Ace In the Hole (Wilder, 1951)

"It has the crystal ball, it has the future correct in terms of the impact of the media and how influential and dangerous it would become"
- Spike Lee

Before Alan Pakula depicted how the brave work of investigative journalists Woodward and Berstein helped to expose corruption at the highest level in America, Billy Wilder created a dark and scathing story where dishonesty and immorality laid at the feet of the reporters themselves. Kirk Douglas' Chuck Tatum is a ruthless opportunist who will exploit any situation if it means he can sell more papers. In Ace In The Hole, Chuck is an alcoholic reporter who takes a job at a low key Albuquerque paper after being fired from several other jobs; after months of boring and uneventful assignments, he finally stumbles on his big scoop - a cave-in which traps a local man, Leo (Richard Benedict). Despite rescuers being hours from freeing Leo, Chuck seeks to delay these efforts by convincing them to try a longer, alternate method which will prolong Tatum's media frenzy that he's whipped up. Before long, the area around the cave becomes a circus, quite literally. Hot dog stands and carousels are set up and locals charge visitors entry to the area as it soon becomes a tourist spot where hundreds of people are vying to make a quick buck out of a human tragedy.

Upon it's release, Ace In the Hole was met with less than favourable reviews, no doubt from journalists who believed the portrayal of Chuck Tatum was an exaggerated and unfair representation of their own profession, with the Hollywood Reporter arguing that it offered a 'distorted' study of corruption (Quoted in Sikov, 2017: 326). But was Ace in the Hole really as misanthropic and unrealistic as some critics suggested or was it based on much more truth than people realised? Andrew Sarris said in his famous (now retracted) assessment of Wilder, that the director was "too cynical to believe even his own cynicism" (Quoted in Patterson, 2012), but as Wilder, a man who had worked in the journalism industry himself whilst living in Berlin had realised first hand, Ace In the Hole wasn't at all that far from fact. In Phillip's book Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder, the author writes about how the director, at at least two points in his life, witnessed the callousness of the media first hand. In one instance, he saw a newspaper cameraman taking pictures at the scene of an auto accident, when Wilder told the man to call an ambulance, the photographer replied "I've got to deliver these pictures to the LA Times". Another encounter involved the moment when a reporter asked Wilder an incredibly insensitive manner "how he felt" when he found out that his mother had died at Auschwitz. With this in mind, it's not difficult to see why the director would take such a pessimistic stance against the industry and the immoral practices by which it sometimes operated.

"Ace in the Hole disturbs journalists because they recognize too much of themselves and their colleagues in the film's loathsome protagonist" (Shafer, 2007)

Wilder had a knack of course for getting great comedic performances out of his actors, but as was evident with Ray Milland in the Lost Weekend (1945) and Fred MacMurray in The Apartment (1960) & Double Indemnity (1944), he was equally capable of directing actors so that they could expertly portray desperate and dishonourable individuals. Chuck Tatum is immorality personified, and Kirk Douglas plays him as perhaps Wilder's most loathsome 'protagonist'. Soon enough, simply threatening Leo's life to draw out the story isn't enough, he has to fabricate aspects of it to ensure it's as absorbing as possible. Cultural critic William A Henry admitted himself that 'only a few stories, as star reporters have sadly learned, contain enough bite or controversy to impel normal readers' (1981: 138)'. Leo's wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) selfishly sees her husband's plight as a chance to finally escape her dull life which she resents, as a bored waitress in a run-down New Mexico diner she plans on running away from the small town now that Leo is out of the picture. However, such a desire doesn't fit in with Tatum's own narrative that he's trying to craft - that of the devastated wife longing for the safe return of the man that she loves. Tatum knows that his own carefully crafted narrative will appeal to the masses who are following the story, so he forces her to attend church to pray for him and keep up a loving charade of the distressed wife even though she can't stand Leo, going so far as to slap her so she appears more distressed. Duerfahrd writes that Tatum 'does not want to devour his prey once and for all, the tabloid journalist seeks to endlessly skin his prey through repeatable transmission and consumption' (2010:14), this is because the sensationalism of the story is what is going to enable its longevity, and this is what is going to drum up interest and time for Leo to ensure his work reaches the desks of other more reputable news organisations that he would like to work for.  

