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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have recently embarked on a chronological retrospective of the works of Billy Wilder that is proving to be a wayward journey through some pretty uneven territory. He hit the jackpot early on with "Double Idemnity" a film noir with a script that is simply light years away in quality from most others of the genre. Then came a really duff period with "The Lost Weekend", worthy in many respects, not least for Ray Milland's superb performance as an alcoholic, but drowned in a plethora of hysterical visuals and a Miklos Rozsa score to beat them all in over-intrusiveness; the daft Austrian never-never-land of "The Emperor Waltz"; the equally daft mission by the unbelievable Congresswoman Frost to investigate what the military rank and file were getting up to in the postwar Berlin of "A Foreign Affair" and, to cap it all, that lurid melodrama "Sunset Boulevard" which leaves me completely out of step with its many admirers. The cocktail that includes a dead monkey, a German "heavy" manservant playing an organ, a has-been ex-actress and her toyboy who delivers the interior monologue when he becomes a corpse in a swimming pool is just too over the top for me. "Ace in the Hole" that followed is an altogether different matter. I have to admit it was the one I was not looking forward to as I had glowing memories of it as a youth. The pedestal of adolescent worship has on more that one occasion easily toppled. Imagine my delight when I discovered that time has in no way reduced the intensity of this savage attack on the power of a newspaperman to exploit human suffering to further his ambition. Politicians, construction overseers, the general public - their ghoulish instincts played upon - all are corrupted in Wilder's cynical attack on the basest impulses of mankind. It is a film where only the weak, the man trapped in the cave, his parents and the editor of a conservative local newspaper, show any sign of virtue. And yet, in the sense of dignity with which Wilder depicts them, they are the real winners, whereas the corrupt journalist, brilliantly played by Kirk Douglas, ends up by losing everything including that gift of life he has so cruelly deprived of the trapped man. In "Ace in the Hole" Wilder gave us a beautifully balanced moral drama, his only work to stand beside the best of Elia Kazan in its sense of social conscience. I know there are quite a few more excellent thing to come in his oeuvre but at this point I cannot imagine anything finer.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Meet Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas). With a low growl and a sizeable
assortment of personal affectations, he turns the tow truck driver into
his personal chauffeur, he lights a match on the sliding typewriter,
mocks everyone he charms and vice versa. With pride and self-contempt,
he manages to sell himself to a newspaper by convincing the
editor-in-chief that he is indispensable--even though he's been fired
from eleven papers for good reasons. "I can handle big news and little
news," he declares, "and if there's no news I'll go out and bite dog."
He is machismo and self-hatred, and he will do anything for a buck. In
other words, he is a typical Wilder anti-hero. A year later, Tatum has
taken up his boss's habit of wearing belt and suspenders. To stave off
boredom, he pesters his affectionate co-workers. His promised big break
comes a year later: when covering the story of a rattlesnake hunt he
hears of a treasure-seeker, Leo Minosa, trapped in a coal mine.
Enter Mrs. Minosa (Jan Sterling). The sneering bottle blonde would be as iconic as Norma Desmond and Phyllis Dietrichson had ACE IN THE HOLE been popular at the time of its release. Like Cora in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, she is trapped in a marriage with a man she doesn't love in a remote diner that doesn't generate any cash. Along comes the attractive but amoral man who offers both cash and sex. Most importantly cash. Cash is the name of the game for all characters in ACE IN THE HOLE. Leo gets trapped in pursuit of ancient Indian artifacts to sell, the implication being that the pursuit of wealth is imprisoning and that nothing is sacred. When Tatum successfully feeds off the sympathies of the masses, the S&M Entertainment Company trucks roll in to erect a lucrative circus. Folk singers, carnies, and thousands of people more interested on appearing on television than worrying about Leo amass. Everyone profits but the victim. When Leo's wife, after having drained the cash register of its last $11, retorts that "Honey, you like those rocks just as much as I do," she is not speaking just to Tatum but to the masses.
****MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW****
Never has a film noir more explicitly dealt with the theme of entrapment. Leo Minosa becomes a physical manifestation of the claustrophobia surrounding all the characters: Tatum's desperation to make a big story, Mrs. Minosa's desperation to transcend her dull existence, even the sheriff's desperation to be re-elected. In the mine shaft, dust streams down ceaselessly to pool on his face and body. Leo is being slowly buried alive while the drill makes a ceaseless, solemn pound. As it gets closer and closer it feels like the drums of death approaching, tormenting Leo. Grit gathers like fur on Leo's face, and the lighting becomes even more striking, casting ghastly shadows over his face. Here comes what might be Kirk Douglas' finest acting moment: The priest administers last rites for Leo and the camera cuts to Tatum's face during the words "bless me father for I have sinned. *I'm sorry*." Everything is there: profound guilt, shame, grief, a self-loathing that goes deeper than that ever-pounding drill. The consequences of his pathological ambition have finally crept up with him, and he too is being buried alive. The motif of suffocation comes full circle when Tatum wraps Mrs. Minosa's anniversary present--a fur that resembles a "skinned couple-a hungry rats"--around her neck and keeps pulling tighter. "I can't breath!" she gasps. He snarls back, "He can't breathe either."
This film is dismissed as cynical by people who don't want to acknowledge how close to reality it is. Acerbic? Absolutely. Sleazy? You bet. But there has never been a film--much less an old film--that so perfectly captured the bloodlust for the sensationalized human interest story. To write it off as cynical is to ignore the existence of yellow journalists who litter flashbulbs on their subjects, who ask them to confide their deepest anxieties before splashing them on the front page news, who alter and rewrite reality to make a better story. There have been other films such as NETWORK and A FACE IN THE CROWD that are praised for being crystal balls into the future of American media, but neither of which were nearly as condemning. There are traces of irony in ACE IN THE HOLE that can only be attributed to the fact that a story so excessive and absurd was actually based on *fact.*
57 years from its release and it hasn't aged a day. The only thing that separates the film from the world of today are the radio and newspaper journalists in lieu of television. There is a basic meanness, a violence, a grit that makes today's edgiest dramas look like white-washed fluff. Even Mrs. Minosa's wardrobe (a factor that ages the timeliest films) looks perfectly modern with its men's plaid shirts and rolled-up jeans. Billy Wilder has made half a dozen great films that could each be argued to be his masterpiece, but it is my opinion that ACE IN THE HOLE has and always will be Wilder's finest.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a great, mind boggling, unforgettable film. It passes the test
of time because it is, unfortunately, more truthful and relevant now
than it was in 1951. Billy Wilder makes many caustic and sardonic
comments on how people dwell on and exploit human tragedy. But on top
of the content, we have a film that is well crafted in all ways-- well
written, acted, directed, photographed and scored.
I first saw it on TV in the 70s, and then it disappeared (small wonder since it totally skewers the media). I'm sure it was (and still is) a required part of college journalism, media and sociology classes, as a friend of mine in college at that time said he had seen it in a class at San Francisco State College. It is a textbook on how the media manipulates (now we say 'spins') and exploits human tragedy for profit. How cynical it is, and what a sad commentary on the culture we have surrounding us today! Of course, 'Wag the Dog' (1997) is great, but it is pretty much after the fact. 'Ace in the Hole', on the other hand, is too horrifyingly prescient.
Charlie Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a former New York newspaper reporter now trapped in his own hole, a dead-end job at a New Mexico newspaper, sees his way out by covering the story of a man trapped inside a mine. He sees this as his way back to the big time, to a Pulitzer Prize, and also as revenge on other journalists. When Tatum's first story appears, crowds begin arriving at the mine site to watch the unfolding rescue. Although the man, Leo Minosa, can be rescued in about a day, Tatutm 'convinces' (forces) the local sheriff (Roy Teal in his nastiest role) and the mining engineer to prolong the rescue by using a drilling process that will take about a week, thus ensuring that Tatum can continue to exploit the situation much longer.
This film is a dark allegory and amazingly a daylight film noir.
Drawn into Tatum's web of exploitation and greed are the miner's wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling in her best performance), who when she realizes what is happening tries to profit as much as she can from it herself; Sheriff Kretzer, who sees it as a guarantee for re-election; and the innocent young newspaper photographer, Herbie, who becomes swept up in Tatum's visions of success and money. But this is not all: businesses arrive en masse (food and goods vendors, special railroad trains, musicians and carnival road shows) to 'serve' the curious. Lorraine's trading post and gas station become jammed with eager tourists seeking to follow the unfolding rescue. It all becomes, literally, a feeding frenzy and a media circus.
