The most underappreciated of Billy Wilder’s handful of masterpieces is 1951’s “Ace in the Hole,” a cynical gut punch of a flick that positions tabloid journalism somewhere between Dante’s eighth and ninth circles of hell.
Kirk Douglas, firing on all cylinders, plays Chuck Tatum, a yellow journalist stranded in Albuquerque, N.M. after being canned from half a dozen East Coast papers for various indiscretions. “If there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog,” he says, without irony, before drudging up a 72-point headline when a dumb slob named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) gets trapped in a mine cave-in while hunting for Indian artifacts.
Tatum is a complete heel. Not only does he collude with the local sheriff to keep Leo buried for a week while he milks the story dry, but he also shacks up with the victim’s trophy wife (Jan Sterling), a platinum floozy who claims she never attends church because “kneeling bags my nylons.”
When the wire services pick up Tatum’s shamelessly sensationalized story and the big city broadsheets begin horning in, the spectacle snowballs to absurd heights, with a Ferris wheel set up near the mine and a train dubbed the “Leo Minosa Special” shipping in fresh hordes of pleasure seekers.
Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.” looked back on Hollywood’s silent era and its fading relics with a combination of derision and pity, but “Ace in the Hole” (or, “The Big Carnival,” as it was subsequently renamed by Paramount Pictures) is presciently forward-looking in its depiction of the types of media circuses that would later surround such events as the Gary Gilmore execution and the O.J. Simpson trial.
Despite being shot on location in the sun-bleached desert outside Gallup, N.M., “Ace in the Hole” is the darkest and most unrelentingly pessimistic picture of Wilder’s career. It also, not surprisingly, was one of his biggest box office bombs.
“Ace in the Hole” airs Friday, May 17 at 8 p.m. EDT on Turner Classic Movies.