Wow, did I love Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival) (1951). Like Gun Crazy (1950), it is one of those films I thought I knew only to find I didn’t, and it’s instantly become an obsession. It is a film that has added to my appreciation of its director — this time one I already loved, Billy Wilder (vs. Gun Crazy‘s lesser-known Joseph Lewis). I love the setting, the plot, the acting, the cinematography, and most of all the cynicism.
Ace in the Hole, however, isn’t an easy watch. The underground scenes between Kirk Douglas’s vicious reporter Charles Tatum and poor lug of a victim Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) were intense in how impotent they make the viewer feel. Not unlike watching Jaws swim up underneath a swimming victim (or Lakeith Stanfield in Get Out), you want to shout “GET OUT!” But Minosa can’t, and neither can you as a viewer. You’re trapped by Tatum’s masterful control of a terrible situation for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.
Of course, the passive audience always looking for a thrill is, to my mind, the heart of this film and what makes it so powerful. Yes, we’re meant to judge Tatum until our condemnation feels like it could actually kill him. But we are also John and Jane Q. Public (aka the fantastically named Mr. and Mrs. Ferderber, the first to become “fans” of the Minosa rescue effort), and we’re condemned for it even more harshly than Tatum. Tatum, after all, is just a guy. He’s a guy with charisma and chutzpah, to be sure, but just one guy. But he needs others to enable him, to promote him, or to celebrate what he tells them to celebrate. So vicious and so true.
Like Gun Crazy, Ace in the Hole was a box office flop, an absolute bomb. Also like Gun Crazy, it’s ahead of its time and holds up incredibly well today. If you haven’t seen it, do.
P.S. I’m really interested in race in the film, including the literal and figurative presence of Native Americans and mixed marriages (the Minosas). I may write about this in future!