Ace in the Hole

(The Big Carnival, USA - 1951)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Richard Benedict, Ray Teal, Porter Hall
Genre: Drama/Film Noir
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, & Walter Newman from Victor Desny's story
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Composer: Hugo Friedhofer
Runtime: 111 minutes

Coming off the remarkable success of Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder ended his longtime partnership with writer/producer Charles Brackett. The result of Wilder’s first self production was his most ambitious film, though also his biggest box office flop. Such an irony is central to the nature of his subject matter itself, as Wilder implies media success lies in manufacturing news to “give the public what they want” rather than calling it like you see it as Wilder does in Ace in the Hole.

The major films dealing with the media, Frank Capra’s preceeding Meet John Doe and Elia Kazan’s subsequent A Face in the Crowd, were populist films. They believed that while the press was bent, the audience was noble. John Q. Public wasn’t privy to the intentions of the puppets, much less the puppetmasters, so you could fool them for so long. Eventually they learned enough of the truth that, if nothing else, it was time for the masters to usher in a new puppet. Disillusioned satirist Wilder isn't so hopeful. He doesn’t believe the truth would matter because man believes himself entitled to entertainment at any cost or anyone’s expense.

Today a journalist prolonging the time a man was trapped in a mine so he could extend his story’s shelf life wouldn’t surprise anyone too much. Our trash collections have greatly expanded to include all forms of so called reality, but in 1951 the audience supposedly didn’t believe a journalist could possibly be as heartless as Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas). Be that as it may, I suspect the failure of the film lay far more in the public refusing to accept their own appetite for tragedy, choosing instead to reject the film for scolding them about it. Wilder brings his biting film noir style snappy wit to elucidate the shallow and selfishness nature of his characters, entertaining us with classics such as Lorraine’s “I don't pray. Kneeling bags my nylons” but there’s no sustained comical escape to dilute and sugar coat his message like in the subsequent far more popular Stallag 17. Though his methods are perhaps less obvious, Wilder is harsher than Alfred Hitchcock ever was in indicting the spectators for their own voyeuristic tendencies. The audience gathered outside the mine Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped in is a metaphor for the viewers at the drive in.

Visually, the film works so well because we simply witness the machinations of capitalism at work. Our dollar is begging to be taken, and once someone sees that they erect something to state how much and what for, and the lines form. The signs of willingness to do what’s good for them, and if it does good for anyone else so be it, if it causes a man has to suffer a little more, no matter are in front of us to simply read. Unfortunately, Wilder’s characters are way too open and up front about their shady tactics to make what we can already see clearly embarrassingly obvious. People certainly justify their behavior with lines like “I’m not wishing for anything. I don’t make things happen, all I do is write about them.” But Tatum actually tells his straight arrow boss Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall), "I'm on my way back to the top, and if it takes a deal with a crooked sheriff, that's all right with me! And if I have to fancy it up with an Indian curse and a brokenhearted wife for Leo, then that's all right too!"

Charles Lang’s cinematography really excels at making us feel the weight of Leo’s “help” on him. The poor miner is trapped in an expressionistically rendered dark cramped extremely fragile space where the slightest movement could cause a rock wall to collapse, and in the mean time he’s merely forced to lay there breathing debris. By constrast, Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) has turned the expansive sun beat desert surrounding the cave into an amusement park and camping ground where everyone has a merry time while the rescuers quake the entire mountain with their grating drill, the infernal reverberation driving Leo insane from fear.

Lorraine charges an entrance fee with a sign claiming all the proceeds benefit Leo in order to allow the mob to believe they’re gawking for a good cause. Of course, since Lorraine agreed to stay on and play the grieving wife for Tatum’s stories when he pointed out she wouldn’t get very far on $11, we suspect it’s funding her imminent escape. Whether she stays or goes isn’t so relevant, the big point is it doesn’t matter what anyone does as long as they can spin it so people believe it’s the right thing.

