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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Ace in the Hole

I've seen most of Billy Wilder's films, but I hadn't seen this one, released in 1951 under the title The Big Carnival, but re-released in home media under the intended title, Ace in the Hole. It marked a few firsts for Wilder: the first time he produced, directed, and wrote a film; the first film he made without co-writing with Charles Brackett (he would later make I.A.L. Diamond his writing partner) and his first flop.

This film follows Sunset Boulevard in the canon, and while that film was not a bed of roses, Ace in the Hole is unrelievedly cynical, a damning of the news media is no uncertain terms. Maybe that's why critics hated it--he was hitting home in the newsroom. But sixty years on it's found new respect, because it was ahead of its time, showing how the news media attempts to manipulate stories and bends the truth to make the best story possible.

The story, about a man trapped in a cave and the media circus that erupts around him, was based on a couple of real-life incidents. But for those old enough to remember, it perfectly captures the time in 1987 when little Jessica McLure was trapped in a well. I remember that very well, and how the entire country was glued to the story.

In Ace in the Hole, Kirk Douglas plays a news reporter who's been fired from the best papers in the country. He latches on to a paper in Albuquerque, working for a publisher who believes that the truth is sacred. Douglas is on his way to cover a rattlesnake hunt when he and his photographer stumble across a big story--a local man trapped in a cave looking for Indian pottery. Douglas sensationalizes the story, amplifying a local legend that the mountain is cursed and bribing the local sheriff to make sure he gets all the exclusives. He forces the trapped man's wife (Jan Sterling), who is about to leave him, to play the part of the terrified wife. What's worse is that he convinces the contractor to use a slower method to dig him out, thus making the story last longer but endangering the man's life.

Douglas is masterful as a first-class heel. He rides into Albuquerque in his car which is being towed. He's a braggart and a cynic, and we spend the movie waiting for his heart to thaw. It does, but when it does it's with a power that is shaking. I was disturbed by this film, but not because it's bad, but because it's so good at capturing a certain element of American society.

There is some humor to the film, such as how the sign to the caves keeps changing prices when the story gets bigger, but some of the humor is laced with arsenic, such as when a carnival pulls into the area to give the thousands of people camped there some amusement. It seems that the only people who remember there's somebody buried down there are his parents, including his forlorn mother, who prays and lights candles.

Ace in the Hole is not a feel-good film, and probably couldn't be made today, as a happier ending would be insisted upon. I wonder if a star like Douglas would take on such an unlikeable character, too (he was not afraid of doing so, to his credit). This film deserves to be brought back out into the open.

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