When Tatum enters the newspaper office, he notices the embroidered sign on the wall: "Tell the Truth." Although Wilder is hinting at how Tatum will embroider the truth to suit his own selfish purposes, Billy himself is telling us the truth about the media-- and us!-- in this movie: 1) "Bad news sells best," says Tatum; 2) "Good news is not news," he says, and then, 3) "Human interest" is not about how hundreds are being hurt or killed but it is about one person with a name. 4) And then, most damningly of all, Wilder shows us that we, the public, will eat up as much as we can of the 'news' of human tragedy! 5) So, therefore, what ultimately follows, as he shows us, in extremis, is a 'media circus' designed to feed not only our curiosity, but also our presence (ego). Remember that William Holden, when he was making 'Sunset Boulevard,' (1950) said that "Billy Wilder has a mind full of razor blades."
No wonder this film was a bomb (but not in Europe!) in the USA of 1951. Without his prior screen writers, Billy Wilder was now free to work without inhibition. The result was what we now call an 'independent' film, an 'autuer' film, a complete product of Billy Wilder.
How great is Kirk Douglas! Give him a retro Oscar! Billy guides him perfectly in every shot and action. When Lorraine realizes what Tatum is up to, in a great shot outside the door, she smiles and bites into an apple-- Eve has fallen, and catastrophe will follow. So many other great composed shots! The amazing 'drive in' overhead shots of the cars and the desert. So many great tiny bits of business (from slamming the typewriter to the rattlesnake in the box) that Billy added! The score, a thump, thump, pounding nothing, perfectly fits the environment and the theme.
Thankfully, the Criterion Collection has now (2007) released the movie on DVD! Spike Lee in his afterword on it goes totally euphoric in his admiration for the film, even revealing how he stole the final shot to use in his 'Malcom X' (1992).
An amazing, fantastic film to watch even if it is so horrible in its devastating expression of the extreme 'Tatum' world of media that we are exposed to now every day! I give it a 10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
What a good movie. It's hard to believe that the audience was
considered so sensitive in 1947 that the original title, "Ace in the
Hole," had to be dropped and replaced with this less ironic one.
Viewers were thought unprepared for a film in which a reporter
misbehaved, with lethal results.
"The Big Carnival" is one of the reasons the director, Billy Wilder, earned a reputation as a cynic. It was probably deserved. He had a keen sense of humor as well (Wilder: "I laugh at everything. I laugh at Hamlet.") but it's not much on display here. Instead we have a naive veteran pinned underground and an ambitious reporter (Kirk Douglas) who deliberately delays the rescue in order to squeeze the most out of the story. Instead of extracting the victim from the heart of the mountain the quick and easy way, Douglas talks the corrupt sheriff and engineer into doing it the long, slow, and ultimately lethal way. The tubby engineer caught in the middle is the unhappy Frank Jaquet. He mops his brow and imitates digging with none of the icononoclastic pizazz of William "Strata" Smith. Just a schlubb. Except for the victim, I felt sorrier for the engineer Smollett than for anyone else. Poor Louie Minosa. He catches pneumonia and dies after being given extreme unction. Douglas dies too, as the code of the time required.
Wilder's direction is fine. Douglas acquires a young acolyte and when they last speak together, the light is behind Douglas so that Douglas's sharp shadow blacks out almost all of the kid's face. In the last shot, from floor level, Douglas collapses and his dead face flops almost into the camera lens although the face is too dark to make out, his features, like his soul, in deep shadow. In another scene, Douglas is busily reading his mail and concocting additional material for the Big Story. Douglas again is in deep shadow. Beside him is the bright figure of Louie Minosa's wife, the trashy, blond Jan Sterling. She's a tough and narcissistic cookie out of Baltimore and, impressed by Douglas's power and his ability to bring in the bucks, she comes on to him with a wide and seductive smile. Douglas looks at her over his shoulder and says, "You're the grief-stricken wife, so stop smiling." "Make me," she replies, and he slaps her twice, hard, across the face.
It's a shocking moment and, despite Douglas's earlier casual chatter about his ambitions, the viewer suddenly realizes that this guy will stop at nothing. That is, he not only claims to be ruthless, he really MEANS it. "That's the expression I want to see," Douglas tells her smoothly. "Don't wipe those tears away." Everyone gives performances that are at least decent. Porter Hall, whom you will recognize, does a comic/dramatic turn as the stuffy and conservative editor of an Albuquerque newspaper. One of the few chuckles the viewer is allowed is when Douglas first asks Porter for a job and analyzes Porter as a small-time fellow because he wears both belt AND suspenders, compared to Douglas's flashy suit. A year goes by and we see Douglas too wearing both belt and suspenders. (He shucks the suspenders when he gets a job offer from New York.)
