Cast & Crew
As his car is being towed through downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, down-and-out reporter Charles "Chuck" Tatum passes by the Sun Bulletin newspaper office and rushes inside. After Chuck boldly informs conservative editor Jacob Q. Boot that he is a $250-a-week reporter but can be had for $50 a week, Boot offers him a job on condition he stay clean and sober. Chuck, who admits his reckless, caustic behavior led to his dismissal from many prestigious Eastern newspapers, embraces Boot's terms, confident that his next big break will soon come. A year later, however, Chuck is still working at the Bulletin when Boot assigns him and cub reporter-photographer Herbie Cook to cover a rattlesnake hunt. On the way, Herbie and Chuck stop for gas at a remote trading post and soon discover that the young proprietor, Leo Minosa, is trapped in a cave in a nearby Indian cliff dwelling. When an Indian tells Chuck that the cave is in the sacred Mountain of the Seven Vultures, Chuck senses a story opportunity. Ignoring a deputy sheriff, Chuck pushes his way into the cave with Herbie and locates Leo, pinned under a heavy plank inside a narrow, unstable crevice. Chuck soothes the frightened Leo, who had crawled into the crevice in search of Indian artifacts, and snaps a photo of him. As soon as he returns to the trading post, Chuck calls Boot and boasts that he has a front page feature. Chuck then arranges with Leo's cynical wife Lorraine to stay in her in-laws's bedroom, and while he is typing up his first article, they talk about Leo. Lorraine reveals that she married Leo, a veteran, right after the war, but quickly became disillusioned and bored. When Lorraine declares that she is leaving Leo while she can, Chuck, mindful of how her desertion will hurt his story, tries to shame her into staying. Lorraine refuses to feel guilty, but changes her mind about going after the vacationing Federber family shows up, eager to observe Leo's rescue and buy food and trinkets. Along with Chuck, Lorraine realizes that as news about Leo's predicament spreads, business at the trading post will explode. The next day, after Chuck's first story appears in the Bulletin , the trading post is besieged by visitors. After learning from Dr. Hilton, who has gone into the cave, that Leo can survive a week of entrapment, Chuck approaches Sheriff Gus Kretzer with a proposition. Noting how much publicity the sheriff would earn if the rescue went on for a week, Chuck convinces Kretzer to use his position to prolong the operation and, in exchange for Chuck's silence and support, guarantee him exclusive access to the story. By threatening to ruin his career, the sheriff then coerces engineer Sam Smollett to drill a shaft from the top of the cave down to Leo, instead of shoring up the walls and getting Leo out in a day. That evening, Lorraine, now flush with cash, tries to flirt with Chuck, but he slaps her. As Smollett's rescue team begins drilling the next day, the area is flooded with reporters, cameramen and tourists. Taking in the spectacle, Chuck tells the wide-eyed Herbie that they are quitting the Bulletin . When other reporters complain about Chuck's favored position, the sheriff announces that he has deputized Chuck and will not allow anyone else inside the cave for safety reasons. In the cave, Leo tells Chuck about his upcoming anniversary and his hope that his predicament will somehow save his marriage. Chuck again reassures Leo and is nonplussed when Leo declares him his best friend. At the trading post, Chuck runs into Boot, who has deduced Chuck's scheme and condemns his "below-the-belt" journalism. Nagel, a New York editor, then calls and agrees to pay Chuck $1,000 a day to cover the story. While the sheriff makes campaign speeches, spectators and newsmen continue to pour into the area, which now boasts a full-fledged carnival. Restless, Lorraine asks Chuck to take her to New York with him, and he responds with a hard kiss. Five and a half days into the ordeal, Dr. Hilton informs Chuck that Leo has developed pneumonia and will only last twelve more hours in the cave. Leo begs Chuck to stop the drilling, which is only twenty-six feet away, and bring a priest. Although Chuck refuses, he asks Smollett to shore up the walls as originally proposed but learns that because of the drilling, the walls have become dangerously weak, making shoring impossible. The next morning, Leo, struggling for breath, asks Chuck to give Lorraine the anniversary present he bought for her. Desperate and angry, Chuck finds Lorraine as she is about to cut her platinum hair and forces her to put on Leo's present--a cheap fur stole. When Lorraine protests, Chuck starts to strangle her with the stole, and she stabs him with her scissors. Though bleeding, Chuck stumbles to the sheriff's car and drives the priest to the cave. Leo dies as the priest prays, and once outside, Chuck grabs a microphone and announces his death. As the stunned crowd takes in the news, Chuck's rivals rush to file the story. Numb with pain and guilt, Chuck calls Nagel, declaring that he has murdered Leo, and drives Herbie to the Bulletin office. After shoving Herbie back to his desk, Chuck tells Boot, "You can have me for nothing," then collapses and dies.
