Ace in the Hole (1951)

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aka, The Big Carnival

By Scott Ross

Arguably Billy Wilder’s most scathing, incendiary movie. His follow-up to Sunset Blvd., it was dead on arrival at the theatres, but with every year its power grows.

What is the tonal opposite of film noir? Visually the picture, set in New Mexico, is so bright it hurts. Thematically it’s about as dark as a movie gets; nearly every aspect of human greed, corruption and selfishness is explored in its tight running time.

Inspired by the story of Floyd Collins, the spelunker who got himself trapped in a 1920s cave-in and became the center of a media circus, Wilder and his co-authors (Walter Newman, soon to be blacklisted, and Lesser Samuels) crafted an etching of complicity that reached the screen with the acid still wet. No other American movie has ever indicted the media so savagely—nor so fiercely broken the taboo against attacking the audience itself; the great sequence of the curious hordes arriving by bus and train is one of the most abysmally frightening ever captured on film.

Ace in the Hole’s quotability quotient is, if not as high as its predecessor, still impressive. Two of its best lines were given to the peerless Jan Sterling as a bottle-blonde nearly as cynical as Kirk Douglas’ ink-stained louse of a reporter:  “I’ve met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you–you’re twenty minutes” and “I don’t pray. Kneeling bags my nylons.”

Culural side-note: Bob Arthur, who plays the adoring cub reporter Herbie and is seen below, was gay (albeit later a Log Cabin Republican) and his starry-eyed relationship to Kirk Douglas in the movie more than borders on puppy-love. Douglas’s Chuck Tatum uses Herbie, of course, as he does everyone. But although Tatum is presented as resolutely heterosexual, his affectionate behavior toward the boy trembles on the precipice of homoeroticism.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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