This is a finely made movie about two parallel scoops: an attempt to dig Louie Minosa out of his underground prison and Douglas's attempt to turn the story into a heady drama.
This is a movie I have loved since the first time I saw it as a child.
Douglas plays the lead role in "The Big Carnival", or "Ace in the Hole" as
it was originally titled. As down and out former ace newspaper reporter
Chuck Tatum, he finds himself broke in the southwest and manages to talk
himself into a reporting job with a small town newspaper. He and a cub
photographer are sent to cover a snake hunt and on the way they come
a more interesting story. A man hunting Navaho artifacts got caught in a
Tatum, after visiting the man, Leo Minoso in the cave, has visions of Floyd Collins and a Pulitzer prize dancing in his head. Through blackmail and manipulation of the story, Tatum sells his soul and his journalistic ethics in his quest for a chance at the big time again.
This movie was ahead of it's time in estimating how low the media would go to sell a story. Tatum leads the carnival of onlookers, vendors and other reporters wanting a piece of the story until the inevitable tragic ending occurs. He realizes too late how he has turned a simple event into a tragedy and become part of the story instead of a reporter. Kirk Douglas turns in a powerful performance.
New Mexico man, searching through an old mine for Indian artifacts, is trapped after the floors caves in; by chance, an over-zealous reporter from Albuquerque is in the area, hungry for a story that will get him out of the hick towns and back to New York City. An exceptionally well-written, embittered, not-happy black comedy littered with greedy men and women lusting for power. Kirk Douglas plays the reporter with nasty, snarling machismo; he's so well-attuned to his lines that when he spits the words out, they really do sound like his own. The supporting players are interesting but uneven, ranging from peculiar (Jan Sterling, as the trapped man's soulless wife, who acts like a gangster's moll right out of a film noir), to very good (Richard Benedict as Leo and Ray Teal as the sheriff), to downright awful (Richard Gaines as the New York Daily News editor, whose ranting and raving over the telephone would be funny if it weren't so pitiful). The movie makes no promises to finish up smelling like a rose, and director/co-screenwriter Billy Wilder seems to relish this opportunity to make American tourists look like hucksters and scavengers, but Douglas' pontificating near the climax is a drag, with the irony of the situation substituted by melodrama. A failure for Wilder in '51 (probably due to that dreadful title, which was quickly changed to "The Big Carnival"), it is now considered a cult classic. *** from ****
Somehow, I don't think that Billy Wilder had too many friends left in
Hollywood or the media following the release of this classic. Coming as it
did so soon after his masterpiece "Sunset Boulevard" where he managed to
puncture egos in the movie industry, he outdid himself in cynicism and
savage wit with this assault on the yellow press which almost tops its
illustrious predecessor in quality but easily surpasses it in hard hitting
The story of a ruthlessly ambitious newspaper reporter who deliberately postpones the rescue of a trapped miner so as to revive his flagging career, the film undoubtedly exaggerates not only the greed of the reporter and of local traders but also ghoulishness of the public.
However as with all good satire there was more than a grain of truth in points made and with a scriptwriter of Wilder's calibre it has many hard-hitting lines: the miner's calculating wife when admitting to Douglas not only that she's not the religious type but also that her appearance is what matters most to her: "I don't go to church; kneeling bags my nylons".
Above all Wilder's trump card was undoubtedly the casting of Douglas. As Cary Grant was flawless in portraying the suave debonair gent, so Douglas was peerless in portraying the ambitious amoral heel, particularly in his late 40's to mid-50's classics and he gave arguably his best performance here. The matching of Wilder and Douglas was truly a Marriage made in Hell.
One of my all time favourites.
But don't watch it when you're feeling depressed. It will destroy any faith you have in basic human decency!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Many American movies indulge in overdrawn stereotypes and overblown
themes, but I can't think of one that does it to this degree. The story
line is simple enough: a tough guy alcoholic reporter stuck in
Albuquerque delays a trapped miners rescue all to make big headlines.
The story went over the deep end for me when he summarily dismissed the
authority of the sheriff directing the rescue and took over the effort
seemingly based solely on his loud mouth. In fact, throughout the film
all characters are unaccountably putty in his hands. It seems society
is just waiting for some arrogant tough with a kielbasa sausage in his
zoot suit pants to assume command. The trapped man is pathetic and
incidentally unaware his wife is a floozy, getting it on of course with
you-know-who. Nothing original there.
