The recent “balloon boy” hoax that had citizens across the country glued to news outlets late last week brings Billy Wilder’s 1951 film classic Ace in the Hole back to my mind, in a big way. Ignored in its time, the film predicted the modern-day “media circus” that persists around human interest stories - true or otherwise.
Scenery-chewing (and I mean that as a compliment) Kirk Douglas plays a shady reporter who unexpectedly comes across a man trapped in a cave before any local help has been summoned. Sensing that he’s on to a big scoop, he decides to make it bigger by manipulating the rescue effort for maximum dramatic effect – bringing as much media attention to him as that paid to the hapless victim biding his ever-lengthening, nail-biting time at the bottom of the cave-in. Though the noirish theatrics push the boundaries of credibility, if you’re familiar with the film Wilder made just prior to this - the sublime Sunset Boulevard - you know that OTT can be a good thing in the right hands.
Due to its unavailability in any video format until Criterion’s 2007 DVD release, the film has been something of a rarity in Wilder’s oeuvre, hardly as well-known as Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity, or The Apartment. It didn’t do well in its theatrical release (the studio changing the film’s title to The Big Carnival without Wilder’s approval), and many contemporary critics found it far too cynical to be believable – but it’s that very cynicism that makes the film very of-the-moment, even six decades after its first screening. Ace in the Hole is no second-string Wilder production – it’s a first-rate film that's simply ahead of its time.
Ace in the Hole