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Many things about Ace in the Hole, the acerbic 1951 black comedy by Billy Wilder, are difficult to pin down-starting with its title, which was changed to The Big Carnival when Paramount reissued the picture. The studio hoped a new theatrical run plus TV showings (still a novelty in the early 1950s) might recoup some of the losses from its initial release, when it died a quick and dismal death. But the picture died again, becoming "the first indisputable flop of Wilder's career," in biographer Kevin Lally's words.
What's hardest to get a handle on is why a smart, savvy director like Wilder chose to produce, co-write, and direct a movie guaranteed to offend the very people its popularity depended on: reviewers and audiences. Maybe he gained a tad too much self-confidence when his previous picture, Sunset Boulevard (1950), became a critical and commercial hit even though many Hollywood insiders despised it. Or maybe he misread the American mood. Or maybe it was simply ahead of its time. Be this as it may, discerning critics now rank it with Wilder's finest work.
The idea for Ace in the Hole came from young dramatist Walter Newman, who convinced Wilder there was a great screen story in the 1925 case of Floyd Collins, a cave explorer trapped by falling rock in a Kentucky cavern. Since he was pinned down fairly near the entrance, Collins could receive food and talk with rescuers for about five days, until two secondary cave-ins closed him off completely. During those first days he gave an interview to a cub reporter from a Louisville newspaper, whose articles turned the tragedy into a national media event, drawing tens of thousands of gawkers to the area. The enterprising newsman won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. Collins wasn't so lucky, dying in the cave after eighteen days of exposure, starvation, and suffering.
Ace in the Hole, written by Wilder with Newman and Lesser Samuels, takes its broad outline directly from the Collins tragedy, which is explicitly mentioned in the dialogue. Desperate to jump-start his stalled-out career, reporter Charles "Chuck" Tatum, played by Kirk Douglas at his energetic best, takes a job at a tiny New Mexico paper, hoping for a breakout story that will restore his credibility with big-city editors. On his way to cover a routine rattlesnake hunt (!) he stumbles on the situation he's been looking for: Trading-post owner Leo Minosa has gotten trapped in a cave while digging for Indian pots, immobile but able to communicate through a narrow hole.
Rescuers are ready to remove the rocks imprisoning Leo, but Tatum persuades them to try a "safer" method-which will take days instead of hours, providing the time he needs to whip up a journalistic storm. Which he promptly does, getting sole access to Leo with assistance from a dishonest sheriff and Leo's unloving wife. His stories attract multitudes, turning the accident site into a morbid spectacle. The whole affair ends miserably for everyone.
This was Wilder's first picture after breaking with his longtime writing partner Charles Brackett, who had exercised a moderating influence on his more pessimistic views. Perhaps for this reason, Ace in the Hole became one of Wilder's darkest films. This didn't escape notice by the Production Code censors, but they weren't too bothered since Tatum gets properly punished at the finale. They did frown on the mixing of "Indian medicine ceremonies" with "legitimate praying" for Leo's rescue, though.
The box-office failure of Ace in the Hole stemmed partly from hostility in the press and partly from adverse audience response. Reviewers wielded great power in those days-saturation booking and all-media marketing blitzes weren't born yet-and reviewers are journalists. It didn't exactly please them that the movie's main character is a journalistic hack who enthusiastically risks another man's life for totally self-centered reasons; accordingly, many of them dismissed the picture as insultingly as they could. After calling it a badly written combination of "unjelled satire" and "half-baked melodrama," the New Yorker reviewer added that Tatum was "the most preposterous version of a reporter I've ever seen." The influential New York Times critic Bosley Crowther respected the picture as a whole, but claimed that the "responsible elements" at any real newspaper would stop a louse like Tatum in his tracks. Such huffy comments show that Wilder definitely touched a nerve.
Wilder may have expected press attacks, confident that moviegoers would spread favorable word-of-mouth publicity on their own. But the movie treats audiences as harshly as reporters. The people scrambling for a look at Leo's living tomb aren't just duped by Tatum, they're willingly and cheerfully duped into ogling a calamity that's depressing, degrading, and bogus.
In short, everyday spectators rank no higher than immoral reporters in Wilder's estimation, and he doesn't let anyone off the hook. As latter-day critics have noted, the sinister sideshow Tatum engineers is the first media circus, long before that term was invented-and soon it becomes a genuine circus, complete with admission price and fairground rides. In one of the movie's grimmest jokes, we see a carnival outfit arrive to set up shop, and on truck after truck we read its name: The Great S&M Amusement Corp. That's mighty scathing humor even by Wilder's high standards.
Ace in the Hole fared better overseas than in its own country, winning the highest prize at the Venice Film Festival and racking up good grosses in European theaters. Although its dismal American run prompted Wilder to choose safer projects during the next few years-adaptations of Broadway hits, mostly-he never lost his faith in the movie's merit. Running into Newman years later, he admitted that he lost a lot of studio capital when it tanked, but immediately added, "It was the best thing I ever did."
Producer: Billy Wilder
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels
Cinematography: Charles B. Lang, Jr.
Film Editing: Arthur Schmidt
Art Direction: Earl Hedrick, Hal Pereira
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Charles "Chuck" Tatum), Jan Sterling (Lorraine Minosa), Richard Benedict (Leo Minosa), Bob Arthur (Herbie Cook), Porter Hall (Jacob Q. Boot), Ray Teal (sheriff), Frank Cady (Mr. Federber), Geraldine Hall (Nellie Federber), John Berkes (Papa Minosa), Frances Dominguez (Mama Minosa), Frank Jaquet (Sam Smollett), Harry Harvey (Dr. Hilton), Lewis Martin (McCardle), Gene Evans (deputy sheriff), Bob Bumpas (radio announcer), Richard Gaines (Nagel).
by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt