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Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole(1951)


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The working title of this film was The Human Interest Story. After the film's initial release as Ace in the Hole, Paramount changed the title to The Big Carnival, the title under which the picture is frequently listed. The title on the viewed print, however, was Ace in the Hole. According to a modern interview with producer-director Billy Wilder, Paramount head Y. Frank Freeman selected The Big Carnival as the film's new title. Modern sources note that the change was made in reaction to the picture's poor box office receipts. Actor Frank Jaquet is listed eighth in the opening cast credits, but twelfth in the end credits.
       As noted in reviews, Ace in the Hole was inspired by the much-publicized tragedy of Floyd Collins, a Kentucky man who, in January 1925, became trapped in a cave while searching for a new entrance to the Mammoth Cave System. Collins, who had earlier discovered the Great Crystal Cave on his family's property, was pinned down in an unstable passageway after a twenty-seven pound rock fell on his foot. A young Louisville reporter, William Burke "Skeets" Miller, was slight enough to squeeze in and out of the passage, and fed and conversed with Collins during the rescue attempt. As in the film, Miller's reports about Collins gained national attention, and a carnival-like atmosphere sprang up outside the cave. Because of the precarious state of the passageway, Collins' rescuers, a group of miners, decided to drill a vertical shaft to reach him. After the passage suffered another collapse, Collins was shut off from Miller and died fifteen days into the rescue. Collins' body was recovered in April 1925 and lay in state in the Crystal Cave for many years. Miller was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his articles about the failed rescue. In the film, Kirk Douglas' character, "Chuck Tatum," mentions both the Collins tragedy and Miller's prize-winning reporting.
       Reviews also cite the Kathy Fiscus case as an inspiration for the film. In a contemporary interview, however, Wilder denied that his project had any connection to the 1949 incident, in which a three-year-old child fell into an oil-field pipe in San Marino, CA. Television reporters broadcast live stories on the intense rescue efforts, and the three-day ordeal became a national news event. Like Collins, Fiscus was found dead. Two other films, Warner Bros.' 1950 release Three Secrets (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50) and United Artists' 1951 production The Well, capitalized on the Fiscus story. For more information about the Fiscus incident, for The Well.
       Ace in the Hole marked Wilder's first effort as a producer and was the first film he made under his producer-director-writer contract at Paramount. It was also the first Hollywood picture that Wilder did not co-write with his longtime collaborator, Charles Brackett. According to Paramount production files, contained at the AMPAS Library, Wilder's co-writers, Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels, were paid out of Wilder's $250,000 salary. Modern sources note that Newman, a former radio writer, approached Wilder with the idea for the story. Modern sources also state that the opening of the first draft of the screenplay included voice-over narration spoken by Douglas' character after his death. Wilder used the same type of framing device in his 1950 film Sunset Blvd. Production files for Ace in the Hole indicate that Paramount paid Luis Kutner for the rights to the story "Cicero, Illinois," but no material from the story was used in the film.
       Paramount borrowed Douglas from Warner Bros. for the production, and studio files indicate that Douglas earned $150,000 for his portrayal. Although an April 1950 Hollywood Reporter news item announced Barbara Rush as a cast member, she did not appear in the final film. As noted in production files, Richard Gaines replaced Roy Regnier in the role of "Nagel." Hollywood Reporter news items also list Douglas Spencer, Edwin Montgomery, Kathleen Dennis, Aileen Arnold, Juanita Brandt, Joanne Cardoza, Joan Carey, Lillian Clayes, Jean Delare, Lucille Sayre, Otto Wildis and Mitchell Dylond in the cast, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. According to news items and production files, location filming took place in Albuquerque and in an area fifteen miles west of Gallup, NM. A cliff dwelling set was constructed at the Gallup site, and over a thousand locals were hired as extras, including a large group of Navajo and Zuni Indians. Additional filming was done in Old Laguna, NM, and Venice, CA. The film cost approximately $1,842,000 to produce. According to modern sources, the first cut of the film opened not with the usual Paramount mountain-and-stars logo, but with a shot of stars surrounding a slithering, biting rattlesnake. Fearful of scaring the audience too much, Paramount removed the shot from the picture.
       Although the film won the International Prize at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and was a hit with the British press, critical reaction in the U.S. was mixed. The Harrrison's Reports reviewer described the picture as a "superior melodrama" and Newsweek called it a "tough, disillusioned and remarkably compelling account," but Bosley Crowther of New York Times blasted it as a "distortion of journalistic practice...disgusting and shocking to observe" and Hollywood Reporter labelled it a "brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions, democratic government and the free press." Many reviewers complained about the implausibility of the story's premise, deeming it unlikely that a single reporter could control and manipulate a big, breaking story. The Daily Variety reviewer praised the picture as a "tense and suspenseful piece," but accurately predicted that it would have limited appeal at the box office. In a September 1950 New York Times interview, Wilder justified his decision to make Douglas' character unsympathetic by noting that "today everything is character. It's the new trend, and our people on the screen become three-dimensional instead of just silhouettes." Reacting to reports about the film's rocky reception in New York, Wilder stated in a June 1951 New York Times article, " matter what they say, it's got something nobody can see on television." Wilder, Samuels and Newman were nominated for a Best Writing (Story and Screenplay) Academy Award for their work on the picture. According to modern sources, despite its financial failure, Wilder still considers Ace in the Hole his favorite, most accomplished film.
       After the film's release, writer Victor Desny sued Wilder and Paramount in a $150,000 breach of contract suit. According to a July 1956 Daily Variety article, Desny claimed that in November 1949, he dictated to Wilder's secretary a four-page synopsis of a sixty-page treatment about the Floyd Collins incident, which Wilder then rejected. Modern sources note that Wilder's lawyers responded to the October 1951 lawsuit by arguing that an oral submission could not be legally protected and that the Collins story was in the public domain. In June 1952, Desny filed an amended complaint and asked the court to compare his written treatment with Wilder's script. According to modern sources, Wilder and Paramount won a summary judgment in December 1953, having convinced the court that the story was based on a historical incident and that an oral presentation was not equivalent to a written submission. In mid-1955, however, the District Court of Appeal reversed the 1953 ruling and sent the case to the California Supreme Court. There, according to the Daily Variety article, the court "affirmed the reversal" of the summary judgment, ruling that a writer with a story based on an idea not otherwise protected by law-i.e. one that is in the public domain-can still compel payment if he takes the proper steps to protect himself. Modern sources note that in August 1956, Desny received $14,350 as part of a private settlement with Wilder and Paramount.
       According to modern sources, director Spike Lee, who reportedly wanted to remake Ace in the Hole, copied the last shot of the picture, in which Chuck falls dead onto the floor in a close-up, in his 1992 film Malcolm X. Many critics cite Ace in the Hole as the inspiration for director Costa Gravas' 1997 Warner Bros. release Mad City, which starred Dustin Hoffman as an overly ambitious reporter. In addition to Ace in the Hole, Collins has been the subject of books, articles and documentaries. In 1995, a musical based on the incident, written by Adam Guettel and titled Floyd Collins, opened off-Broadway to much critical acclaim.