Friday, July 30, 2010

Ace in the Hole (aka "The Big Carnival") - 1951

Ace in the Hole (1951). Cast: Kirk Douglas. This film marked a series of firsts for Billy Wilder: it was the first time he was involved in a project as a writer, producer, and director; his first film following his breakup with writing partner Charles Brackett, with whom he had worked on The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard.

As reporter Chuck's car is being towed through Albuquerque, New Mexico, he passes by the Sun Bulletin newspaper office and decides to apply for a job. Boot, the editor, offers him a job on condition he stay clean and sober. Chuck accepts Boot's terms, believing his next big break will soon come. A year later, Chuck is still working at the Bulletin when Boot assigns him and Herbie Cook to cover a rattlesnake hunt. Herbie and Chuck stop for gas at a trading post and learn that Leo Minosa, while looking for Indian artifacts, became trapped in a cave in a nearby Indian cliff dwelling. Chuck thinks that this maybe the BIG story he is looking for. When he arrives, Chuck goes into the cave and finds Leo, trapped under a heavy plank. While Chuck tries to comfort Leo, he also takes a photo of him. He returns to the trading post and calls Boot and says that he has a front page story. Chuck then arranges an interview with Leo's wife Lorraine. He finds out she is planning on leaving Leo. Chuck, thinking that her leaving will hurt his story, talks her into staying.

The next day, after Chuck's first story appears in the Bulletin , the trading post is over run by visitors. After hearing from Dr. Hilton that Leo can survive a week in the cave, Chuck convinces the Sheriff to use his position to prolong the rescue.

As the rescue team begins drilling the next day, the area is flooded with reporters and tourists. Chuck tells Herbie that he is quitting the Bulletin. When other reporters complain about Chuck's position, the sheriff tells them that he has deputized Chuck and will not allow anyone else inside the cave for safety reasons.

The hardest part of the movie for me is when Chuck goes in to reassure Leo and he calls him his best friend. At the trading post, Chuck runs into Boot, who says that he is on to him.. Will Chuck do the right thing before it is too late?

Kirk Douglas delivers a wonderful performance as the reporter manipulating events at the expense of the victim. His character seems inhuman, but Douglas' performance makes it believable. This movie might be considered a film noir, even though it takes place under the hot, Arizona sun.

Fun Facts:
The studio constructed a replica cliff dwelling at a cost of $30,000. The set was located behind the Lookout Point Trading Post on U.S. Route 66, west of Gallup, New Mexico. After filming was completed, the set was left intact and the owner of the trading post used it to draw tourists to his store.

Residents of Gallup, New Mexico were hired as extras. They were paid 75 cents an hour for a ten-hour day. Extras earned an additional three dollars if they could bring an automobile to the set.

Jan Sterling made her film: Tycoon billed as Jane Darian. Ruth Gordon insisted she change her stage name to Jan Sterling. Her next film was Johnny Belinda (1948). Alternating between films and television, Sterling performed in television series during the 1950s, and played film roles in Caged (1950), Mystery Street (1950), The Mating Season (1951), Ace in the Hole (1951), Flesh and Fury (1952), The Human Jungle (1954), and Female on the Beach (1955). Often cast as harden characters, she played a more sympathetic character in Sky Full of Moon (1952). In 1950, she was cast as Ruth in the western series The Marshal of Gunsight Pass. In 1954 Sterling was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The High and the Mighty. Later that year, she traveled to England to play the role of Julia in the first film version of George Orwell's 1984. During the following years, she performed in movies, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, Kathy O, and The Female Animal. In 1963, she guest starred as Nurse Murdoch in the episode "Millions of Faces", Breaking Point. In 1967, she and Tisha Sterling performed in the episode "Eleven Miles to Eden" a western series, The Road West. In late 1968, she began portraying the role of 'Miss Foss' in the soap opera, The Guiding Light. She retired from films for the stage in 1969 and returned to television in 1979 in the miniseries Backstairs at the White House.


  1. Wonderful review, Dawn. This is one of my top 20 movies. I knew it as "The Big Carnival", another name under which it was known. I'm not sure why the name was changed. Kirk Douglas is perfect in this, and it is indeed a harsh look at the motivations and cruelty of his character. Jan Sterling did a really good job as the unhappy sleazy wife of the poor man trapped in the cave. A truly great film.

  2. Do you remember in 1987 when that little girl fell down the well? I thought of that incident when watching this movie.

  3. Nicely written and interesting review, Dawn. I haven't seen this movie but you make it sound so intriguing I will have to watch it. I have always liked Kirk Douglas. My husband thought the photo of Jan Sterling was beautiful. Enjoyed your review and all the fun facts.

  4. Kirk Douglas was absolutely vile in this film. He was so dynamic, being able to play SOB's like Chuck and then play heroes like Spartacus. Enjoyed reading your review, Dawn.

  5. Fine review, Dawn. As Kim said, this movie reminds how versatile Kirk Douglas really was. Interestingly, the plot was inspired by a real life event in which a man was trapped in a cave in Kentucky and a reporter with the Louisville Courier-Journal turned it into a national sensation. I always thought ACE IN THE HOLE and NOTHING SACRED would make an intriguing doublefeature on journalism ethics.

  6. Becks, Thank you. I think Kirk Douglas, is great in any movie he perfoms in.

    Tom, Yes, Ace in the Hole, does remind me of when the little girl fell in the well or was it a hole?

    Aki, Thank you. I hope you get the opportunity to watch the film, Ace in the Hole. I thought Jan Sterling, gave a wonderful performace. Even though she was a little heartless.

    Kim, Thank you. I loved this film and I hope I can add it to my DVD collection someday..

    Rick, Thank you. I agree. ACE IN THE HOLE and NOTHING SACRED would make a great doublefeature.

  7. Another excellent review, Dawn. I haven't seen this film, but anything with Billy Wilder in the driver's seat and Kirk Douglas in the lead sounds most intriguing. I used to work at a newspaper and had experiences just like Chuck, except for the whole cave thing and dealing with women who looked like Jan Sterling. Thanks, Dawn, for a memorable write-up!

  8. Sark, Thank you. I think you may like this movie. :)

  9. Hi Dawn, did you ever see the TV-movie about the little girl who fell down the hole in her backyard? I think it came out in 1989, and it starred Patty Duke and Beau Bridges. It was a really good film about the rescue effort; not exploitative. Thankfully, no one put up any ferris wheels near the house like in "Ace in the Hole".

  10. Hey Tom!, No, I have not seen the film with Patty Duke and Beau Bridges. I will check it out. Thank you.

  11. Dawn, this was a great review of a film I haven't yet seen. It sounds like Kirk Douglas played a fascinating role of a very questionable reporter. I think I would love to see him walk that line of ethics. It was interesting to read about the rate of pay for extras, who were reimbursed more if they had a car. Awesome write-up! And sorry I am so late in responding, as my family has been in the midst of a big move.

  12. Just to clarify (for you intrepid movie-location-visitors), the actual shooting location for "Ace in the Hole" is NOT (as some people assume) the Yellowhorse Trading Post's "Fort Yellowhorse" cliff site, but is actually precisely 2.7 miles east of the Arizona/New Mexico border on State Highway 118 (coordinates 35°23'53.6"N, 109°01'12.0"W). The shooting location is now on private property, but one can plainly see the cliff niche just 200 yards from the highway, as well as the adjacent railroad tracks, as featured in the movie.