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Ace in the Hole (1951)
Ex-New York reporter Charles Tatum lands a job on a Albuquerque newspaper in hopes that a sensational story will return him to the big time. When a man is trapped in an Indian cave, Tatum conspires with an unscrupulous sheriff to keep him there until the story can build to national proportions, which it does.
Kirk Douglas ... Charles 'Chuck' Tatum
Jan Sterling ... Lorraine Minosa
Robert Arthur ... Herbie Cook (as Bob Arthur)
Porter Hall ... Jacob Q. Boot
Frank Cady ... Mr. Federber
Richard Benedict ... Leo Minosa
Ray Teal ... Sheriff Gus Kretzer
Lewis Martin ... McCardle
John Berkes ... Papa Minosa
Frances Dominguez ... Mama Minosa
Gene Evans ... Deputy Sheriff
Frank Jaquet ... Sam Smollett
Harry Harvey ... Dr. Hilton
Bob Bumpas ... Radio Announcer
Geraldine Hall ... Nellie Federber
Billy Wilder's first commercial failure, but one of his best films, almost up there with "Sunset Blvd." Ambitious reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) finds out a man is trapped in a collapsed mine. By spewing out bogus engineering, he manages the rescue of the poor man to become more complicated, and time consuming then needed. Meanwhile, it becomes an amazing news item, something that makes Tatum the best known reporter in the country. However, everybody's luck runs out at the end. Perhaps the cause of failure of this film is that there are no sympathetic characters here. Douglas plays a total creep, the trapped man's wife is a floozy "I'm not going to pray for him! Praying ruins my nylons!" in the film. Even the trapped man is somebody who was poking around Indian graves. The screenplay, and the lead performances are top class. The extensive location photography, and somewhat documentary look of the film makes the film feel more modern than most 1951 films. Billy Wilder calls this film "the runt of his litter" Don't be so harsh, Billy, it's an excellent picture!
One of Billy Wilder's great movies, with a superb acting job by Kirk Douglas as the cynical, glory-seeking and even desperate reporter whose only goal is get back in the limelight by regaining his former big-city news desk job.
The idea of such a newspaper reporter manipulating events to stretch out a story at the expense of and disregard for the victim still seems nearly inhuman, but Douglas' performance makes it instantly believable. The story scenario in which locals, then passers-by and finally distant tourists gravitate to and then make a festival or circus out of the event (the film was also released under the title "The Big Carnival") is supported by the real events on which the story was most likely based: the West VA mine disaster in 1925 that trapped miner Floyd Collins and was reported for 17 days, much as in the film, by local newspaperman Skeets Miller, who crawled into the mineshaft for face-to-face interviews with the trapped and doomed Collins.
This movie fits nicely into the Film Noir genre, although it takes place largely under the hot, harsh glare of the Arizona sun, highlighting the sweat and grime visible on the characters' skin and creating a visual metaphor for the sorry state of their souls. I wonder if Henri-Georges Clouzot saw this film before he began filming "The Wages of Fear," because the visually pervasive atmosphere of sweat and filth and opportunism are equally present in both.
I first saw this film in 1951. At least two decades passed before it was occasionally shown on network TV, usually on local afternoon movie programs. The lack of a happy ending (to put it mildly) may have played a part.
A flop when it was originally released (and referred to by Billy Wilder as "the runt of the litter"), this movie is still not available in DVD or VHS. This is a shame, because it is a taut, very cynical, and extremely well-made rumination on the idea of media observation and manipulation, and the easy corruption of otherwise earnest citizens.
The movie also contains what I feel is the single greatest scene in all moviedom: An extremely high view of a trainload of gawkers arriving at the "big carnival" (the movie's alternate title), along with the soundtrack of a made-for-the-movie country-western song. You'll know it when you see it. Observe as well the hordes of people and cars, the cast of thousands, assembled for the exterior shots. This was not digital, it was casting and logistics and bullhorns and the gimlet-eyed vision of the director.
* When the film was released, it got bad reviews and lost money. The studio, without Billy Wilder's permission, changed the title to "The Big Carnival" to increase the box office take of the film. It didn't work. On top of that, Billy Wilder's next picture Stalag 17 (1953) was a hit and Billy Wilder expected a share of the Stalag 17 (1953)'s profits. Paramount accountants told him that since this picture lost money, the money it lost would be subtracted from the profits of Stalag 17 (1953).
* The studio constructed a replica cliff dwelling at a cost of $30,000. The set was located behind the Lookout Point Trading Post on U.S. Route 66, west of Gallup, New Mexico. After filming was completed, the set was left intact and the owner of the trading post used it to draw tourists to his store.
* Residents of Gallup, New Mexico were hired as extras. They were paid 75 cents an hour for a ten-hour day. Extras earned an additional three dollars if they could bring an automobile to the set.
* Billy Wilder's wife Audrey came up with the line "I don't pray. Kneeling bags my nylons."
* Actor Victor Desny brought a lawsuit against this film while the script was being written. He claimed the film was an unauthorized version of the Floyd Collins story. Collins was actually stuck in a cave years earlier, as mentioned in the film. Since Desny had the rights to the story, he claimed copyright infringement. The lawsuit was settled before production began.