Ace in the Hole (1951) – A Review
A desperate and unscrupulous reporter is stuck working at a small town paper in New Mexico. Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has fallen off his high pedestal and wants to get back on top, earning big money from a major newspaper in a big city. He needs a big flashy story to gain him attention again. But nothing is particularly headline worthy around this small dusty town in the middle of nowhere.
That is until one day he happens by a local man trapped in a cave in. Tatum decides to use this accident to re-start his career. He arranges it so the mans rescue will be delayed in order for him to exploit the story and build up interest in not only this possible tragedy, but also towards himself. Pushing morals aside and by using corrupt methods he manages to escalate the story into a literal circus creating headlines across the country!
Tatum is now an in demand asset to the media that are now flooding this burg who want a piece of this story. The locals are also enjoying the attention this story is bringing them. Tatum can ask and get whatever he wants from anyone.
But at how high a cost is he willing to exploit this scoop of a story? Does he have any reservations he’s risking a man’s life and struggle for survival into a one giant carnival?
Ace In the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival, a title change that occurred before its initial release without any say by director Billy Wilder) is a film from both director/writer Wilder and star Kirk Douglas that hadn’t gotten the attention it deserved for the longest time. It should easily sit in the highlight reels of both their careers.
I’ve often heard the film labeled a ‘film noir’. I never understood that categorization. For me, this is straight up biting satire of a journalism and news reporting. There are crimes being committed, but the moral kind.
We first meet Douglas’ Tatum who is an unemployed reporter. His promising career has taken a downturn since getting canned by a New York paper and now his options have narrowed. With no alternatives, Tatum convinces Jacob Boot (Porter Hall), the owner of the small Albuquerque Bulletin to give him a job. Despite obviously being an arrogant and aggressive fellow, and more interested in himself than reporting the quaint local stories the Bulletin covers, Boot hires him.
A year passes and the recovering alcoholic Tatum stays sober and dutifully reports the mundane stories in the area. Then one day local man Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) becomes trapped in a cave in. Tatum sees this as the opportunity he’s been waiting for. It’s a story that he can manipulate into national headlines and be the big break he’s been waiting for.
Douglas is thoroughly despicable as Tatum. He’s remorseless, guilt free, two-faced and manipulative. At first he attempts to put up the illusion of caring and wanting to rescue Leo, but gradually as he manages to attract more and more attention to the story – and more importantly to himself – any sympathetic facade he might have had falls away.
The idea he lays out to readers is that he is championing the rescue effort to save Leo, yet in reality he’s doing as much as he can in delaying it as much as he can in order to milk the media attention and coverage that has ignited with this real life drama.
Tatum and the town sheriff partner up, both welcoming being in the spotlight. They force the rescue team to take the longer rescue route of drilling into the mountain above to get to Leo. Being the reporter with exclusive access to the operation makes Tatum the man the country press will want to talk to and please all through this rescue effort.
Leo’s worrying wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) is also convinced of an opportunity she has by Tatum. Always wanting to leave her husband, Tatum convinces her to go along with his plan, support it and to play the part of the concerned wife. The longer they can keep this story alive, the better windfall the family restaurant will have, the more money she can earn and save enough to leave her husband and set out on her own.
Everyone starts to have a real party around this collapsed cave and gets caught up in the excitement of it. Even the Bulletin’s young photographer finds his idealism being seeped away by Tatum’s enthusiasm and aspirations of selling his photos to national magazines. All this is to the chagrin of Boot, who is unable to control his reporter or this ballooning story. It becomes too big for his little newspaper. Tatum has found his escape from The Bulletin.
The whole situation becomes a literal carnival with everyone profiting. But what of poor Leo? Tatum continues to feed him encouragement, keeps him in the dark of what is really happening on the outside and reassures the slowly dying man that his rescue is coming.
It’s a cynical and satiric movie to the hilt! Morality is a rare entity in the story. Only a few characters see what’s plainly happening and how selfishness and profitably have eclipsed saving the life of this trapped man. All of it of course instigated and fueled by Tatum.
There is the biting Wilder dialogue fans have come to expect to hear in his films. I also love the the little character moments that dot Wilder films. Just little unique touches and memorable moments. Such as Douglas lighting his match off a typewriter carriage return. It’s such a cool little moment.
Douglas is not a likable hero in this. This isn’t Spartacus leading a noble charge or prepared to make any selfless act. When feelings of guilt do finally hit him it’s way too late and there’s no repairing what he has done.
I sometimes wonder when the story is over and Tatum has seen what he has done if he changes permanently or not. Is this a life changing lesson that he’s learned and would dutifully report on rattlesnake hunts and mundane little stories? Or would he simply feel guilty for a period of time and then be on the search for his next big story?
Perhaps that was a reason why Ace In The Hole was a such a critical and commercial failure upon its release. Maybe audiences weren’t keen on seeing such corrupt characters and the obscene way they’re treating a tragic situation. Maybe in 1951 audiences weren’t ready for a story about a dishonest press and the film was too ahead of its time. Fortunately, over the years the film has been rediscovered and has attained much more admiration than it had when it first hit movie screens.
It’s just as powerful, timely and poignant a story today and the message it has is as relevant as ever – perhaps even more so than it was in 1951. The story doesn’t seem as exaggerated as perhaps it once might have been from what we’ve seen the media do since the 1950s. It’s a terrific film!
As Tatum says, “Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news.”
The introduction to Douglas’ Chuck Tatum – and watch how he lights his match! So smooth!