Why Billy Wilder’s ‘Ace in the Hole’ is so powerful, 70 years on

Kirk Douglas – Ace in the Hole (Image credit: Alamy)

In the summer of 1951, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole was released to harsh reviews. But, seventy years on, its deeply cynical satire is more powerful than ever, writes Mark Allison.

26 May 2021 | Mark Allison | BBC Culture

In January 1925, experienced cave explorer Floyd Collins became trapped 55ft (16.7m) underground in Kentucky. William Miller, a reporter from the local Louisville Courier-Journal, was one of the first journalists on the scene, and his coverage of the rescue effort quickly transformed a rural tragedy into a nationwide media sensation.

Taking advantage of his small stature, Miller squeezed into the unstable cavern to personally deliver supplies and even pray with the victim. This unrivalled access was the defining feature of his lurid first-hand reports, which were printed and broadcast across the country. “Death holds no terror for Floyd Collins, he told me tonight, more than 115 hours after he was trapped,” one such dispatch read. “As I placed a bottle of milk to his lips, he said, ‘I believe I would go to heaven.'”

The Courier-Journal was not shy in framing their reporter at the centre of the story; “CJ MAN LEADS 3 RESCUE ATTEMPTS” ran the front page of one edition. This hair-raising spectacle did not have a happy ending – Collins had already been dead for three days by the time a rescue shaft broke through – but Miller’s intrepid reportage nevertheless scored a Pulitzer Prize.

Since before the invention of the printing press, news proprietors have enjoyed trading in such sensational tales of personal tragedy – often euphemistically described as “human interest”. This cutthroat world of scoop journalism was one with which filmmaker Billy Wilder would have been familiar. 

By 1951, he was probably Hollywood’s most acclaimed writer-director, riding a wave of goodwill following his hugely successful 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. But he had spent his formative years in 1920s Vienna and Berlin as a newspaperman – in a 1980 documentary about him, Portrait of a ‘60% Perfect Man’, he recounted to film journalist Michel Ciment that much of this time was spent doing “dirty work” for scandal sheets.

As film critic Molly Haskell tells BBC Culture, the young Wilder “was not above lying about his credentials or insinuating himself where he wasn’t wanted. All would be grist for the mill and inspiration for Wildean antiheroes in the darkly funny and excoriating films to come”.

It was during production on Sunset Boulevard when Wilder received a script treatment loosely based on the Floyd Collins cave-in, and must have seen something of himself in the cynical newspaper reporter at its centre. With co-writers Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, Wilder crafted the concept into his most personal project yet.

Ace in the Hole was to be a sermon on the director’s bleakly cynical world-view; a caustically satirical assault upon journalists and an amoral media industry. In the words of Ed Sikov, author of Wilder biography On Sunset Boulevard, the director “jumped at the chance to make a truly mean movie” – and this polemical fury has only been vindicated in the 70 years since its premiere.

The Wildean antihero of Ace in the Hole is Charles “Chuck” Tatum, a disgraced journalist hungry for a story to restore his reputation, played with ferocious intensity by a young Kirk Douglas. Having lost his desk at no less than 11 East Coast newspapers for his record of libel, adultery, and alcoholism, Tatum wanders into the diminutive offices of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin and offers his services. “I know newspapers backward, forward and sideways,” he boasts. “I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.”

It’s not that the film takes a harsh look at American culture. It’s that Wilder sees American culture for what it is: heartless and superficial – Ed Sikov

After a year stewing restlessly in the “sun-baked Siberia” of Albuquerque, Tatum finally stumbles across the scoop he was looking for – and takes a big bite. The owner of a meagre store alongside a desert road, Leo Minosa, has got himself trapped in a cave while plundering trinkets from a Native American burial site. Tatum assures Leo he’ll help get him out, but quickly realises his lucrative potential as a human interest story.

In cooperation with the corrupt local sheriff, Tatum applies pressure on the rescue team not to reach Leo the easy way, by shoring up the existing cave walls in a matter of hours, but to instead create a new tunnel by drilling down through solid rock – a process that will take days, and thus give Tatum the time he needs to sell the tragedy to the news-reading masses. Not even Leo’s wife Lorraine, a platinum blonde femme-fatale played with icy relish by Jan Sterling, objects to her husband’s life being pointlessly endangered if it might bring business to their ailing convenience store.

His Girl Friday was one of the media satires that preceded Ace in the Hole – but none were quite as cynical (Credit: Alamy)

Tatum’s fabricated story of poor Leo Minosa and his despondent wife goes what would now be called “viral”, and the nation’s press descends upon the desert outpost. The media circus outside the cave quickly grows into a genuine carnival to accommodate thousands of curious tourists, complete with a big wheel and country-western quartet. As Canadian film-maker Guy Maddin noted in a 2014 essay for the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray/DVD release, hacks like Tatum have always thrived on a public appetite for blood “as sexy and naked as it was in Caesarean times”. 

While Tatum’s colourful reports from the scene of his carefully manufactured tragedy earn him a lucrative byline at a New York paper, his euphoria is cut short when Leo’s deteriorating condition suggests the story might not have the good “human interest” ending everyone is hoping for.

