by Kaleem Hasan
Billy Wilder is one of the genuine American movie greats with masterpieces like The Apartment, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and a host of other excellent works. My own weakness within his oeuvre is for his late gem Avanti but his greatest work to my mind is the very dark Ace in the Hole. This movie is now available for the first time on DVD (anywhere) in a gorgeous Criterion transfer and this is therefore the best time to visit the film outside a movie theater.
The plot in a very skeletal sense concerns a cynical newspaper reporter (Kirk Douglas) who drifts into an ‘edge of empire’ town in New Mexico, lands a job and a year later finds an assignment that becomes life-altering for him. As in many other Wilder works Ace in the Hole features much social commentary but unlike just about any of his other works there is a strong visionary intensity to the narrative. Most importantly Wilder (as was his wont) eschews easy and conformist resolutions.
The allegory of Plato’s cave is easily the most famous one in the ‘Western’ heritage. With typical dramatic brilliance Plato creates a remarkable mise-en-scene. In a dark cave there are prisoners lined up and unable to move from their respective positions. They face a wall on which they constantly see shadows flickering. There is a fire behind the prisoners and the light from this source casts the prisoners’ shadows on the wall in front of them. Not being able to turn around and see the fire the prisoners assume that the shadows operating on the wall before them are ‘real’ in the sense that these represent not the mere ‘appearance’ of something but tangible bodies. In effect they take the ‘reflection’ to be all that there is. At one point one of the prisoners is released and let out of the cave into the sunlight. He realizes that there is much more to the ‘world’ than the cave and in the blazing sunlight sees things as they really are. He then returns to the cave, figures out what has really been happening and then proceeds to persuade his fellow prisoners who not having been out of the cave find everything a bit hard to believe.
In Plato’s allegory the prisoners in the cave are people blinded from the ‘truth’ and the prisoner who does make it out of the cave is treated to the sunlight and is initially blinded ‘by’ the ‘truth’. The latter eventually recovers and starts learning how to live with the ‘truth’ and is then faced with the ethical demand of returning to the cave and persuading others as well. Whether one defines the ‘truth’ as philosophical or mystical or religious or political is less important. What is critical however is the movement from a state of ‘unknowing’ to one of ‘knowing’ and the dynamic that comes into play when there is interaction between the two.
Wilder marvelously inverts all of this. Kirk Douglas discovers his ‘crisis’ when his assignment involves doing a story on a mine accident. When the protagonist gets there he finds a man trapped under the rubble. The former is able to see the latter and communicate with him but neither he nor anyone else has any way of performing a rescue. A large part of the film consists of ‘dialog’ between these two men. But for the purposes of the Platonic allegory what is fascinating about the structure here is that Douglas is already a man on the outside who then descends into a ‘cave’ to learn the ‘truth’ about his outside world. Additionally the path into the ‘cave’ leads to ‘self-revelation’ for the protagonist.
The cinematic medium allows Wilder to invert Plato’s allegory in a literal sense while paying perfect homage to it in the truest way. This is exactly the kind of ‘worldly scene’ Plato imagined when he conceived his ‘mise-en-scene’. The cave represents the world and Plato’s hopes for those who seek to be enlightened and in turn enlighten others. He envisions a moment out of the cave into the sunlight and then back into the cave to lead others out of it. Wilder’s Douglas is one of those Platonic hopefuls! But in a neat reversal he is already in the sunlight (of New Mexico no less!) and goes into the cave, learns something essential there, returns to the sunlight, tries unsuccessfully to convince everyone of the ‘truth’ he has located in the cave and symbolically returns to a kind of ‘cave’ towards the end.
Plato’s allegory much like any other involves double vision. Literally, a powerful dramatic moment is laid out before us but we are also meant to see the parallel narrative at the same time. The story involves a kind of two way street with traffic in both directions. The man who ascends and then descends but the latter is the true ethical correlative of the actual ascent. But also the underworld of the cave is really the (over)world and the ‘blazing sunlight’ where all things are clear is not the ultimate abode for the true Platonic hero. In fact it is down there in the cave where there is presumably a lifelong game of persuasion that is the ethical imperative. But the traffic must always be moving towards the sunlight for the ethical question to ever be phrased. As such this is Plato’s cinema where the reader mentally has to crosscut between both levels of the allegory.
In the Wilder work it is the cave that reveals everything to the protagonist, not the sunlight. Douglas is already “in the sun” but once he visits the cave he finds the ‘sun’ of his world totally eclipsed. From the darkness of the cave emanates the truest light.
Psychoanalytic critics have always been interested in cave/womb parallels. Again Wilder offers visually a very womb like space in the mine where just a single man is trapped and who is slowly racing to his death even as rescue efforts are underway. Facing him is another man (the protagonist) who is slowly being ‘reborn’ at the same time and who will encounter his own ‘womb’ towards the film’s climax.
Most of the film takes place either on a plain in front of the mine in very bright sunlight or in the dark cavern. Wilder’s visual choices are entirely appropriate in the context of this discussion. Inside the cave there is silence and a man almost able to see his approaching death, outside there is the carnival of the world (the film was re-titled ‘The Big Carnival’ in the US at one point). Wilder is at almost Fellini-esque with the latter. The mine accident eventually becomes a cause celebre attracting journalists from elsewhere and parts of the general populace as well as the paraphernalia of amusement park rides, refreshments and so on. The whole site becomes a massive theme mark and is extremely reminiscent of moments in Fellini’s work, most notably in La Dolce Vita.
Towards the end of the film Douglas symbolically ascends the mountain for the first time where previously he has only been under it in the mine. He launches in a Jeremiad and faces no more audience than that Biblical prophet. As the film draws to its conclusion the human circus ends and the site is once again isolated and ghostly. The protagonist who leaves that environment is also now something of a ghost, having left his soul back in the cave. The film’s final moments beyond this point are in essence quite logical.
At the Venice Festival in ’51 Ace in the Hole lost out to Rashomon, not entirely without irony in my view! Nevertheless it is one of the authentic Hollywood achievements in cinema and one that has so far been relatively ignored. Few films even in Wilder’s oeuvre are as suggestive as this one. In our media saturated moment this film speaks to us with even greater freshness.
[One could draw a line from Plato's Cave (Ace in the Hole) to Plato's Sun (Sunshine). Danny Boyle's very interesting and fairly disturbing 'solar' quest is very much in the genealogy established by Plato two and a half millennia ago..]