Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder

This review is part of the FOR THE LOVE OF FILM: THE FILM PRESERVATION BLOGATHON  to benefit the film noir foundation who work for the restoration of decaying noir films. The blogathon runs from Feb. 14th through Feb. 21st. For more information on how you can help by donating please check out our blogathon hosts, The Self Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films.

Here is a link to the organization’s facebook page.

Manipulation, exploitation, opportunism, and hard-boiled vile, shaken, mixed and slammed into your guts by Billy Wilder. “Ace in the Hole” (aka The Big Carnival) is a lurid, take no prisoners portrait of the news media delivering a knock down nasty assault on journalism and the morbid character of the blood leeching public. No one is spared. A film made more than fifty years ago, yet more relevant today than ever.

From the moment journalist Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) arrives in Albuquerque in his broken down vehicle to the final shot of him falling down dead, his face inches from the camera, Wilder creates a rare work that scorches the celluloid it was made on. A disaster at the box office when first released, the film was a hit overseas in Europe where critics liked it for Wilder’s attack on American ethics, even winning the International Award at the Venice Film Festival. Wilder was stung by the bad reviews and poor box office and retreated over the next several years, sticking to adaptations of plays and novels. It was not until 1959 with “Some Like it Hot” that he would do another original screenplay. Critics in the U.S. must have taken the attack personally which may account for the hostile reviews. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, “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.”   I guess Mr. Crowther could not take a joke, especially when the morbid joke is on his profession.

Kirk Douglas stars as the egotistical, self-centered despicable Tatum exiled to Albuquerque, New Mexico. As soon as he arrives Tatum makes his way straight to the office of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin where he reveals his fast talking smart ass personality right away when he notices a needlepoint hanging on the wall with the words TELL THE TRUTH weaved in. “Who did that?” He questions. A woman sitting nearby responds, “Mr. Boot, but I did the needlework.” Tatum’s sarcastic retort, “I wish I could coin’em like that. If I ever do, will you embroider it for me?”

He talks Boot, the publisher, into giving him a job, admitting that drinking, a libel suit and fooling around with a publisher’s wife got him kicked off eleven newspapers back east.  Now he wants to get the one big story, the one that is going to take him back to New York.

One year later Tatum is still doing county fairs and rattlesnake hunt stories. His big break comes when a poor sap named, Leo Minosa, is trapped in an Indian Cave dwelling while searching for ancient artifacts to sell at his nearby souvenir store. Tatum sees the story as his big break and orchestrates a plan to prolong Leo’s predicament thereby creating a national media sensation and getting an exclusive story that will get him back to the big city beat.  Loraine (Jan Sterling), Leo’s trashy peroxide wife sees this as an opportunity to split from her dull life of five years until Tatum convinces her that there is money to be made and she would be a fool to leave now.

Soon, huge crowds, paying a twenty-five cents admission, arrive creating a carnival atmosphere trivializing the tragedy. For their money, they get a country and western singer singing a song about Leo, while a young woman standing next to him sells the words and music, along with food concessions, a carousel, souvenirs and a front seat to America’s latest sideshow.

Today, opportunistic journalists pushing the limits of ethics are a recurring trend. Remember Jayson Blair, fired by The New York Times for fabricating articles on the Washington D.C. snipers, and Stephen Glass who was fired from the New Republic after fabricating a series of articles on a young computer hacker in addition to inventing other stories. The news media, in general has become more about show business, making news more than reporting news objectively. You have a segment of the population whose only news sources are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. We have been subjected to countless stories of sensationalism and exploitation. There was O.J. Simpson’s Ford Bronco chase televised, with NBC even interrupting the NBA finals to join in on the reporting, and the coverage of Princess Diana’s death. So-called entertainment news shows, making “superstars” out of marginal personalities like Paris Hilton, and the Anna Nicole Smith saga that was practically on television nightly for a year after she died. Charlie Tatum would fit right in with today’s media world.

Kirk Douglas is perfectly cast as the caustic, success at any price, driven Charles Tatum. Wilder’s casting of Douglas is a perfect meeting of character and the right actor fusing together. Jan Sterling who made a career out of playing trashy women is equally venomous as Loraine Minosa, Leo’s hard-boiled low life wife who can’t wait to get out of town.

Wilder has been criticized for his unobtrusive camera. In interviews, he has stated he does not like it when the camera gets in the way of the story. Fancy camerawork just distracts from the movie. He makes movies, not cinema.  That said, in “Ace in the Hole” there are at least two outstanding uses of the camera that belie this fact. First, when Tatum goes to the church to get a priest to give Leo his last rights, Wilder sets the camera at a low angle from behind the car Tatum drove. He points the camera up at the gate entrance and the adobe church behind the gate, both of which have crosses that appear as if they are next to each other, a beautifully composed shot. The other shot is the last in the film when Tatum falls down dead, his face practically hitting right into the camera.

