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Ace in the Hole - (The Criterion Collection)

Classics and Comedy movie directed by Billy Wilder

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See Kirk Douglas act like a total ace-hole!

  • Sep 6, 2008
In 1950 Billy Wilder was riding high. Fresh off the enormously successful Sunset Boulevard, the German-born Wilder decided to make a very different film; one somewhat critical of the society of his new home, the United States. That film was called Ace in the Hole.

The movie concerns Kirk Douglas as a down-on-his-luck reporter who has been fired from just about every major newspaper in the country. Starting with New York, he's gone from large market to small, and now has ended up in Alberquerque. He's a self-described $250 a week reporter, but settles for $60 a week, and makes it clear at one point he'd be willing to take even less.

But his character, Chuck Tatum, has dreams. Yes, he does. He dreams that one day, the Great Story will drop into his lap. A story that will let him write his way out of the situation he's in, one that will let him write his own ticket and get back to New York.

That Great Story drops into his lap one day when, while on the way to cover a rattlesnake hunt, he stops at a gas station and finds out there's a man trapped in a nearby cave. He boldly goes into the gave, meets Leo Mimosa (Richard Benedict), the man trapped inside, and smells a story.

Immediately he begins to sabotage the rescue efforts. When the engineer in charge of getting Mimosa out explains that it might take most of a day to get him out safely, Tatum conconcts a much more convulted rescue plan, one that will certainly take days. Days during which he can write a great story about this poor man trapped in a mountin. A story that will finally take him back to New York.

Along the way he meets the slightly corrupt sheriff (Ray Teal), who is more-than-willing to help him, figuring the attention boosts his chances of getting relected. Also present is Mimosa's wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who can't stand her husband and wants to leave. Tatum practically forces her to remain, saying the story works so much better if there's a grieving wife at home for him to focus on.

As the days roll past, people begin to show up. First just a family on their way to a nice vaction, who end up settling in for the long haul. Before you know it, the entire area is filled with cars, as people come from miles around to witness this great story. Eventually a large carnvial builds up around the site (in fact the movie was, at one point, called The Big Carnival). Access to the cave area, once free, goes from 25 cents a car to 50 cents, and then to a dollar. The gas station is making money hand over fist. Tatum is being courted by New York. Everyone is benefiting. Everyone but Leo.

Things begin to change in the life of everyone involved, including Tatum, when Leo starts to get sicker and sicker. Tatum quickly realizes the story doesn't work if the man in the cave doesn't make it out alive, and starts to try and change his tactics, only to find out that it might be too late.

The story is based to a great extent on real-life events in 1925, when a man named Floyd Collins became trapped in a mine. It also put me in mind of those stories back in the late 80's and early 90's, where it seemed like every week some kid was getting trapped in a well. If nothing else, this movie shows well that the media circus that errupted around those wells was little different from what has gone before.

When the movie was released, it was largely panned. Many people seemed to think it was overly-cynical and presented an image of America as it wasn't. The film also failed miserably at the box office. It did get an Oscar nomination, for the screenplay, but lost. Most people today have never even heard of the film, and that's a tragedy.

The movie was recently released on DVD by the Criterion Collection and turns up on Turner Classic Movies from time-to-time. It's an exceptional film, with stunning cinematography, great performances and a wonderful screenplay. It feels amazingly modern despite being 57 years old.

Roger Ebert said of this movie:

"Wilder, true to this vision and ahead of his time, made a movie in which the only good men are the victim and his doctor. Instead of blaming the journalist who masterminds a media circus, he is equally hard on sightseers who pay 25 cents admission. Nobody gets off the hook here."

He's exactly correct. The public that eats up these stories is every bit as culpable as the journalists who create them. If we ignore these stories, they'll go away. Instead the public lavishes attention onto them, encouraging the worst in journalism. On the plus side, at least in this case, it makes for a wonderful, if sometimes hard to watch, film.

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C R Swanson ()
Ranked #59
   I'm an aspiring writer and reviewer. I run a blog, I'm working on a novel and spend my free time reading and playing video games. I also spend waaaaay too much time and money on movies. … more
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About this movie


The character of newspaperman Chuck Taylor (Kirk Douglas) is best summed up by an astonished bystander (herself no soft touch): "I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you--you're 20 minutes!" Meet the "hero" of Billy Wilder's corrosive 1951 classicAce in the Hole(a.k.a.The Big Carnival), a former big-time reporter whose reputation is so tarnished he's now at an Albuquerque rag, chasing down local-interest stuff. Until, that is, a local miner gets stuck in a cave--a situation that Taylor not only exploits but actually manipulates, the better to improve his career chances. Wilder got the idea for the movie from the real-life media circus that followed the Floyd Collins story (Collins was trapped in a cave for over a week in 1925). Needless to say, the opportunities for displaying greed and venality are fully drawn out by Wilder; indeed, the film looks unbelievably prescient from a modern perspective of media overload.

Although Wilder had scored a success with Sunset Boulevard just a year earlier, he misread the public's ability to stare into the merciless mirror he held up to them in Ace in the Hole. The movie bombed. Paramount changed the title to The Big Carnival, thus wrecking one of Wilder's most acidic puns, but it didn't help. It also doesn't matter: Ace in the Hole is one of the truly grown-up movies of its time, and age has only improved it. Wilder's ear for cynical dialogue is honed to its sharpest point, and Kirk Douglas has one of his best parts, which he ...

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Cast: Kirk Douglas
Director: Billy Wilder
DVD Release Date: July 17, 2007
Runtime: 111 minutes
Studio: Criterion
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