Ace in the Hole (1951)

Ace in the Hole (AKA The Big Carnival)Ace_in_the_Hole
Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman
Paramount Pictures
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#243 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Lorraine: I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.

Billy Wilder concocts the original media circus and Kirk Douglas gives us perhaps his most vile heel ever.

Chuck Tatum (Douglas) is a hard-drinking wise-guy newspaper reporter who has been fired by several big city newspapers.  He shows up at an Albuquerque paper and offers his services as a “$200 a day” reporter who will work for cheap.  Despite rubbing the editor (Porter Hall) the wrong way, he gets the job.  After a year, he is still being sent to cover rattlesnake festivals.

On the way to one such event,  he and his photographer stop to get gas at a roadside cafe and souvenir shop.  They learn from the owner’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) that her husband has been trapped in an old Indian tomb where he was searching for artifacts.  Chuck goes to investigate and discovers that the trapped man, Leo, believes that he may be the victim of an Indian curse punishing those who desecrate their grave sites.  Chuck smells a good story and a possible Pulitzer prize.

ace 3

When Chuck learns that the contractors he brought in to rescue the man believe they can get him out in 24 hours he encourages them to do it the hard way by drilling down from the top.  He wants to milk the story for at least a week and is supported in this aim by the crooked local sheriff who is looking for publicity for his re-election campaign. Meanwhile the trapped man and his parents believe Chuck is actually his friend.  Lorraine knows differently but is all cooperation when she sees how much money can be made by the gawkers who now flood the site.

Chuck wangles an exclusive deal for the coverage and alienates all his fellow journalists in the process.  He even manages to get his job back at a New York paper.  Will Chuck get the comeuppance he so richly deserves?


This movie is powerful and well-made in every respect.  It is also the most cynical and misanthropic of all Wilder’s films.  There is an uncharacteristic meanness and lack of leavening humor that makes it hard for me to really love.  It really should be seen though.

Ace in the Hole was nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.


6 thoughts on “Ace in the Hole (1951)

  1. I only saw ACE IN THE HOLE once, decades ago, at the Los Angeles County Museum in a wonderful retrospective of Billy Wilder’s work. With an audience, on the big screen, I recall that it was very powerful. Time to revisit!

  2. I think it has its fun sides, but those a so acerbic and black that you do not know whether to laugh or cry. I mean, that circus outside the cave and the carnival mood of it all is spot on, but also in grinding contrast to the meanness of Tatum’s scam.
    I liked this one a lot.

    • Even if I don’t love this movie like an old friend, I acknowledge that it has some of the most amazing filmmaking ever.

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