I'm not sure if it's really possible to spoil a 64-year old movie, but if you haven't seen ACE IN THE HOLE I'm going to talk about the ending. After all, it is the ending that makes this movie really spark, drives home the cynical indictment of society that director Billy Wilder and his co-writers are making, and secures this movie in the archives of great movies. The rest of the plot leading up to it is darkly satirical, witty and brutal but the final twist of the knife packs a punch still felt after all this time. Maybe it is even more sharply poignant in today's world than it was at the time.
Coming off the success of Wilder's equally black SUNSET BOULEVARD, Kirk Douglas gives a masterful performance as Chuck Tatum, newspaper man, professional liar, swindler and thieving romantic. Romantic might not be the right word. Though this is a film noir, Tatum might personify the femme fatale more than Jan Sterling's Lorraine Minosa himself just as much as or even more than he is the big schmuck, the doomed antihero, destined to set a trap that will end up snaring his own leg.
Fired from every job he's had in the past, Tatum ends up selling himself to a small newspaper in Albuquerque when he comes across a story: a man has got himself caught in cave-in and needs rescuing. Tatum sees his opportunity for a big story, a human interest headline, and puts his plan into motion. Rather than rescuing the man - Lorraine's husband, Leo (Richard Benedict) - the easy way, he spins his web around the local sheriff, promising to help him get reelected if he holds off the other members of the press and puts his thumb down on the rescue team to take their sweet time. Tatum spins every angle, weaving a delicate web with which he can pull the strings of every person around, making himself valuable again if only in the eyes of the press.
Tatum isn't alone in his ulterior motives, seizing the opportunity that disaster brings. Lorraine, who is deeply unsatisfied with her marriage, wants to leave while her husband is incapable of stopping her, and run away to New York and a new life. Tatum stops her, forcing her to play the devoted and heartbroken wife, another angle in his story. Human interest, he says, that's what sells headlines. 84 men in a cave? That's news. One man in a cave? That's money. See the difference?
Lorraine sells out her restaurant and the nearby area for tourists caught up in the drama and makes herself her first thousand dollars. She gets a thirst for the hook Tatum has swallowed, as does Tatum's new protege, who Tatum only calls "fan." He call everyone "fan" for that matter, that's what they are to him, just supporters in his game, people there to watch. He is the star, the centerpiece of everything that goes on. The man in the cave, that's just a subject. He is the hero. He will remain the hero or he will die trying. Somehow though I don't think death is on his mind.
It should be because Leo isn't going to survive trapped in a cave for another night. The men are drilling down from the top of the mountain to reach him rather than going in through the cave entrance - they say this is for safety but they all know this isn't true - and it is taking too long. Tatum finally ditches the plan, trying to stop the drill and revert to the quicker route, but it isn't out of concern for Leo, it's out of concern for his story. He can't let his fans down, after all. They expect a rescue. It is his responsibility to deliver on what he promises.
If Tatum has only one rule he lives by it is this: always deliver. This time, he cannot, and Leo dies in the cave before they can reach him. One might easily be fooled by Tatum's announcement of this news, he sure does seem remorseful, and a lesser movie would have ended here, in tragedy but with some hope for the protagonist. After all, he learned his lesson, didn't he? Not so. Wilder and company have a final twist of the knife. After losing everything, Tatum desperately tries to sell his final spin, the last lie in his packet. Leo didn't die in the caves, he was murdered, Tatum says. I'll tell you for a price, he tries to negotiate, but no one is buying anymore. Tatum's doom isn't that he will die (he is injured severely in a final fight with Lorraine), it is that he will die trying, not trying to save someone, not even trying to save himself, no, he will die trying to get back what he thinks was his all along - a story.
This is the story of how I killed Leo Minosa, Tatum confesses everything, or he tries to. He's not clearing his conscience, he's selling an angle. The ultimate angle. Earlier, Tatum promises that he can do good news or bad news, "and if there is no news, I'll go out and bite a dog." Now he is the dog and he must bite in order to deliver. He throws everything away just to get another shot, not that he had much to throw in the first place.
It is this final twist that really anchors ACE IN THE HOLE as a great movie. Who are we supposed to relate to? Tatum? Lorraine? The fans? Are we the press or the readers? Who kept Leo in the cave, Tatum by manipulating our interests at Leo's expense, or us by providing Tatum with fuel for his fire? Tatum didn't make the cave fall in, he just wrote about it, but doesn't he have a hand in the pot of blame for Leo's death? Don't we? By providing an interest, by providing someone for Tatum to write to, didn't we also provide him with something to write about? How does this relate to our modern world where news travels almost instantaneously on the internet, where you almost can't even have an opinion anymore because everyone knows everything there is to know?
It's an old philosophical question isn't it? You can't blame the gunmaker if a murder occurs with his weapon, but would there have even been a murder if he had never made the gun? It's a good question to ask, one that Wilder doesn't let us avoid. By following through with his story past the obvious conclusion to this brutal reveal, he forces us to examine what purpose the press really plays, and further, what role we play in the creation of the press. It's just a story, isn't it? Unless someone dies, then maybe it's something a little bit more. What if it hadn't been just Leo down there though, what if Tatum had gotten himself trapped when he first went down to see what was happening? Undoubtably he would have found a way to spin that too. He is the dog after all, and he promised to bite.