Paul D. Merrill
Stewart Kirk Clawson
John P Fulton
Joe J. Merrill
John "bud" Sweeney
Iron Eyes Cody
William N. Peters
Dr. Francis J. Abdo
R. A. Blaydon
C. C. Coleman
A. D. Cook
Leo V. Killion
Charles B. Lang Jr.
The Big Carnival (Ace in the Hole) - The Big Carnival (aka Ace in the Hole)
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
The Big Carnival (Ace in the Hole) - The Big Carnival (aka Ace in the Hole)
Ace in the Hole - Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder's ACE IN THE HOLE (aka The Big Carnival) on DVD
Ace in the Hole is probably the ultimate in intelligent Hollywood cynicism. Wilder and co-scripters Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels envision a world where selfishness and greed prevail. Unscrupulous is too positive a word for Kirk Douglas's Chuck Tatum, an opportunist's opportunist who takes advantage of an accident to create a maelstrom of self-benefit. Ace in the Hole has been established as one of the first manifestations of the modern Media Circus concept. Nathanael West's caustic The Day of the Locust predates it, but that book limited its misanthropy to the madness of Hollywood. Billy Wilder's poisonous satire can apply to any misuse of public power that erodes human values. By saying that rat racers like Tatum easily circumvent notions of honesty and ethics, the movie becomes a blanket condemnation of humanity.
Synopsis: Stranded in Albuquerque, New Mexico, destitute newsman Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) bulls his way into reporting for the local paper of Mr. Boot (Porter Hall), hoping for a big story. A breakthrough falls in his lap when he chances into the no-town town of Escudero. Curio seeker Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a cave under what the Indians call the "Mountain of the Seven Vultures." Chuck immediately sets to shaping the story into the circulation builder that will catapult him back to the big time. Young photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) is easy to lure with promises of a New York career. Dissatisfied wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) wants to walk out on poor Leo, but Chuck changes her mind with promises of big profits from the enormous crowd that gathers at the disaster site. Chuck soon has the corrupt Sheriff (Ray Teal) barring all other reporters in exchange for favorable publicity for his reelection campaign. Rescue engineer Sam Smollet (Frank Jacquet) says that dislodging Leo may take a couple of days, but Chuck and the Sheriff have other plans. They bully Smollet into drilling from the top of the mountain, an unnecessarily slow process that will drag the rescue out for the five or six days Tatum needs to generate a massive media frenzy.
Ace in the Hole announces its gritty intentions with its title sequence, which plays out against a nondescript patch of desert dirt. When not inside the 'haunted' mountain, the movie's gray-on-gray look reminds us of Italian Neorealism. The exteriors have the appearance of a documentary. The pious elder Minosas are often seen in images that resemble Depression-era blight or immigrant hardship. The victims of Chuck Tatum's scheme -- the hundreds of tourist suckers represented by the gullible Ferderber family -- are like voracious insects, crowding the landscape with their cars and flocking to the amusement park rides.
Tatum's media circus snowballs as other opportunist 'vultures' exploit Leo's plight. The tourists want breakfast and lunch and need to be entertained while waiting out the ordeal. Chuck monopolizes the only access to the core of the story, an arrangement he manipulates to his needs. The pounding of the drill and the pounding of Hugo Friedhofer's dirge-like music score seem to be happening only in Chuck Tatum's head. In the film's most despairing image, a trainload of fresh necrophiles spills out onto the desert and hurries to join the carnival, like demons in the The Night on Bald Mountain episode of Fantasia. They rush to buy copies of a vapid country-western record called, "We're Coming Leo". Even the arts rush to cash in on the man in the hole.
The Escudero disaster galvanizes Chuck the way war news brings joy to the hearts of politicians and arms dealers. Chuck backs up his smart mouth with his fists, slapping a deputy (Sam Fuller's Sgt. Rock, Gene Evans). He threatens a sheriff and gets away with it. The more venal are Chuck's proposals, the more success he has. When power-hungry people are motivated behind a really rotten idea, nothing is impossible.
Wilder's dark viewpoint is not only unrelenting, it's unrelentingly unrelenting. Chuck Tatum is Shakesperian in his hubris and barely suppressed malice, and Kirk Douglas' tendency to overact only makes him seem more real. Chuck divides the world into two groups, himself and his "fans." His steady string of nervy one-liners is proof that the sick joke was alive and well way before standup comics hijacked the notion of civility. Chuck shocks the nice office lady by purring that he "could do wonders with her dismembered body." The poor schlubs that can't follow Tatum's sense of humor remain our only hope that the human race is worth saving. In this picture, Square is Good.