"The media follow established narratives. Once there is a storyline, or an ark, the media likes to pick up on it and continue with it" - (Gardner, 2010)

It's clear that negative news sells better than good news does, we have a desire to absorb traumatic events by watching how they unfold. Sixty years down the line it doesn't seem that much has changed when we look at titles such as Nightcrawler (Gilroy, 2014) in which Jake Gyllenhaal's cameraman Lou Bloom acts in a manner that makes him look like Chuck's protege. Here, much like his counterpart, Bloom realises how valuable a story can be if it's manipulated in a manner that preys upon the public's greatest fears. By tailing a group of murderers to a busy area before alerting the police, Bloom makes certain that the ensuing shootout footage he captures will be more exciting for news audiences. Again, is Wilder being too pessimistic when he went down a similar road in 1951? We have seen that the director does recognise the good in individuals when Jack Lemmon's CC Baxter selflessly stands up to his boss Sheldrake in The Apartment, but at the same time, Wilder isn't so naive as to think that everyone is a person of integrity: "They call it [Ace In the Hole] cynical. But you see thousands of people turning up to Idlewild airport to see a plane coming down with a bad landing gear. People clog the runway waiting for it to crash" he has said. Today in 2018, we can look at the most popular news stories of the past 12 months, which includes the Las Vegas shooting, the UK terrorist attacks and North Korea's missile tests and fully acknowledge what Tatum means when he says that "good news is no news".

"We pay attention to bad news, because on the whole, we think the world is rosier than it actually is... this pleasant view of the world makes bad news all the more surprising and salient" - (Stafford, 2014)

At the same time as being an attack on the journalism profession, Billy Wilder seems to be equally mocking us as audience members. No one is safe here. We witness a corrupt sheriff who uses the extra crowds surrounding the mountain as a propaganda opportunity for his own political agenda, draping a banner that says 'Re-Elect Sheriff Kretzer’ over the mountain that is holding a man hostage inside. The cars that drive to the site all line up in a fashion resembling a drive-in theatre, and they're all here to gawp at Leo's suffering as if it were a prime-time soap. Before long, 'well wishers' establish what can only be described as a theme song for Leo; as singers perform this music on loudspeaker we might, for a second believe that the song was created in order to raise money for the rescue efforts. However, as eager venders sell the sheet music to the gathering tourists in order to make a penny themselves, it's clear that it's simply a case of people profiting off of a tragedy. Shocking perhaps, but by no means an exaggerated distortion of reality. The recent example of Sony raising the prices of Whitney Houston albums thirty minutes after her death in 2012 is evidence of Wilder's prophetic depiction of how people would react to certain types of news. 

Our morbid fascination with bad news and our tendency to shift our interests depending what ever story is currently getting the most coverage is represented in these 'thousands of heartless dopes' (Sikov, 2017: 313) who flock to the town. Once Tatum announces that Leo has died, the crowds that so quickly descended upon the scene to catch a glimpse of the cave-in rapidly scamper away as if nothing happened at all. They'll go home, soon to forget everything they've seen once the next big tragic story breaks in the papers. In today's era of rolling news, we seem to be particularly susceptible to the same phenomenon; news trends come and go and our interests shift with it. Sunset Boulevard (1950) came just one year before Ace in the Hole, and like it's successor, Wilder showed how audiences, have a tendency to simply forget and move on, in this case, the washed up silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who movie-goers loved at the peak of her career, but who is now seen as an afterthought. Burdeau (2004: 21) writes that these two pictures do in essence tell the same story, 'that of a man who violates a tomb and thinks that he's found a treasure'. 

