Ace in the Hole (1951 film)

Ace in the Hole, also known as The Big Carnival, is a 1951 American film noir[2] starring Kirk Douglas as a cynical, disgraced reporter who stops at nothing to try to regain a job on a major newspaper. The film co-stars Jan Sterling and features Robert Arthur and Porter Hall.[3]

Ace in the Hole
theatrical release poster
Directed byBilly Wilder
Produced byBilly Wilder
Screenplay byWalter Newman
Lesser Samuels
Billy Wilder
Story byVictor Desny
StarringKirk Douglas
Music byHugo Friedhofer
CinematographyCharles Lang
Edited byArthur P. Schmidt
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • June 14, 1951 (1951-06-14)
Running time
111 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.8 million
Box office$1.3 million (rentals)[1]

It marked a series of firsts for auteur Billy Wilder: it was the first time he was involved in a project as a writer, producer, and director; his first film following his breakup with long-time writing partner Charles Brackett, with whom he had collaborated on The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard, among others; and his first film to be a critical and commercial failure.[4]

The story is a biting examination of the seedy relationship between the press, the news it reports and the manner in which it reports it. The film also shows how a gullible public can be manipulated by the press. Without consulting Wilder, Paramount Pictures executive Y. Frank Freeman changed the title to The Big Carnival just prior to its release.[5] Early television broadcasts retained that title, but when aired by Turner Classic Movies and when released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in July 2007 it reverted to Ace in the Hole.

In 2017, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[6]


Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a fiercely ambitious, self-centered, newly sober reporter whose career has fallen into notoriety and decline. He has come west to New Mexico from New York City in a broken down car, out of money and options. The charismatic Tatum talks his way into a reporting job with Boot (Porter Hall), the publisher for the tiny Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Tatum asks if Mr. Boot would like to make $200 a week, saying "Mr. Boot, I'm a 250 dollar a week newspaperman. I can be had for $50." Boot says "in this shop we pay $60 a week" and brings Tatum on. However, he remains skeptical of his new hire.

Tatum stays sober and works there uneventfully for a year. Then while unhappily on assignment to cover a rattlesnake hunt, he learns about Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a local man who has become trapped in a cave collapse while gathering ancient Indian artifacts.

Sensing a golden opportunity, Tatum manipulates the rescue effort, forming an alliance with Kretzer, an unscrupulous sheriff, by depicting him favorably in the newspaper to ensure Kretzer's re-election. The pair coerce the construction contractor charged with the rescue into drilling from above, rather than the quicker method of shoring up the existing passages, so that Tatum can prolong his own stay on the front pages of newspapers nationwide. Tatum also directs Kretzer to prevent any other reporters from encroaching on the story, keeping it as his exclusive.

Lorraine (Jan Sterling), the victim's wife, goes along with the reporter's scheme. She is eager to leave Leo and their struggling business, a combination trading post and restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Thanks to the publicity Tatum generates, she experiences a financial windfall, particularly from thousands of tourists who come to witness the rescue.

Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), the newspaper's young photographer initially on assignment with Leo, slowly loses his idealism as he follows Tatum's lead and envisions himself selling pictures to Look or Life. Boot makes a surprise visit to Tatum and tries to talk some sense to him and Herbie but is rebuffed by Tatum, who quits on the spot, having sold the exclusive rights to his copy to a New York editor for $1000 per day and, more importantly, his old job back.

Thousands flock to the town. The rescue site literally becomes an all-day carnival with rides, entertainment, games and songs about Leo. Tatum sets up shop at the trading post and begins drinking again. He takes up with Lorraine and is greeted heroically by the crowd each time he returns from visiting Leo in the cave.

After five days of drilling, things get worse. A visiting doctor diagnoses Leo with a grim bout of pneumonia. His only chance for survival is by being rescued in 12 hours. Remorseful, Tatum sends a news flash, saying that Leo will now be rescued by shoring up the cave walls during the 12-hour period. But when he speaks to the contractor, he learns that the vibration from drilling has made this impossible.

Tatum's mistreatment of Lorraine reaches its boiling point with his physical and mental abuse, leaving her to stab him in self-defense with a pair of scissors, mortally wounding him. Tatum gets the local priest, and takes him into the cave to administer the Last Rites. Leo subsequently dies and Tatum, guilt ridden over what's transpired, orders the crew to stop drilling. Tatum announces to the crowd publicly of Leo's death, telling them to pack up and leave. Subsequently, many of the reporters that have come to the town, former colleagues with contempt for Tatum already, immediately get on their newswires and report Leo's death. As the carnival breaks down, the public packs up and moves out en masse, Lorraine is amongst the departing as she misses her bus and tries hitching a ride with one of the passing cars.

