By the time he made 1951’s Ace in the Hole director Billy Wilder had already earned his reputation as a cynical filmmaker. Three of Wilder’s earlier films—Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard—had already firmly established the director as someone who was interested in showing the darker side of humanity. And while those films certainly were dark explorations of desire, greed and excess, all were merely test-runs for what was to be considered Wilder’s most cynical film, as well as one of the most pessimistic motion pictures of all time.
Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter whose problems with alcohol have sent him on a downward spiral of working for major publications in Boston and New York to hustling a job in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tatum views his new gig in Albuquerque as an opportunity to reestablish his reputation, but after a year at the small paper, he holds everything and everyone around him with contempt. Things take a dramatic turn when Tatum lucks into the story of a lifetime. It seems that a cave-in at an ancient Indian burial ground has left local treasure hunter Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) trapped and fighting for his life. Tatum sees the potential for a great story in Leo’s plight. As word of Leo’s predicament begins to spread, other reporters and curious onlookers descend on the scene, as the rescue operation quickly transforms into a crass media circus, complete with carnival rides and souvenirs. But Tatum is the one calling the shots, manipulating everyone around him so that he gets the biggest story possible—he even manages to convince rescue workers to take an alternate, longer route, which will allow his story to drag on longer. Tatum, however, is not alone in his opportunism. He is joined by Leo’s uncaring wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who hopes to cash in on the tragedy, and the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal) eager for re-election. But as the rescue operation drags on for days and days, it soon becomes clear that Leo is not likely to survive, and that realization begins to tear Tatum apart, as he wrestles with the fact that he will be responsible for the man’s death.
Billy Wilder has long been considered one of the best filmmakers of all time, with a long list of credits that includes such classic films as Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Spirit of St. Louis and Sunset Boulevard. Ace in the Hole solidifies that already well-deserved reputation if for no other reason than it may actually be the director’s best work. Everything that makes Wilder’s films so memorable—an incredible sense of visual storytelling married with superb writing—is found here. And while there are many that would argue over where Ace in the Hole stands with Wilder’s other films, there is no denying the overall purity of the work. Simply put: Ace in the Hole is uncompromising in both its cinematic vision and its condemnation of the media.
Like all of Wilder’s films, Ace in the Hole is brimming with symbolism. Part of the magic of Wilder’s filmmaking was the way he would layer a scene with information and ideas, some subtle and some incredibly obvious. Either way, everything has a purpose and meaning, from the way a shadow falls across a face to the eye movement of an actor. As Tatum first descends into the cave, Wilder is offering a symbolic foreshadowing of the fate that awaits his morally ambiguous anti-hero.
Prior to its initial release, and without Wilder’s consent, Paramount changed the title of the film to The Big Carnival. At the time of its original release, it was not well-received by critics, who saw it as being too cynical and too bitter. The film did poorly in the United States, making it the first of Wilder’s films to be a commercial and critical failure, and eventually becoming something of a forgotten entry in Wilder’s filmography. With no initial release on home video, and only the occasional broadcast on channels like American Movie Classics, Ace in the Hole became more of a cult film, finding an audience primarily among diehard film fans, students, and filmmakers who were lucky enough to see it. It wasn’t until 2007, when the film was released as part of the Criterion Collection, that Ace in the Hole began to grow beyond its status as something of an obscure cult film.
Though it was considered cynical and an unfair depiction of the media when it was released in 1951, Ace in the Hole proved to be prophetic, with many of the film’s concepts and themes later going on to inform such films as Network. The world in which the line between journalism and entertainment blurs to the point they become one and the same has arrived. And while a character like Chuck Tatum may have seemed outrageous in 1951, he is what many contemporary “journalists”have become. To go one step further, Ace in the Hole offers an eerie glimpse at how the media and the public would react to the real-life tragic such as the events of September 11, fifty years after Wilder’s movie was released.
Ace in the Hole is nothing short of brilliant. It deserves its place as one of the best films by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.