It marked a series of firsts for auteur Billy Wilder: it was the first time he was involved in a project as a writer, producer, and director; his first film following his breakup with long-time writing partner Charles Brackett, with whom he had collaborated on The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard, among others; and his first film to be a critical and commercial failure.
The story is a biting examination of the seedy relationship between the press, the news it reports and the manner in which it reports it. The film also shows how a gullible public can be manipulated by the press. Without consulting Wilder, Paramount Pictures executive Y. Frank Freeman changed the title to The Big Carnival just prior to its release. Early television broadcasts retained that title, but when aired by Turner Classic Movies—and when released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in July 2007—it reverted to Ace in the Hole.
Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a fiercely ambitious, self-centered, wisecracking, down-on-his-luck reporter who has worked his way down the ladder. He has come west to New Mexico from New York City, along the way having been fired from eleven newspapers for libel, adultery, and heavy drinking, among other charges. Now that his car has broken down and he is broke, Tatum talks his way into a reporting job for the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, a paper of little consequence.
Tatum stays sober and works there uneventfully for a year. Then while unhappily on assignment to cover a rattlesnake hunt, he learns about Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a local man who has become trapped in a cave collapse while gathering ancient Indian artifacts.
Sensing a golden opportunity, Tatum manipulates the rescue effort, convincing an unscrupulous sheriff to pressure the construction contractor charged with the rescue into drilling from above, rather than shoring up the existing passages, so that Tatum can prolong his stay on the front pages of newspapers nationwide.
Lorraine (Jan Sterling), the victim's wife, goes along with the reporter's scheme. She is eager to leave Leo and their struggling business, a combination trading post and restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Thanks to the publicity Tatum generates, she experiences a financial windfall, particularly from thousands of tourists who come to witness the rescue.
Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), the newspaper's young photographer, slowly loses his idealism as he follows Tatum's lead and envisions himself selling pictures to Look or Life. The editor of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin tries to talk some sense into his employees, but Tatum quits on the spot, having sold the exclusive rights to his copy to a New York editor for $1000 per day and, more importantly, his old job back.
Thousands flock to the town. The rescue site literally becomes a carnival, with rides, entertainment, songs about Leo, even games of chance. Tatum begins drinking again. He takes up with Lorraine and is greeted heroically by the crowd each time he returns from visiting poor Leo in the cave.
After five days of drilling, the party atmosphere ends abruptly. Upon learning that Leo is fading fast, Tatum belatedly tries to get the contractor to switch back to the quicker procedure of shoring up the walls of the cave, but the vibration from drilling has made this impossible.
Tatum has mistreated Leo's wife once too often as well, and she stabs him with a pair of scissors. Tatum gets the local priest, and takes him into the cave to administer Last Rites. Leo dies.
Tatum has neglected to send copy to the New York editor and he is fired. He calls the editor and tries to confess to killing Leo by delaying the rescue, but the editor hangs up on him. Tatum barely reaches his old office in Albuquerque. He enters calling for publisher Boot (Porter Hall). As Boot walks out of his office to deal with him, Tatum offers to work for nothing, saying that he's a 1000-dollar a day newspaperman. But before he can say any more to Boot, Tatum falls dead on to the floor.Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum
Jan Sterling as Lorraine Minosa
Robert Arthur as Herbie Cook
Porter Hall as Jacob Q. Boot, editor, publisher, and owner of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin
Frank Cady as Mr. Federber, a tourist
Richard Benedict as Leo Minosa
Ray Teal as Sheriff Kretzer
Lewis Martin as McCardle
John Berkes as Papa Minosa
Frances Dominguez as Mama Minosa
Gene Evans as Deputy Sheriff
Frank Jaquet as Sam Smollett
Harry Harvey Sr. as Dr. Hilton
Bob Bumpas as Radio Announcer
Geraldine Hall as Nellie Federber
Richard Gaines as Nagel
Following the film's release, Wilder was sued for plagiarism by screenwriter Victor Desny, who claimed he had contacted Wilder's secretary Rosella Stewart to propose a film based on the story of Floyd Collins in November 1949. Wilder's attorneys responded that not only did a verbal plot summary not constitute a formal story submission, but the Collins case was of a historical nature and as such was not protected by copyright laws. In December 1953, Judge Stanley Mosk ruled in favor of Wilder and Paramount. Desny appealed, and in August 1956 the California Supreme Court ruled his oral submission had been legitimate. Wilder's attorneys settled, paying Desny $14,350.
At the time of its release, critics found little to admire. In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther called it "a masterly film" but added, "Mr. Wilder has let imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque . . . [it] is badly weakened by a poorly constructed plot, which depends for its strength upon assumptions that are not only naïve but absurd. There isn't any denying that there are vicious newspaper men and that one might conceivably take advantage of a disaster for his own private gain. But to reckon that one could so tie up and maneuver a story of any size, while other reporters chew their fingers, is simply incredible."
The Hollywood Reporter called it "ruthless and cynical...a distorted study of corruption and mob psychology that...is nothing more than a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions - democratic government and the free press." Variety was more positive, noting "the performances are fine. Douglas enacts the heel reporter ably, giving it color to balance its unsympathetic character. Jan Sterling also is good in a role that has no softening touches, and Benedict's victim portrayal is first-rate. Billy Wilder's direction captures the feel of morbid expectancy that always comes out in the curious that flock to scenes of tragedy."
The film has found new respect among critics. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote in 2007, "Although the film is 56 years old, I found while watching it again that it still has all its power. It hasn't aged because Wilder and his co-writers, Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels, were so lean and mean [with their dialogue] . . . [Kirk Douglas'] focus and energy . . . is almost scary. There is nothing dated about [his] performance. It's as right-now as a sharpened knife."
Dave Kehr in the Chicago Reader called it "cold, lurid, and fascinating" and Nathan Lee of The Village Voice wrote, "Here is, half a century out of the past, a movie so acidly au courant it stings."
Time Out London wrote, "As a diatribe against all that is worst in human nature, it has moments dipped in pure vitriol." TV Guide called it "a searing example of writer-director Billy Wilder at his most brilliantly misanthropic" and adds, "An uncompromising portrait of human nature at its worst, the film . . . stands as one of the great American films of the 1950s."
Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine wrote that the film "... allowed Wilder to question the very nature of human interest stories and the twisted relationship between the American media and its public. More than 50 years after the film's release, when magazines compete to come up with the cattiest buzz terms and giddily celebrate the demise of celebrity relationships for buffo bucks, Ace in the Hole feels more relevant than ever."
In his Slate review, Jack Shafer wrote in 2007, "If film noir illustrates the crackup of the American dream . . . Ace in the Hole is an exemplar of the form."
In September 2008, Empire Magazine published its list of the Top 500 greatest movies of all time. With votes from 10,000 readers of the magazine along with 500 key film critics and 150 film industry figures, this film is ranked number 385.
WinsNational Board of Review Award: Best Actress – Jan Sterling; 1951.
Venice Film Festival: International Award for Best Director – Billy Wilder; 1951.
Venice Film Festival: Best Music – Hugo Friedhofer; 1951.
NominationAcademy Award for Best Story and Screenplay – Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman; 1952.
Venice Film Festival: Golden Lion – Billy Wilder; 1951.