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"Ace in the Hole" is (quite frankly) the bleakest and probably the most cynical Billy Wilder film I’ve ever seen. It is a biting critique of the American media circus and a solemn evocation of the nation’s weakening moral fiber. The story is about a scummy journalist named Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) who accidently happens upon a potentially huge news story. A man named Leo (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a cave and Tatum takes the poor man’s plight and exploits it for personal gain. By the end of the picture, it’s extremely clear what Wilder is trying to say: The media is dirty, rotten and low-down- taking any event, no matter how simple or tragic, and using it for the sole purpose of gaining attention (Attention=$$). He goes on to say that this crooked operation will, in fact, not bring riches, but instead, moral bankruptcy and the ruin of the soul.

To get his pessimistic message across, Wilder employs a few propaganda techniques. Imagery and repetition are major parts of this. Over and over again we see the people flocking to the cave site. Children come running off the train. Cars and trucks are lined up, passing through a wooden gate for an admission price which is displayed prominently as it steadily rises throughout the film. Most blatant of all is the arrival of the carnival, with its merry-go-round and ferris wheel. All the people are joyous- treating the event like some grand celebration, not a hint of sorrow in their faces. All of this drives home the message- leaving no room to question Wilder’s intentions. During the film, I have to say that I found the repetition to be a little much, but when viewing it in hindsight as a deliberate technique used to captivate audiences that had been subjected to similar methods only a few years before…it makes sense. It is totally understandable why Wilder chose to do this. Propaganda was effective during the war- so why not use it in a non-war-oriented film? Personally, I find it very manipulative of Wilder to fall back on propaganda techniques in order to sell a message when the film seems capable of standing up on its own natural story elements. At the same time, I don’t think it would be too far of a stretch to say that perhaps Wilder was using his own manipulation to make commentary on the manipulation of the media- which he mercilessly skewers in the film.

The topic of the media circus and its indiscriminate exploitation of people and events has been tackled and touched upon with varying degrees of success in films such as "Network", "The Insider" and "Dog Day Afternoon" (To a lesser extent, but still…). The films mentioned have dealt with this complex matter in different ways, but with "Ace in the Hole", Billy Wilder decided to go a simpler route, and this takes me to a third technique of propaganda which Wilder uses in the film: simplicity. As I witnessed in the cringe-worthy 1942 movie, "Flying Tigers", simplicity works when it comes to propaganda. The plot, the characters and their motivations must be uncomplicated. Instead of trying to sell military service, though, Wilder’s attempting to grab the audience so it can grasp the message without trouble. "Ace in the Hole" isn’t nearly as on-the-nose as "Flying Tigers" was, but that doesn’t make it particularly challenging. Tatum is a sleazeball- we get that within the first scenes. His decisions regarding getting Leo out are selfish- got it. His health deteriorates rapidly after getting stabbed towards the end of the film (Symbolizing his increasing moral instability)- understood. Little is veiled in Wilder’s critique of the media, but he uses the technique of widespread simplicity in conjunction with the deft handling of tone to maintain a lasting effectiveness. The camera, the lighting and the music set the right mood in the right places, keeping the film from ever reaching a feeling of overwhelming artificiality, which separates it from the films which take a more direct route with propaganda.

The issues conveyed in "Ace in the Hole" are real and important to confront. World War II was real and important also, but that was a fact that everyone knew, and no one was afraid to talk about it. In 1951, the newspaper was your source of information (Next to the radio) and Americans took in every word without scrutiny or questioning and it was through this general nonchalance that the media was able to pervade people’s lives and regulate their thoughts and opinions. Therefore, the media controlled the minds and the future of the nation. In "Ace in the Hole", Billy Wilder dares to take on the media and present to us through Tatum our ultimate fate- living as vapid, useless sellouts- devoid of human compassion and leaving behind us an endless stream of commercial waste. Wilder’s message is a good one. It’s a message that, unfortunately, still applies today.

4 out of 5 stars



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