Ace In The Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)

Billy Wilder’s 1951 film Ace In The Hole (also known as “The Big Carnival”) was a commercial and critical failure on release, despite the big names attached to it. The pairing of Billy Wilder – who was riding a wave of momentum on the back of his Oscar success with Sunset Boulevard a year earlier – with big name Kirk Douglas meant that its lack of success was doubtless a huge disappointment and an even bigger surprise for Paramount Pictures, who lost some $600k on the project (a huge amount at the time). It has taken over sixty years for the general public to realise how good it really was, and thankfully it has enjoyed a Criterion release in the USA, followed by a Masters of Cinema mirror-release in the UK.

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The story concerns Chuck Tatem (Douglas), who is a disgraced newspaper journalist. Having been employed and subsequently fired by some of the biggest papers in the USA, he has arrived in New Mexico to seek employment at small-time and small-minded local newspaper The Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Determined to sit out the job and wait for his big opportunity, he waits longer than expected before a chance occurrence on the way to a rattle-snake drive leaves him at the mouth of a derelict Kentucky cave, which has collapsed and trapped a local man Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) under some rocks. Whilst his wife Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling) awaits the news of her husband from the outside, Tatem sees a golden opportunity to spin the story out and build the small story into a media frenzy. But as time progresses, the carefully balanced façade Tatem has created becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, with potentially tragic consequences.

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One thing that struck me about the storyline was the similarities between that and recent Jake Gyllenhaal film Nightcrawler – another film about a journalist taking things too far as his morals go out of the window. Whilst clearly very different films when watched without context today, it’s obvious that they both set out to shock in their respective cinematic climates. In Ace In The Hole, Tatum’s actions are clearly despicable, though the film was censored to ensure the audience saw no collusion with the sheriff, and also to give the audience closure on Tatem getting retribution of his actions. Fast forward over 60 years and actually Gyllenhaal’s character didn’t get any just-desserts in his role, committing heinous crimes and essentially getting away with it, opening up a debate amongst modern viewers about the relationships that television and written media have with politics and law and order, asking them who is really accountable for the way the media conducts itself in the modern world.

Ace in the Hole is just a genuinely excellent film. Douglas is a fantastic actor and that this hasn’t gone down as one of his great performances is a tragedy that can go someway to righting itself with these releases. It’s essentially a one-man show, just like the media circus in the film itself, but that is by no means a bad thing when the results are so effective.

Ace in the Hole is available on Masters of Cinema dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD now.

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