The parallels with today

It is easy to draw parallels between the exploitation of Leo Minosa and the countless lives that are tormented and destroyed by the relentless mincer of the modern media machine in pursuit of clicks and ratings. In a 2007 article, media commentator Jack Shafer reflected on the prescience of Ace in the Hole, arguing, “it’s easy to visualise Charles Tatum as a cable network producer deploying camera trucks whenever a child tumbles down a well, a white woman goes missing, a shooter opens fire…” In the digital landscape of 2021, Tatum might be a YouTube or Twitter personality with his own following, cutting out the middleman between his audience and the unfiltered horrors they crave.

Ace in the Hole was not the first film to lampoon the dangerously manipulative power of mass media. Broadway comedy The Front Page had already been adapted for screen twice, in 1931 and 1940 (as His Girl Friday), while Orson Welles’ 1941 magnum opus Citizen Kane ferociously picked apart the life and legacy of media mogul William Randolph Hearst. What sets apart Ace in the Hole from its forebears, however, is the utter cynicism of its satire.

I think Billy Wilder’s films survive the test of time because of their tartness and acerbity – sentimental films fare less well – Molly Haskell

Wilder doesn’t just point the finger at unscrupulous newsmen and corrupt officials who manufacture sordid stories for their own benefit, but casts an accusatory eye at the scores of willing punters who revel in the coverage, like so many today who decry the toxicity of social media platforms while scrolling endlessly on their apps. T

his thin line between news and entertainment, and the poisonously codependent love affair it breeds between newshounds and their readers, duly encourages further falsity and distortion. As Tatum acknowledges with characteristic self-loathing, his audience is fickle and ignorant – “Tomorrow this’ll be yesterday’s paper, and they’ll wrap fish in it”.

Amid our current anxieties around “fake news”, when new forms of distortion and manipulation are being reckoned with, Wilder’s attack on underhanded media institutions seems foresighted. But Ace in the Hole was never a prediction of where things were going as much as it is a record of how little they have changed. As Wilder’s biographer Ed Sikov tells BBC Culture, he was merely reflecting his own environment. “It’s not that the film takes a harsh look at American culture,” he says. “It’s that Wilder sees American culture for what it is: heartless and superficial, a tawdry spectacle made for morons. And he rubs our noses in it.”

Haskell argues that this grim perspective lends Ace in the Hole an enduring power. “I think Billy Wilder’s films survive the test of time because of their tartness and acerbity – sentimental films fare less well,” she tells BBC Culture. “But Ace in the Hole goes beyond even his bleakest films in its refusal to soft pedal the nastiness of its central character.”

Explaining its hostile reception  

This misanthropic outlook might resonate with modern viewers, but it was soundly rejected upon release. Ace in the Hole flopped at the box office and was mauled by critics; as Sikov summarises, “few people saw it, and those who did apparently didn’t like it”. 

Many of the initial reviews in the American press adopted a defensive tone; Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, for example, asserted that, “Mr Wilder has let his imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque”. Perhaps such reactions were unsurprising: as Maddin noted, “most critics considered themselves newspapermen and therefore within the target range of the movie’s furious contempt”.

Paramount Vice-President Y Frank Freeman even attempted to claw back lost revenue by rereleasing the film under a new title, The Big Carnival, a decision which enraged Wilder. The whole debacle stung the director so badly that for the next decade he focused primarily on adaptations of Broadway plays (including 1953’s Stalag 17, 1954’s Sabrina and 1955’s The Seven Year Itch), and did not bring original material to the screen again until 1960’s The Apartment. His final word on Ace in the Hole, as recounted in On Sunset Boulevard, came years later; “Fuck them all,” he was heard crying. “It is the best picture I ever made.”

Ace in the Hole shows us that we didn’t need Facebook or Fox News to hurt people with stories; the impulse was inside us all along – Elizabeth Cantwell

Wilder must have suspected during production that he would provoke controversy – his first draft of the script included a handwritten note which read; “Do not give out under any circumstances – to anyone!!” In an interview for the 2014 Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release, film scholar Neil Sinyard underlined Wilder’s bravery in pursuing Ace in the Hole within a culture gripped by nationalistic hysteria.

At the same time as the House Un-American Affairs Committee was investigating Hollywood and Senator Joseph McCarthy had begun his ruinous anti-Communist crusade, here was Wilder – a foreign-born citizen – delivering a movie within a major studio which argued “the forces of law and order were irredeemably corrupt”, as Sinyard put it. Jan Sterling certainly believed this was behind the film’s underperformance. “You know why it was a failure? Columnists came out and said it could have been made by Art Kino [the Soviet Company]. They seemed to feel it was anti-American,” she told Sikov. 

As for Wilder’s evisceration of the printed press and its tragedy-industrial complex, it has since been echoed in the likes of Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) and Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014), which threw similar scorn at the abuses of television news. The new age of digital journalism, complete with 24-hour rolling news and search engine optimised tabloid headlines, is arguably yet to receive its own consummate cinematic takedown.

But as Elizabeth Cantwell, poet and associate editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room, tells BBC Culture, “Ace in the Hole shows us that we didn’t need Facebook or Fox News to hurt people with stories; the impulse was inside us all along”. Amid this ongoing lineage of malicious sensationalism, Billy Wilder’s brutal masterpiece remains a powerful denunciation of a destructive cycle in which all are complicit.


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