"Ace in the Hole" (Billy Wilder, 1951) Probably more familiar under its name-change-in-desperation "The Big Carnival" (which sounds happier and more fun–which it isn't) "Ace in the Hole" is Billy Wilder's most acid-tongued movie to date (and considering it was coming off the heels of "Sunset Boulevard," that's saying something).
Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) rides into Albuquerque, New Mexico literally on the hook, and convinces the small-town newspaper to hire him. But after a year, Tatum feels trapped and is desperate for the Big Story that will get him back into The City Beat again. He stumbles onto a minor cave-in that has trapped Leo Minosa who was caught while looking for indian arrow-heads. Not a big deal to get him out, but it will take some work. But, as Tatum was on his way to cover a rattle-snake festival, the incident gives him a whiff of a potentially Big Story.
He should have stayed with the other rattle-snakes.
Working with the corrupt sheriff and the bored-out-of-her-skull wife, Tatum prolongs the rescue, turning it into a major (and unnecessary) drilling operation that will keep the story alive for days. The reporter keeps his fingers on all aspects including access to other news-services, and pretty soon he's the Only Game in Town. No one associated with the rescue does anything without his say-so, lest they risk the promises Tatum's made.
Then the curious start showing up. Then the hopeful. Then the carnivorous. The Story becomes a vigil, and where there are crowds of people, comes the salesmen, and the site becomes "The Big Carnival" of Paramount's cheery alias. Meanwhile, Leo is getting weaker and the pounding of the drills is slowly driving him crazy.
The screenplay, by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, has its ink mixed with venom (the most quoted line is from Minosa's wife (Jan Sterling): "I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons."), but it's no worse than the cynical lines from Wilder's previous film, "Sunset Boulevard." The difference is Wilder's not looking at the easyily-satirized egotism of Hollywood, he's looking at us, and the American capacity to make a buck while wallowing in tragedy. "Ace in the Hole" is before its time, before the mawkishness and the trivial pursuit of the 24 hour news cycle made the trend easier to spot.
And there's one other thing: "Sunset Boulevard's" dispassionate cynic was William Holden, "the golden boy," whose snide wise-cracks passed for intelligence. Here, he's Kirk Douglas, who is a more energetic performer, and so that constant cynicism is seen as more of a constant attack that just seems mean-spirited. And where Holden's self-loathing seemed somehow relaxed and noble, Douglas's is never less than actively self-destructive. It's a smarter, more satisfying performance that doesn't try to be likeable, or a wolf in sheep's clothing, but audiences found it repellant (as well they should!). They didn't want their movie-heroes (or anti-heroes) to be too unlikable. So, even though there is no redemption for this character, and no happy ending in sight, the crowds stayed home from "The Big Carnival."
That doesn't stop it from being the classic that it is, of Billy Wilder (who famously said "You're only as good as your best movie") in his prime.