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The Classic Movie of the Day: Ace in the Hole

May 28, 2014

The classic movie of the day is Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, also known as The Big Carnival. It is an extremely cynical view of America’s fascination with sensationalism in news stories. It was released in 1951 and stars Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a newsman who’s been kicked off nearly every major paper in nearly every major city. While having his car towed through a small New Mexico town, he spots a small newspaper office. He decides to go in and offer his services to the publisher. The publisher, played with a reverence befitting a serious newsman by Porter Hall, agrees to take Chuck on, poor resume and brash attitude included.

So Chuck gets stuck in this tiny, sleepy, dusty New Mexico town for a year, wasting his talents on mundane news items about mundane people doing mundane things. He receives an assignment to go out of town to report on a rattlesnake festival and takes young photographer Herbie Cook (played with near youthful innocence and hero-worship by Bob Arthur) with him. While stopping to fill the gas tank, Chuck and Herbie discover that the gas station/souvenir shop/diner owner’s son has gone into the caves in the mountain behind the shop and has gotten stuck. Leo is the unfortunate cave explorer’s name. He is a World War II veteran who just went looking for old Indian treasure in the cavernous paths inside this cursed mountain.

Having a nose for news, and being extremely opportunistic, Chuck begins to make a national story out of poor Leo’s plight, going so far as to prolong Leo’s time in the mountain to drag the story out. He eventually enlists the help of the slimy sheriff, played by Ray Teal, and Leo’s trampy, all-too-willing-to-be-unfaithful wife played by Jan Sterling, to sell the story and keep it going.

This movie is extremely cynical, but not to a fault. It is magnificent. Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman wrote the screenplay with more venom than all of the rattlesnakes at that rattlesnake festival. It is an indictment of sensationalist news, and of those who consume it so readily. You will not believe some of the goings-on caused by the incident, but there is a reason why its alternate title is The Big Carnival.

The film was shot in black and white to great effect. You can see the shadows on Chuck’s face growing longer and darker as what he is doing tears at his soul. I don’t know that Kirk Douglas has ever been better than he is in Ace in the Hole. He commands every scene, chewing the scenery, barking at people face-to-face and over long distance phone lines, but playing sympathetic on his regular visits to Leo inside the mountain. Of course, he is the only one allowed to see Leo. It’s his story after all.

I don’t want to ruin the movie for you any further. I just want you to watch it. It is among Billy Wilder’s best films, and that’s saying an awful lot.


Here’s the trailer:



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