Douglas plays sleazy journalist in Wilder's 'Ace in the Hole'

The Baltimore Sun

ACE IN THE HOLE -- The Criterion Collection / $39.95

A prescient slam at sensational journalism gets the classic treatment it deserves in Tuesday's Criterion Collection release of Billy Wilder's 1951 Ace in the Hole. Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, an exiled New York reporter who rides his typewriter like a hot rod while seeking a way back into the big time.

Rusticating in New Mexico, he gets a sensational scoop: The collapsing rock and sand of a sacred Indian burial cavern have trapped a local treasure-hunter. Tatum doesn't merely run with the story. He extends it into a record-breaking front-page marathon by manipulating the local sheriff to delay the rescue. In this film, misanthropy and sentimentality are two sides of the same tarnished Indian-head penny.

In reality, Tatum flattens humanity with his ruthlessness and disdain; on paper he does it with ostentatious pity. In both cases, he reduces complexities to commodities.

Ace in the Hole draws on Wilder's firsthand knowledge of journalism -- he was a reporter in Vienna and Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s -- as well as his observations of postwar America's moral drift. This movie boasts the bitter tang of real experience, from Wilder and from Douglas, too, who radiates alpha-male appetites with a scary intensity and killer instinct. Skewering sleaze merchants such as Douglas' Tatum, Wilder hits a bigger target: the packaged reality of "human interest."

Special features

Essays from filmmaker Guy Maddin and critic Molly Haskell appear in a clever broad-sheet mock-up of the film's Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. A second disc of supplements includes the 1980 documentary Portrait of a 60 Per Cent Perfect Man: Billy Wilder. In this rarely seen treat, the French film critic Michel Ciment elicits eloquence from the filmmaker on everything from his adoption of English as a third language (after German and French) to his disdain for art that is too self-consciously avant-garde. Wilder says the only thing worse than not being taken seriously is being taken too seriously; this film hits the right balance. Spike Lee contributes a video afterword that boasts an unexpected newsiness. Lee will direct the forthcoming New York stage revival of Stalag 17, the property that restored Wilder's Hollywood prestige after Ace in the Hole flopped.

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RAYMOND BERNARD: LES MISERABLES AND WOODEN CROSSES --Eclipse from the Criterion Collection / $39.95

French director Raymond Bernard's five-hour version of Les miserables, from 1934, dwarfs the Hollywood version from 1935 in every way. Bernard captures the eddying sweep of Victor Hugo's novel and tightens its conflicting strands of survival reflexes and idealism; he makes the Paris uprising of 1832 seem both convulsive and inevitable. This full-throated outcry against degradation and oblivious authority rarely feels forced or attenuated. Harry Baur plays Jean Valjean, the reformed ex-con fleeing his past, for volcanic strength as well as pathos; he's amazing in the moments when he must weigh giving up his disguise to save an innocent from prison. As the young, abused Cosette, Gaby Triquet has such a stabbing freshness and resilience that you almost regret seeing her grow up. (The set also contains Bernard's legendary World War I epic, Wooden Crosses.)

Michael Sragowmichael.sragow@baltsun.com

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