Piercing through a small-town in New Mexico – a once desolate land littered with not much more than tumbleweed and the faint squeals of lonely wind – is a train transporting a parade of people. Not only is the steam radiating from the locomotive polluting the surrounding area, but so are the cheers of exhilaration from its passengers as they get off and run towards what looks like an amusement park, refusing to waste time by allowing the train to reach a steady halt. Venturing toward the bursting circus composed of Ferris wheels, food trucks, and camper vans, they sing a cheerful song with the continuous chorus, “We’re Coming, We’re Coming, Leo!”. Amid this frenzied excitement, these lines remind us that this is not just any ordinary circus. It is one built around the spectacle of one man, Leo Minosa, who has been stuck under a cave for days and is slowly dying. Whilst banners and songs rave a collective public support for Minosa and the workers trying to save him, the twisted transformation of the surrounding landscape into a place for nauseating consumerism and zestful exuberance suggests otherwise. These stark moments – captured through a singular crane shot – do well to encapsulate the cynicism of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), a bleak portrait of an almost-entirely corrupt and crooked America and its rotten capitalist core, ironically released at the height of McCarthyism.
Sharply orchestrating this literal and figurative media circus is our cut-throat anti-Hero, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas). Tatum, an adept yet alcoholic and incongruously ‘anti-Truth’ newspaper reporter who has been fired from several of his previous jobs, finds himself working as a reporter for the local paper in Albuquerque. It’s a certain relegation from his previous workplace in New York, which leaves him thirsty for a “Tatum special” to leave readers and papers “rolling out the red carpet” for him. Accordingly, once Tatum happens to discover the trapped Minosa, he knows he has struck an ace in the hole; Tatum disturbingly plans to keep Minosa stuck in the cave for days so he can extract a running story directly from Minosa’s pain and suffering – a morally bankrupt scheme organised by a morally bankrupt man.
Despite initially being confronted by various people who aim to interrogate Tatum’s intentions and plot, he tries and succeeds in roping many of them along through either bribery, blackmailing, or sheer charisma. Most of Wilder’s characters in the Ace in the Hole are as corrupt as each other – the only question being what it takes for them to fold. And so, whilst Tatum epitomises both the sickening greed of capitalist profiteering and below-the-belt rotten journalism (all the more relevant in the digital age of ‘fake news’), Wilder refuses to stay clear from displaying the public’s wily desire to both indulge in exploitation for their own individual profits, and their ravenous desire to indulge in sensationalised stories about the downtrodden. Indeed, it may be Tatum selling us the ticket – but we’re the ones buying it.