The movie's brutality is also physical. Kirk Douglas savagely slaps Jan Sterling, and his giant fist grabs her hair in a shot that might be the beginning of a rough sex scene. A reputation for sadism would dog Billy Wilder from this point forward, especially when critics claimed to be offended by his roughing-up of adored actresses like Jean Arthur, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.
The never-miss Wilder judgment seems to have slipped in Ace in the Hole. Wilder thought audiences would like Chuck Tatum because other people in the film, especially the sheriff and his editor in New York, were even worse specimens. Wilder gives Chuck a full character arc, allowing him to repent of his sins and, when he cannot reverse the evil he's done, maneuvering himself into the role of martyr. I think 1951 audiences tuned out of the story as soon as Chuck kicked his scheme into gear and purposely endangered Leo. There's nobody to root for. Meanwhile, the price of parking at the Escudero circus climbs by the hour. Wilder spends an hour rubbing our noses in the idea that People Are No Damn Good (political alternate: Capitalism is Evil). I'll bet that word of mouth was terrible and the public simply disengaged from the film. Nobody likes to be told that their middle name is Scum.
Wilder isn't exactly subtle, either. Chuck's quote of the title phrase coincides with his dropping of a cigarette butt into a glass of beer, equating poor Leo with excrement. Born masochist Lorraine responds to Chuck's fancy insults by throwing herself at him. "Kneeling bags my nylons" is beautiful in its outrage but far too harsh to be believed. By the time that Chuck must fetch a priest in case Last Rites are needed, Wilder's 'fun ride' of cynicism has burnt itself out. The creepy stopover to pick up the priest is either pretentiously arty, or inspired cosmic Americana. A handful of barrio kids converge on the cop car like Martians investigating an alien artifact.
Ace in the Hole is about guts. Chuck punches his stomach to illustrate the concept of "human interest," the sleazy focus of his talent. And the movie's second half is truly gut wrenching. A helpless anxiety sets in as the clock runs out on Leo, a feeling that earth's energies are being turned to its own destruction. The world is a big noisy carnival of alluring distractions, and while crowds dance some guy in a hole is calling for help. Society's capacity for pity becomes a ghoulish deathwatch.
Do we buy Chuck's conversion to a human being, or does Chuck's rage simply turn in on itself, like a mad dog? The conclusion is too devastating to merely shock, although its calculation points to a need on Wilder's part to really sock it to us: Chuck's nasty verbal joke at his own expense, the perfect-to-the-inch alignment of the final 'accidental' composition. Perhaps Andrew Sarris was right when he stated that, "Wilder is too cynical to believe his own cynicism." But Ace in the Hole is a searing artistic statement from a director who could have easily have made a mint with hollow Ernst Lubitsch imitations. It's also far more consistent than socially conscious noirs like Try and Get Me! and The Well, which dilute their hard content with sentiment or liberal preaching. Wilder made movies the way he collected art, with his instinct and his intellect. The failure of Ace in the Hole to find an audience sent him scrambling back to guaranteed laugh-getting crowd pleasers ... with his unique strain of sarcastic humanism, of course.
Criterion's DVD of Ace in the Hole looks great in a very good B&W transfer. Most of the audio is good too, but a couple of scenes have a tiny bit of distortion, as if some duplicate element had to be sourced. Nothing too alarming. The main disc has a commentary by Neil Sinyard that covers most of the general facts about the film quite well. The film's accurate but unappealing trailer mainly shows unhappy people yelling at one another. The short list of extras offer quality prime source material. The main attraction is critic Michel Ciment's Wilder interview docu Portrait of a "60% Perfect Man": Billy Wilder. It was filmed in 1980 but carries a 1998 copyright. There are other documentary movies about Wilder but this one is bright and fast, and uncluttered with unnecessary film clips. Kirk Douglas appears in a friendly-enough 1984 interview that isn't all that informative, and we also get a look at a 1986 Wilder talk session at the AFI. Very welcome are some audio interview excerpts from co-writer Walter Newman, who talks about problems with the story and an original opening logo that incorporated a close-up of a rattlesnake. It had to be deleted because the studio thought it might frighten pregnant women.
Spike Lee appears in a brief afterword expressing his admiration for the movie. A stills gallery rounds out the disc contents. A text insert has essays by Molly Haskell and Guy Maddin, and has been printed in the form of a foldout tabloid newspaper. It even has an ad for the County Rattlesnake festival!