Tatum has neglected to send copy to the New York editor, who is furious that other newspapers have hit the streets with the news about Leo. Tatum is fired and the rival reporters come to Tatum's room to gloat before he kicks them out. Drunk and dying, Tatum calls the editor and tries to confess to killing Leo by delaying the rescue, but the editor hangs up on him. Tatum corrals Herbie into leaving immediately in their car and they barely reach the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Tatum makes a dramatic entrance into the paper's offices, calling for Boot. Tatum asks him "How'd you like to make yourself a thousand dollars a day, Mr. Boot? I'm a thousand dollar a day newspaperman. You can have me for nothin'." Tatum then falls dead to the floor.



The film's plot was inspired by two real-life events. The first involved W. Floyd Collins, who in 1925 was trapped inside Sand Cave, Kentucky, following a landslide. A Louisville newspaper, the Courier-Journal, jumped on the story by dispatching reporter William Burke Miller to the scene. Miller's enterprising coverage turned the tragic episode into a national event and earned the writer a Pulitzer Prize. Collins's name is cited in the film as an example of a cave-in victim who becomes a media sensation.

The second event took place in April 1949. Three-year-old Kathy Fiscus of San Marino, California, fell into an abandoned well and, during a rescue operation that lasted several days, thousands of people arrived to watch the action unfold. In both cases, the victims died before they were rescued.[7]

The film's outdoor set (35°23′49″N 109°01′09″W), constructed 19 miles west of Gallup, was the largest non-combat set ever constructed at the time. It measured 235 feet (72 m) high, 1,200 feet (370 m) wide, and 1,600 feet (490 m) deep and included an ancient cliff dwelling, collapsed cave, roadside stands, parking lots, and a carnival site. Underground scenes were filmed in a mock-up at the Paramount Studios on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood.[8] More than 1,000 extras and 400 cars were utilized in the crowd scenes. After the film was completed, Paramount charged admission to the set.[9]

In the original script, Tatum colluded with the local sheriff. Joseph Breen of the Hays Code office strongly objected to the on-screen depiction of a corrupt law enforcement officer and insisted Wilder add dialogue making it clear the man eventually would be made to answer for his actions.[10]

The film's final cost was $1,821,052 of which $250,000 was paid to Wilder as writer, producer, and director.[11]

Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote the song "We're Coming, Leo," performed by a vocalist and band at the carnival.[12]

Frank Cady's character identifies himself as a salesman for Pacific All-Risk Insurance, a fictitious company featured in Wilder's 1944 film Double Indemnity.

Following the film's release, Wilder was sued for plagiarism by screenwriter Victor Desny, who claimed he had contacted Wilder's secretary Rosella Stewart to propose a film based on the story of Floyd Collins in November 1949. Wilder's attorneys responded that not only did an oral plot summary not constitute a formal story submission, but the Collins case was of a historical nature and as such was not protected by copyright laws. In December 1953, Judge Stanley Mosk ruled in favor of Wilder and Paramount. Desny appealed, and in August 1956 the California Supreme Court ruled his oral submission had been legitimate. Wilder's attorneys settled that same month, paying Desny $14,350 (equivalent to $132,000 in 2018).[13][5]


Critical response

At the time of its release, critics found little to admire. In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther called it "a masterly film" but added, "Mr. Wilder has let imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque . . . [it] is badly weakened by a poorly constructed plot, which depends for its strength upon assumptions that are not only naïve but absurd. There isn't any denying that there are vicious newspaper men and that one might conceivably take advantage of a disaster for his own private gain. But to reckon that one could so tie up and maneuver a story of any size, while other reporters chew their fingers, is simply incredible."[14]

The Hollywood Reporter called it "ruthless and cynical...a distorted study of corruption and mob psychology nothing more than a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions - democratic government and the free press."[15] Variety was more positive, noting "the performances are fine. Douglas enacts the heel reporter ably, giving it color to balance its unsympathetic character. Jan Sterling also is good in a role that has no softening touches, and Benedict's victim portrayal is first-rate. Billy Wilder's direction captures the feel of morbid expectancy that always comes out in the curious that flock to scenes of tragedy."[16]

The film has found new respect among critics. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote in 2007, "Although the film is 56 years old, I found while watching it again that it still has all its power. It hasn't aged because Wilder and his co-writers, Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels, were so lean and mean [with their dialogue] . . . [Kirk Douglas'] focus and energy . . . is almost scary. There is nothing dated about [his] performance. It's as right-now as a sharpened knife."[17]