The opening title cards of Ace In The Hole and the film that came directly before it,  Sunset Boulevard
Just as the existence of Sunset Boulevard's title on a curb next to a gutter foreshadows the film's portrayal 
of the sordid side LA, Ace In the Hole's title presence on soil means that it 'establishes itself immediately 
as a gritty film featuring characters with hearts of stone' (Sinyard, 2016).

When Leo's death finally does arrive, it's off screen. A cold and un-sentimental move on Wilder's part that cements truth running through the picture: no-one truly cared about the fate of Leo. This is a lot different to the manner in which Tatum's death is played out. Wilder wasn't particularly known for flashy cinematography or attention grabbing camerawork, especially with Ace in the Hole, here he wanted to simply act as a documentarian since the director was portraying a fictional event that could in his eyes be happening somewhere right now. Yet the last shot, described by director Spike Lee as 'One of the greatest final shots in cinema', is indeed memorable and shocking in its abruptness. Tatum needed Leo to be rescued to ensure his happy ending completed the human interest story he was trying to sell. But instead, Chuck drags himself back to his office in a vain attempt to redeem himself by confessing his crimes; only to collapse from a knife wound, full of remorse and resentment only inches from the camera. While usually such a low angle shot will be employed to make a character appear more powerful, here it's used for the opposite reason; to visually articulate Chuck's fall from grace. 

John Simon said Wilder's cynicism had "no therapeutic, moral, or artistic validity" (Quoted in Kurtz,  1999), but looking back on Ace In The Hole in 2018 one might find that that the reason some people don't find it shocking isn't because it has nothing to say, but because the practices that it depicts are so familiar to us now that we don't find it odd. Ace In The Hole was a personal for Wilder not just because he wrote, directed and produced it, but because he was effectively telling a story that reflected his own profession. Armstrong writes that Tatum's story is a fictional analogy of what Wilder was doing in bringing the story to the screen: 'pulling off his scheme is for Tatum as important as pulling off the film was for Wilder' (2000, 55). In 2018, news has increasingly become a form of entertainment, not merely a distributor of information. From the justifiable reporting of the JFK assassination in 1963 to the modern obsession with nonsensical celebrity gossip like the Brangelina break-up, Charlie Brooker has spoken of this transformation, describing it as a 'grotesque reality show'. The frenzy that Tatum causes at that New Mexico mineshaft could easily happen in 2018, and Billy Wilder knew this himself in 1951. 


Armstrong, R. 2004. Billy Wilder, American Film Realist. Jefferson: McFarland and Company

Burdeau, E. 2014. Ace in the Hole: A Circulation Builder. London: Eureka Video. 

Chaplain, C. 2017. From the devastating Grenfell Tower fire to the UK's shock General Election result: The biggest news stories of the year in 2017. The Evening Standard. [Online] Available here:

Duerfahrd, K. 2011. 'What Exposure Is the World? The Desert Noir of Ace in the Hole' in K. McNally (Ed) Billy Wilder, Movie-Maker: Critical Essays on the Films. Jefferson: McFarland and Company pp. 11-26. 

Henry, W. 1981. 'News as Entertainment: The Search for Dramatic Irony' in Abel. E (Ed) 
What's News: The Media in American Society. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers pp. 133-159

Kurtz, S. 1999. Hollywood Cynic. Reason. [Online] Available here:

Patterson, J. 2012. Billy Wilder, still less than meets the eye. The Guardian. [Online] Available here:

Phillips, G. 2010. Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. 

Shafer, J. 2007. Presence of Malice: Billy Wilder tours journalism's pus-filled heart in the long-lost Ace in the Hole. Slate. [Online] Available here:

Sikov, E. 2017. On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press.

Sinyard, N. 2016. Ace in the Hole: A Commentary. Neil Sinyard On Film. [Online] Available here:

Stafford, T. 2014. Why Bad News Dominated the Headlines. BBC News [Online] Available here:


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