Together, Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole form a pair of atypical noirs--less concerned with seedy crime than they are with the beauty inherent in collapse. For one thing, this serves as a good reminder that the genre that we today call noir is just a vague list of characteristics that characterize a large number of films made from the 30s to the mid 50s. At the time, no one really knew what they were doing; mostly, they were making B movies. Anyway, when it comes to shadows and venetian blinds, this film falls short. There are no detectives in dark alleys. More often than not, the action takes place outside, in direct sunlight on the dessicated plains of New Mexico.
These sun-saturated, dusty exteriors are contrasted against the Dantian darkness within the caves that provide the opportune accident that instigates reporter Chuck Tatum's (Kirk Douglas) breaking story. Driving across the desert on an assignment from his small town newspaper, Tatum accidentally comes across a trading post where a man has been trapped in a collapsed mine. He smooth-talks his way into the center of the operation until he is pulling all the strings. When Tatum enters the mines, there is no need for shadows. Wilder uses the caked dust on his face to the same effect. The capitalistic criticism is overt; Leo (Richard Benedict) is trapped when he goes too deep into the mountain in order to find an artifact that might be worth something. Tatum, in turn, exploits him totally.
With its subtle traces of self-reflexivity, this film forms a sort of set with Sunset Boulevard's backstage Hollywood noir. The tall-tales Tatum spins become the reality for the people flocking to the desert; he is a constructor of the truth. This is also interesting in light of the fact that Ace in the Hole was the first production for which Wilder operated as producer and director, giving him the escalated creative control that he had been seeking. In some shots, the crane that lifts Tatum up onto the cliffs is very much like the type of crane used to lift the camera and director for a bird's eye shot. As Tatum stands atop the cliffs looking down at the flock of gawkers below, it is not hard to imagine Wilder in his place, uttering directions through the megaphone. With all the inner frames of the film, Wilder also seems to be giving consistent references to the framing lens.
The setting of the film, in combination with the use of deep focus and wide angles creates an equation for some compelling and memorable imagery, which it delivers. When Tatum stands over the ant-like crowd, the camera reveals his power over them. My favorite moments are when the camera sweeps over the crowds that have convened for the literal "media circus" that ensues. The build-up to this "circus" is intriguing as well. It starts with an almost unnoticeable passing of balloons in the distance and soon becomes a frenzy.