Ten minutes in, all viewers of Ace in the Hole (1951) know two things:
1)Kirk Douglas’s ego maniacal newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum is an unrepentant asshole
2) It doesn’t matter, because he’s also the coolest goddamn person in the world.
Tatum treats nearly everyone he meets with contempt, commits crimes against humanity and journalism, and is the only person I’ve ever seen compare tacos unfavorably to chopped liver, but you’ll love him anyway. Douglas has so much charisma pouring out of him in this film and his lines are so amazing that your disgust with his actions will be just a faint bump-bump under the wheels of your raging attraction to him. This movie is a giant middle finger to my chosen profession, and feeds right into the paranoid and wrong perceptions of journalism that make my blood boil every time some idiot types anything about “the media” on Facebook, but Douglas is so great in this film that I don’t care–
I still want to be Chuck Tatum when I grow up, or at least talk like him.
Tatum isn’t the greatest model for reporters because he will do or say anything to make the stories he is reporting into more sensational ones. Exiled from more important publications because of libel suits and a drinking problem, Tatum is stuck at an Albuquerque newspaper when he learns about Leo, a man who has gotten trapped in rubble deep inside a cave-in prone Native American underground tomb while looting it. Recognizing his chance, Tatum worms his way into the trapped Leo’s trust, while colluding with the victim’s wife and corrupt officials to extend what should have been a simple rescue into the most important story in the nation, drawing thousands of gawkers and nationwide attention. At the beginning, Tatum tells his photographer that one man trapped in a cave is much more sympathetic to the public than a cave-in that claims dozens of victims.
“You pick up the paper, you read about 84 men or 284, or a million men, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn’t say with you. One man’s different, you want to know all about him. That’s human interest.”
I can’t say enough about the dialogue in this movie, it is amazing. Asked if he drinks a lot, Tatum replies “Not a lot, just frequently.” Here’s how he sums up his philosophy of news gathering: “I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” Douglas manages to say these lines so matter of fact that it doesn’t come out quippy or laugh hungry at all — he’s not Chandler Bing throwing out a zinger, he’s a supremely confident, super cool person saying something awesome, to a degree that trying to imagine a modern actor delivering these lines is impossible. The writers didn’t save all the cool lines for Douglas, and he is on the receiving ends of one of the most memorable food themed insults ever preserved in film – It is so good that I don’t to spoil it by typing it here.
The dialogue is so excellent that it almost outshines the cynical bleak story at the center of the movie. When you tell someone about this film, you’re much more likely to bring up Tatum’s witty aphorisms about the news business(“Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news”) than you are the way the film adopts a rhythmic soundtrack in scenes near the trapped Leo, mimicking the constant bashing of the drill they’re using to get to him – a sound that begins to drive him crazy.
By the film’s final act, Tatum’s connection with the trapped Leo has caused him to grow a conscience , but the delay in the rescue caused by Tatum to extend the life of the story have by then created inescapable consequences for Leo. It’s kind of a classic tragedy, with Tatum’s own arrangements ending up the cause of his downfall. The film has a nice seesaw with how it makes you feel about Tatum—you love him in the beginning, you find him pretty contemptible in the middle but he’s so cool that you still like him a lot, and by the end you almost feel sorry for him. The movie also balances its harsh treatment of journalists by bashing their audience over the head a few times as well. The gawking people who come to look at the hole Leo is trapped in are vacant idiots with zero sympathy for Leo’s plight, to the point where they even set up a carnival outside the collapsed tunnel.
Though Tatum is some kind of nightmare version of how people think journalists operate, I have to admit the movie does get one thing about reporters right. Before meeting Leo, Tatum is constantly wishing for disasters and crimes to happen, because he wants his big story. He talks about how great it would be if a herd of rattlesnakes attacked Albuquerque, and when he finds Leo, he’s overjoyed that something terrible has finally happened. On this one point, Tatum’s not a caricature of a journalist, he’s true to life. Anyone who has spent time in a newsroom has heard their fellow reporters express giddy joy about house fires and murder scenes, and I’d say any reporter who claims never to have done so hasn’t been in the business long. It happens when you’re filled with the excitement of a big story. You feel like a ghoul when you’re doing it, and it doesn’t mean you don’t feel terrible for the people involved, but breaking news is its own kind of high, and the movie nails it. There’s a point in Ace in the Hole where Tatum’s photographer gets caught up in the excitement, and says how much he’s enjoying the big story. He reassures himself by saying that it’s not like he caused Leo’s plight. But Tatum knows what’s really going on.
He grins at the photographer like a heroin dealer.
“You’re starting to like the feeling, aren’t you?”