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Ace in the Hole: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual-Format Edition Review

Ace in the Hole (1951) movie poster Ace in the Hole

Theatrical Release: June 29, 1951 / Running Time: 111 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Billy Wilder / Writers: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman

Cast: Kirk Douglas (Charles Tatum), Jan Sterling (Lorraine Minosa), Robert Arthur (Herbie Cook), Porter Hall (Jacob Q. Boot), Frank Cady (Mr. Al Federber), Richard Benedict (Leo Minosa), Ray Teal (Sheriff Gus Kretzel), Lewis Martin (McCardle), John Berkes (Papa Minosa), Frances Dominguez (Mama Minosa), Gene Evans (Deputy Sheriff), Frank Jaquet (Sam Smollett), Harry Harvey (Dr. Hilton), Bob Bumpas (Radio Announcer), Geraldine Hall (Mrs. Nellie Federber), Richard Gaines (Nagel), Iron Eyes Cody (Indian Copy Boy - uncredited)

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Billy Wilder and the 1950s were good to one another. The decade began with the release of Sunset Boulevard and ended with Some Like It Hot and the filming of The Apartment, which would become 1960's Best Picture Oscar winner. In between, Wilder wrote and directed such classics as Stalag 17,
Sabrina, and Witness for the Prosecution. Wilder's career, which began with heavy dramas and ended almost exclusively with comedies, went somewhere in between with his first film after Sunset. Ace in the Hole, released in 1951, starts light, emerges as a biting satire, and ends about as dark and cynical as anything in Wilder's oeuvre.

The film opens with Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) cheerily reading the newspaper inside a car being towed through Albuquerque. The seasoned East Coast journalist walks in to the office of the city's Sun Bulletin, a newspaper he trashes to its publisher, Mr. Boot (Porter Hall), while vowing he can give the paper $200 a week. His rationale; he's a $250/week reporter and is willing to drop his rate to as low as $50/week for Boot. Tatum goes as low as $40, but Boot hires him for $60, skeptical Tatum will be around long, after he discloses he's been fired from New York for libel, Chicago for an affair with the publisher's wife, and Detroit for drinking.

A year later, Tatum is still in Albuquerque and itching more than ever to get out. No longer able to get his favorite foods (chopped chicken liver and garlic pickles) and missing Yogi Berra, the subway, and the eight trees in front of Rockefeller Center, Tatum is desperate to land a big, dramatic story that serves as a stepping stone. Assigned to cover a rattlesnake hunt, Tatum and Herbie (Robert Arthur), a young photographer he calls "fan", happen upon something else while trying to fill their car with gas in a little village called Escudero. Nearby, there has been a cave-in at the Mountain of the Seven Vultures. Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a World War II veteran who regularly explores the 400-year-old Indian cave dwelling and tomb for personal gain, has gotten his legs trapped while taking an Indian pot he found.

In his introduction, Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) pages through the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin while being towed through town. Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) shines a flashlight on a man trapped in an old Indian cave dwelling and tomb.

Tatum's eyes light up as he quickly takes control of the scene, volunteering to be the one to deliver hot coffee and a blanket to stubborn Leo. After a brief exchange and two photographs, Tatum eases the concerns of Leo's parents and his wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling). Tatum promises he'll have the sheriff and an engineering crew on site immediately to conduct a safe and swift rescue operation. The reporter is no humanitarian. He can't hide his excitement from Herbie, boasting this human interest story could be bigger than Floyd Collins (a kindred media sensation that Herbie and we are too young to remember). Tatum's first call is to his publisher and before long, he's at his typewriter, talking up the bad spirits believed to reside in the cave deep within which Leo finds himself trapped and immobile.

Leo's wife, the bleached blonde Lorraine, is ready to up and leave, until Tatum convinces her otherwise, pointing out that she'll have a lot more than $11 in her pocket after all the food they'll sell in the next few days. Tatum then explains to Sheriff Kretzler (Ray Teal) that he'll make a hero out of him, his flattering treatment invaluable to the Sheriff's current re-election campaign. Sure enough, the public takes to the story. This tourist attraction, considered sacred by the natives, quickly evolves into a circus. That's not hyperbole; within days, there are actual carnival rides being set up, with a sign promising the proceeds will go to benefit the Leo Minosa Rescue Fund. Musicians are on hand to record songs on albums they sell for 25 cents each. Lorraine has never before served as many hot dogs, hamburgers, and sodas as quickly.

