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Ace In The Hole: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // May 6, 2014
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted May 13, 2014 | E-mail the Author

In a brief afterword included on Criterion's release of Billy Wilder's landmark Ace in the Hole (1951), Spike Lee refers to the film as "having a crystal ball". It's a perfect description of any story that not only attempts to predict the future, but ends up hitting it square on the nose. Ace in the Hole's scathing examination of sensationalized news coverage couldn't be more applicable in the present day where celebrity gossip, fluffy human interest stories, and "Missing White Woman Syndrome" dominate national news headlines. Sure, films like Network took the ball and ran with it, but Ace in the Hole basically drew the blueprint and, thanks to a lukewarm theatrical reception and ever-growing cult status, has enjoyed a well-deserved comeback during the last 60-plus years. Even if you're too young to remember when newspapers were the primary source of current events, you should have no trouble connecting all the dots.

Our man on the street is Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a self-centered alpha male who's been fired from nearly a dozen big papers for reasons including, but not limited to, a libel lawsuit and alcohol dependency. He's also literally on the street in that he's broke and still unemployed. During a last-ditch trip out west, car trouble leads Tatum to the modest Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin in New Mexico, where he fast-talks his way to a reporting job. After a year of sobriety and no big breaks, Tatum stumbles across Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a local man trapped in a nearby collapsing cave. Determined to captivate readers nationwide, Tatum uses every trick in the book to secure "his story", which includes risking Minosa's life to wring out every last drop of suspense. A literal media circus and swarms of travelers descend upon the site while Tatum enjoys the spotlight, though local hotel owner---and Leo Mimosa's unhappy wife---Lorraine (Jan Sterling) sees right through Tatum's facade. He doesn't care in the least.

Most Americans over 30 recall the media blitz of "Baby Jessica" McClure, the young girl trapped in a well that dominated news coverage in 1987 and resulted in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, ratings success for the fledgling CNN channel, and even a ridiculous made-for-TV movie. Yet Ace in the Hole was based on at least two events from earlier in our media's history: the fate of cave explorer W. Floyd Collins and the original "girl in a well", Kathy Fiscus. So while Ace in the Hole hardly invented the concept of sensationalized media, it reminds us just how ugly it can be.

Just before Ace in the Hole's theatrical release, a Paramount executive changed its title to "The Big Carnival"; an apt description of the film's unfolding media circus but in no way suggestive of its true identity. Whether or not this change contributed to Ace in the Hole's poor box office reception is purely subjective...but during the last two decades, its most recent surges in popularity (and return to the original name) was bolstered by Turner Classic Movies and The Criterion Collection. Sporadic airings of Ace in the Hole, beginning in the mid-1990s, helped to spread the word while Criterion's 2007 DVD added more fuel to the fire. Even if Kirk Douglas' wildly over-the-top performance or the film's relentless cynicism rub you the wrong way, one thing's for sure: Ace in the Hole certainly "had a crystal ball".

Criterion's new "Dual Format" release of Ace in the Hole largely mirrors the DVD's solid foundation, and that's in no way a complaint. A new transfer, not to mention the technical upgrades to 1080p and lossless audio, yield excellent results... so aside from recycled extras, this is a well-rounded package that old and new fans should appreciate.

Video & Audio Quality

Ace in the Hole is sourced from a new 4K transfer of a 2K restoration which was, presumably, the foundation of Criterion's own 2007 DVD. The new transfer and bump to 1080p move the visual presentation into new territory, as this looks substantially better than most films well past the 60-year mark. Grain structure and image detail are uniformly excellent from start to finish, textures look terrific and no obvious digital imperfections were spotted along the way. Black levels and contrast are also consistently strong, especially during many of the dimly-lit underground scenes. From start to finish, Ace in the Hole is another top-tier effort from Criterion and a demo disc for classic film enthusiasts.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.

Though limited in fidelity, the lossless PCM 1.0 audio track does what it can with this source material. Dialogue is extremely clear and easy to follow, the sparse music cues are well-balanced and neither one seems to fight for attention very often. No obvious hiss, clicks or other audio anomalies were detected along the way, rounding out the technical presentation nicely. Optional English subtitles (available via remote) are included during the main feature only.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Presented in Criterion's typical style for both formats, the menus load quickly and are easy to navigate and understand. Like many of the studio's recent "Dual Format" titles, this three-disc release is housed in a handsome digipak case with overlapping spindles for the DVDs. Normally, I'm not the biggest fan of cardboard cases, but this time I'll make an exception: Ace in the Hole's newspaper-style packaging wouldn't feel right in plastic. The included foldout "Booklet" is even better, as it's presented as a mock-up edition of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin with production notes, technical details and separate reprinted essays by filmmaker Guy Maddin and critic Molly Haskell. Quite simply, it looks terrific.

Bonus Features

As mentioned earlier, the supplements included here---and available on both formats---have all been ported over from Criterion's 2007 DVD. These recycled extras include a feature length Audio Commentary with film scholar Neil Sinyard, two additional pieces about the director ("Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man" and "Billy Wilder at the American Film Institute"), separate vintage Interviews with Kirk Douglas and writer Walter Newman, a brief Afterword with filmmaker Spike Lee, a nice Still Gallery and the film's Theatrical Trailer. Unfortunately, no optional subtitles have been included.

Ace in the Hole wasn't the first critical and commercial failure to gain respect over several decades...and unfortunately, it won't be the last. This scathing, cynical production manages to strike a chord more than six decades after its initial release thanks to a loaded, over-the-top performance by Kirk Douglas, strong direction by Billy Wilder and, of course, a story that feels all too real in modern times. Criterion's "Dual Format" release offers plenty of support for this long-buried classic, including a top-tier A/V presentation and all the extras from their own 2007 DVD. Owners of the previous edition may feel comfortable holding off for awhile, but those who don't own Ace in the Hole yet will certainly get their money's worth here. It's Highly Recommended, though anyone completely new to Wilder's work may want to rent it first.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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