Ace in the Hole
is a 1951 American drama film
. It marked a series of firsts for auteur Billy Wilder
: it was the first time he was involved in a project as a writer, producer, and director; his first film following his breakup with long-time writing partner Charles Brackett
, with whom he had collaborated on The Lost Weekend
and Sunset Boulevard
, among others; and his first film to be a critical and commercial failure .
The film is a cynical examination of the seedy relationship between the media and the news it reports and the manner in which it reports it. Without consulting Wilder, Paramount Pictures executive Y. Frank Freeman changed the title to The Big Carnival just prior to its release. Early television broadcasts retained that title, but when aired by Turner Classic Movies - and released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in July 2007 - it reverted to Ace in the Hole.
Chuck Tatum is a fiercely ambitious, self-centered, wisecracking, down-on-his-luck reporter who worked his way west to New Mexico
from New York City
, along the way being fired from eleven newspapers
, and heavy drinking, among other charges. Although for the past year he's been writing for the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin
, a paper of little consequence, he remains unhumbled.
While unhappily on assignment covering a rattlesnake hunt, he learns about Leo Minosa, a local man who has become trapped in a cave collapse while trying to excavate ancient Indian artifacts. Sensing a golden opportunity, Tatum manipulates the rescue effort, getting the unscrupulous sheriff to pressure the engineer charged with the rescue into using a much slower method, so that Tatum can prolong his stay on the front pages of newspapers nationwide.
Lorraine, the victim's trashy wife, plots with the reporter, after the struggling Minosa business, a combination trading post/restaurant, experiences a financial windfall, thanks to the influx of tourists anxious to witness the rescue first-hand. Herbie Cook, the newspaper's young photographer, slowly loses his idealism as he envisions himself selling his pictures to Look or Life.
Slowly, thousands of others flock to the town, and the rescue site literally becomes a carnival, with rides, entertainment, and games of chance. Eventually, the party atmosphere dissolves when tragedy strikes. When Tatum learns that Leo Minosa is fading fast, he belatedly tries to get the engineer to switch back to the quicker procedure, but it is no longer possible. Minosa dies, leaving Tatum guilt-ridden.
The film's plot was inspired by two real-life events. The first involved W. Floyd Collins
, who in 1925 was trapped inside in Sand Cave, Kentucky
following a landslide. A Louisville
newspaper, the Courier-Journal
, jumped on the story by dispatching reporter William Burke Miller
to the scene. Miller's enterprising coverage turned the tragic episode into a national event and earned the writer a Pulitzer Prize
. Floyd's name is cited in the film as an example of a cave-in victim who becomes a media sensation. The second event took place in April 1949. Three-year-old Kathy Fiscus
of San Marino, California
fell into an abandoned well and, during a rescue operation that lasted several days, thousands of people arrived to watch the action unfold. In both cases the victims died before they were reached by rescuers.
The film set constructed outside Gallup was the largest non-combat set ever constructed at the time. It measured high, wide, and deep and included the ancient cliff dwelling, collapsed cave, roadside stands, parking lots, and the carnival site. More than 1,000 extras and 400 cars were utilized in the crowd scenes. After the film was completed, Paramount charged admission to the set.
In the original script, Tatum colluded with the local sheriff. Joseph Breen of the Hays Code office strongly objected to the on-screen depiction of a corrupt law enforcement officer and insisted Wilder add dialogue making it clear the man eventually would be made to answer for his actions.
The film's final cost was $1,821,052, $250,000 of which was paid to Wilder as writer, producer, and director.
Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote the song "We're Coming, Leo," performed by a vocalist and band at the carnival.
A character in the film identifies himself as a salesman for Pacific All-Risk Insurance, a fictitious company that was featured in Wilder's 1944 film Double Indemnity.
Following the film's release, Wilder was sued for plagiarism
by screenwriter Victor Desny, who claimed he had contacted Wilder's secretary Rosella Stewart to propose a film based on the story of Floyd Collins in November 1949. Wilder's attorneys
responded that not only did a verbal plot summary not constitute a formal story submission, but the Collins case was of a historical nature and as such was not protected by copyright laws. In December 1953, Judge Stanley Mosk
ruled in favor of Wilder and Paramount. Desny appealed, and in August 1956 the California Supreme Court
ruled his oral submission had been legitimate. Wilder's attorneys settled, paying Desny $14,350.
At the time of its release, critics found little to admire. In his review in the New York Times
, Bosley Crowther
called it "a masterly film" but added, "Mr. Wilder has let imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque . . . [it] is badly weakened by a poorly constructed plot, which depends for its strength upon assumptions that are not only naïve but absurd. There isn't any denying that there are vicious newspaper men and that one might conceivably take advantage of a disaster for his own private gain. But to reckon that one could so tie up and maneuver a story of any size, while other reporters chew their fingers, is simply incredible. The Hollywood Reporter
called it "ruthless and cynical...a distorted study of corruption and mob psychology that...is nothing more than a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions - democratic
government and the free press. Variety
was more positive, noting "the performances are fine. Douglas enacts the heel reporter ably, giving it color to balance its unsympathetic character. Jan Sterling also is good in a role that has no softening touches, and Benedict's victim portrayal is first-rate. Billy Wilder's direction captures the feel of morbid expectancy that always comes out in the curious that flock to scenes of tragedy.
In more recent years, the film has found new respect among critics. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "Although the film is 56 years old, I found while watching it again that it still has all its power. It hasn't aged because Wilder and his co-writers, Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels, were so lean and mean [with their dialogue] . . . [Kirk Douglas'] focus and energy . . . is almost scary. There is nothing dated about [his] performance. It's as right-now as a sharpened knife.
Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader calls it "cold, lurid, and fascinating, and Nathan Lee of The Village Voice says, "Here is, half a century out of the past, a movie so acidly au courant it stings.
Time Out London says, "As a diatribe against all that is worst in human nature, it has moments dipped in pure vitriol. TV Guide calls it "a searing example of writer-director Billy Wilder at his most brilliantly misanthropic" and adds, "An uncompromising portrait of human nature at its worst, the film . . . stands as one of the great American films of the 1950s.
Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine says, "[it] allowed Wilder to question the very nature of human interest stories and the twisted relationship between the American media and its public. More than 50 years after the film's release, when magazines compete to come up with the cattiest buzz terms and giddily celebrate the demise of celebrity relationships for buffo bucks, Ace in the Hole feels more relevant than ever.
In its review of the DVD release, Slate said, "If film noir illustrates the crackup of the American dream . . . Ace in the Hole is an exemplar of the form.
Awards and nominations