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'Ace in the Hole' (1952) - Film Analysis

Updated on October 7, 2017
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Alem is an Entrepreneur and Writer with an A.S. in Digital Film Making.

In this film analysis, I am going to explain how symbolism and dialogue contribute to the ongoing theme of Billy Wilder's acclaimed Ace in the Hole. In my perspective, the theme of this film is human interest, a phrase that is referred to more than once by the main protagonist. After one viewing, there are several questions that stuck with me. They all revolved around the actions of one character. The main person of interest, Mr. Chuck Tatum.

The film opens with an extreme close-up of dirt on the ground. This is more than just a foreshadowing of a key component of the story, but also a metaphor for most of the characters. They are dirty.

When we first meet Tatum, he's nonchalantly reading a paper in a car that's being hauled along the street on a tow truck. Eventually, he reaches his destination. The Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. A fledgling little local newspaper. Once inside, Tatum starts walking around as if he owns the place, as confident as can be. In fact, he's so comfortable that he sits on a young copier's desk and asks for the boss. Suavely lighting a match for his cigarette, he waits for his moment. This appears to be a cool cat. The writer/director uses a lot of these non-verbal clues to invite you into the mind of the characters, but sometimes looks can be deceiving.

Once inside the boss's office Tatum talks about his former elite status as a big shot New York City reporter, who lied, deceived, cheated, and drank his career into the gutter. He offers what he refers to as a "thousand dollar a week reporter" at a discounted price. He remains confident as he proclaims that his time at the paper will be short-lived, only until he gets back on his feet. However, his demeanor has a subtle hint of desperation. One minute he's jokingly opening up about his life being as truthful as a saint, the next minute he's demanding to set his own salary. With all his faults in hand, his good looks, charisma, and way with words help him live to fight another day. He gets the job, for way less than demanded.

I love how the director transitions here. Having him walk into the camera which in turn fades it to black, only to have him re-emerge from the camera as if he had walked through time. He did. Now a year later, Chuck is drunk and harassing his fellow co-workers, ranging from belittling insults to creative ideas to turn them into big stories through lies, manipulation and maybe their own pain and suffering. All this happens while a sign reading "tell the truth" lay in the foreground of many of the shots. Eventually, the boss comes out, finds his bottle and gives him something to distract him from himself. He sends him and the young Herbie on some rinky-dink assignment in the middle of nowhere.

Good News Is No News

Sitting in the passenger seat as Herbie drives, Tatum starts schooling the kid on journalism. After learning that he went to journalism school, Tatum insists that he wasted his time. He says that he got started selling newspapers, where he quickly realized that most people didn't want to read about good news. "Bad news sells best," he says to a virgin minded Herbie. "Good news is no news." This is a key instance where the writer uses dialogue to introduce what I believe to be the story's main theme.

I chose this picture to analyze because it is thought by many movie experts to be one of the best American films. What constitutes a movie as being one of the best is left up to interpretation, but one key ingredient that most every expert can agree on is longevity. If a movie can stand the test of time then it's at least considered. Quotes like, "Bad news sells best" and "Good news is no news" can be easily inserted into an analysis of our society today. Just look at the headlines on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Which ones do you click on, the good or the bad? The positive story or the negative one? Which occupies the news cycle more?

While stopping to get gas, Herbie ventures into what I guess you would call a rest stop after no one comes out to assist them. It has gas, breakfast and even a nice amount of rooms that you can rent out for a few days. Inside one of the rooms, Herbie gets creeped out by a woman who is praying. Back outside Herbie tells Tatum about the prayers just as a police car zooms by them, siren whaling. Naturally, his eyes light up. He thinks there's a connection and a connection may mean a big story. They follow along.

Do you believe that bad news sells best?

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The Price of Admission

In pursuit of the police cruiser, Herbie and Tatum come across a pretty blonde woman named, Lorraine at the side of the road. After finding out that her husband Leo is stuck in an old Indian cave dwelling, Tatum plays the hero to what doesn't quite seem like your normal damsel in distress. Silver-tongued, with no issue getting into the car with two male strangers, Lorraine quickly shows that she can hold her own. This represents another example of character development through dialogue.

