While Ace in the Hole was not a commercial success on upon release in 1951, the film is still relevant when it comes to media sensationalism.
The concept of media sensationalism dates back to the 16th or 17th centuries. It’s not something that is going to go away anytime soon. We still see it in the very media we consume to this day. Much like Network predicted the likes of Fox News, Ace in the Hole examines the lengths reporters will go in order to get a story. The two films could make for a double feature in their own right. Now I’m not accusing any of my friends in the media of wrongdoing but we all know that there are people that act like journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas). But I wouldn’t put it past anyone today should they decide to act so cold in reporting on such a story.
Almost a decade before Spartacus, Douglas delivers one of his best performances on screen as a journalist without morals. Now here’s a journalist who finds himself in Albuquerque after working in New York. Running out of options, he decides to make the best of it. Making his way into the small Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin news room, Tatum meets with the paper’s publisher/editor/owner, Mr. Boot (Porter Hall), to inquire on a job. Tatum is a $250/week reporter but Boot gives him a job for $60.
It’s not until a year later that Tatum gets the story of a lifetime while out on assignment. Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) found himself trapped when a cave collapsed. Tatum learns this upon arriving at Leo’s trading post. It’s not a coincidence that he happened upon that trading post at that particular time. Teaming with Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal), Tatum exploits the hell out of the situation. In exchange for favorable coverage of the sheriff and his hopeful reelection, Tatum wants to make sure that no other reporter can be in on the story. It’s his. Leo’s wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), happens to go along for the ride so to speak. She’s been wanting out of her marriage and with the money now coming in as a result from people visiting the rescue operation, she couldn’t be sitting in a better position.
Tatum–who again lacks any morals–uses his fortunate luck in getting his old New York job back. He betrays the very people who hired him in New Mexico. But don’t think he’s getting away with it. Karma has a way of fighting back and does so in the form of Lorraine. Tired of his abuse towards her, Lorraine ends up stabbing him. The camerawork makes sure we witness this from both angles. Douglas goes a bit too method upon choking Lorraine to the point in which Sterling fell backwards in need of breath after the take. Leo’s luck isn’t much better as he caught pneumonia while in the cave and only had hours left to live. His death means that everyone who came to town ends up leaving. Because of Tatum’s greed, other reporters beat him to the punch.
Ace in the Hole marks the first film following the breakup with writing partner Charles Brackett. It would take a few more films to settle on future partner I.A.L. Diamond. But for this point in his career, it’s as if he doesn’t miss a mark. It’s unfortunate that audiences didn’t really appreciate the film for what it was upon release.
Another interesting aspect of production is how the Production Code impacted the final cut. The Code wasn’t a fan of corruption in law enforcement and especially didn’t like to see such characters on screen. Somebody should invent a time machine and inform the anti-Semitic Joseph Breen about police brutality. Anyone who committed a crime had to pay for their wrongdoing. This is why Chuck Tatum ends up dead at the end of the film much like Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. Speaking of that film, a tourist in the film works for Pacific All-Risk Insurance!
The press has a job to do. Members of the press have a way of going about getting a story and reporting on it. The thing that the filmmaking team does here is examine how the media is able to exploit the public for their benefit. And even though this film was released in 1951, the manipulation has never gone away. I hope it does–for our sake–but it probably will not.
Ace in the Hole does for print media what Network and Nightcrawler would do later on for television and it still rings true today.
DIRECTOR: Billy Wilder
SCREENWRITERS: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman
CAST: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Bob Arthur, Porter Hall