Ace in the Hole
Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is one of the most scathing indictments of American culture ever produced by a Hollywood filmmaker. Kirk Douglas gives the fiercest performance of his career as Chuck Tatum, an amoral newspaper reporter who washes up in dead-end Albuquerque, happens upon the scoop of a lifetime, and will do anything to keep getting the lurid headlines. Wilder’s follow-up to Sunset Boulevard is an even darker vision, a no-holds-barred exposé of the American media’s appetite for sensation that has gotten only more relevant with time.
Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole receives a new dual-format Blu-ray/DVD edition from The Criterion Collection, upgrading over their previous DVD-only release (which was the film’s first home video release in North America.) The film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and is delivered in high-definition on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc encoded at 1080p/24hz. The first dual-layer DVD delivers a standard-definition transfer.
It looks like Criterion is reusing the same high-definition source that was used for the DVD. Some minor marks, scratches, and tram lines remain here that were visible on the DVD’s presentation, but again it’s still incredibly minor, and for a film that’s been pretty much missing in action for decades (rarely shown on television) it’s in spectacular condition.
The original DVD’s transfer was very clear, with superb definition and detail levels, only suffering from a.) general DVD compression, and b.) Criterion’s insistence on window-boxing Academy ratio films at the time. The Blu-ray of course removes the window-boxing (and obviously, because of the ratio, there are still black bars on either side of the screen) and compression is no longer an issue. Detail levels are much stronger, with finer bits coming through in clothing, the dirty exteriors, and even in the knitting of the “Tell the Truth” embroidery that appears in a couple of scenes. Film grain also comes off much cleaner here, no longer noisy, and contrast and gray levels look decent, with excellent tonal shifts. There are some softer moments admittedly, but it appears to be more an issue with the source.
For the DVD I would have honestly figured Criterion would have just slapped the old DVD here (like they did with their dual-format Breathless,) but that’s certainly not the case. The second disc is more than likely a straight port and the menus looks to be exactly the same between the new DVDs and the old ones, but the main feature appears to be an entirely new encode. Criterion, possibly realizing the error of their ways, has removed the window-boxing that was present on the old DVD, or at least mostly removed it. There is still a thin yet noticeable black border around the image, but that thick black border is now gone. This is most welcome and for those that are still DVD only this may make the release worth upgrading to.
As it stands the new release offers a nice improvement. The Blu-ray improves the general picture, increasing detail and delivering a smoother presentation overall, while the DVD removes that unsightly window-boxing.
The film’s mono soundtrack is presented in lossless 1.0 linear PCM on the Blu-ray and 1.0 Dolby Digital on the DVD. The Blu-ray’s offers a slight improvement as it sounds a bit sharper with slightly better volume range, but that’s all I can say I noticed. The general quality is still pretty good all things considered. On both the DVD and the Blu-ray dialogue is clear and the music has some surprising range to it, but gets a bit edgy in places. Fidelity is actually pretty good for the age of the film, and it’s also in great shape, without any noticeable distortion or damage.
Criterion ports over everything from their original DVD release, starting with an audio commentary by film scholar Neil Sinyard. It’s a very scholarly but mostly enjoyable track. Sinyard goes over the film’s production, explaining how Wilder was able to get away with making what is undeniably a very cynical film (at least for audiences at the time) and even tries to explain why the film more than likely flopped, concentrating on Wilder’s European senses and the Nazi’s effect on Europe. He also goes over the character development, how Wilder uses visuals to develop and explain the characters, and even talks about things cut from the film, including lines that would have just put the film over the edge. It’s also somewhat amusing when he makes parallels between the film’s story and its production. Adding in some detailed history about Wilder, the actors, and anecdotes from the shoot, it turns out to be a fairly engaging track.