Upon arriving at the dwelling they see a sign that reads, "Visit old Indian dwelling, 450 years old". Herbie asks if Indians really lived there 450 years ago to which Lorraine replies, "I don't know I haven't lived here that long, it only seems that way." The sign becomes an important part of this film, but for now, I will stick to the dialogue.

The way I described it here is no comparison to how the quick exchange between Lorraine and Herbie ensued. If you watch the film yourself, you'll notice that she has as cool a demeanor as Tatum, and it is very apparent that she is tired of living in the middle of nowhere. Though her actions may be showing compassion for her husband, she's really interested in something else. Leaving this town.

Finally arriving at the cave, all three walk up to an officer who is arguing with an old man, both in the company of some Indians. We find out the old man is Lorraine or Leo's dad (I never really figured that out). As he grabs a canister of coffee and a blanket from Lorraine, he attempts to convince the officer to let him in the cave to give it his son. The officer refusing to site that it's too dangerous. He looks over to the Indians, suggesting they should go, but they are too scared of the curse/evil spirits of the dead. This is when Tatum kicks it up a notch.

In what seems to be a heroic move, he tells the cop to shut up like the rebel he is. He then gets Herbie to accompany him inside the cave. We find out later that this rebel has a cause. At this point, it is clear to me at least that Tatum is a master manipulator. He's already talked his way into a job, disrespected and disobeyed a police officer with no consequences and without breaking sweat talks young Herbie into entering a dangerous cave dwelling with him.

Inside the cave, Tatum again appears as a concerned hero. The use of the flashlight on his face in the dark foreshadows the duality that we will see in Tatum's future. While a black and white film leaves no room for color values, Wilder uses the two colors at hand wisely.

Tatum notices the weakness of the rocks and orders Herbie, to stay put as he goes deeper. Chuck explains how "human interest" make big stories. He mentions how one reporter managed a Pulitzer Prize after crawling into a cave. Tatum goes and eventually finds Leo.

You have to wonder how far this guy would go to get a big story. He's already been told that the cave is dangerous, there's a guy already stuck in there and he's worried enough about the weakness of the remaining debris that he has Herbie stay behind.

He quickly befriends a frightened Leo who is pinned down, surrounded by rocks. After Leo speaks of the possibility that he may have pissed off the spirits he starts to talk like it's the end. Tatum manages to earn his trust and lift his spirits with his jovial personality and even gets him to sing along with him as he leaves promising to return and save him. Again, it's hard to completely hate this guy when he's doing things like this, but he always reminds you who he is. There are several similarities to a famous "character" in human history beginning to come to "light" here.

Upon reuniting with Herbie all the momentary adulation for Tatum disappears as he talks to his sidekick about how he plans to spin this story. First, he needs to keep Leo in there as long as possible. Was the price of admission into this site actually free or did Tatum just sell his soul to enter?

Christmas 'Eve'

Back at Lorraine's rest stop, Tatum tells her he is going to call the Sheriff so he can get some more help down there for Leo. But, instead of calling the Sheriff he calls his editor with promises of a big story. Talking himself up once again. Lorraine ventures outside where she sees Herbie attempting to pay her father for gas, but he refuses. With all the help he and Tatum are providing he wouldn't think of charging them. This is when blatant clues start appearing and so the real analyzing begins. While looking back into the room at Tatum on the phone, through the window Lorraine shows a mischievous smirk and takes a bite out of the forbidden fruit.

Right here I assume Lorraine is a metaphor for Eve as in "Adam and Eve" from the Bible. If this is the case, then is Lorraine the Protagonist? Who is Tatum? Is he Adam? No. We will get to that later.

The next scene fasts forwards to the early morning where we see Lorraine with baggage in hand telling Tatum that she's figured out that his helpful hand is a ruse. He's a reporter here for a big story. She explains to him that she's tired of waiting for the good life that Leo promised her. In typical Tatum fashion, he has a quick response. While outside they come across a family traveling to see the man who is stuck in the cave. This is just what Tatum needed.

He tries to convince Lorraine that when he is done working his magic she will have more business then she's ever seen. In other words, she's going to wake-up one day and just like Christmas morning she's going to get what she's always wanted. As he walks away and waits by the front door, Lorraine's bus rolls up and once again the screen is covered leaving you to wonder if he's done it again. Once the bus passes and we see Lorraine walking back to the door, we realize he has. The master manipulator remains undefeated.

