Ace” washed-up bad-apple New York newspaper man Charles Tatum (played ferociously by Kurt Douglas) has been reduced to working for a small paper in Albuquerque. Then he stumbles upon the plight of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who has gotten himself stuck at the bottom of an ancient Indian burial cave. Originally released as "The Big Carnival," Wilder's film-noir vision flaunted cinema conventions with American cinema’s ultimate anti-hero. Douglas delivers desperation and a cynical rejection of humanity that is repulsive as it is mesmerizing. Tatum plays his "ace in the hole" when he cooks up a vile scheme with an election-hungry sheriff (Ray Teal) to milk Minosa's story for "seven days" by having a rescue team drill into the mountain from the top instead of going in as quickly as possible. At turns hilarious and vile, femme fatale Jan Sterling plays the trapped miner's feckless wife; she happily goes along with Tatum's scheme. Although not a traditional noir, "Ace in the Hole" (1951) stakes its claim in the genre by building a gathering storm of crass opportunism via a capitalist wormhole. The noir shadows here come from the claustrophobic interiors of Leo Minosa’s cramped mountain coffin. Meanwhile, the world outside celebrates his plight. As thousands gather, the cold insensitivity of the masses belies their commercially charged sense of community.

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