“Can you take it?” the Paramount publicity ads asked prospective audiences. “Can you stand pulse-pounding suspense? Can you take raw, tense drama? Can you stand shock after shock? Can you stand daring, stark realism?”1 Relatively few contemporary cinemagoers accepted the challenge. As the American trade press had unanimously predicted, Billy Wilder’s scathing satire, later described by Julie Kargo and Elizabeth Ward as “one of the most grimly cynical motion pictures ever to emerge from Hollywood”, would prove an exceedingly tough sell.2
“The Human Interest Story”, as the first screenplay draft was entitled, was inspired by a true-life incident. In 1925, a trapped Kentucky cave explorer named Floyd Collins became a media sensation. Things panned out badly for Collins, but a great deal better for young reporter William Burke Miller, who was slender enough to crawl into the tunnel to converse with Collins during his ordeal; he received a Pulitzer Prize.3 Meantime, the 18-day rescue attempt attracted a swarm of rubbernecks to the accident site before, two years later, Collins’ embalmed corpse was disinterred and displayed in a crystal coffin for the delectation of paying tourists who came to gawk until the cave’s closure to the public in 1961.4
Acerbically renamed Ace in the Hole, the film opens when former big-shot journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) arrives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with “a burnt-out bearing, no money, and a lousy reputation”, prepared to slum it at the local newspaper office for a few weeks until he can break a story that will shoot him back up to the top. Twelve months on, there is still no sign of the longed-for “loaf of bread with a file in it” until he chances upon an accident site alongside a remote stretch of desert highway. Tatum instinctively recognises Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), trapped while searching for relics in Indian burial caves, as his escape file, his “ace in the hole” – just so long as Leo stays trapped long enough for the story to build.
It takes a while for the true darkness of Ace in the Hole to surface. Early scenes portray Tatum in a similar vein to the wisecracking, smart-alec journalists of 1930s crime comedies. His humorous gimmick of striking matches against a returning typewriter carriage tempers the effects of his arrogance and cynicism. And, obnoxious though he is, it’s as easy to sympathise with his disdain for the small-town provincialism of the Sun-Bulletin offices, with their hand-embroidered “Tell the Truth” samplers hanging on the walls, as it is to recognise the irony of the poster legend behind his desk – “New Mexico: The Land of Enchantment” – when the hottest news of the past year has been a Soapbox Derby. By the time Tatum oversteps decency, we are already complicit.
Things take a nastier turn during the first scene in the cave system, as Tatum relates the Collins story to naïve rookie reporter Herbie (Robert Arthur). Lit by torchlight from below, his visage becomes a leering grimace as Douglas’ trademark dimple transforms into the cleft chin of a guileful Mephistopheles. Tatum, it soon transpires, is not the only character with an ethical shortfall, and he has little difficulty sucking others into his moral vacuum. A corrupt sheriff (Ray Teal) seeking re-election, a greedy contractor (Frank Jaquet) under threat of demotion, and a dissatisfied wife (Jan Sterling) looking for money to leave town can all see the benefits of backing his scheme to string the rescue out.
Often listed as a film noir, the picture’s lead characters and themes are as noir as noir can be, but while scenes in the dark, claustrophobic tunnels provide opportunity for the typical chiaroscuro, Wilder and cinematographer Charles Lang opted, for the most part, for a spare, documentary-style aesthetic. Shot largely on location under the searing New Mexico sun, Ace in the Hole might be viewed as a precursor to a strand of neo-noir that D.K. Holm refers to as ‘film soleil’; this parable of moral darkness unfolds in “the dusty land where dreams end” and where the blistering sun bores down like the judgmental eye of God.5
The conduct of Tatum and his cohorts provided ample material to alienate the press, despite Paramount’s boasts of meticulously researched journalistic process, ranging from its pre-production publicity stunt of apprenticing Douglas to the Los Angeles Herald-Express to its boast that Wilder was assisted by no less than five named newspaper editors to “authenticate his characterizations”.6 Reviews such as that appearing in The Hollywood Reporter, which branded it “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” reportedly inspired studio staff to nickname this millstone “Ass in the Wringer”.7
But the film’s capacity to alienate and offend went further still. With the rescue attempts filling the airwaves and syndicated to national press, the tourists begin to descend. “Mr and Mrs America”, as Tatum dubs the first arrivals, are soon joined by thousands – first revealed in a devastating high-angle panorama. The plot of land facing onto the rescue operation soon resembles a drive-in movie theatre, and Leo’s wife celebrates a roaring trade at the family hamburger counter before renting land to a carnival to further regale the thrill-seekers.
