Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman
Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling
For a long time, the adjective used to describe Billy Wilder was “cynical.” And, indeed, the director of films like Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, and The Fortune Cookie certainly shows a jaundanced view of humanity. But there’s a problem being too cynical – at least there was in the 1950s* – so his movie Ace in the Hole was a flop. Still, it is among his best.
The movie follow Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a down and out newspaperman. Tatum’s problems were all his own and he ends up taking a job at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, a small newspaper that’s his only chance. After trying to keep his nose clean, Tatum stumbles upon a story: a local artifact hunter, Leo Minosa, is trapped in a cave and needs to be rescued.
Tatum sees this as opportunity. He convinces rescuers to take their time in order to keep the story going. And he succeeds: the country focuses on Leo and the attempts to save him. The site becomes a media carnival (literally) as the news and curiosity seekers converge.
This is a movie with the courage of its cynical convictions. Tatum never softens in his hustle and brash talk. Douglas plays him as a pure heel, only out for himself and willing to climb over anyone to get his way and with a dark view of humanity. Few others show anything but an eye for what’s in it for them; even Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) is out only for herself.
The movie flopped. The audience just didn’t like to see such as bitter look at US society, one where decent people are few and far between. The studio tried to rename it The Big Carnival to sucker people in, but to no avail.
The flop didn’t hurt Wilder’s career much** and was forgotten by all but fanatical film aficionados. But it’s far more in tune with attitudes today.***
* I’m reminded of the slogan, “No matter how cynical you get, it’s impossible to keep up.”
**The studio did some bookkeeping tricks, so that his cut of profits in his next film – Stalag 17 – was cut by the studio.
***See it on a double feature with The Well (from the same year), which deals with the same situation in a more upbeat way.