Ace in the Hole (1951)

Ace in the Hole (1951) is the ultimate journalism and media noir with the most vile connivance going down between Kirk Douglas as a manically ambitious and revenge-fuelled journalist and a local sheriff in a life or death rescue situation.

Ace in the Hole, which also known as The Big Carnival is directed by Billy Wilder and stars Kirk Douglas as a disgraced reporter who stops at nothing to try to regain a job on a major newspaper. The film co-stars Jan Sterling and features Robert Arthur and Porter Hall.

Kirk Douglas plays "Chuck" Tatum, a frustrated former big-city journalist stranded working for a small  Albuquerque newspaper. Because of his megalo-manic ways and urge to revenge himself he exploits a story about a man trapped in a cave to restart his career, but the situation fast escalates into an out-of-control circus which will end in death, and more death.

There probably isn't any pressman more despicable than Charles "Chuck" Tatum in all the movies far less in classic film noir. "Chuck" Tatum rides the Golden Age lows and extends the agony of a dying man in order to relaunch his career and finds the results hilarious most of the time.

Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole (1951)

He pairs up with a local sheriff and they are helped by an unwilling participant in the form of an engineer Sam Smollet played by Frank Jaquet. The sheriff and Kirk Douglas are thick as thieves into the evil connivance some of the time and there's a time when Douglas asserts himself and suddenly whops the sheriff's ass.

Engineer Sam Smollet is in an interesting bind because he takes part in the deadly collusion but it's because he's bullied into it, and he takes no gain and will have no part of any gain from it. It's his team and his conscience that create the hammer drill that drives the agonised man into insanity in his dusty stony tomb. Smollet's conscience can't be easy.

"Tell the truth" —  Ace in the Hole (1951)

Five days into the agonising event of Leo's death, Leo develops pneumonia and is given 12 hours to live. Tatum sends a news flash: Leo will be rescued in 12 hours. 

However, this is where Smollett comes in and tells him that this is now impossible due to the drilling. In a hypoxemic daze, Leo tells Tatum there is a fifth-year anniversary present for Lorraine in their bedroom. Tatum forces a reluctant Lorraine to open the gift, a fur stole, and Tatum makes her wear it. 

She protests, and Tatum begins to choke her with the stole. She stabs Tatum with the pair of scissors, and Tatum drives away.

Exploitative underground scenes in which Kirk Douglas lies to a dying man, prolonging his death agonies to such an extant that the trapped man begs for death. Despicable underground behaviour as Douglas feeds the dying man air, and throws cigars over him at one point, all the while knowing that what should have been a sixteen or twelve hour rescue is now going on for coming on to a week.

Ace In The Hole is also the film noir home of Mr Federber. We think Mr Federber may have been a name amusing to Billy Wilder, a name indicative of the rising American talking heads and a symbol of something as much as Thurber as Federber — the two are remarkably similar. Mr Federber however defies historians for the time being, and at present is only confused on search engines with Roger Federer, whom Mr Federber certainly is not.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Federber is still a key figure of fun and the possibilities of the vox populae whom it was probably assumed soon take over.

Federber is played by Frank Cady, that is Federber the tourist and Pacific All-Risk insurance salesman. Geraldine Hall plays Nellie Federber.

No stranger to noir Cady had an uncredited speaking role in the film noir drama D.O.A.(1949) and  a small part in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) playing a witness who refused to identify a robbery suspect. He appeared in George Pal's film When Worlds Collide (1951), and worked with Pal again in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964).

Cady also portrayed the male half of the fire escape sleeping couple in Rear Window in 1954. 

The final joke may be that Mr Federber may be the best-intentioned person on the scene presumably caring enough to be there while not missing a chance to hand out some business cards. 

Kirk Douglas' performance is unremittingly brilliant. From striking his match on his typewriter to the moral extents that the picture reaches — charging the public admission to the scene of the disaster.

Photographing the ace in a hole through another hole in Ace in the Hole (1951)

Joseph Breen of the Hays Code office strongly objected to the on-screen depiction of a corrupt law enforcement officer when his office saw the original script, and insisted Wilder add dialogue making it clear the slippery designing sheriff would eventually would be made to answer for his actions.

Too far for noir? Were the actions of these men, "Chuck" Tatum and Sheriff Gus Kretzer created by Billy Wilder, the vile Kretzer being played by Ray Teal — were their actions the work of true film noir paranoiacs or evil-doers, what kind of criminal are they? A crooked journalist meets a crooked cop?

The fate of the crooked cop is a funny one to follow out of the movie? What happens to him? This is a man who teases rattlesnakes for laughs, while feeding them chewing gum. Tatum is sent out to this desert hell hole to cover a snake hunt in the desert.

Jan Sterling in Ace in the Hole (1951)

It might be too far for noir to imagine that there is any social current being demonstrated against in Ace In The Hole given its outright cynicism  — the trapped man Leo Minosa played by Richard Benedict (born Riccardo Benedetto, 1920, Palermo, Italy) is agonising to watch as he suffers, dreams, struggles for breath, begs for death, begs for his life, while Kirk Douglas angular chin grins at him from an equally angular hole in the rock. 

The situation might be desperate but there are aspects here that strain into black comedy and grotesque, because the whole idea is quite grotesque, and under any other drive this might be called melodrama. But the story of Ace In The Hole (1951) is driven by death.

Jan Sterling's character the unlikely Lorraine Minosa, the wife of a man who gets stuck in holes. Fewer lousier characters were written in 1951, offering Ace In The Hole a triplicate of evils. 

When Lorraine Minosa comes on to Kirk Douglas early doors she is slapped about, a sudden and unfair sentence she wasn't expecting, and she takes it later toughening up a and enough to say "and don't ever hit me again."

And how low is "Chuck" Tatum not just fir hitting her about in the first place but for knowing that he will do it again if he wants to and we will watch him doing it again. It's also a promise that the violence is not done in this tragic abusive relationship.

Lorraine is a woman who is on the edge of more than just the desert. She enters the movie ready for exit and she tries, but despite having a husband who gets stuck in holes and caves, she has nothing to live in this roadside diner for.

She winds up not just being the victim of some slapping about but also the woman who is impressed by the idea of $1000, and willing to deny to herself the agony her suffering dying husband is in, 24 hours a day crushed under several thousands of tons of rock and barely able to breathe — it seems she sleeps well, and has still got time to make plans. 

There's not a wasted shot in Wilder's film, which is single-mindedly economical. Students of Arthur Schmidt's editing could learn from the way every shot does its duty. There's not even a gratuitous reaction shot. The black-and-white cinematography by Charles Lang is the inevitable choice; this story would curdle color. And notice how no time is wasted with needless exposition. A wire-service ticker turns up there, again without comment. A press tent goes up and speaks for itself.

Roger Ebert 

Lorraine gets in on the all out evil and as each femme fatale is a femme fatale unto only herself, with no two being alike, she is yet a venal and promiscuous and available, who vamps as much as one could be expected to in that lousy desert, from which she really does deserve escape.

Does Lorraine Minosa escape the dsert at the end segment of Ace in the Hole? This is the question because it's the result that the most of the film is about. Her husband is as already stated stupid enough to get stuck in a hole; while everyoine else is guilty of villainy vile and abusive behaviours, imndlcuiign abuse of pwoer on the sherfiff's case.

But Lorraine Minosa might be the one who can be freed, by dint of something, some chink of light in her sinning, as if she of all of these reprobates and stereotypes and cranks and vile connivers and their snivelling engineer saps, their kid reports who don't know any better — Lorraine might be the one who deserves to escape the desert.

The film's plot has similarities with two real-life events that ended in tragedy. The first involved W. Floyd Collins, who in 1925 was trapped inside Sand Cave, Kentucky, following a landslide. 

A Louisville newspaper, the Courier-Journal and reporter William Burke Miller covered the story which turned the tragic episode into a national event and earned the writer a Pulitzer Prize. 

Collins's name is cited in the film as an example of a cave-in victim who becomes a media sensation. The second event took place in April 1949 when three-year-old Kathy Fiscus of San Marino, California, fell into an abandoned well and, during a rescue operation that lasted several days, thousands of people arrived to watch the action unfold. In both cases, the victims died before they were rescued.

After the release of Ace In The Hole (1951), screenwriter Victor Desny sued Wilder for plagiarism because he had contacted Wilder's secretary Rosella Stewart to propose a film based on the story of Floyd Collins in November 1949. 

Wilder's attorneys responded that, not only did an oral plot summary not constitute a formal story submission, but the Collins case was historical in nature and as such was not protected by copyright laws. 

In December 1953, Judge Stanley Mosk ruled in favor of Wilder and Paramount. Desny appealed and in August 1956 the California Supreme Court ruled his oral submission had been legitimate. Wilder's attorneys settled that same month, paying Desny $14,350 (equivalent to $154,000 in 2022).

"Tatum knows about Floyd Collins. This could be his ticket back to the big time. A superstitious remark gives Tatum his clue on how to hype the story: "Ancient Curse Entombs Man" reads the head over his by-line. A further undertone in Wilder's treatment is a mordant portrait of the modern American West, New Mexico style, with a native past producing both souvenirs and curses, a Hispanic present represented by Leo's devoutly Catholic but ineffectual parents, and forward-looking Anglos, rapacious, immoral, and self-absorbed."

"What is most intriguing about Wilder's views on media is what he implies about the role of his own medium. As the bleak plain between Minosa's curio shop and the Indian caves becomes transformed into a carnival site - as crowds swell and prices go up and amusements appear and traffic snarls and a special train disgorges hordes of fresh onlookers running to become part of the scene - the thought may occur that Wilder is putting into question his own role as film-making instigator, and ours as at least vicarious spectators of this burgeoning mass hysteria. As public fervor grows in intensity, not one but four large trucks pass from right to left across the scene, each labeled "The Great S&M Amusement Corp." They give ample notice that the sadomasochistic enjoyment of Leo's plight by the on-site revelers is something that the film industry promotes and produces for the theater-bound viewer as well."

"The second principal theme harks back to the director's 1944 triumph, Double Indemnity. A little family arrives by car to become the first curiosity seekers at the site; the father identifies himself (to a radio interviewer) as an employee of Pacific All-Risk, which is also the name of the insurance company that figured centrally in the earlier film. This is a signal that risk is one of Wilder's central subjects. If his principal characters are invariably deceivers or transgressors, what are the risks involved? . . . "

Robert Sklar, Cinéaste, Vol. 33, No. 2 (SPRING 2008), pp. 67-69 

The critical sense at the time of release was that Ace In The Hole was noir too far. Critics found the vision of Ace In The Hole too distorted and ruthless and incredible, finding that while the film was masterly the whole premise was so unbliuevable and despicable that no good newsperson would allow such an evil drama to unfold as "Chuck" Tatum does.

In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther called it "a masterly film" but added:

 "Mr. Wilder has let imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque ... 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."

Incredible or not the evil fantasies of film noir were bound by definition to push it too far from time to time. 

Film critic Manny Farber had a point also in The Nation, July 14, 1951, in trying to figure the excesse of amorality and acting:

"Ace in the Hole is built chiefly round the acting of a tough, corrupt newshound by Kirk Douglas. Douglas plays it in the worst style of the Yiddish theatre, bursting with self-pity, slowing everything with a muscular, tensed-up technique, and ranting as though he were trying to break the hearts of people blocks away from the theatre. His conceited hamming is pretty typical of the whole show…"

Fake news from Golden Age Hollywood

Ace in the Hole (1951) down Wikipedia way

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