For more information about Ace in the Hole, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Ace in the Hole, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Ace in the Hole - Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder's ACE IN THE HOLE (aka The Big Carnival) on DVD
TCM Remembers - Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder had the most deliciously dirty mind in Hollywood. The director dug into racy, controversial subjects with cynical wit and rare candor; he set new standards for film noir, sex comedies and the buddy film and his movies continue to inspire new generations of filmmakers.
Cameron Crowe, screenwriter and director of contemporary hit films such as Jerry Maguire(1996), was one of those moved by Wilder's film sense. The struggling filmmaker struck up a friendship with the 93-year old veteran and found a friend and a mentor. Their conversations were recently chronicled in a book by Cameron Crowe entitled Conversations with Wilder(published by Knoft).
Billy Wilder might have been born in Vienna, but American culture influenced him from the earliest days. Given the name Samuel, Wilder's mother called her son 'Billy' in honor of Buffalo Bill Cody. The name stuck.
Billy was as restless as his namesake and left law school to become a journalist. While grinding out articles for a Berlin newspaper, Wilder joined with future film directors Fred Zinnemann, Robert Sidomak and Edgar G. Ulmer to make a short film, Menschen Am Sonntag (1929). By the mid-1930s, he had written seven scenarios and even tried his hand at directing. After Hitler's rise to power in 1934, Wilder fled his homeland. Once in Hollywood, Wilder and roommate Peter Lorre had to learn English quickly if they wanted to join the American film industry. Together the German expatriates learned the language and began staking their territory in the Dream Factory.
As a writer, Wilder could craft realistic relationships with sharp dialogue; he proved this in his scripts for Ninotchka (1939) with Greta Garbo and Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire(1941). As a filmmaker, Wilder was well acquainted with the shadowy, brooding style of German Expressionism. He brought these two gifts together to create a landmark film noir - DOUBLE INDEMNITY(1944). He followed this cinematic triumph with a risky project, the story of an alcoholic on a three-day binge. Not the usual subject matter for a Hollywood studio, THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) nevertheless claimed the Academy Award for Best Picture. By the end of the decade, Wilder dared even to paint a portrait of Hollywood stardom gone awry in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Each of these films is an undisputed classic today, but even at the time, his films were lauded. Six of his screenplays were nominated for Oscars between 1941-1950. Three of his eight Best Director nominations also came during this period. Billy Wilder claimed the American Dream; he was successfully playing by his own rules.
By the end of the '50s, as censorship guidelines were easing, Wilder's projects became even more daring. Sex was central to Wilder's world and Hollywood celebrated his candor. He directed Marilyn Monroe in two of her most sensuous roles, The Seven Year Itch (1955) and SOME LIKE IT HOT(1959). More often than not, Wilder liked pointing his finger at the hyprocrisy of people's sexual mores. In THE APARTMENT(1960), Wilder took an incisive look at corrupt businessmen exploiting their employees for sexual favors. In IRMA LA DOUCE (1963), the world of a Parisian prostitute was lovingly painted in Technicolor tones. In Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), Wilder finally stepped over the line with the story of a struggling composer willing to offer his wife to sell a song.The film, which seems so innocent today, was scandalous in its own day. Critics called Kiss Me, Stupid pornographic smut and buried the picture. Audiences ignored it. Today, the film is a risque farce with great performances by Dean Martin and Kim Novak. The critical lambast deeply affected Wilder; this would be his last sex comedy.
In 1966 Wilder brought together the dynamic combination of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau with THE FORTUNE COOKIE. Director and stars teamed again for The Front Page (1974), a remake of the newspaper classic; and Buddy, Buddy (1981), the story of an assassin and a sad sack ready to commit suicide.
Wilder's many years in Hollywood produced an amazing string of hits. From sarcastic and cynical social commentary to outrageous sex farce, Wilder pushed his audiences to look at their own values and morals. He was an outsider who wasn't afraid to point out the follies of his fellow man or the worst aspects of American culture. He will be sorely missed.
By Jeremy Geltzer
TCM Remembers - Billy Wilder
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, "...no 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.
Released in United States July 1951
Released in United States November 1972
Released in United States Summer June 29, 1951
Re-released in United States January 12, 2007
Restored print shown in New York City (Film Forum) January 12-18, 2007.
Shown in New York City (Film Forum) in the series "Billy Wilder: 85 Years an Enfant Terrible" May 10-13, 1991.
Shooting completed September 11, 1950.
Re-released in United States January 12, 2007 (Film Forum; New York City)
Released in United States Summer June 29, 1951
Released in United States July 1951 (as "The Big Carnival")
Released in United States November 1972 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Billy Wilder Marathon) November 9-19, 1972.)