Monday, May 11, 2020

The Dark Side of Human Nature in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole

Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum.
There are plenty of cynics in Billy Wilder's films, but none perhaps can match ambitious newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) in Ace in the Hole (1951). Once a star reporter, Tatum's womanizing, drinking, and tendency to bend the truth have gotten him fired from all the major newspapers. He still has enough talent to convince the publisher of the small-scale Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin to hire him. Chuck's plan is to hang around until he can find a story that will return him to the big time.

Fate provides just that when Chuck and young photographer Herbie stop at a desert gas station en route to a rattlesnake hunt. They meet platinum blonde Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), whose husband Leon has become trapped in a mountain cave while hunting for Indian relics. Chuck takes charge of the situation--quickly dispatching with a sheriff's incompetent deputy--and promises Leon that he will be free in no time.

Chuck brings news to Leon.
Within 24 hours, Chuck is writing front page headlines and transforming the isolated locale into a bustling hub of activity. He even convinces the crooked county sheriff that his re-election hinges on Leon's rescue. However, Chuck and the sheriff receive "bad news" when a chief engineer informs them that Leon's rescue is imminent. They want the story to last longer, even if it means leaving Leon in the cave for a few additional days. Hence, they direct the engineer to drill from the top of the mountain, an endeavor that will require much more time to free the trapped man.

In the opening scenes, there appears to be a glimmer of humanity in Chuck Tatum. He has the pluck and courage to navigate the dangerous cave tunnels to check on Leon's condition. He calms Leon, gives him hope, and seemingly offers genuine friendship. However, Tatum's motives become questionable when he prevents others from visiting the trapped man. His access to Leon makes him powerful and he uses that to manipulate the media. By the time Tatum intentionally prevents Leon's timely rescue, it's clear that his chief concern is his own career. As Lorraine so elegantly puts it: "I've met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you--you're twenty minutes."

Jan Sterling as Lorraine.
Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay, softens Tatum's edges by making Lorraine an even more unappealing character. She shows no interest nor sympathy in her husband's plight. In fact, she sees it as an opportunity to get away from Leon--until Tatum convinces her that she can make money from the situation. (For his part, Tatum needs a grieving wife to write about!)

Kirk Douglas plays Tatum as a driven, ruthless man--a master manipulator who can fake empathy when reporting to the public about Leon's condition. He is both attracted to and repelled by Lorraine, whose heart may be colder than his own. The heartless wife is the kind of role that Jean Harlow would have played in the 1930s, although Jan Sterling--in her first starring role--is quite convincing.

The strength of Wilder's film, though, is the director's transformation of the isolated gas station/diner into a mecca filled with gaping tourists, news media, and even a carnival. The level of spectator interest is cleverly conveyed by showing a sign about access to the Indian caves. There is no cost in the beginning, but then there's a 25¢ admission charge which goes up to 50¢ and finally $1. The film's alternate title The Big Carnival, is actually a very appropriate one.

Ace in the Hole was a rare Billy Wilder flop when originally released. I rate it as "good" Wilder, but not among the director's best work. It's too long and the ending comes across as a compromise with the censors. Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling both deserved Oscar consideration, but the film's only nomination was for screenplay.


  1. Paramount used that Big Carnival title in an attempt to resell it after it went El Floppo under its original title. An act of media deception worthy of Chuck himself.

  2. Having first seen this as The Big Carnival, which I thought was an appropriate title for such a sideshow, it took me years to get used to Ace in the Hole.

    Not a movie to enjoy on a relaxing Sunday afternoon, I have recorded it to "make" my daughter watch sometime soon because it is essential.

  3. Rick, as always spot on. I only just watched Ace for the first time a few years ago. It bothered me deeply -- both because of its deeply ingrained cynicism and because it, as you say, is overly long. That being said, Douglas (can't believe he is finally passed, after such a long life, sniff, sniff) is mesmerizing. And I agree Jan Sterling is in top form. It just seems to drag on and on. Not Wilder's best work, but that's like saying the Pieta is not Michelangelo's best work. ANY thing Wilder made was always good to very good.

  4. I like your phrase "fake empathy", a perfect description.

    This was Jan Sterling's first starring role? You'd never know it.

  5. One of my all time (a long list) favorites!