Snake In The Grass

Back at the site, as Herbie pulls up he notices that the sign now reveals the price of admission is 25 cents. No longer free. After being bullied into paying even though he is press, he rolls through a healthy amount of spectators. He meets up with Tatum who is accompanied by a doctor. Tatum wants to make sure everything goes according to plan. The biggest news here is that he ensures Herbie that he is off the booze.

Inside the Lorraine's, business is booming as predicted. Tatum finally meets up with a Sheriff who has a pet snake in a box joining him for breakfast at his table. Tatum shows no fear of the snake as the Sheriff complains that he isn't eating anything. After telling the Sheriff that he has an "ace in the hole" that will help them both get what they desire he agrees to help him any way he can. First and foremost he doesn't want any other reporters scooping his story. They even team up to coerce the contractor in charge of the rescue to use Tatum's unnecessary drilling method to extract Leo. Here are your answers.

Chuck Tatum would appear to be The Devil himself. A master manipulator, using his charm and wit to move any situation in the direction he pleases. Notice the sly grin on his face and the easy attitude as he meets the snake for the first time. I understand this is a hick town, but why in the world would the writer blatantly add an apple and snake into the movie both garnering your attention. In the frame with the apple, you are subconsciously drawn to it, here with the snake it's more subtle, but the Wilder makes sure you don't forget about it. As I said before though; Looks can be deceiving.

One Half Of A "Hole"

This scene makes my theory a little clearer.

Lorraine walks into Tatum's room and attempts to thank him for delivering on his promise. The first time she tries to make a move on her he resists, reminding her that her husband is trapped and clinging on to his life. He tells her that she should be grieving, then with a smirk, he tells her to wipe the smile off her face. She playfully replies, "make me". Most would suspect these two are going to get hot and heavy at this point, but oh no you have to remember Tatum is focused.

With no warning, he pimp slaps her, with an open front hand and finishes with the back. With a surprised gaze in her eyes filled with tears Tatum sadistically tells her, "that's the way you're supposed to look". The worried wife persona is activated, not by any choice of hers. The womanizing, booze drinking, rebel now appears to have the focus of champion fighter obsessed with abusing his opponent. But, at this point, we still have yet to confirm who the antagonist is. Let me be clear; Chuck Tatum is both protagonist and antagonist in this story. It seems that one side of him remains human while the other side is quickly turning to the dark side. Remember the shadow in his face created by the flashlight in the cave back in the beginning?

In the next scene, we are back at the site. The whole place is now inundated with a frenzy of people. Lorraine who seems to be a sucker for bad boys seems unaffected by their previous encounter as she compliments Tatum for making her sound so good in his recent article. The unimpressed Tatum holds the paper in his hand in a light-hearted, yet affirmative tone, snaps back with, "That's today's paper. Tomorrow they'll wrap a fish in this." This is what gets a movie onto the best films list.

The timelessness of that statement. Even back in 1952, the news cycle was as lightning fast as it is today. Even without Facebook, Twitter and CNN reporters were obsessed with breaking the news first catering to the low attention spans of the general public. A car passes the sign again. Now the price of admission is 50 cents.

In the car on his way to continue his plan of news world domination, Tatum tells Herbie they are both quitting the paper. He plans to use his self-made superstar status as leverage to get his job in New York back. When they meet up with a gaggle of his old colleagues, the smart ones realize where to butter the bread. "Come on, wherein the same boat here", says one of them. To which Tatum replies, "I'm in the boat you're in the water". Damn, that's a quotable line. If you don't have one of these your film most likely cannot stand the test of time. In this film, I count several.

Tatum remains undefeated as his boss in New York offers him his job back.

True Colors

In this scene, we notice that the sign now reads, "$1.00 Admission". If you want to go even deeper into this analysis follow me.

You could say that each time the sign changes that Tatum goes closer and closer to the dark side. First 25 cents = 25%, then 50 cents = 50%, now at $1.00 as the price of admission is he100% transformed now? Let's see.

