As one of Hollywood’s most successful émigrés, Billy Wilder always possessed an outsider’s eye on American culture, one that tempered its enthusiasm with a healthy dollop of wariness. After excoriating Hollywood in the cyanide-laced, tar-black Sunset Boulevard, Wilder made another grim commentary on ego and entertainment that was every bit as bitterly brilliant, if not as well-known. Ace in the Hole (1951, 1 hr., 51 mins., Not Rated), now on Criterion Blu-ray, stars Kirk Douglas as disgraced newspaperman Chuck Tatum, a seedily self-serving reporter who hopes to use the ongoing saga of a man trapped in a collapsed tunnel as his ticket back into the big leagues. Caring far more about the ”interest” than the ”human” in his story, Tatum purposely extends his subject’s imprisonment for his own agenda, turning the entire rescue operation into a media feeding frenzy with him up front waving the baton. Made 36 years before Baby Jessica fell into a well of sympathy, the film nails journalistic sensationalism to the backboard with acidic satire that holds up even better a half century later as CNN breaks its 700th nonstory about the missing Malaysian airliner. Douglas is explosive as Tatum, all bombastic monologuing and tetanal jaw clench, and the dialogue has a crocodile’s bite that still snaps after all these years.
The extras are solid, if not A1, above-the-fold material; they feature a documentary on Wilder and an afterword by Spike Lee. Like Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, Ace in the Hole poked serious fun at cultural phenomena far ahead of its time, examining the meaning of the sarcastic advice once offered by another career newspaperman: ”Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” A