Ace in the Hole

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(1951) ★★★★★

Sky Movies Select: Sunday 25 October, 2.15pm

Some years back, Chris Morris brilliantly skewered the media’s obsession with puffed-up news bulletins on The Day Today. With its ludicrous taglines (“Fact into doubt won’t go!”) and triumphalist jingles, it did the job so well that I’ll swear BBC World is still using some of those self-important lead-ins for their half-hourly broadcasts. The amazing thing is, Billy Wilder did it more than 60 years ago, even before television hit its stride, in the days when radio ruled the airwaves and people still read newspapers.

Coming off the back of his biggest box-office hit, Sunset Boulevard, Wilder chose to stick with what he knew for his first film as a producer. He’d been a reporter in Vienna and Berlin before turning his hand to script writing in Paris (and thence to Hollywood in the 30s as an exile from Nazi Germany), and used his experience to pour scorn on yellow journalism and the public’s insatiable appetite for it. Even more prescient and beady-eyed than Elia Kazan’s Face in the Crowd in the late-50s, Wilder saw the way of the world in the presentation of news.

His real spokesman, of course, is conservative editor Porter Hall, whose Albuquerque office is decorated with ‘Tell the Truth’ needleworks. Which are openly mocked by the star of the show. That’s Kirk Douglas, typically abrasive as Chuck Tatum, a disreputable journalist down on his luck, who sees an opportunity to recapture the big time by being on the spot as a human tragedy unfolds. “If there’s no news I’ll go out and bite a dog,” he boasts to admiring colleagues. He doesn’t have to. His ‘ace in the hole’ is a man trapped underground after a cave-in at an ancient Indian burial site – and he’ll stay there for as long as it suits Kirk’s purpose. Cynical, heartless and brilliant (which also goes for the extraordinarily compelling Douglas), Ace in the Hole is one of Billy Wilder’s best – which means it’s one of the best American movies ever made.

Managing to exude cockiness even with his feet up reading a paper, Douglas relishes Wilder’s corrosive dialogue. Jan Sterling, too, as the peroxide wife of the stricken man. She’s quick to size up the unscrupulous Tatum: “I’ve met some hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you – you’re 20 minutes.” To Wilder’s dismay, the film flopped with critics and audiences alike. Paramount hastily recut it and reissued it under another title, The Big Carnival. Wilder decided his next picture should be a safe bet, the Broadway hit Stalag 17. Film4 has that tomorrow at 4.05pm.

Certificate: PG
Duration: 107min

IMDB – Ace in the Hole

TMDB – Ace in the Hole

Rotten Tomatoes – Ace in the Hole

Other Showings Date & Time
Sky Movies Greats Thursday, 5 November at 4:05AM