Billy Wilder was a newspaper writer before getting into the movies as a screenwriter, and some of his best films deal with the down and out writer. In The Lost Weekend, writer’s block feeds the alcoholism of prodigy turned 33-year-old washout Don Birnam (Ray Milland), while that of has been reporter Chuck in Ace in the Hole is propelled by his recent inability to cover a substantial story that would allow him to regain prestige, notoriety, and most importantly money. Fear of being a small town failure links Chuck to Dayton newspaperman turned unsuccessful self loathing Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard. Still in Sunset Boulevard’s acidic mode, Wilder further explores aspects innate to exploiting a bad situation one stumbles into for personal gain under the guise of helping another. The bond that’s the basis of both films isn’t with the like characters; Joe has no interest in similarly kept man Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim) in Sunset, as Chuck could care less about his hard boiled counterpart Lorraine (beyond her staying in line and playing her role). The capable one is drawn to the pitiable for their own selfish reasons; they are better off but aren’t doing well enough to satisfy themselves. Try as they might, they wind up feeling for the person they are using. The difference is Chuck is in control of everyone, giving them their marching orders, while Joe cedes his power in order to satisfy the ageless starlet delusions of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).

The major problem with Ace in the Hole is while it must be commended for blaming all the profiteering accomplices, for lack of anyone else to root for Wilder winds up forcing us to feel for his tainted star Chuck, as he’s the only one who actually wrestles with his immorality. He becomes a tragic hero almost by virtue of actually suffering pangs of conscience. We wonder what Chuck would have been like if he could have made big bucks off something other than human suffering, if the first thing he found out wasn’t “Bad news sells best because good news is no news.” Everyone who isn’t a naive and square dinosaur is an enabler, so placing all the blame on the dispensable villain like Hollywood always does in their calls to inaction wouldn’t do, but making him rebel against the system when he’s back on top simply isn’t a credible alternative.

Wilder has no illusions about the sell copy first nature of the media, and Chuck has been a star, so why should we think he’s done things so different in the past? His self hating drunk suggests his callousness is derived directly from having to numb himself to these kind of actions, and everything that comes out of his mouth suggests he’s determined to be back where he feels he belongs. He still has his cockiness and swagger even though he’s incredibly tired of being disposable, of wasting away writing one bit stories in two bit towns. He knows how to make himself indispensable, at least for a little while.

Chuck is an egomaniac who loves being ringleader of his own three-ring circus. He enjoys being treated like a rock star with a legion of adoring fans, but lives for sticking it to the small group of now begging peers and higher ups who he can punish for their past hardships and indifference now that he’s easily seduced the reelection seeking sheriff (Ray Teal) into his back pocket, securing the exclusive for himself. His free fall from New York big shot to begging for work in Albuquerque, only to wait a year for anything to happen, has changed him so much for the worse I don’t buy that anything could move him back toward a brand of ethics so fast.

The idea is Chuck has never crossed a certain boundary before, that of potentially killing his meal ticket, which is a double failure because the public demands a happy ending. But once the damage is done giving away the scoop and hanging the big paper he just resigned with out to dry by failing to write the story at all hurts no one but himself. That’s part of his character, he can charm everyone but himself, but if someone is going to go against man’s innate nature to make a buck, I can’t swallow it coming from Chuck right after he’s become king of the mountain. I’ve seen people who were bored with a goal the second the finally attained it, but they tend not to work toward undoing their accomplishment the next second.

The Big Carnival is loosely based on a 1925 incident in Sand Cave, Kentucky where "The Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known." W. Floyd Collins was trapped trying to find an entrance to his cave that would garner him more business and died about 13 days later, 4 days before the rescuers reached him. William Burke “Skeets” Miller still won a Pulitzer Prize for creating the media circus that resulted in tens of thousands of tourists coming to the site, buying food and souvenirs from various vendors. I find the real story to be a far more unsettling indictment of humanity. Miller probably didn’t specifically do anything to harm Collins like Tatum did, but obviously he wasn’t able to contribute to the only important thing, saving Collins’ life, either. Isn’t the fact that we subsequently heap praise and awards on those whose only contributions are to commerce that much sicker?



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *