Circus Media Maximus

After giving up his dream of being a lawyer, Samuel Wilder became a newspaper reporter.  The Polish-born Samuel moved to Vienna and worked for a paper there, then moved on to a tabloid in Berlin in the 1920’s.  In 1929 he began writing screenplays for the German film industry.  After Hitler ascended to power in 1933, Samuel realized Berlin was no longer safe for him because of his Jewish heritage.  He moved on again, first to Paris and then finally to Hollywood, where he found a home and an outlet for his talents.  He spoke no English when he arrived, but Samuel was a fast learner.  He soon mastered the language, as evidenced in his literate scripts.  He had an entrée into the film industry through the German expatriate community of actors.  (For a while he roomed with Peter Lorre.)  Along the way, Samuel changed his name; he became Billy Wilder.

Wilder teamed with Charles Brackett to create some great comedies in the years before WWII, among them Ninotchka and Ball of Fire.  The team expanded its work, with Brackett producing and Wilder directing, and their subjects turned darker.  They were responsible for classics like The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard.  Wilder had also worked without Brackett on Double Indemnity.  Brackett didn’t want to do that film because of the disreputable characters in James M. Cain’s novel, so instead Wilder wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler.  In 1950, the partnership of Wilder and Brackett dissolved.

For his first post-Brackett project, Wilder worked with two other screenwriters to produce the script for Ace In The Hole.  The story referenced an actual event in the 1920’s, when a man named Floyd Collins, a celebrated spelunker, was trapped in a cave.  People throughout the nation listened constantly to radio updates as a shaft was sunk to try to save him.  The story did not have a happy ending; Collins died of exposure after being trapped for 14 days.  (There’s a contemporary example of this media frenzy in Baby Jessica McClure, who fell down a well in a neighbor’s backyard 25 years ago.  For 58 hours, rescuers dug to reach the child while the country watched on TV.  Thankfully that story had a happy ending, and it was later made into a TV movie.)

At the beginning of Ace In The Hole, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) rides into Albuquerque sitting in his broken down car as it’s pulled by a tow truck.  He’s a newspaper reporter who’s been fired from papers all over the US, but he talks himself into a job at the city’s paper.  Tatum loudly proclaims to the managing editor and the other reporters that he’ll only be there a short while before he lands a story that will get him back to the big time.  A year passes.  The editor sends Tatum and the young photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) to cover a rattlesnake roundup in a rural county, but on the way they stop at a gas station/restaurant in the middle of nowhere.  Tatum can’t find anyone to get the car serviced.  While they’re waiting, a police car pulls off the road and heads towards old cliff dwellings behind the station.  Sensing something’s up, Tatum follows.

The owner of the station, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), had been exploring far back in the caves, looking for relics he could sell, when the cave collapsed.  Leo’s father, along with his wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), try to get the police to check on Leo.  The officer refuses, afraid of another cave-in.  Tatum jumps into the story, going into the mine to check on Leo.  Tatum gets close to Leo, whose legs are buried beneath boulders, but the final few feet are blocked.  Only a small window is left through which Tatum can pass a thermos to Leo.

Tatum takes charge of the scene, becoming the one conduit between Leo and the outside world.  He phones in a story to his paper that creates a sensation.  Soon people are traveling from all around to visit the site.  Tatum colludes with the county sheriff, Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal), so that the rescuers won’t take the short route of shoring up the cave to get Leo out.  Instead, they’ll sink a shaft from the top of the mesa, giving Tatum time to milk the story for every ounce of drama while Kretzer uses it to help his reelection campaign.  Lorraine also profits, renting space to sightseers who’ve flocked to the scene and providing marked-up meals in the restaurant.  The entire endeavor takes on a carnival atmosphere, helped by the midway that sets up near the cave to serve the campers.  But inside the cave, Leo isn’t doing well.

Wilder filmed the movie outside of Gallup, NM, behind the Lookout Point Trading Post on Route 66.  Residents of Gallup served as extras for the crowd scenes, and were paid a premium if they brought their own cars with them to fill the parking area.  The cave dwellings exterior was a Hollywood creation, built into the side of a butte behind the station.  In a curious twist, it became a sightseeing attraction for many years.

The movie is the most sun-filled film noir ever made.  Kirk Douglas excelled at playing flawed men who somehow still retained the audience’s sympathy.  He’d broken through to stardom two years earlier with the boxing drama Champion, playing a heel who meets with a pathetic end, and he would follow Ace In The Hole with Detective Story, playing a compromised cop.  If anything, his Chuck Tatum goes to an even darker place before realizing he’s caught in his own moral cave.  Jan Sterling was a sexy B-actress who is remembered fondly by a large number of film fans.  She did earn an Oscar nomination for her work in The High and the Mighty three years later.  In the late ‘50’s she switched to working mostly in television, and continued to do so for 30 years.  She passed away in 2004 in Woodland Hills, CA.

Ace In The Hole was not a success.  Wilder had aimed his cynical eye at the media during a time when the press was highly trusted by the public.  These were the years of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.  Newspapers were trusted to be impartial.  The thought of a reporter manipulating a story was tantamount to sacrilege.  Filmgoers stayed away in droves.  Paramount Pictures tried releasing the movie under a new title, The Big Carnival, but it remained a failure.

The film proved to be a bit of an albatross around Wilder’s neck.  His next movie, Stalag 17, was a runaway success that was nominated for 5 Oscars.  He was expecting a good payday, but the accountants at Universal decided to charge the losses on Ace In The Hole to his profits from Stalag 17.  Wilder also lost a suit by an actor who owned the rights to the Floyd Collins story and charged copyright infringement.  (Collins’ story was later made into a musical that played off-Broadway and in London.)

Wilder went on to write and direct more classics, including Some Like It Hot, Sabrina, The Apartment, and the Cold War comedy One, Two, Three.  He died in 2002 at age 95.

Now history has caught up with the movie, and it is counted as one of Wilder’s finest.  It shows up on Turner Classic Movies, but there is also an excellent Criterion version of the film on DVD.  It’s worth the viewing.

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