Tatum, who emerges as hero in the eyes of the thousands of onlookers swiftly assembled, vetoes an engineer's plan to spend 16 hours or so bracing the cave's walls for a safe extraction of Leo. Tatum decides it's best to keep the story going and instead bring in a big drill that will take 6-7 days to burrow down and rescue Leo. Sheriff Kretzler agrees and shows Tatum his gratitude by giving him a badge and blocking access to the cave for all the other journalists who have flown in to cover this story.

As expected, despite his spotty employment record, high-paying offers come quickly for Tatum, who immediately quits the Sun Bulletin, promising his exclusive coverage to the highest bidder. But as Leo's health declines and his wife remains entirely unmoved on the eve of their fifth wedding anniversary, the jaded journalist just might be growing a conscience.

Tatum (Kirk Douglas) lists off the reasons that Sheriff Gus Kretzel (Ray Teal) should stick around and allow him exclusive coverage of this spectacle. Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) presents Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling) with a mink stole that's a fifth wedding anniversary gift from her trapped husband.

Ace in the Hole is wryly funny in its accurate depiction of a media frenzy. Many of Wilder's films feel ahead of their time and the cynicism displayed here feels rather uncharacteristic for early '50s cinema. His amoral characters may or may not get comeuppances or redemption, but their questionable motives run deep and genuine.
Apart from Leo, there isn't an individual worthy of our sympathy, but the film manages to stay arresting nonetheless.

Douglas, who typically functions as a moral compass, surprises as a cutthroat, ambitious reporter eager to escape the small-town hell his professional failings have resigned him to. Charles Tatum is a complex character, one who brags he didn't go to college and learned all he needs from selling papers on a street corner. The lesson from that youth -- "bad news sells best" -- is one that Tatum has taken to heart and a principle he places before all others. His foil, Lorraine, is surprisingly just as cynical and eager to escape New Mexico as he. She seems even less scrupled than Tatum, planning her exit the day after Leo gets trapped. Only her capitalist instincts force her to stick around and play the part of the grieving wife, complete with posed photographs of her praying at church. Lorraine doesn't wield as much power as Tatum, but otherwise she seems just as capable of using another's life to her own advantage, as she does, collecting admissions and other fees from all who show up at this remote attraction.

Wilder's ability to make you laugh while socking you in the gut keeps the film unpredictable. You get the feeling it won't end well, but the extent to which that proves true still stuns. The film won two international awards at the Venice Film Festival, earned Sterling the National Board of Review's Best Actress honor, and was nominated for but lost the Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Oscar.

Admitted into the Criterion Collection on DVD in 2007, Ace in the Hole recently was upgraded to high definition in a Dual-Format Edition consisting of those same two discs plus its very first Blu-ray one.

Ace in the Hole: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual Format Edition cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.37:1 Original Aspect Ratio
BD: 1.0 LPCM (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: May 6, 2014 / Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 and 2 DVD-9s)
Digipak in Cardboard Box
Still available as standalone DVD ($39.95 SRP; July 17, 2007)
and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Ace in the Hole's 1.37:1 Academy Ratio Blu-ray presentation isn't perfect, but it comes pretty close. Scrutiny reveals the occasional imperfection like faint, isolated lines running down the screen. More evident is one brief shot that doesn't look great. The scene, in which Tatum's boss accuses him of drinking, passes quickly but looks poor enough to suggest it was cut from the film and later reinserted, not being as well-preserved as the rest of the film. Another driving shot also looked soft and out of focus, but again, this is short-lived and soon forgotten. On the whole, an over 60-year-old movie looking this sharp and clean is cause for celebration.

The LPCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack doesn't give us as much to notice. While the recordings are clearly aged and not always the clearest, the uncompressed mix presents them with no specific obstacles and English subtitles are there should you need them. (Confession: I had to consult them to discover that Tatum calls people "fan"; that slang usage was new to me.)

Billy Wilder lounges during his interview with Michel Ciment in 1980's "Portrait of a '60% Perfect' Man." Billy Wilder answers the questions of the audience and a moderator at a 1986 American Film Institute appearance. Kirk Douglas makes sure you notice his chin dimple in this 1984 interview.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The extras begin with a 2007 audio commentary by film scholar and Billy Wilder expert Neil Sinyard. He discusses what's onscreen with his soothing,
authoritative British accent and nary a significant lull. Sinyard reads into the story, but also dispatches making-of information. We come away with much insight into the film's production and characters. While there are better tracks out there, this one definitely adds value to the release.

