Billy Wilder made film noirs full of comedy and comedies full of darkness. Yet even from the man who directed Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and a hit comedy about a Nazi POW camp (Stalag 17), 1951's Ace In The Hole was considered unforgivably dark and despairing. The film was such a flop that Paramount had it hastily re-titled against Wilder's wishes (to The Big Carnival) and subtracted its losses from Wilder's Stalag 17 payday. Hard to find for years, it subsequently developed a reputation as Wilder's lost masterpiece, a rarified billing its spectacular new double-disc release amply justifies.
Putting his outsized charisma to sinister use, Kirk Douglas plays a boozy, belligerent journalist who'd probably welcome the apocalypse if he thought there was a front-page Pulitzer-worthy exclusive in it for him. After getting angrily ejected from the finest newsrooms in New York, Douglas ends up at a rinky-dink Albuquerque fish-wrapper, oozing contempt for the locals and broadcasting his hunger to disembark as quickly as possible for bigger things. Douglas spies another shot at the big time when he finds a good-hearted lug (Richard Benedict) trapped in a mine supposedly haunted by Indian spirits. Douglas sets about stage-managing the rescue operation to prolong the man's agony for as long as it takes to secure the best human-interest story possible.
Jan Sterling co-stars as Benedict's longsuffering wife, a tough cookie full of arsenic who quickly sizes up Douglas as a fellow hustler working a different grift with the same sleazy objective. Sterling's tricky, poignant performance, simultaneously cheap, bitter, sad, and sordidly sexual, seems to violate the puritanical spirit, if not the letter, of the Hays Code. Douglas' scenes with Benedict are both tender and cruel, as Douglas posits himself as the epitome of friendship and hope while furtively sealing Benedict's doom. Hole is funny throughout, but as the film heads into noir tragedy, the laughs grow increasingly guilty, uncomfortable, and rare. Fifty-six years later, the film's tough-as-nails evisceration of the media still feels bracing and prescient. Barring unprecedented spiritual evolution on mankind's part, it'll probably still feel that way another half-century from now.
Key features: An engaging documentary that's essentially a filmed interview with the always-droll Wilder; an affectionate, informative, but heavy-handed commentary from scholar Neil Sinyard; and a plethora of other nifty extras.