Inside the site, it seems like the whole damn thing has turned into a circus, literally.I mean there's a Ferris Wheel and everything. Back in his room, Tatum is definitely off the wagon. He's drinking and even seems to partake in Lorraine's advances this time as she makes another move on him. He's got the bottle and the women back. Check. His job back. Check. The fight isn't even over and Chuck is already dancing in the middle of the ring. From what we know of the slick, sly and conniving Devil, he isn't this sloppy. Is my theory coming aprt? Oh, and let's talk about the hair grab.

Tatum and Lorrain were never shown getting intimate, but it's implied as he his fist grabbing the back of her blonde hair covers most of the screen. This has a dual meaning. On one hand it foreshadows a future scene (when he tries to strangle her to death), but on the other hand, it helps me to gather a conclusion about the ending of the movie. You see, every time Wilder covers the camera like that to transition, someone is walking away in the next scene. It happened in the beginning with the Tatum and the time jump and it happens once again with Lorraine walking away from the bus. Let's wrap this up.

Back at the cave, the doctor tells Tatum that Leo will die if they don't get him out by tomorrow. This is after Tatum has told Leo that he will not die and we learn that tomorrow is Leo and Lorraine's anniversary. He hopes to see her face as she receives her gift. Tatum appears to start pulling a bit away from the dark side here. As I said..." appears to be". Back in with the Sheriff and his snake who has begun to eat, Tatum tells him that they will have to skip the drill and get Leo out the easier way as suggested by the contractor earlier. The Sheriff fears backlash from everyone about the ordeal but Tatum tells him that a happy ending is better for the story. As they speak to the contractor they find out that the easy way is out of the question now. The drilling made the rubble too weak. By the way, the snake will only eat gum, and only gum encased in a silver wrapper. A nice, shiny, flashy, silver wrapper. I'm pretty sure that gum is not good for that snakes life expectancy. Hey, who else likes nice shiny, flashy things like flashing lights?

Back at the cave, Leo's dying and Chuck knows it. He seems a little touched by Leo's infatuation with Lorraine and seeing her face when she gets that gift. When Tatum makes it back to Lorraine who is now planning a new life with him he makes it his mission to find the gift and give it to her. She opens it and insults what she calls fake fur. This sets Tatum off as he's getting mad at her for complaining while her dying husband can only think about her. He starts to strangle her with the fur until she stabs him with a pair of scissors. He stands up and without giving any attention to his wound commands her to keep the fur on. This exchange is very interesting.

While strangling her Lorraine says, "I can't breath" and Tatum replies with, "he can't breath" referring to Leo who had trouble breathing last time he saw him. This doesn't fit the mold of "human interest" to me, so I assume Tatum is fighting with the other side of himself (or The Devil), who is more interested in wiping his slate clean, by punishing those who deserve to be punished and starting over. After this Leo eventually dies and Tatum losses his scoop when he yells at the crowd, "Leo's dead, go home the circus is over".

In final scenes, Lorraine splits town and Herbie and a badly wounded Tatum return to The Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Tatum wants to sell his new spin on the story. One where Lorraine set Leo up to die, and vanishes. But time runs out for Chuck Tatum as he falls to the ground once again smiling, selling himself as a "thousand dollar newsman".

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Human Interest

So let's assume that Tatum was possessed by an evil spirit, the Devil even. If this is the case then why didn't he try and save himself? He could have easily gotten patched up by the doctor when he first got stabbed, but he kept pushing on. If Satan was using him for a vessel why would he want his vessel to die? He wouldn't. If you think about it Chuck Tatum would be the perfect mask.

Good looking, charismatic, manipulating, but to the public a heartfelt hero. Tatum would have allowed good old Satan to drink all the booze he wanted and bang all the women he desired. I forgot to also mention that towards the end the praying lady from the beginning of the movie reappeared and lit two candles by a religious symbol. Could this have helped Tatum take control?

The only thing I could see causing Tatum to neglect medical attention would be human interest, and if a spirit had possessed him then the only human inside that body would be Tatum himself. His "human interest" was the next big story.

Lorraine's human interest was a better life. The Sheriff's human interest was career advancement. Herbie's human interest was learning. The editor's human interest was giving a second chance. Last, but not least the circus spectators human interest was whatever was in the news. Sound familiar? Whoever thought human interest could be worst than evil itself?

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