Dave Kehr in the Chicago Reader called it "cold, lurid, and fascinating"[18] and Nathan Lee of The Village Voice wrote, "Here is, half a century out of the past, a movie so acidly au courant it stings."[19]

Time Out London wrote, "As a diatribe against all that is worst in human nature, it has moments dipped in pure vitriol."[20] TV Guide called it "a searing example of writer-director Billy Wilder at his most brilliantly misanthropic" and adds, "An uncompromising portrait of human nature at its worst, the film . . . stands as one of the great American films of the 1950s."[21]

Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine wrote that the film "... allowed Wilder to question the very nature of human interest stories and the twisted relationship between the American media and its public. More than 50 years after the film's release, when magazines compete to come up with the cattiest buzz terms and giddily celebrate the demise of celebrity relationships for buffo bucks, Ace in the Hole feels more relevant than ever."[22]

In his Slate review, Jack Shafer wrote in 2007, "If film noir illustrates the crackup of the American dream . . . Ace in the Hole is an exemplar of the form."[2]

In September 2008, Empire Magazine published its list of the Top 500 greatest movies of all time. With votes from 10,000 readers of the magazine along with 500 key film critics and 150 film industry figures, this film is ranked number 385.[23]

Awards and nominations



  • Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay – Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman; 1952.
  • Venice Film Festival: Golden Lion – Billy Wilder; 1951.
  • The Rescue episode of Adventures of Superman (S1E9) follows the general outline of Ace in the Hole, including the drilling down and cutting over.



  1. Staff (January 2, 1952) "The Top Box Office Hits of 1951", Variety
  2. Shafer, Jack (July 19, 2007). "Presence of Malice: Billy Wilder tours journalism's pus-filled heart in the long-lost Ace in the Hole". Slate. Retrieved January 4, 2011.
  3. Silver, Alain (2010). Film Noir: The Encyclopedia. p. 24. ISBN 978-0715638804.
  4. Sikov (1998), pp.325-38
  5. "Notes"
  6. Staff (December 13, 2017). "2017 National Film Registry Is More Than a 'Field of Dreams'". Library of Congress National Film Registry. Retrieved December 13, 2017.
  7. Sikov (1998), pp.312-13
  8. Reeves, Tony (2001) The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations Archived June 25, 2015, at the Wayback Machine Titan Publishing. p.11
  9. Sikov (1998), p.317
  10. Sikov (1998), p.318
  11. Sikov (1998), p.325
  12. "We're Coming Leo – Livingston & Evans". Retrieved February 1, 2018.
  13. Sikov (1998), pp.327-28
  14. Crowther, Bosley (June 30, 1951). "The Screen in Review; 'Ace in the Hole,' Billy Wilder Special, With Kirk Douglas, Arrives at Globe Theatre". The New York Times. Retrieved January 4, 2010.
  15. Sikov (1998), p.326
  16. Staff (December 31, 1950). "Ace in the Hole - Review". Variety. Retrieved January 4, 2010.
  17. Ebert, Roger (August 12, 2007). "Ace in the Hole - Roger Ebert - The Great Movies". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved January 4, 2011.
  18. Kehr, Dave. "Ace in the Hole". Chicago Reader. Retrieved January 4, 2010.
  19. Lee, Nathan (January 2, 2007). "Truth Is For Sissies". Village Voice. Archived from the original on June 13, 2008. Retrieved January 4, 2011.
  20. "TM". "Ace in the Hole". Time Out London. Archived from the original on November 15, 2010. Retrieved January 4, 2010.
  21. Scheinfeld, Michael. "Ace in the Hole: Review". TV Guide. Retrieved January 4, 2010.
  22. Gonzalez, Ed (January 19, 2004). "Ace in the Hole: Film Review". Slant Magazine. Archived from the original on January 7, 2010. Retrieved January 4, 2010.
  23. Staff "Empire Magazine's The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time" Empire Retrieved March 21, 2013.


Further reading

  • Armstrong, Richard (February 2002). "Ace in the Hole". Senses of Cinema. Archived from the original on October 3, 2009. Retrieved January 5, 2010.
    • Freely accessible essay by Richard Armstrong, who published a biography of Wilder in 2000.
  • Maddin, Guy (July 16, 2007). "Ace in the Hole: Chin Up for Mother". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved January 5, 2010.
    • Maddin is a filmmaker; publication of this essay accompanied the 2007 DVD release of Ace in the Hole by The Criterion Collection.
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