On the video side, where everything is encoded in HD but all of it is limited by the source, we start with Portrait of a "60% Perfect" Man: Billy Wilder (58:30). This enjoyable and revealing 1980 documentary allows the filmmaker to speak at length about his childhood in Austria, his beginnings in journalism in Berlin, his move to Paris and his rise of the Hollywood ranks, from writer to director to producer in search of maximum control. Speaking to French critic Michel Ciment, Wilder addresses such topics as his art collection (he calls himself an "accumulator"), his difficulties working with Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe, the uncaged bird in his office representing his freedom from the studio system, the conception of The Apartment (inspired by an aspect of David Lean's Brief Encounter), and the perks and downfalls of location shooting (using Monroe's famous Seven Year Itch scene to illustrate). Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau chip in with a few of their own experiences as repeat performers for the director. It's a personal and enlightening piece that brings us closer to Wilder than we've gotten to many of the great filmmakers of his time.

"Billy Wilder at the American Film Institute" (23:39) preserves highlights from a 1986 interview. Answering questions of AFI's George Stevens Jr. and those in attendance, the witty, candid filmmaker reflects on his immigration experience and his fifty years in film, from collaboration to fancy camera set-ups to dealing with studios.

Kirk Douglas shares some detailed thoughts on the film and Billy Wilder in a 1984 interview (14:18) with Michael Thomas. He expresses regret at turning down Wilder's offer to star in Stalag 17, in the role that won William Holden an Oscar, and recalls John Wayne confronting him about his portrayal of Van Gogh.

Next, we get ten minutes of excerpts from Rui Nogueira's 1970 audio interview of Walter Newman, one of the film's three credited screenwriters. Newman discusses making his feature debut, recalling a disagreement with Wilder about structure and other specifics of the screenplay.

Spike Lee proudly displays an autographed Ace in the Hole advertisement in his 2007 afterword. A theater's prominent display for the Ace in the Hole premiere features in the stills gallery. Ace in the Hole's original theatrical trailer makes claims it can easily live up to.

From 2007, "Spike Lee Afterword" (5:40) lets the Do the Right Thing director talk about the film and about meeting Wilder, who signed a lobby card for him with the film's reissue title The Big Carnival.

Lee admires the prescient nature of the film's depictions and its ending, which he admits inspiring a moment in Malcolm X.

A viewer-navigated stills gallery contains 23 images from production and the premiere, a few of them preceded by captions.

Finally, we get Paramount's original theatrical trailer (2:22), which per the time makes use of dramatic narration and onscreen text.

The Blu-ray's menu attaches rescue song "We're Coming, Leo" to a static shot of Tatum in the cave. As always, Criterion authors the Blu-ray to both support resuming of all playback and setting bookmarks on the film.

The DVD has all the same extras as the Blu-ray, placing all of them but the commentary and trailer on the bonus features disc.

Of course, Criterion gives us a lot to discuss in terms of packaging. The three discs, each adorned with a different character, take opposite sides of a Digipak which slides into a side-cut box. Loose inside, the booklet brilliantly is designed like the Sunday, June 17, 1951 issue of the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin, folding open to four large pages. Criterion booklets are always welcome, but this one is a thing of beauty, presenting the standard credits, acknowledgements, disc and film information like newspaper credits alongside two front page articles that continue inside.

"Noir in Broad Daylight" by author and critic Molly Haskell satisfyingly analyzes the film, considering its variations on noir elements, its portrayal of journalism, and its place in Wilder's canon. "Chin Up for Mother" by filmmaker and professor Guy Maddin celebrates the film with a focus on Kirk Douglas' performance and character.

A sober Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) announces an update for the masses gathered at little Escudero, New Mexico in Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Ace in the Hole delivers the strong storytelling, characterization, and flair you expect of a Billy Wilder film. This cynical drama remains powerful, captivating, and timely more than sixty years after its release.

Criterion's Blu-ray + DVD combo is as worthy of admiration as the film it holds, sporting a fine presentation and a hearty slate of substantial supplements. It's a release that's easy to recommend on every basis.

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Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Billy Wilder: Sunset Blvd. The Apartment
Starring Kirk Douglas: A Letter to Three Wives Paths of Glory 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
1950s on Criterion: The Killing 3:10 to Yuma On the Waterfront Kiss Me Deadly
New: All the King's Men Riot in Cell Block 11 The Women (1939) The 400 Blows
127 Hours Buried Ladder 49 Border Run The Rum Diary

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Reviewed May 27, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1951 Paramount Pictures and 2014 The Criterion Collection.
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