Movie classic: ‘Ace in the Hole’

kirk douglas ace in the hole

As a lifelong reporter and writer, I’ve always been interested in the way movies and TV shows portrayed the newspaper profession. A few, like Jack Webb’s classic “30,” are accurate if melodramatic. The Kurt Russell drama “The Mean Season” did a pretty good job telling the story of a reporter tracking a killer. So did “Zodiac.”

Most reporter portrayals on TV and in movies are awful, however. They’re corrupt or incompetent, assholes or timid sops.

“Ace in the Hole” portrays an ambitious reporter not only as ruthless but morally bankrupt.

And I loved it.

ace in the hole douglas outside

The 1951 drama – known as “The Big Carnival” for most of its existence – was made by Billy Wilder and stars Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a big-city reporter who’s been fired at a dozen papers across the country and ends up taking a job at a paper in Albuquerque. It’s a paper that he hates and can’t wait to leave; he clashes with and insults the editor and staff.

Tatum can’t wait to get out of this one-horse town and make it back to the big city – New York especially – and thinks he sees a chance when he stumbles across a cave-in in a mountain used as a burial ground for Native Americans. Leo, who sells Native trinkets at his roadside store nearby, was looking for pottery when he was trapped by a cave-in.

Tatum ingratiates himself with Leo – going into the cave and taking the man a blanket and coffee when no one else will take the chance – and begins making notes for his story. He also befriends Leo’s faithless wife (Jan Sterling).

Leo’s plan? Produce sensational coverage of the trapped man over the course of several days and win his way back to the big time.

He works toward this goal by persuading the local sheriff (Ray Teal of “Bonanza” fame) to use a rescue method that will actually slow down the process. He convinces the sheriff that the longer the story continues, the more heroic he will look.

Meanwhile, thousands of gawkers descend on the site, fattening the pocketbooks of the people of the small town.

“Ace in the Hole” is great noir, gritty and stark and bitterly funny.

douglas newspaper ace in the hole

Oh!  The great Billy Wilder dialogue and lines:

“I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.”

“I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”

Reporter to Tatum: “We’re all in the same boat.” Tatum: “I’m in the boat. You’re in the water. Now let’s see how you can swim.”

“Bad news sells best. Because good news is no news.”

“It’s a good story today. Tomorrow they’ll wrap a fish it it.”

Editor: “Do you drink a lot?” Tatum: “Not a lot. Just frequently.”


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