Blog Directory CineVerse: Ace is the place with the hateful hardboiled man

Ace is the place with the hateful hardboiled man

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, Ace in the Hole – also known as The Big Carnival, was released to little fanfare in the summer of 1951. Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, and Robert Arthur, the plot centers around Chuck Tatum (Douglas), a struggling reporter who stumbles upon a potentially major story: a man trapped in a collapsed mine. But instead of promptly rescuing the trapped individual, Tatum milks the situation to prolong the event, creating a media circus to advance his career.

Wilder’s work emphasizes the unethical nature of yellow journalism and the exploitation of human tragedy. By critiquing the media's manipulation of news for profit and public attention and exploring themes of corruption, avarice, and the corrosive power of personal ambition, the movie proved to be ahead of its time; its cynical tone and scathing subtextual commentary on the dark side of media help Ace in the Hole remain relevant today.

Fascinatingly, the film bombed at the box office upon initial release. But it has since garnered significant recognition as a thought-provoking morality play exploring media ethics and the pursuit of sensationalism. It also features one of Douglas’ most unforgettable performances.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

Amazingly, this film was a major flop with audiences and critics in 1951. It’s not hard to contemplate why. Ace in the Hole is overwhelmingly cynical and scathing in its depiction of the press and the public's fascination with sensationalistic stories.

The film would have touched a nerve with journalists, especially film critics who work for newspapers, as it might have been too close to the truth. It also pulls no punches in indicting audiences, as they are equally guilty as Tatum in their craving for sleazy and sordid stories. Additionally, Ace in the Hole was ahead of its time in portraying the media circus, the manipulation of news by journalists, and the public's inclination towards manufactured human interest stories. And the picture features very few sympathetic characters and ends on a dark and depressing note, without much redemption. The sheriff and other collaborators manage to escape the consequences, while Leo dies.

Fair question: Who do you feel sympathy for by the end of the film? Has Tatum redeemed himself? Debatably, the answer is no. His desire to spill the beans and confess seems more like an act of self-loathing and passing the blame rather than a genuine attempt at cleansing and salvation. There are no likable or admirable dramatis personae, except perhaps for Boot, Leo's parents, and the doctor, who are all minor characters.

Arguably, this film has a psychological triangle at work that doesn’t involve Leo or his wife. Tatum signifies the id, embodying base and animalistic instincts. Mr. Boot, a pillar of journalistic integrity, symbolizes the superego, which represents one's moral conscience. Herbie, the young cub photographer, represents the ego, the conscious and realistic component of the mind. He serves as a stand-in for us, the viewers, who are also torn between opposing influences: the easy and seedy journalism of Tatum or the hard work, low-glamor dignity, and morality represented by the Albuquerque editor.

Although it’s not set in the urban jungle of the big city, nor does it feature any private eyes, gangsters, wrong-man protagonists, or the like, you could certainly make the case that Ace in the Hole is a film noir. Consider the morally ambiguous characters: Like many films noir, Ace in the Hole explores ethically complex and flawed characters. The protagonist, Chuck Tatum, is an unscrupulous reporter who manipulates a tragic event for personal gain. The film delves into the ethical dilemmas faced by its characters, reflecting the moral ambiguity often found in film noir narratives. The film effectively employs visual techniques commonly associated with film noir, as well, including stark contrasts, deep shadows, and expressive cinematography. These artistic choices contribute to the brooding and dark atmosphere typical of the genre. 

Film noir frequently delves into subtexts of corruption, greed, and the darker aspects of society. Ace in the Hole aligns with these themes by exposing the sensationalism and moral decay within the media. It highlights the exploitation of human tragedy for profit, providing a critical view of society. Noir often employs nonlinear storytelling, flashbacks, or voice-over narration to create suspense and ambiguity. Although Ace in the Hole primarily follows a more straightforward narrative structure, it still engages with the dark and morally complex themes commonly associated with film noir. Lastly, while not as prominent as in some other film noirs, Ace in the Hole features a character, Lorraine, portrayed by Jan Sterling, who shares traits with the archetypal femme fatale. Lorraine manipulates others and uses her sexuality to advance her own interests, adding an element of treachery and deceit to the narrative.

Many critics have posited that Ace in the Hole is seething with erotic and sexual undertones. The song composed for Leo carries a double entendre, serving as a mocking ditty that satirizes the perverse excitement surrounding his predicament. This includes the enthusiasm displayed by Tatum and his wife, who revel in the situation. The circus truck bears the name The Great S & M Amusement Corp, a deliberate reference to sadomasochism. The unyielding drill assumes a phallic symbolism, representing Tatum's virility fueled by greed. This stands in stark contrast to Leo's emasculated state, trapped and helpless within the cave. The cave itself becomes a sexual metaphor, likened to the womb. Leo's entrapment signifies being confined within the womb, while Tatum and Lorraine act as his unscrupulous parents. The mother figure rejects the child, while the father figure intentionally delays the birth to exploit the situation.

The character of Tatum in Ace in the Hole exhibits a unique quality among Billy Wilder's films. However, similarities can be found between Tatum and characters in other Wilder movies such as Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, The Apartment, and Some Like It Hot. These parallels include an exploration of themes centered around deception, masquerading, and assuming false identities that are contrary to one's true nature. Also, unlike the other characters mentioned, Tatum is not pretending or straying from his nature. Nevertheless, he stands out as the central figure embodying the art of deception in the film. In many of Wilder's films, the leading characters mentioned are often redeemed and justified by the conclusion, albeit sometimes too late, as seen in Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. These personalities are cynical characters who are willing to compromise their integrity and make deals that come at the expense of their souls.

Similar works

  • Other films critical of tabloid journalism and the manipulative power of the media, including: Citizen Kane, Sweet Smell of Success, A Face in the Crowd, Broadcast News, Day of the Locust, Network, and Nightcrawler
  • James Cagney films, particularly Public Enemy

Other key films by Billy Wilder

  • Double Indemnity
  • The Lost Weekend
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Stalag 17
  • Sabrina
  • The Seven Year Itch
  • The Spirit of St. Louis
  • Witness for the Prosecution
  • Some Like It Hot
  • The Apartment

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