Wilder’s previous film, “Sunset Boulevard,” was a huge success and on its way to classic status giving Wilder his artistic freedom.  He decided to split with his long time writing partner Charles Brackett with whom he had written such films as “The Lost Weekend,” “A Foreign Affair,” “Hold Back the Dawn,” “Ninotchka,” “Midnight,” “Bluebeard’s Eight Wife” and others.  For this film, Wilder selected Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels as his writing partners. The ideal for the film began with a true incident that happened back in 1925, when a man name Floyd Collins, was exploring a cave in Central Kentucky and became trapped fifty five feet below the surface. The story made national news when a young reporter started interviewing Collins while still trapped drawing media attention and thousands of gawkers.

Tough acidic movies about journalistic integrity remain rare but there have been some. In 1957, Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” gave a preview of the power of the media in political elections. A couple of years later the Kennedy-Nixon debates would validate the power of television.  Alexander MacKendrick’s magnificent “Sweet Smell of Success,” a film almost as acidic and ruthless as Wilder’s film came out the same year and is a must see with excellent performances by Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. What a double feature, “Ace in the Hole” and “Sweet Smell of Success” would make! After watching that, you would have to wash your mouth out with Listerine just to get the sour taste out of your mouth. More recently, two films that have dealt with disreputable reporters are Costa Gravas’ “Mad City”, and Billy Ray’s “Shattered Glass” (2003). I have not seen either one so I cannot really comment though I doubt either of these films reaches the level of success or pungent taste that Wilder’s film achieved. “Ace in the Hole” is in a class by itself, and one other thing, nobody today writes dialogue as well as Billy Wilder.

*****

Note:  A couple of years ago I did a series of reviews for Halo-17 an Australian music and arts website which from what I can tell is no longer out there in cyber space. In the past I have occasionally linked to some of these reviews here at Twenty Four Frames. Recently, it seems all the links lead to an internet void, subsequently over the period of the next few weeks and months I will be posting these reviews here in updated versions. “Ace in the Hole” appears here in full for the first time.

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33 comments on “Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder

  1. […] not a big fan of Billy Wilder, but even I have to admit that Ace in the Hole is a smashing-good film. John Greco at Twenty Four Frames gives us a great post explaining why. […]

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  2. scott wannberg says:

    A truly wonderful film. I never tire of it. A beauty.

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  3. Ace in the Hole is the only film I can think of that can be described as “epic noir” by virtue of its darkness of vision and its scale of production. If you can call a film “noir” when much of it is set in the desert in broad daylight, Wilder’s film definitely qualifies. Of course, it’s a highlight of the “Kirk Douglas” subgenre in which the protagonist’s (usually assisted) self-destruction is a prerequisite. Was anyone else’s stardom so dependent on symbolic self-immolation? Douglas and Wilder were the perfect combo for this moment in American film.

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    • John Greco says:

      Samuel,

      Douglas did have a thing self-destruction (The Bad and the Beautiful, Lonely Are the Brave, Young Man With a Horn, The Arrangement) in some of his films and not always sympathetic either. I do wished they had worked together more often.

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      • Not to mention Champion and Detective Story, John. It’s as if Douglas had too much furious energy to live long, however much reality has belied that notion.

        Just to correct Sam J’s comment below, I personally don’t challenge Ace’s standing as noir, which is always as much a matter of mood as of cinematography, content as well as form.

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  4. Sam Juliano says:

    “Manipulation, exploitation, opportunism, and hard-boiled vile, shaken, mixed and slammed into your guts by Billy Wilder. “Ace in the Hole” (aka The Big Carnival) is a lurid, take no prisoners portrait of the news media delivering a knock down, nasty assault on journalism, and the morbid character of the blood leeching public. No one is spared. A film made more than fifty years ago, yet more relevant today than ever.”

    Indeed John, and I do fondly remember your HALO review of this film, which you linked to a while back while showcasing your initial review at TWENTY FOUR FRAMES. I also have long known of your great regard for the film, which of course is one of three Wilder masterpieces that seem irrefutacle (the other two: SUNSET BOULEVARD and DOUBLE INDEMNITY; others would make it a quartet with SOME LIKE IT HOT, but I’ve never been a fan of that one.) The film is a svage indictment of American culture, and the arrival of teh media circus, and it’s as corrosive a film as we’ve ever had in American cinema, as well as Wilder’s darkest film, edging out SUNSET BOULEVARD in this sense. Samuel Wilson’s rightful difficulty in accepting this as noir might well have received it’s most eloquent definition from critic Molly Haskell:

    “Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole almost requires an honorary expansion of the term film noir. There are no private eyes in seedy offices or femmes fatales lurking in the shadows of neon-lit doorways, no forces of evil arrayed against a relatively honorable hero. This emotional snake pit, the darkest of Wilder’s dark meditations on American folkways, takes place under the relentless sun of a flat New Mexican desert. The noir is interior—inside a mountain tunnel where a man is trapped and suffocating, and inside the mind of a reporter rotting from accumulated layers of self-induced moral grime.”

    This is a towering John Greco review that extravagently celebrates this great film from every angle imaginable.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks much Sam,

      Granted this film does not contain the dark mean streets of many noir films yet it so dark in attitude, along with Jan Sterling’s witchy wife, it transcends the standard definition.