Continually driving home the infantile message about the crassness of society is a brass band loudly grinding out the trite Leo Minosa rescue song every time the camera goes outside the cave. With autos full of sightseers streaming in continually, there is now also a Ferris Wheel and merry-go-round, along with innumerable concessions. You might even go so far as to say that it has become a 'media circus'. Despite the comic book level of subtlety in hammering home this
'message', certain aspects of the film are okay. The role of Minosa's wife is played pretty well. She looks particularly convincing just the way she wears the late 40's clothing.
The newsroom set and the New Mexico location provide interest, but what a waste.
It would be easy to say my criticism of this flick is really a general criticism of the sophistication of films of that time, but I could cite too many films which would be above that criticism and I doubt many are below this one. Lucky thing for me Douglas' character isn't alive to loose one into my ugly mush for saying so.
This hard-to-see film finally came to TCM recently so I was anxious to
check it out. (To my knowledge it has never been issued on VHS or DVD).
I found the fist hour to be riveting with crisp dialog, interesting characters, and some nice camera shots by director Billy Wilder and photographer Charles Lang. Kirk Douglas was intense as "Chuck Tatum" and Jan Sterling ("Lorraine Minosa") was pure film-noir platinum blonde with attitude.
Then, the next 40-45 minutes disappointed me, to be frank. Tatum slowly softens to the point where the film loses its edge, going from an adventure story-film noir to more of a melodrama. Sterling's character almost disappears from the screen, which doesn't help. However, with 10 minutes left in the film, a shocking scene with her jolted me back to full attention.
Going back to Sterling for a minute, if you are a film noir fan and rank Marie Windsor high on your list of actresses, you'll love Jan in here. It just wish she had a bigger part. My other "wish" was that this script would have been a little tighter. I drags too much in the second half. About 10-15 minutes cut out of here would have made this easier to watch and keep the suspense tighter.
The story is not an unusual one. I've seen it on film a number of times, the from the classic era to now: an overzealous newspaperman going past the bounds of good taste and ethics to get (or "keep" in this case) a good story going, just for the welfare of himself or his paper. Yet, this "yellow journalism" or "tabloid mentality" story has some different twists to it, such as being set in a mountainous desert, not in a big city.
The acting is superb, not just with the two leads but with all the supporting actors, led by Porter Hall, who played the newspaper editor "Jacob Boot." I also appreciated the sarcastic comedy in here as Wilder and the screenwriters parody the "carnival" atmosphere which develops when a tragedy occurs and people make a financial profit out of it. As the days linger on and the man in this story clings to his life trapped deep in a mine, the circus atmosphere grows. Hence, the second title of this film: "The Big Carnival."
That latter title was used when the film bombed at the box office in America the first time it was shown. Later, it was reissued under that second title. It still bombed. However, today it seems to be getting cult status, I would believe a DVD of this will be forthcoming because my guess is that it would sell.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Kirk Douglas has often expressed his theory of acting: find the good in
the bad and the bad in the good. In no role of his career do we see
this at work more than his performance as Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder's
classic "Ace in the Hole". Tatum is a relentlessly ambitious and
overtly cynical reporter exploiting a man's misfortune in being trapped
in a cave for his own ends. But if that's all he was, he'd be driving
away with a smile on his face at the end. But that's not all he is.
He's not the worst character in this gallery of rogues. Jan Sterling's non-suffering wife of the victim is a very cold fish and Ray Teal's sheriff is more of a cold-blooded reptile, like his pet snake. They don't give a damn if Leo lives or dies. It might be better if he's out of the way. But Tatum, even if he's the instigator of the drama, can't go that far. He's merely a rat, dangerous but warm-blooded. And that destroys him. Sterling and Teal move on, better off than they were. Tatum falls dead into the camera. You can have him for nothing.
Tatum's problem is that he isn't quite as bad as he wants to be. He's been treated ruthlessly by life some time in the past and he's in a competitive profession where compassion seems a weakness and the victor gets the spoils- and all the excitement. He put himself on overdrive to compete and show the world he can be as tough on it as it is on him. But he's not quite bad enough to not care about what he's doing to Leo. He's disgusted when he looks at the wife and sheriff and thinks that he's put himself on their level. He punches the sheriff and almost strangles the wife, but finds that doesn't liberate him form his own actions. Those actions have deprived him of the respect of anyone with any goodness left in them, including himself. You can have him for nothing because there's nothing left.
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