Ace in the Hole (1951)

Kirk Douglas is sensational as an amoral journalist with an acerbic wit, who exploits the news of a man trapped in a cave, as Wilder gives us one of his most cynical films.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Review #2,469

Dir. Billy Wilder
1951 | USA | Drama | 111 mins | 1.33:1 | English
Not rated – likely to be PG13

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur
A frustrated former big-city journalist now stuck working for an Albuquerque newspaper exploits a story about a man trapped in a cave to rekindle his career, but the situation quickly escalates into an out-of-control circus.
Won International Award & Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice); Nom. for Best Writing (Oscars)
Distributor: Paramount

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Media Circus; Exploitative Journalism
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Spoilers: No

With the great success of Sunset Boulevard (1950), Billy Wilder had all the resources to make whatever film he so desired for Paramount. 

Ace in the Hole was the result, which remains one of his finest films, though at the time, it flopped so badly at the box office that the studio had to rename it ‘The Big Carnival’ to try to reignite interest. Unfortunately, that also failed. 

Starring Kirk Douglas in a sensational performance as Chuck Tatum, an amoral journalist who is out of work, Wilder’s film is as cynical as they come.  Some critics have even likened it to noir, even though it technically isn’t one. 

Unexpectedly landing on a scoop about a man trapped in a cave somewhere in New Mexico, Chuck, with the blackest of hearts, decides to exploit the story for personal gains. 

“Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news.”

A media circus ensues amidst a problematic rescue operation, as droves of people across the states try to satiate their curiosity by driving down to the location, turning a ghost town into a carnival of mayhem. 

Wilder’s control of the film’s tone is extraordinary—it’s dark, yet perversely humourous; sickening yet devilishly fun.  We can’t sympathise with Chuck, but somehow, we are drawn to his unscrupulous behaviour, and through his exploits, we begin to understand why humans are so despicable. 

Jan Sterling plays Lorraine, the apathetic wife of the man stuck in the cave—it is her apathy, which when matched with Chuck’s egotistical attitude, that gives Ace in the Hole its pitch-black cynicism.  This is as much an essential watch as Wilder’s other stunners from the Classical Hollywood period. 

Grade: A



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