Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.   With 254 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  This week, he takes on Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.

This week’s film features a journalist with the opportunity to save the life of a man trapped in a cave.   In order to gain recognition and make headlines, a rescue effort is deviously delayed, risking the life of the trapped man in the process.  As TV Guide once noted, “more than 50 years after the film’s release, when magazines compete to giddily celebrate the demise of celebrity relationships for big money, Ace in the Hole feels more relevant than ever”

The Players

  • Director: Billy Wilder
  • Writer:  Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman, Victor Desney
  • Cast:  Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Richard Benedict, Ray Teal

The Plot

[Warning--Spoilers Ahead!!]

With Chuck Tatum’s career is on the ropes, he winds up at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, looking for a reporting job and hoping to revive his career.   To accomplish his goal, Mr. Tatum needs a game-changing story, “something the wires will garble up”, and he will stop at nothing to find his way.  When he learns about Leo Minosa, a local man trapped in a cave, Mr. Tatum sees his big moment and proceeds to orchestrate what eventually becomes a media frenzy.  Meanwhile, Leo’s life hangs in the balance as the clock runs down.

The Good:

  • The Human Interest Element:  As Tatum explains, a story has more human interest when it’s about one person, “you want to know all about him, as was the case with Floyd Collins”(see below for more on Floyd Collins).  The idea that the most compelling news stories are those involving the tragedy of one man as opposed to hundreds or thousands is one I had never thought of before.  The anatomy of this film is interesting in how it allows us to see how the details of one person’s life gradually stir a national interest.
  • The Performances:  Kirk Douglas’ crazed ambition is electric and theatrical.  I could see his performance being just as captivating on stage, as it showcases his raw energy as an actor.  Some of the most dramatic scenes involve Jan Sterling’s portrayal of Lorraine Minosa,  Leo’s wife.  Her cynicism nearly matches Tatum’s and her romantic interest in Tatum adds to the tension.
  • Historical Significance in Film History:  After achieving great success, Billy Wilder was given much creative freedom with Ace in the Hole.  During the postwar years, at a time when certain portrayals of authority figures were viewed as un-American, Wilder gave us flawed characters that represented the corrupt and dark side of law enforcement and media.  For  Wilder, this was also his first time as a writer, producer, and director, his first film without long-time writing partner Charles Brackett, with whom he had collaborated on The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard, and his first critical and commercial failure.  Originally, this film was titled The Human Interest Story.  Later, Paramount Pictures executives had changed the title to The Big Carnival just prior to its release.  As you may be able to sense, people had a hard time knowing what to make of this film.

The Bad:

  • The Plot:  While compelling for the themes it explores, the plot lacks a true antagonist, although in film noir, the protagonists are sometimes viewed as representing their own antagonist.  However, without a stronger central opposing figure its impact is somewhat diminished.  Leo’s wife, competing journalists, and Tatum’s boss all stand against Tatum’s selfish scheming to varying degrees, but the impact of such tension seems dispersed.

Ace in the Hole Trivia:  When Floyd Collins, a celebrated pioneer cave explorer, became trapped in a cave during the 1920’s, it ended up being quite a sensation on the radio, drawing crowds of more than ten thousand tourists to the cave site.  Ace in the Hole explores the development of a similar, yet fictional, circus-like atmosphere.  Historically, the Floyd Collins incident is said to be the third-biggest media event between the two world wars .  The top 2 media events of that time involved Charles Lindbergh—his trans-Atlantic flight and his son’s kidnapping.   Interestingly, Lindbergh was actually hired to fly and help capture photographic negatives from the Collins-rescue scene for a newspaper.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:  Yes, this film has a hard edge and portrays the greedy motivation of its protagonist with an unflinching cynicism that packs a good punch.  I definitely agree that in this movie, “no one is left off the hook”.  Essentially, we are forced to equally indict a blood-thirsty media and a public that feeds into it.  The only thing that keeps this film from being great is the lack of a more focused resistance to Tatum’s relentless manipulation.  Just as the story itself demonstrates how there is often more human interest to a story about one person as opposed to large groups, as when hundred or thousands die in a natural disaster, Tatum could have used a more fleshed-out antagonist to really cut at his soul and expose more of his demons.  Nevertheless, Mr. Ebert, as an all out demonstration of opportunism and greed, this film nails its intent with great ferocity.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you consider Ace in the Hole to be Good, Bad or Great?

Next week’s review:  Persona