#256) Ace in the Hole (1951)

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#256) Ace in the Hole (1951)

OR “The Big Carnival” (Seriously, that’s the films other title)

Directed by Billy Wilder

Written by Wilder & Lesser Samuels & Walter Newman

Class of 2017

The Plot: Down on his luck reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has been fired from a big New York paper and has landed at the much more rural Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. After a year of small town news, Chuck learns about local man Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) trapped in a nearby cave. Although a quick rescue is being planned, Chuck is able to delay things in order to play up the story in the newspaper. Chuck manages to corrupt Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) and the town sheriff (Ray Teal) in the process, the Sun-Bulletin’s circulation skyrockets, and a pickup from the Associated Press leads to the cave site being visited by thousands of onlookers. Is all of this journalistic aggrandizement worth the life of one man?

Why It Matters: The NFR spends most of the write-up on a plot synopsis, but does call the film “[a] deeply cynical look at journalism” and “a scathing tale of media manipulation”.

But Does It Really?: Hmmm…how did a movie about sensationalizing the news make the NFR in 2017? I wonder….

“Ace in the Hole” is one of those “wasn’t that already on the list” kinda movies; you know it’s regarded as a classic, but it’s not on the top of anyone’s list. “Ace” is definitely a minor classic compared to Wilder’s other work, but should absolutely be commended for its prescient takedown of yellow journalism and the public that eats it up. For all of this film’s pros (and there are plenty), it never fires on all cylinders the way you want a classic to. Wilder had just ended his writing partnership with Charles Brackett, and the screenplay suffers a bit from this new collaboration. “Ace in the Hole” is sub-par Wilder, but that’s still better than most directors’ best. Worth a watch, but as its belated NFR induction indicates, it’s not appointment viewing.

Shout Outs: Federber works for Pacific All-Risk, the same insurance company from “Double Indemnity”.

Everybody Gets One: Walter Newman was relatively new to screenwriting when he worked with Wilder on “Ace”, while Lesser Samuels was coming fresh off of his Oscar-nominated work penning the social drama “No Way Out”. Jan Sterling’s career was just taking off when she played Lorraine Minosa, and she was a few years shy of her Oscar-nominated performance in “The High and the Mighty”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Quick references to Life and Look Magazine, plus a meditation on the lost culture of Roadside America. On a more upsetting note, this movie has enough casual racism towards Native Americans to make John Ford blush.

Take a Shot: Chuck says the title just once when talking up the story to Sheriff Kretzer. I like to think they dubbed over the line when they changed the title. “What’d you have, pair of deuces? This is better; here we’ve got an [The Big Carnival].”

Seriously, Oscars?: Well, something had to follow “Sunset Boulevard”. “Ace in the Hole” didn’t go over well with either critics or audiences, but did manage one Oscar nomination for its screenplay, losing to “An American in Paris”. No one was ready to praise a movie that, as the Hollywood Reporter put it at the time, “is nothing more than an uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions – democratic government and the free press.” Wow, that’s dated.

Other notes

  • Here’s a rarity amongst NFR films; “Ace in the Hole” has a second title. Shortly before the film’s release, Paramount renamed it “The Big Carnival”. Wilder disapproved and eventually got “Ace in the Hole” restored, but TV prints carried the “Carnival” name for several decades.
  • “Ace in the Hole” was inspired by two real-life events: the Floyd Collins entrapment of 1925, and the similar Kathy Fiscus rescue of 1949. Both events received a massive amount of media attention, simultaneously demonstrating the mass power and exploitation of anyone making national news.
  • If you’re going to replace Charles Brackett, why pick one of the Lesser Samuels?
  • Between this and “The Bad and the Beautiful”, Kirk Douglas loves playing unapologetically assertive characters. I haven’t seen “Lust for Life”, but was Van Gogh like this?
  • If the copy boy at the beginning looks familiar, it’s because he saw you litter.
  • Oh Leo, how dumb are you? And while you’re down there, can you tell The Goonies “Hey you guuuuuys!
  • Yeah, there’s something missing from this script. If nothing else, this film is concrete evidence of what the likes of Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond contributed to a Billy Wilder movie.
  • Best line in the movie: “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”
  • The carnival that sets up near the cave is provided by “The Great S&M Amusement Corp.” Phrasing.
  • Every character in this film falls for the old movie trope of repeating everything in a phone conversation for exposition.
  • Chuck says his journalism isn’t “below-the-belt” but rather “right in the gut”. Well, in the ‘50s everyone wore their belts higher up, so two things can be true.
  • Character actor Porter Hall plays Sun-Bulletin editor Mr. Boot, and it may be his finest film performance. He adds a brief touch of humanity to the proceedings.
  • How did “We’re Coming, Leo” not get a Best Song nomination? I still have it stuck in my head!
  • Well that ending took a turn.

Legacy

  • This movie’s legacy definitely got off on the wrong foot. Wilder was sued for plagiarism by a screenwriter named Victor Desny, who claimed he had pitched a Floyd Collins movie to Wilder in 1949. The court ruled in favor of Wilder, but an appeal led to Wilder settling with Desny in 1956.
  • “Ace in the Hole” was Wilder’s first flop with critics and audiences, but he bounced back with his next picture: 1953’s “Stalag 17”.
  • Wilder didn’t work with either of his “Ace” screenwriters again. Walter Newman would continue writing screenplays, among them “Cat Ballou” and “The Magnificent Seven”, while Lesser Samuels’ only major screenplay after “Ace” was “The Silver Chalice”, which is notorious for how bad it is.
  • “Radio Bart” takes a lot from “Ace in the Hole”, right down to the inspirational song.

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