When Charles “Chuck” Tatum, the amoral newspaperman played with blustering prowess by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s 1951 film Ace in the Hole, walks into the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin newspaper offices, he immediately takes up space without saying a word. He’s a scoundrel, with loathsome ethics and an even worse reputation, who finds himself in this “sunbaked Siberia” for a job he hopes will vault him back to his concrete paradise of New York after he’s been run out of newspapers in various cities for faults as diverse as sleeping with the publisher’s wife and drinking “out of season.” Douglas champs at the bit delivering his lines, moving across the screen like a wounded animal yearning to strike, infusing the script with a sizzling layer of intrigue and complication. There’s so much to love in his introduction in this film, but my favorite moment is probably its briefest: Douglas puts a cigarette between his lips and lights a match with the carriage of a typewriter, its loud ding a final flourish. A world of truth about the character makes itself known in his careful yet dramatic manipulations of the scenery around him. In this small, fleeting moment, you can see exactly why Kirk Douglas, who passed away this week, was a star.
Born in New York to Jewish immigrants in 1916, Douglas began acting on radio and in network soaps in his late 20s after serving in the United States Navy. He hadn’t planned on pursuing the big screen, but when producer Hal B. Wallis made it clear he was in search of new male talent, Douglas’s friend Lauren Bacall jumped at the chance to recommend him. His first film role was in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), in which he plays a sniveling, easily dominated husband. This pushover character is an outlier in Douglas’s filmography; in future roles, he would prove unassailable. His run of work from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s — as a merciless boxer in 1949’s Champion, which earned him his first Oscar nomination; or a colonel in Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 antiwar film Paths of Glory; or another colonel in the revelatory 1964 political thriller Seven Days in May — demonstrates both an interest in performing traditional masculinity and an industry bravado that was rare in Hollywood at the time. (As a producer, he was instrumental in breaking the Hollywood blacklist by hiring banned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and giving him on-screen credit for Spartacus.)
Douglas made approximately 40 movies in the decades that followed, turning to directing before earning a slew of lifetime-achievement awards, including an Honorary Academy Award for his role as “a creative and moral force in the motion-picture community.” It is difficult to overstate his tremendous status as one of the last golden-age stars, whose purely American persona in front of and behind the camera still shapes our understanding of celebrity today.
But his work in noir is what I find particularly entrancing. Even if he’d stopped after The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, we’d still have plenty to talk about, but he continued in the genre with films like the exemplary Out of the Past (1947), playing the controlling crime boss Whit Sterling, and I Walk Alone (1947), which marked the first of seven collaborations with the actor Burt Lancaster. Yet Ace in the Hole towers over the rest of these for what it reveals about Douglas and his star power.
Ace in the Hole was neither financially nor critically successful upon its release, but it proved popular as the years wore on and the plot became all the more prescient. The movie is blackhearted in its depiction of Douglas’s Chuck Tatum, who seizes upon the saga of a man trapped in a cave collapse and coaxes it into a massive story worth publishing. What starts out as a simple manipulation becomes a literal carnival of press and tourists, with amusement rides and entertainment blooming like bruises around the rescue site. In the folds of the world that Wilder and his collaborators created, we can see the modern news cycle and tabloid culture — its cynicism, its disregard for the humanity of its subjects, the journalistic failures in grasping for fame and fortune.
Douglas plays Chuck with unmatched intensity. He trudges, snaps, and crackles with an inner fire you know will soon consume him. Consider a scene from early in the film, when a deflated Chuck, marooned in Albuquerque for a year now, is complaining about the ills of his surroundings. He leans down to an older secretary, Miss Deverich (Edith Evanson), and suggests she get involved in a murder to enliven the newspaper. “I could do wonders with your dismembered body,” he purrs. But the most cutting, revealing scenes occur between Chuck and Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), the corpulent blonde wife of Leo (Richard Benedict), the man stuck in the cave. Through their interactions, the movie’s commentary on masculinity snakes its way up to the surface. Like Chuck, Lorraine is selfish and self-centered. She plays along as the dutiful wife but is eager to leave her husband; she relishes the swarming tourists, and the booming business only encourages her to take her money and leave town.
Momentum builds toward a blistering scene between the two. Chuck has negotiated his old New York job back, the very thing he desires, but his rage toward Lorraine is unquenchable. He finds this unloving wife repugnant. When Chuck passes on to her a present Leo had purchased — a cheap fur stole Chuck wraps around Lorraine’s neck — she recoils. His grip begins to tighten around her throat. He starts strangling her, but before he can finish, she stabs him with a pair of scissors and escapes his grasp. Lorraine draws out of Chuck a host of loathsome qualities — his misogyny, his need for control — all of which are interlaced in the myth of American masculinity, a colonizing force both minute and grand, intimate and political.
Scenes like this show noir at its best: its ability to dissect the nature of Western machismo, how it develops, how it works, and whom it harms. The shadowed dynamics of modern masculinity don’t just linger in the dialogue but become a crucial narrative force; one spiteful man’s distaste for a woman puncturing the gender norms of her time becomes a more powerful plot point than his insatiable ambition. I turn to the genre again and again not only for its visual ingenuity but for its rendering of the misogyny rotting at the heart of American aspirational culture. I lament the fact that noir is a remnant of a different kind of Hollywood. Though noir persists, its influence has atrophied.
That Douglas’s most intriguing roles fall within the bounds of this genre no doubt affects the ways we now view him — another remnant of a different kind of Hollywood. One can’t talk about Douglas today without wrestling with the darker side of his image as an icon. After his passing, Twitter was aflame with conversations about his rumored involvement in the rape of Natalie Wood and even a few mentions of his possible involvement in the disappearance of the actress Jean Spangler. No one has gone on the record about Douglas regarding these crimes. The former rumor had swirled for years but gained traction when Wood’s sister, Lana, discussed on a podcast the time a 16-year-old Natalie was brutally raped by a famous Hollywood figure during an interview at the Chateau Marmont. Lana did not reveal the identity of the figure, but many listeners connected her recollection to a 2012 Gawker article on a blind item accusing Douglas of a similar assault.
We will probably never know for certain how or if Douglas was involved in Wood’s life. Nonetheless, the ways their stories have come to be so intertwined in our contemporary conversations is a reflection of how our conception of stars has changed. The image Douglas projected onscreen and off — of undaunted power and blustering machismo — is slowly going out of fashion. Men who once held such distinction are now finding their pedestals dinged as audiences and insiders alike grow more willing to wrestle with the misogyny rotting at the heart of the celebrity industry. We are more comfortable with the idea that a star like Douglas was capable of being both a great actor and a predator, an icon of noir and an emblem of the very behavior the genre sought to confront.