Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling
National Film Registry
Following the immense critical success of his film noir Sunset Boulevard (1950) Billy Wilder follows it with his first feature as a triple threat of writer, director, and producer to deliver 1951’s Ace in the Hole. A film that takes exception to exploitation and manipulate by the press, it stars Kirk Douglas in an energetic and cynical role as a journalist trying to create the big story that will make him back to prominence. The result was a film that questioned American institutions, leading Wilder to experience issues with his studio, critics, and audiences of the day, landing him his first flop. However, with the passage of time it cultivated relevancy that persists to the point of being one of the great films of American cinema history.
Ace in the Hole is a drama about a disgraced and opportunistic reporter who exploits a small-town accident to regain his prominent professional status. Cynical fallen big city reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) finds work at a New Mexico newspaper desperate to revive his once successful journalism career. On his way to cover a samll assignment he discovers an opportunity to create a massive story when he hears word of a small-town man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), trapped in a nearby cave in. Tatum turns the accident into a spectacle, playing up in his reports local legends and heroics tales to spin a story that captures national attention and significant tourism to the site. Tatum manipulates Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) to provide him access, town sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal) Tatum to maintain his exclusive control of the story, and the construction contractor to prolong the event to gain himself the professional notoriety and a lucrative offer from his former New York paper. However, everything falls apart with the passing of Leo due to the unnecessarily prolonged rescue operation and Lorraine stabbing a drunk Tatum out of self-defense. Tatum falls dead just as swiftly as his story, and destroying all those that found greed in this opportunity..
After finding significant critical and financial success with Sunset Boulevard perhaps Wilder grew too confident that he could continue to play with cynical views towards entrenched American institutions where he found inspiration for his next project. Where Wilder took a cynical view toward Hollywood in his prior feature Ace in the Hole was to do the same to exploitation and sensationalism by the press. Inspired by the news coverage by William Burke Miller of the Floyd Collins incident of 1925 where the cave explorer became trapped in the earth following a landslide. Miller turned the occurrence that eventually claimed Floyd’s life into a series of human interest stories about those surrounding the accident, becoming a news sensation and wining Miller the Pulitzer Prize. The project would be Wilder’s first venture as a producer on top of writer/director, making this a significant production in career coming off his prior success.
The picture features that driven performance of Kirk Douglas as the seedy reporter Chuck Tatum. The former Academy Award nominated actor and picture of masculinity delivers a driven portrayal of a man desperate to make his own success through his manipulation of the world around him. Despite the picture him little critical acclaim at the time, it is difficult to imagine Douglas having delivered a better performance in his career to this point. He is driven, passionate, with an energy and ferocity seldom seen from such a character.
The world surrounding him is constructed with players that fill important key roles in Tatum’s developing creation. Jan Sterling provides an even more cynical foil as the wife of Leo, the trapped victim. A miserable young woman almost happy to see her husband trapped as reason for her to leave the empty, arid desert she finds herself in she is convinced to remain by Tatum and reap the financial success from the tourism lured in by his reporting. At no point do we root and her despondence, becoming somewhat a partner to Tatum’s evils, but remaining her own independent opportunist. Robert Arthur appears as Herbie, the plucky newspaper photographer whom Tatum pulls into his scheme. Other appearances include Porter Hall as common newspaper editor/boss-type and Ray Teal as the sheriff which is not too far off from his usual fair in his many western appearances. Buried in there (pardon the pun) is Richard Benedict as the victim, Leo, whose performance is quite flat for a character that only supplies the forum upon which Tatum builds his scheme.
For the remote desert location filming took production to Gallup, Arizona, providing the open spaces upon which to construct the middle of nowhere setting. Constructed was Lorraine’s small outpost, the ancient mountainside Native American dwelling where Leo is trapped in, and its adjoining a vast parking area upon which the literal media circus would be built on. Wilder delivers the sensationalism of the public by hiring thousands of locals as extras who were paid extra if they provided their cars to fill the vast area. The energy and size of the crowd provided the kinetics of a horde awaiting the news of Tatum’s story while enjoying the carnival atmosphere. The scale is very impressive being that it was all tangible, captured in the camera frame of the camera in single shots as background to Kirk Douglas’s performance.
Despite all the impressiveness of the picture, wonderful acting, and good writing Ace in the Hole was doomed to fail. Taking a face first dive into a story that attacks the integrity of the press would not fare well with critics that worked for newspapers and other publications around America. They saw it as an attack on their own character as reports and their livelihood, panning the picture as melodrama too unbelievable to enjoy. Audiences were not kind to the picture either. Depicting how easily swayed the general public can be with sensationalism offended many and was further supported negatively by the press swaying many to avoid it during it theatrical run. At the time Ace in the Hole was considered too cynical and dark that it initially failed to connect with viewers.
Paramount Pictures immediately observing the issues Billy Wilder created with the picture’s release attempting coping with the negative press and appeal by changing its title to The Big Carnival without consulting Wilder. The name change did little to add appeal as the studio rereleased it to theaters and sold it to air on television stations to help cover some of its loses. It was official, Billy Wilder produced a flop, but that was only in America. Overseas the film was better received by more cynical artistic audiences, especially at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, where Wilder was awarded Best Director and the film was nominated for the top prize. Wilder felt the backlash in Hollywood, losing part of the control he earned up to producing Ace in the Hole, but the filmmaker would continue to believe the film to be of his best work.
Despite immediate failure and a name change, through the years the feature found increasing acceptance among viewers as generational shifts and the evolution of American views embraced Wilder’s film. A new generation of filmmakers would embrace the production and its message. In the latter years of the century it was clear the movie was one of the best in American cinema, praised by filmmakers and film historians. 2007 saw a home video release of the picture that restored not only the film’s quality, but its original name, Ace in the Hole. A decade later the Library of Congress would preserve it in National Film Registry, further cementing the legacy the picture had on American culture.
A film can shine a mirror at ills of society playing an important role in the understanding of ourselves. It continues to be imperative that films like Ace in the Hole be produced and enjoyed so that we are reminded of what is both good and bad in our society, that we may be able to learn and become better. The fact that this picture can still speak to us today and be relevant manifests how powerful the medium is. It may take time, but this picture showed us how things can change for good while sadly reminding us some ills remain the same, doomed to repeat themselves without a better understanding by people.