Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is an ethically challenged reporter who has been fired from several big city newspapers. He has wound up broke in Alberquerqe, New Mexico, where he persuades a local newspaper to hire him. Tatum is looking for that one big story that will get him hired by a major newspaper. While on an assignment, he stops to get gas at a diner/souvenir store, where he learns that the owner, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), has just been trapped in a rock fall while exploring the nearby ruins of an Indian cave dwelling. Sensing that this could be a big story, Tatum inserts himself into the situation, becoming the one who brings food and water to the unfortunate Leo. Tatum writes a melodramatic account of this incident for his paper. He then teams up with the corrupt local sheriff, Kretzer (Ray Teal), who believes he can use this to guarantee his re-election, as well as with Leo’s callous wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who sees the publicity as a way to improve business. Tatum persuades Kretzer to pressure the rescuers into trying to reach Leo by drilling through the mountain, rather than going through the tunnel, which would take much less time. Tatum reasons that the longer the rescue takes, the more drama he can put into this news reports, thus making it into a bigger story. As the days go by, curiosity seekers begin showing up. Eventually a carnival arrives and sets up rides outside where Leo is trapped.
Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole was not well received by critics when it came out in 1951. They apparently thought that it was excessively cynical. The Hollywood Reporter, for example, called it “… nothing more than a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions – democratic government and the free press.” In recent years, however, critics have taken a much kinder view of the film. I think one reason for that is that in the age of CNN and Fox News, it’s hard for people to take the noble view of the “free press” that the Hollywood Reporter‘s critic took.
Bosley Crowther, however, did make a valid point when he wrote: “There isn’t any denying that there are vicious newspaper men and that one might conceivably take advantage of a disaster for his own private gain. But to reckon that one could so tie up and maneuver a story of any size, while other reporters chew their fingers, is simply incredible.” It is highly improbable that a single reporter could completely control events the way Chuck Tatum does in this film. However, a group of reporters can control the way people perceive a story. Consider, for example, how some reporters have turned the recent revelations about the N.S.A. from a story about government spying to a story about Edward Snowden’s “narcissism”.
In Ace in the Hole, we see people enjoying carnival rides, while only a few hundred yards away, Leo is suffering, his legs trapped under rocks. This film is also about our society’s tendency to turn events into spectacles. The public’s reaction to the recent Boston Marathon bombings (“Boston Strong!”) was a good example of that, but the classic case in my opinion was the O.J. Simpson trial. Remember the “Ito Dancers”? Is Wilder’s film really much of an exaggeration of how people behave?
Ace in the Hole has Wilder’s usual biting dialogue, and the underrated Kirk Douglas gives a powerful performance as Tatum.