by Allan Fish
(USA 1951 111m) DVD1
Aka. The Big Carnival
The Leo Minosa Rescue Fund
p/d Billy Wilder w/story Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman ph Charles Lang Jnr ed Arthur Schmidt, Doane Harrison m Hugo Friedhofer art Hal Pereira, Earl Hedrick
Kirk Douglas (Charles “Chuck” Tatum), Jan Sterling (Lorraine Minosa), Porter Hall (Jacob Q.Boot), Robert Arthur (Herbie Cook), Richard Benedict (Leo Minosa), Ray Teal (Sheriff Gus Kretzer), Frank Cady (Mr Federber), Lewis Martin (McCardle), John Berks (Papa Minosa), Frances Dominguez (Mama Minosa),
Considering that Billy Wilder is commonly and quite rightly regarded as one of Hollywood’s all-time great directors it is quite surprising that one of his masterpieces seems never to be acknowledged as such. By not being acknowledged I am not talking about how it is viewed in film guides and magazines, who invariably give it the highest marks, but in terms of when people come to discuss Wilder’s greatest film. You will get votes for Double Indemnity, for Some Like it Hot, for Sunset Boulevard, for The Apartment and even for The Lost Weekend, but you will very rarely – if indeed ever- see any votes for Ace in the Hole.
Of course this could be down to many people only knowing it under its alternative title, but I think in many ways it is suffering from the media backlash it received upon its release and which not only hampered its commercial chances irreparably but also its reputation. Did Wilder believe that after performing a cynical autopsy on Hollywood in Sunset Boulevard that all media was fair game? Was Wilder being naïve? Possibly. But if so it was the sort of naïveté from which greatness flows.
The story concerns cynical former hotshot big city reporter Chuck Tatum, who comes to a small mid west town, gets a job at a local rag to make ends meet but then sees his big chance for a return to a big city paper when a cave-in traps a man inside under a hill. He is told by all those in the know that getting him out will be easy, but Tatum coerces the corrupt local sheriff into getting the emergency crews to take a longer route to get their man, to give enough time for Tatum to whip up media frenzy. However, when complications ensue and the trapped man comes close to death, it becomes a race against time to get to him.
Such a story was always going to run into trouble as the printed media are happy to see other media forms such as Hollywood and the theatre (in Mankiewicz’s All About Eve) torn apart, but not their own. Hence the film was a failure, but in this humble reviewer’s opinion it is arguably Wilder’s greatest film because it is pure Wilder cynicism (the only director more cynical than Wilder was Clouzot), undiluted and still as fresh and potent today as it was then. Though the direction and script are splendidly sharp, it’s the performances that make the thing; Porter Hall and Ray Teal give telling support, but Kirk Douglas is simply sensational in what for me is his greatest role. His Chuck Tatum is charismatic in his repulsiveness, his catchphrases and quotes the stuff of legend. Forever trying to present an image of a hardboiled newspaperman in the Lee Tracy and Ned Sparks tradition, he’s actually a past-it loser in search of a last hurrah, feverishly gripping his big story like Richie McCaw refusing to let go of the ball in the ruck or maul. In the end, though, it all backfires on him as the trapped man succumbs, thus making him effectively guilty of manslaughter. There is no more fitting end in movie history than Douglas, stabbed with scissors by Jan Sterling, staggering to his boss and exclaiming “I’m a thousand dollar a day newspaperman, Mr Boot. You can have me for nothing“, at which he falls into the camera, dead. But we’ll leave the final words to Douglas himself, “the unfavourable reviews of this movie about an unscrupulous newspaper reporter were written by newspaper reporters. Critics love to criticise but don’t like being criticised. Also, Billy Wilder was saying to Mr and Mrs Average, “this is you, the people who stop and stare at accidents.”" Spot on!