As far as I can tell, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) was completely ignored upon its release, and for many years thereafter. Then in 1987, when an infant who became the world-famous Baby Jessica fell down a well and the ensuing wall-to-wall media coverage came to seem a tad exploitative, even circus-like, people started to say, wait a minute, haven’t we seen this story before? The Baby Jessica/Wilder scenario inspired a 1992 episode of The Simpsons, “Radio Bart.” At the time Ace in the Hole was still so obscure that the writer of the episode, Jon Vitti, who was given the story by Matt Groening, said he had trouble locating a copy to rent. (Before the launch of Turner Classic Movies, Ace in the Hole was almost never shown on TV and the only place I could find the film, as of the mid-1990s, was the invaluable art-house video-rental shop Kim’s Video, in Greenwich Village. The place closed in 2014.)
Today Ace in the Hole must be one of the most-talked about Hollywood movies of the Fifties. It dated well because the thing that people hated about it when it was made is the thing that is contemporary about it now: It’s unbelievably nasty. Finally taste has caught up with Billy Wilder’s cynicism. (The movie is on the TCM app through May 17 and can also be found on the superb, Kim’s Video-like Kanopy app offering art-house favorites, which you can use if you have a library card from one of the many public libraries that subscribes to it. A version with commercials is showing on Pluto TV).
Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, a New York reporter adrift in the Southwest who comes across a guy stuck in a mine and decides to make a sensation of it. Tatum attracts so much attention to the saga that an actual carnival rises up to service all the looky-loos who stop by, hence the movie’s alternate title The Big Carnival. Alas for the guy stuck in the mine, all the fun stops if he should be rescued. Realizing this, Tatum decides it’s in his interest to keep the guy stuck there for a good long while. (Wilder was himself a newspaper reporter in his early days, and in Vienna claimed he once interviewed Sigmund Freud. I like to think Wilder is the only person who ever met both Freud and Tom Cruise.)
Armond White has thoughts on the film here and isn’t wholly complimentary; I find Wilder’s cynicism bracing, funny, and dead-on. Over the years Wilder’s satire came to seem less like hyperbole and more like simple observation. These days, though, it’s primarily the Right that views journalists as a class as shameless opportunist hucksters who hype a story and keep it going because it suits them.