Review: Ace in the Hole

Not surprisingly, Ace in the Hole was received poorly by the media at the time of its release.

Ace in the Hole
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Not surprisingly, Ace in the Hole was received poorly by the media at the time of its release, and in a last-ditch effort to make money off the film, Paramount re-released Billy Wilder’s unsung masterpiece under the more obvious—but no less appropriate—title The Big Carnival. Not unlike Fritz Lang’s equally misanthropic Scarlet Street, Ace in the Hole plays the squashing of one man’s human spirit for societal-weary gravitas. Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is an immoral reporter from New York who gets a job at a lowly Albuquerque newspaper, where the home-improvement columnist mistakes Yogi Berra for a religion, the editor confuses a bottled ship for a bottle of liquor, and the hand-embroidered motto “Tell the Truth” passes silent judgment from its place on the newsroom wall. Wilder makes it clear from the start that this is a story about perception, naïvete, and moral irresponsibility. When he’s sent to cover a nearby rattlesnake hunt, Douglas’s spinmeister stumbles upon a man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), trapped inside a cave and exploits the “human interest” story to nationwide acclaim. (Charles is so reprehensible he uses Leo’s spiritual panic as an entertainment: “The Curse of the Mountain of the Seven Vultures”!) Over the course of a week, the desert town explodes in popularity and Wilder brilliantly implicates a small community in the man’s death. Spectators compete for on-air time, campaign promises are made, deals are brokered, the carnival comes to town, and prices skyrocket. Leo’s unhappy wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), is a femme fatale lost in bumblefuck, none too happy about rubbing shoulders with po’ folk all day. She sticks behind when thousands of tourists come to ogle at her husband, but it’s not their sympathy she’s after. “I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you’re 20 minutes,” says Lorraine to Charles, who sees himself in her betrayal of her husband, and when he slaps her in order to knock the smug smile off the woman’s face, you get a sense that he’s punishing himself. The film’s genius is the metaphoric impact the pressure outside the cave has on the inside; as the immorality escalates, Leo inches closer to death. And as the drill moves in on the man, its incessant sound serves to punish the people who’ve deliberately prolonged his suffering. “Why shouldn’t we get something out of it,” says someone at one point. This is the film’s mantra of greed, and Ace in the Hole allowed Wilder to question the very nature of human interest stories and the twisted relationship between the American media and its public. More than 50 years after the film’s release, when magazines compete to come up with the cattiest buzz terms and giddily celebrate the demise of celebrity relationships for buffo bucks, Ace in the Hole feels more relevant than ever.

 Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall, Frank Cady, Richard Benedict, Ray Teal, Frank Jaquet  Director: Billy Wilder  Screenwriter: Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels, Billy Wilder  Distributor: Paramount Pictures  Running Time: 111 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1951  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

Review: Hiding and Seeking

Next Story

Review: Bon Voyage