Thanks, in large part, to the pointed analogy with film spectatorship, Paramount’s contention that only a “peculiar kind of citizen” is prey to the “magnetism of morbidity” did little to alleviate the impression that Wilder tarred us all with the same brush.8 And, whereas the film’s original release title pointed squarely to Tatum’s unsavoury characterisation of Leo, an ill-conceived attempt to save the picture by renaming it The Big Carnival merely accentuated its misanthropic characterisation of the public at large.
The Production Code Administration insisted, of course, that the final act required “a proper voice for morality and […] proper compensating moral values”.9 Yet while Tatum’s character arc slumps into justified self-loathing before the puppet master is ultimately garrotted by his own strings, there is no such remorse or closure for Mr and Mrs America. With hindsight, Wilder recognised the root of his commercial misjudgement: “I brought the audience into the theatre expecting a cocktail and instead I served them a shot of vinegar. In effect I was saying to them, ‘Look, this is you, you bastards, because there is a man dying in this mineshaft and you are all sensationalists.’”10
Despite the mixed reviews and disappointing box office, Wilder would always consider Ace in the Hole his masterpiece.11 Almost 60 years on, it garnered fresh acclaim when myriad journalists found ratification of Wilder’s jaundiced views about the pervasiveness of morbid sensationalism in the protracted media circus surrounding the 2010 Chilean mine rescue.12 Although the passage of time has done nothing to sweeten the vinegar, in an age when cynicism has become increasingly rife thanks to ubiquitous media coverage of corporate and political corruption, and circulation figures continue to bear out Tatum’s aphorism that “bad news sells best”, Ace in the Hole has never felt more urgent or relevant.13
Ace in the Hole (1951 USA 111 minutes)
Prod Co: Paramount Pictures Prod: Billy Wilder, William Schorr Dir: Billy Wilder Scr: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman Phot: Charles Lange Ed: Arthur P. Scmidt Art Dir: Earl Hedrick, Hal Pereira Set Dec: Sam Comer, Ray Moyer Mus: Hugo Friedhofer Cos: Edith Head
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall, Frank Cady, Richard Benedict, Ray Teal, Lewis Martin, John Berkes, Gene Evans, Frank Jaquet
- Advertisement, Upper Hut Leader, 19 June 1952, p. 4. ↩
- Anon, “Ace in the Hole,” Hollywood Reporter, 7 May 1951, p. 3; ‘Brog’, “Ace in the Hole”, Variety, 7 May 1951, p. 3; William R. Weaver, “Ace in the Hole”, Motion Picture Daily, 7 May 1951, p. 3; Julie Kargo and Elizabeth Ward, “The Big Carnival (1951),” in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide (Revised and Expanded Edition), Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 1988), p.24. ↩
- Gene D. Phillips, Some Like it Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder (University Press of Kentucky, 2010), pp. 130-31. ↩
- Associated Press, “Famous Cave Victim’s Body To Be Reinterred At Mammoth Cave”, Ap News, 13 February 1989. ↩
- D.K. Holm, Film Soleil (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2005), pp. 15, 46. ↩
- Anon, “Quick Promotion,” Variety, 5 July 1950, p. 6.; Paramount Pictures, “Production Notes on Ace in the Hole” (1951), p. 2, BFI Reuben Library, London. ↩
- Anon, “Ace in the Hole,” Hollywood Reporter, 7 May 1951, p. 3.; Julie Kargo and Elizabeth Ward, “The Big Carnival (1951),” in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide (Revised and Expanded Edition), Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 1988), p.24. ↩
- Paramount Pictures, “Production Notes on Ace in the Hole” (1951), p. 1, BFI Reuben Library, London. ↩
- Joseph I. Breen, Letter to Luigi Luraschi, 15 July 1950, p. 1, Margaret Herrick Digital Library. ↩
- Gene D. Phillips, “Billy Wilder,” in Billy Wilder: Interviews, Robert Horton, ed. (University Press of Mississippi, 2001), p. 106. ↩
- Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017), p. 327. ↩
- See, for instance, Richard Littlejohn, “These Armchair Ghouls Couldn’t Even Point to Chile on a Map,” Daily Mail, 3 November 2010. ↩
- Maria Arango-Kure, Marcel Garz, and Armin Rott, “Bad News Sells: The Demand for News Magazines and the Tone of Their Covers,” Journal of Media Economics, vol. 27, no. 4, (2014), pp. 199-214. ↩