Ace in the Hole AKA The Big Carnival (1951)

“When they need you, they forgive and forget.”

In the film, Ace in the Hole, unemployed newspaper reporter Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) finds himself stuck in New Mexico. He’s penniless, his car has just broken down, and he has no prospects whatsoever. One thing Tatum does have in abundance is nerve. And it’s this nerve that takes Tatum into the local newspaper office where he bullies and bargains his way into a job as a reporter. Tatum has a checkered past. He used to work for big newspapers, but he’s “been fired from 11 papers.” He’s been at the top of his field, and he dreams of getting back up there one day. Tatum realizes that his best shot at fame is through the chance of writing a killer story–and he brags, “if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” Stuck in a small backwater town, the opportunities for the big break just don’t materialize. Tatum is on his way to cover the annual Rattlesnake hunt, when he stumbles across the story of a lifetime.

Tatum accidentally runs into a crisis–there’s a man stuck in an abandoned mine shaft/Indian burial ground. Leo Minosa is trapped and buried under some fallen rubble. To extract him carelessly could cause the mine to collapse and Leo would be killed. Tatum turns the rescue into a media circus–and of course, he’s the one with all the power.

The three main characters all want to escape in different ways. Tatum wants to escape the small time. Leo wants to escape from the mine, and his wife, Lorraine, a former dime-a-dance girl (Jan Sterling) wants to escape from the boring humdrum existence stuck behind the serving counter at the family business. The three characters collude–from necessity–and create a media circus in the middle of nowhere.

The role of Tatum is Kirk Douglas at his best–he’s hard as nails, cynical, shameless and driven. He never gives an inch in his inhuman drive for fame and fortune. Ace in the Hole examines the issue of ethics in journalism, and I doubt there’s a better film on the subject. This is simply an incredible classic film, and it’s a travesty that it’s not available commercially. Based on a true story, this film was a huge flop for director Billy Wilder, and it’s wonderful that this film was finally resurrected from the vaults.

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Filed under Film Noir

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