By Matt Brunson
ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)
DIRECTED BY Billy Wilder
STARS Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling
One year after scandalizing Hollywood with his bilious classic Sunset Boulevard, writer-director Billy Wilder was up to his old tricks with Ace in the Hole, which did to journalism — and to the average American — what his previous picture had done to Tinseltown.
Remarkably topical, the film stars Kirk Douglas as Charles Tatum, a conniving newspaper reporter who ends up at a small New Mexico rag after getting fired from too many big-city publications. Tatum's hoping for that one story which will take him back to the majors, and he stumbles across it when he learns that a local (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a cave. Starting with this small item, Tatum expertly expands it into a nationwide sensation, a "human interest" piece that eventually draws the attention of other media, a sheriff running for reelection, American families who travel from miles away to gawk at the spectacle, and even entertainers of all stripes (admission is charged just to see the cave, and a Ferris wheel is merely one of the many carny activities set up on the site).
Cynical to its core, this powerful film is prescient in the manner in which it mirrors our nation's current fascination with cheap sensationalism and shallow journalistic practices. A box office flop (even when it was re-released under the title The Big Carnival), this earned an Oscar nomination for its script (penned by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman), while Jan Sterling, as the victim's icy wife, snagged the Best Actress prize from the National Board of Review.
(Ace in the Hole will be screened as part of the "Extra! Extra! Celebrating the Newspaper Picture" film series at 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at ImaginOn. Admission is free.)