Ace in the Hole (1951)

Ace in the Hole (1951), produced and directed by Billy Wilder.

Aka The Big Carnival.

A big city reporter, exiled from his usual haunts, arrives at an Albuquerque newspaper and tells them how lucky they are to have him. He's colorful, bigger than life and tends to suck all the oxygen out of the room. What he really wants is a big story he can ride back to the bright lights and big city.

After a year of going nuts in the boring boonies, he gets his story: a man trapped in a cave-in at an old Indian cliff dwelling. He milks it for all it's worth, but at first seems to pay his way: he's an energetic organizing force and gets the rescue effort moving. Then he crosses the line: rather than getting the guy out in one day, he delays the effort so it will take a week. He's good at twisting arms and bribing the sheriff with good PR.

You can probably guess what happens. There are unexpected parallels with Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), particularly when the wounded man returns to his office at the end. Hugo Friedhofer's intense score accentuates the noir tone.

Not everyone is cold-hearted, but it is a generally cynical perspective on the press, police, and marriage. The decent people, like the newspaper editor and Mom & Pop at the diner, are powerless. The general public is particularly unappealing: thousands mob the site to witness the tragedy, and the carnival atmosphere includes an actual carnival with rides.

It makes us feel guilty as well: a movie audience also has a morbid fascination with such events. The reporter -- like a good director -- makes everything more exciting: that's his journalistic talent.

From a review at the time: "...a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions -- democratic government and the free press." That seems quaint in our more cynical age. Kirk Douglas thought that the poor reviews were because of the way the press is portrayed: critics don't like to be criticized.

Criterion DVD. The commentary track has some good insights, but mostly just narrates the story.