Portrait of a “60% Perfect Man”: Billy Wilder, a 58-minute interview between Wilder and film critic Michel Ciment filmed in 1980, has also been carried over. Ciment talks with the director at his office and home, going over his early life as a newspaperman, fleeing Europe once Hitler came into power, and first getting a screenwriting contract at Paramount (which he describes as an assembly line.) He claims he learned a lot about directing by watching Howard Hawks (I assume while they were working on Ball of Fire) and he then made his move from writer to director. He talks about a few of his films, from the lessons he learned on Ace in the Hole to the disappointing returns on One, Two, Three. He also talks about his preference to shooting in a studio, how he casts his films, working with certain actors, catching specific shots and looks in his films (specifically those office scenes in The Apartment) and then even talks about his art collection. Both Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon also show up to talk about the director, Lemmon recalling a humourous story on how they tested their drag outfits in Some Like it Hot and Matthau disappointed that Wilder never saw the actor as a sex symbol. Wilder is an absolutely fascinating figure and this conversation is never dull and incredibly informative.
And if you didn’t get enough of Wilder and his stories there Criterion includes excerpts from a Q/A session at The American Film Institute, conducted in 1986. This 24-minute collection of footage actually focuses a lot on the studio system he worked in. He first talks about the studio execs and how he understood their plight of needing the films to make money, so he did aim to make his films as commercial as possible. He then later talks about how the studios worked, how projects were developed, how they worked together or how the didn’t work together, how they would watch over him while working, and even how he had to keep track of who was in charge week to week so he would know “whose ass you [had to] lick.” I always appreciate stories about the old Hollywood and the studios and I found this one particularly fascinating as well as entertaining.
Criterion also digs up an excellent 1984 interview with Kirk Douglas and presents excerpts from it that have the actor focus on Wilder or Ace in the Hole. He’s particularly proud of this role, particularly the sleaziness of the character, and he mentions how he likes to play different types of characters, not always good, strong, masculine ones (which leads to a rather eye-opening anecdote about John Wayne expressing his disappointment in Douglas for playing a weak character in Lust for Life.) He talks fondly of Wilder and deeply regrets not working with the director again, having turned down the role he was offered in Stalag 17, and he then defends Ace in the Hole, giving his own idea as to why the film was not only a box office flop but why the critics didn’t seem to care for it. The interview runs 14-minutes.
Writer Walter Newman recalls writing the script with Wilder in an excerpt from a 1970 audio interview with the man. I found this interview of particular interest as Newman offers possible alternate scenarios, including a different opening and how certain scenes would play out, as well as a rather creative alternate to the Paramount logo at the beginning. He also explains how he tried to make the Douglas character somewhat sympathetic (amusingly this was accomplished by making all of the other characters far more despicable) and shares how Wilder built up sequences. The interview lasts 10-minutes.
Spike Lee provides a 6-minute afterword to the film, offering his admiration for the film and its ahead-for-its-time examination of the media, as well as its criticisms of that attitude of doing anything for a buck. The film was obviously a big influence on him and he admits to even stealing the film’s final shot for Malcolm X, and he even shows off his poster (using the alternate title The Big Carnival) which he had signed by both Wilder and Douglas.
Criterion then closes off the features with a small stills gallery, which looks to have all the pictures found on the original DVD, and then the film’s theatrical trailer.
For the DVD the first disc presents the commentary and trailer while the second dual-layer DVD contains the remaining features. The features are all on the one Blu-ray disc.
Criterion then includes the same clever insert that was found in the DVD release: the insert folds out to a newspaper, complete with photos and ads. It features an essay on the film and Wilder by Molly Haskell while director Guy Maddin writes about actor Kirk Douglas (in an article aptly titles “Chin Up for Mother.”) It’s an excellent read with a wonderful presentation. All content appears to be here but the dimensions are slightly different so it can fit in this new edition’s case.
Yet again Criterion delivers an excellent wealth of supplements for the film, all of which are worth going through.
The dual-format edition carries over all supplements from Criterion’s excellent DVD edition and delivers a superb transfer. The Blu-ray delivering a nice filmic presentation and the DVD’s transfer now dropping the obnoxious window-boxing. It comes with a very high recommendation.