Movie Review: Ace in the Hole

AceInTheHoleThumbby Brad Nelson
This movie is highly plot-driven, so I won’t say too much about it. It stars Kirk Douglas as a reporter who is covering the story of a man trapped deep inside a cave inside a mountain. This movie is a serious and wonderful critique of the profession of journalism.

It did its job so well that the movie got panned by the press and is therefore much underrated and largely unknown even today. And this is not only ironic but a tragedy in terms of art. This is a fantastic movie. Yes, it peters out at the end and doesn’t finish very well. But this is a very engaging movie. If you like Kirk Douglas at all you’ve got to drop everything right now and rent this. But even if you aren’t a big fan, it’s still very much worth watching.

I can’t believe I’d never run into this one before. But it’s no wonder. It’s relatively hard to find. It is an engaging story and features terrific performances, both by Douglas and his co-star and femme fatale, Jan Sterling.

Billy Wilder was quite ahead of his time in showing the direction that the media would take in creating media circuses and how American viewers would become addicted to them. I give it 3.5 free admissions out of 5, but we’re really talking about a 4-star movie 9/10ths of the way. I’d like to re-write the ending which I don’t think fits the rest of the movie very well, but what’s done is done. And most of what was done is superb. This is a stunning role for Douglas.


Available on DVD ($22.99 new, $11.99 used). Not available for streaming on Netflix. 

Synopsis: One of the most scathing indictments of American culture ever produced by a Hollywood filmmaker, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is legendary for both its cutting social critique and its status as a hard-to-find cult classic. Kirk Douglas gives the fiercest performance of his career as Chuck Tatum, an amoral newspaper reporter caught in dead-end Albuquerque who happens upon the story of a lifetime—and will do anything to ensure he gets the scoop. Wilder’s follow-up to Sunset Boulevard is an even darker vision, a no-holds-barred exposé that anticipated the rise of the American media circus. More »

Noir in Broad Daylight
by Molly Haskell

Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole almost requires an honorary expansion of the term film noir. There are no private eyes in seedy offices or femmes fatales lurking in the shadows of neon-lit doorways, no forces of evil arrayed against a relatively honorable hero. This emotional snake pit, the darkest of Wilder’s dark meditations on American folkways, takes place under the relentless sun of a flat New Mexican desert. The noir is interior—inside a mountain tunnel where a man is trapped and suffocating, and inside the mind of a reporter rotting from accumulated layers of self-induced moral grime.

The 1951 movie, fascinating in the sweep and savagery of its indictment, and a flop when it opened (and again when it was released as The Big Carnival), points to the direction noir would take in the fifties, hiding in broad daylight in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk. But if Hitchcock diabolically upended our expectations of the leading man, Wilder went much, much further. This satire of the media circus that would envelop us all goes beyond noir into saeva indignatio, and beyond Swift into something more intensely and disturbingly personal. Rarely, if ever, have there been such brutally antipathetic leads in a mainstream film as Kirk Douglas’s scoop-or-die reporter and Jan Sterling’s breathtakingly callous victim’s wife. However prophetic Wilder’s vision of a press and a public drunk on sensation, this issue ends up seeming almost peripheral to two main characters so monstrous in their mutual, and mutually despising, selfishness that it’s astonishing the movie got released at all. More »


Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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