Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling in Ace in the Hole (1951)


(director/writer: Billy Wilder; screenwriters: Lesser Samuels/Walter Newman; cinematographer: Charles B. Lang; editor: Arthur Schmidt; music: Hugo W. Friedhofer; cast: Kirk Douglas (Charles Tatum), Jan Sterling (Lorraine Minosa), Robert Arthur (Herbie Cook), Porter Hall (Jacon Q. Boot), Frank Cady (Mr. Federber), Richard Benedict (Leo Minosa), Ray Teal (Sheriff), Gene Evans (Deputy Sheriff), John Berkes (Papa Minosa), Frances Dominguez (Mama Minosa), Frank Jaquet (Sam Smollett), Richard Gaines (Nagel); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Billy Wilder; Paramount; 1951)

“Thoroughly cynical film noir.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Billy Wilder (“Sunset Boulevard”), Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman screenwriting team create this thoroughly cynical film noir that failed in the box office due to its unrelenting cynicism. The story was suggested by Newman from a true story, and it is directed by Wilder. Paramount was so disturbed about the film’s criticism during its test market run that it changed its original title from Ace in the Hole to The Big Carnival in hopes a name change would bring better results. The theme being that “Bad news sells papers, because good news is no news.” It was Wilder’s hope that a disaster movie would be what the public wanted to see, but he learned the hard way that wasn’t necessarily so and never made a pic as acidly as this again.

Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a brash ace big-city reporter who has been fired by eleven papers for his alcoholism and now finds himself down-and-out working for a backwater Albuquerque, New Mexico, newspaper. With no money and a lousy reputation, Tatum takes the low paying job in the hopes of finding a story that will get him national attention so that he can return to the big time.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

After a year on the New Mexico paper, Tatum accidentally uncovers a story about the owner of an Indian tourist souvenir shop, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), trapped in a cave-in while scavenging for Indian relics in a tomb area that is sacred ground to the Indians. The ambitious Tatum recalls the 1925 story of Floyd Collins surviving for 18 days in a similar cave-in and that the Kentucky reporter covering the story won the Pulitzer Prize. Tatum decides that this is his best ticket back to a NYC paper, and ruthlessly exploits the situation so Leo is not rescued by the construction engineers in a few hours as they easily could have by shoring up some tunnel supports. Instead they are ordered by the crooked sheriff (Ray Teal) into using a lengthy big drill process because Tatum needs for the story to run a week so that it has legs. The scheme involves getting the sheriff, who is up for re-election, on his side by offering him good publicity if he allows Tatum to have advantages over other reporters so he has an exclusive. Also, Tatum needs to convince Leo’s uncaring mercenary wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) to act the part of the grieving wife because that’s the way the public wants to see her. Tatum creates a media circus through his promotional skills that draws broadcasters, the press, and profiteers. The site also becomes inundated with local gawkers and tourists willing to pay an entrance fee to enter the grounds and purchase souvenirs. This turns the store into a gold mine, but it leaves the cursed Leo (hinted at in Tatum’s newspaper stories and in Leo’s confessed guilt of digging up these sacred relics) in the dark and cold where he will die of pneumonia just before rescuers reach him (the cause of death becomes symbolic of the cold world). All the outside action takes place in the bright desert sunlight, where the merry carnival atmosphere contrasts with Leo’s real suffering in the dark.

Everyone gets something out of the story but Leo, who is in the hands of those who only pretend they care about him. In the last reel Tatum has an unconvincing guilt-trip meltdown about his part in Leo’s death (where he snarls and delivers a lecture to deaf ears in the press room) and gets his comeuppance over this staged hypocritical rescue effort. It was hard to believe that a man as arrogant and unscrupulous as Tatum would suddenly have remorse, as his redemption seemed too clunky a presentation.

Some of the crusty dialogue that sounded fresh came from Sterling. Recognizing Douglas as someone even colder than she could ever be, Sterling tells him “I met a lot of hardboiled eggs in my life, but you’re twenty minutes.” When Douglas insists she pose praying for her husband in shots the paper will use for publicity, she shoots back: “I don’t pray. Kneeling bags my nylons.”


REVIEWED ON 10/21/2004 GRADE: B –