Douglas excels as Chuck Tatum, a renegade reporter who worms his way into a job at a rundown Albuquerque rag. Bored out of his mind covering soapbox derbies and other small fry local events, Tatum hits the jackpot when he fortuitously stumbles across a stricken treasure hunter, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), trapped under rubble after an accident at an ancient Native American cave network. Smelling a scoop, as well as an opportunity to escape the mundanity of Albuquerque forever, the hungry hack quickly befriends Leo, convincing him that he’ll do his utmost to see him freed. However, Tatum actually sets about doing the opposite, stalling the rescue effort in order to prolong the “human interest” story’s lifespan and ensnare one of the big city papers desperate for coverage of the dramatic events.
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.