Kirk Douglas fans have been spoiled recently with not only a theatrical rerelease of Stanley Kubrick's 1957 war drama Paths of Glory but also this week the Masters of Cinema reissue of Billy Wilder's newshound satire Ace in the Hole (1951), in which the Hollywood icon also takes centre stage. A delicious and morally dubious tale of self-serving skulduggery in the New Mexico desert, Douglas dominates proceedings as a slippery paper man forced into exile in Albuquerque after finding himself blacklisted from seemingly every major news outlet on the East and West coast. Sharp, at times dark, and extremely funny throughout, Ace in the Hole remains Wilder's 'ace up the sleeve'.
Kudos should go to Wilder for making Douglas' Tatum quite as unlikable as he is, his jokey veneer gradually slipping to reveal the tenacious, hard-drinking chancer beneath. His thinly-veiled contempt for his paper colleagues is particularly risible, as is the way he unashamedly manipulates Minosa's bleach-blonde spouse, Lorraine (Jan Sterling, subtly subverting the Barbara Stanwyck femme fatale). As she eloquently puts it, "I've met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you - you're twenty minutes." Needing her to play the 'good wife' role in order to not arouse suspicion, Tatum uses both charm and intimidation to bend Lorraine to his will, fulfilling his nefarious means out of some ill-founded attraction to the Machiavellian media monster. As the plot thickens and an upcoming sheriff election muddies the water of truth further still, only neglected husband Leo - buried deep underground - is able to maintain any air of incorruptibility.
Wilder's preoccupation with performance and veracity (or, indeed, a distinct absence of it) proves once again prevalent, a crocheted meme instructing newsroom employees to 'Tell the Truth' symbolically ridiculed by the film's protagonist within mere moments. From here on in, the toxic Tatum corrupts all those around him with his all-consuming appetite for sensationalism, his young shadow Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), the paper's photographer, falling hardest for the lure of prospective fame and fortune. And yet despite it all, not even Tatum can fashion a happy ending out of this particular tragedy, the media circus sycophantically disbanding once the story turns sour. With Ace in the Hole, Wilder didn't just wildly entertain, but also predicted the human interest-driven moral decline of mass media as we know it.