If you saw Clint Eastwood’s recent film version of the Broadway musical Jersey Boys (admittedly not one of his best films), then you probably remember a scene where Frankie Valli and company are sitting around watching this movie on television and they act as if they’ve seen it a hundred times and know every line of dialog by heart.
While I have no doubt that Clint Eastwood’s love for this movie is genuine, it is highly unlikely that these boys would have seen the movie, let alone know it by heart. Truth is Ace in the Hole, originally released under the title The Big Carnival, was a major critical and commercial failure when it was released and while it did show up on late-night television occasionally, it was for years the holy grail for film buffs who wanted to add it to their home library. The film was never released on VHS or Beta or Laserdisc. It was not until 2007 when the rights were cleared and the Criterion Collection released a beautifully restored print with a number of great special features.
The picture focuses on Chuck Tatum (Krik Douglas), a one-time big city newspaper reporter who, thanks to his drinking and other vices, has ended up working at a small time newspaper in Albuquerque. This is nearly sixty years before Walter White started breaking bad in the land of enchantment, and while Tatum has given up the bottle, his restless desire to find a big story that could be his meal ticket back to New York is unquenchable.
He gets his wish when the owner of a local restaurant named Leo Mendosa (Richard Benidict) gets trapped in a mine shaft. The leader of the rescue effort can get him out rather quickly if they shore up the mine, but Tatum wants to keep Mendosa underground to prolong the rescue effort. He knows that the longer Mendosa stays down there the more time the story has to grow and that more papers will sell.
Before we know it the story becomes national news. People everywhere make a pilgrimage to New Mexico. But what starts out as a genuine feeling of concern turns into a grotesque carnival, and tents, refreshment stands and even carnival rides spring up around the mineshaft. Tatum also begins an affair with Mednosa’s disillusioned wife (Jan Sterling), who has wanted to leave him for some time. But this is no love affair between two people brought together under extenuating circumstances. Tatum is using her, often cruelly and even violently to keep her in the picture. All that matters is the story.
It’s always fashionable to say that when a really great film, or any work of art, is overlooked in its day that it was ahead of its time. Well, in the case of Ace in the Hole that was certainly the case. Like Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky and their masterpiece Network, Billy Wilder knew all to well which way the wind was blowing. He knew that news would become more sensational and that reporters would become less objective and more manipulative (ahem, Brian Williams). With that newfangled medium of television just started up, he knew that news could soon be delivered round the clock and could feed our need for sensationalism. Watching the big carnival develop one can’t help but to the media circus that formed around the trails of Charles Manson, the Menendez brothers, O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson (of course, this wasn’t exactly a new phenomenon in 1951. The film was based somewhat on the media circus surrounding the story of Floyd Collins, an explorer who was trapped in a Kentucky mine back in 1925. During the trail over the Lindberg baby people sold miniature ladders and locks of yellow hair that they claimed had once been on the head of the slain infant).
Billy Wilder was never afraid of the dark. Yet while audiences embraced Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole/The Big Carnival was just too much for a post war audience with a new war in Korea starting up. Audiences were ready to start a nice new life in the suburbs and were in no mood for such dark chocolate. If everyone who claimed to have seen the film during its fifty-six years in limbo actually had it would have been a smash! Fortunately the film is now on DVD, Blue Ray and is streaming on dailymotion.com, and everyone can enjoy this jolt to the solar plexus.