ACE IN THE HOLE

(1951)
With Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall, Frank Cady
Co-Written and Directed by Billy Wilder

Black and White
Reviewed by JL

Ironically, Kirk Douglas did a mean Frank Gorshin imitation        Billy Wilder could make populist entertainment for the masses (SABRINA, THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS, SOME LIKE IT HOT), but his enduring legacy is based more on those films in which he explores the dark underbelly of American culture.  Lust (DOUBLE INDEMNITY), alcohol (THE LOST WEEKEND), delusion (SUNSET BOULEVARD), and greed (THE FORTUNE COOKIE) are among the forces that corrupt the Wilder hero (a term used loosely in this context), with the central irony being that those forces are a product of the very culture with which the hero is in conflict.
 
     A quest for both power and redemption compels Kirk Douglas to forsake any moral code in Wilder's ACE IN THE HOLE (a.k.a. THE BIG CARNIVAL).  Douglas, a down-and-out reporter recently fired from yet another job, stumbles upon the scoop of the year while drifting through New Mexico.  A miner has been trapped in a cave-in and, though he is able to receive food and water, his injuries are life-threatening and timely rescue is of critical importance.  Sensing an opportunity for journalistic stardom, Douglas bribes the chief of the rescue crew to take the slowest route possible to the trapped man, thereby allowing Douglas to milk the story for all its worth during the next several days.  Soon, gawking tourists have turned the cave-in site into a morbid Disneyland, complete with souvenir hawkers and carnival rides.
 
     A critical disappointment and commercial failure when first released, ACE IN THE HOLE seemed perhaps too hysterical and melodramatic for its time.  The film became a cult favorite in subsequent years (its copyright tangles and infrequent television showings merely adding to its lore) and now seems eerily prescient in its skewering of the unscrupulous news media.  Kirk Douglas, who once said "I made a career out of playing sons-of-bitches," delivers a gale-force performance as an SOB who is equal parts magnetic and repulsive.  Justice may be served by the film's tragic ending, but we are left unsure if it is Douglas or society that deserves the larger share of our contempt.
 
     Largely unseen for years until its DVD release in 2007, ACE IN THE HOLE has now earned its rightful place among Wilder's masterpieces.  As with SUNSET BOULEVARD, Wilder succeeds in crafting compelling entertainment out of unpleasant and macabre subject matter.  4 ½ - JL

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