Ace in the Hole (1951)

Ace in the Hole (1951)

aka The Big Carnival (1951)

Predating other such (similar and) prescient films as A Face in the Crowd (1957) Network (1976) and even (to a lesser degree) It Should Happen to You (1954) this Billy Wilder produced and directed drama accurately captures the kind of media circus that would become common around a tragic event which draws the kind of gawking public that is fascinated by train wrecks. Unfortunately the director’s cynical screenplay co-written with Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels (No Way Out (1950)) and earning them an Oscar nomination was ahead of its time and lost money when it failed to draw an audience even after it was re-released under a more apt title The Big Carnival (1951). Apparently moviegoers of that time didn’t believe that a reporter could be so unscrupulous as to manipulate the news and exploit the rescue of a dying man for circulation ratings or even a Pulitzer Prize … how naive!

It stars Kirk Douglas as lying sensationalist reporter Charles ‘Chuck’ Tatum who’d worked in all the largest media outlet cities in the eastern half of the country before he finds himself begging for a job from the owner/editor (Porter Hall) of a newspaper in Albuquerque New Mexico. After a year of working on stories as mundane as rattlesnake roundups he finds the perfect opportunity to make it back to the big time when he happens upon Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) a man that’s been trapped in a 450 year old Indian cave ruin in Gallup N.M. off Route 66. Tatum proceeds to use the man’s disgruntled wife (Jan Sterling) the local sheriff (Ray Teal) and a wide-eyed coworker photographer (Robert Arthur) to accomplish his goal. The sheriff even helps the reporter convince a local contractor to pursue a much longer more newsworthy course of action to save Minosa from the precarious situation (the mine could collapse at any time) because Tatum has promised to act as his reelection campaign manager growing the lawman’s notoriety in exchange for exclusive access to Leo and the cave.

Frank Cady plays the first spectator to the scene perfectly as Mr. Federber whose family is showcased (throughout the movie) as the event grows to ridiculous proportions that include a Ferris wheel and other sideshow activities (for emphasis). It seems that only Minosa’s sad Papa (John Berkes) and praying Mama (Frances Dominguez) care about Leo about whom a folk song is written sung and sold at the site. Even his wife Lorraine seems more concerned about selling hamburgers and souvenirs as she establishes and then systematically raises the admission price to the grounds over the course of the weeklong rescue effort which could have been managed in 12-16 hours if the most expeditious method was taken.

The film’s only sour note is its (predictable?) ending which is somewhat less impactful than the rest of this story that bears resemblance to a true incident involving another trapped miner named Floyd Collins that had received some attention years before the release of this movie.

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