Movie Reviews 424 – Ace in the Hole (1951)

ACE IN THE HOLE [US 1951] DIRECTED BY BILLY WILDER WITH KIRK DOUGLAS Date: 1951

When legendary actor Kirk Douglas passed away last week at the ripe old age of 103, most of the obituary notices made mention of his most famous titular role in Spartacus, the epic Stanley Kubrick film. While the film was a huge success, Douglas himself never really got the accolades and award recognition for it. At least for his work in front of the lens that is.

His real success and achievement with Spartacus was what he had done behind the scenes. As executive producer and having acquired the rights to the novel, Douglas openly hired blacklisted Dalton Trumbo to pen the script for the film, thus breaking tradition with the studios who adhered to the unwritten code banning those accused in the infamous HUAC proceedings during the McCarthy era Red Scare. This act is generally recognized as the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the success of the film forced the studios to formally recognize the blacklisted writers, most of whom were still working but using pseudonyms and ‘fronts’, and being underpaid for those efforts.

A prolific actor in both films and television, one of my favorite movies starring the charismatic dimple-chinned Douglas has always been Ace in the Hole (1951) in which he plays a newspaper reporter that crosses the line in order to advance his career.

Chuck Tatum (Douglas), a former high flying, big city reporter finds himself down on his luck, out of a job and out of money, even enough to pay for gas for his car. Stuck in remote Albuquerque, New Mexico and plumb out of options he basically begs the editor of the local paper for what he believes will be a short term stint until he gets back on his feet. But after a year of writing mundane news filler, he is at wits end, looking for that ‘big break’ that will get him back into the big league papers. As luck would have it on his way to yet another bland assignment (a rattlesnake hunt), a stop at a desert gasoline station brings news that the station owner, also a relic hunter, has just gotten himself stuck in a mountain passage after a cave in. Already smelling a scoop he is the first on the scene to venture the perilous cave path that leads to the half buried man. It is clear that a rescue will take time and equipment. Time, Chuck muses, that he alone will be in a position to scoop the story.

As soon as Chuck leaves the cave he begins scheming to retain his exclusive reporter status and to make sure that the world hears about the human interest story. He first coaxes the equally unscrupulous Sheriff to keep other reporters out of the cave, while peddling the story to all the major newspapers. As news quickly spreads, the mountainside erupts into a veritable roadside carnival – ferris wheel, barkers, treats, the whole zoo – for rubberneckers who want to savor every aspect of the rescue mission. But Chuck hits rock bottom (so to speak) realizing that the crew shoring up the cave will get to the man in a little over a day. Needing more time to raise his profile, he manages to redirect the rescue crew to dig a rescue hole from the top of the mountain instead of proceeding with the simpler approach.This method will take seven days, enough time for Chuck to punch in his ticket back to the majors and even, perhaps a Pulitzer Prize.

Despite initial assurances from the local doctor that the trapped man can last that long, his deteriorating health soon becomes a race against death. A race, Chuck realizes, that will have the eyes of the world clearly focused on him, but for the wrong reason.

A tale of selfishness taken to extremes, Chuck is not the only one looking out for himself. The trapped man’s peroxide blonde of a wife (Jan Sterling), on the cusp of leaving while her husband lay trapped, is lured back by the sudden flow of the cash register ringing at the station and manages to squeeze every last cent she can from the mass of visitors. Chuck even manages sway a budding young photographer down the path of glory over value.

While perhaps not up to par with some of director Billy Wilder greatest films (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Witness for the Prosecution being just some examples), Ace in the Hole, initially released unde the title The Big Carnival, remains a noteworthy and a riveting story.

R.I.P Kirk.

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