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    • Great review of a stark but incisive portrait of journalistic compromise. Ace in the Hole is one of my favourite films from the 1950’s. It is as powerful as Ray’s Bigger Than Life and the aforementioned Sweet Smell of Success. Also, Wilder, unlike many filmmakers of recent years does not undermine his dark message with a conventional Hollywood ending. Wilder’s cynical worldview remains as the film fades to black. I admire him for craftsmanship and his avoidance of simplistic genre conventions in creating one of his landmark films Ace in the Hole. Bravo!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Kirk: Shouldn’t you be in church?

    Jan: Kneeling bags my nylons.

    Kirk: I’ve seen hard-boiled eggs before, but you — you’re 20 minutes.

    Cut to the Chilean miners.

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  6. Dave Crosby says:

    I agree that this is one of your best reviews, John. And I am so happy that you discussed Wilder’s use of the camera as a director. Like George Cukor, Wilder was thought of as someone who elected not to use editing and camera angles and movement to tell the story and to be ‘unobtrusive’ in his directorial techniques. In Cukor’s “Gaslight” with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, the use of point-of-view in the concert sequence, for example, and the perfection of lighting, use of chiaroscuro, settings and so forth and his ability to choose the perfect framing for each shot belie that notion. Wilder as well is so skillful in using composition and montage that few notice the power of his visual sense. In “Some Like It Hot” for example Wilder’s camera always allows us to see the interiors so we can understand the movement of characters. And he always chooses just the right angle, low, high, looking up or down, to create the right emotional response in the viewer. I have always admired directors who can involve us in the characters and their stories by the use of camera work so sophisticated that we never seem to notice that the director has done anything at all. I hope you will address this mainstay of directing in greater detail in the future. Thanks once again for a dynamite review.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Dave,

      Wilder of course came from a writer background. I always considered his use of the camera subtle but the framing is always perfectly placed. I think I read or heard an interview with Wilder where he said something like, if the audience notices the camera, he considered the scene a failure distracting from the story.

      I hope to write more on Wilder, Dave. thanks again.

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  7. one of Billy Wilder’s most astute films. Eerie how things have not really changed.

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    • John Greco says:

      That is true except it is probably worst today than back then. There is a good film from the early 1930’s called FIVE STAR FINAL with Edward G. Robinson that also shows how far reporters and newspapers go to get a story.

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  8. Brent Allard says:

    Love this film, I’d be hard pressed to choose between it and Double Indemnity if picking a favorite of Wilder’s. Douglas couldn’t be better for the part. The film’s accusation of the media circus has certainly been substantiated. If anything, I think “Ace in the Hole” may have been too kind, although it certainly doesn’t flinch and the analogy hits pretty hard.

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    • John Greco says:

      Brent,

      Wilder is one of my favorite directors an DOUBLE INDEMNITY is a masterpiece as is this film. I would be hard pressed to select which I like better… and just to make it more difficult I would add in SUNSET BLVD along with these two as a masterpiece, and that is just his noir films. I will not even go into his other great works. Thanks!!!

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  9. Terrific review of a truly marvelous, albeit unbelievably caustic film. Kirk Douglas was truly superb in it. And yeah, what a double feature it would make with Sweet Smell of Success!!!

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  10. Bill Hicks says:

    With Fox News the cynicism and manipulation has been wholesaled.

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  11. Gary says:

    Hi John:

    “Ace in The Hole” was actually paired with “Sweet Smell” back in the eighties when NY’s Ziegfeld Theatre ran a “Tough Guys” retro to mark the premiere of that film which was the last pairing of Douglas and Lancaster. To see both films on the Ziegfeld’s big screen was quite an event, especially that devastating last shot of Tatum dead, plus this was my first time with “Sweet Smell,” a true “cookie full of arsenic.” Bythe way, it took years for “Ace” to reach DVD and Criterion did a great job with it.

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    • John Greco says:

      Hi Gary,

      Wow! That had to be an acidic double feature. I would of loved to have been there. I love both films and hope someday to tackle “Sweet Smell of Success” here. I agree with you on the Criterion release of “Ace.” Criterion is one of the best companies around.

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      • Great review you’ve written about a great film. I hope you get around to “Sweet Smell of Success.” I understand how you’d feel about that double feature – fantastic films whose cynical power gives you a punch in the gut.

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      • John Greco says:

        I do hope to do something on SWEET SMELL in the future. So keep checking back. Thanks!!!

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  12. sinaphile says:

    Love this piece! Always thought Ace & Sweet Smell would be an outstanding double feature.

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  13. John Greco says:

    Thanks,appreciate it. Ace and Sweet Smell were paired together at least once back in the 1980’s. Check out Gary’s comment just above.

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  14. […] motley crew of disciples and a load of hoopla shudderingly reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s scathing Ace in the Hole. Like Harold, the reader can’t wait for them to be shaken off, and the lone pilgrim to get back […]

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  15. […] Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder (twentyfourframes.wordpress.com) […]

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