In Billy Wilder’s ‘Ace in the Hole’, bad news sells best!

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There is one scene in Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival (aka Ace in the Hole) that tells you everything you need to know about the film’s protagonist, Charles Tatum. When he is sent to cover a rattle snake hunt in a nearby town, he tells his fellow reporter that he would rather see some fifty rattle snakes out in the open hunting people and the ensuing panic and evacuation plans that would follow would make a great story instead of writing about something boring like a rattle snake hunt.

Tatum is big city reporter who has been kicked out of every major publication he had worked for and has now landed in a town called Albuquerque. He tells the Chief Editor Jacob Boot that he is a $200 newspaperman but is now willing to work for $50. Boot hires him regardless of his reputation. After being with this small town newspaper for one year, Tatum grows restless because after one year, he hasn’t come across anything that would create a huge sensation. He whines about the lack of exciting news and he whines about how boring the town is.

It’s then that Boot tells him about a new assignment, the aforementioned rattle snake hunt. Naturally, Tatum isn’t pleased but he agrees to it. But this proves to be a “blessing in disguise” for him when he learns that a man named Leo has been trapped inside an old Indian cave. Tatum sees a potential story in this and gets excited. Tatum’s eyes sparkles when Leo narrates his story and the circumstances that led him to being trapped inside the cave. Tatum is already imagining the headline and the structure of the story.

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He thinks the story of a single man trapped is far better than the story of eighty people trapped. For him, it’s a “human interest story”. People are more interested in reading about one man rather than a hundred, he says. Tatum comes across Leo’s wife and she doesn’t seem very upset by all this. When she decides to leave town to have a good time somewhere else, Tatum berates her. She hits back by saying that all that he cares about is his story, and that he is as eager as her to see Leo under those rocks, as long as possible. Tatum reminds her that they both are “buried”, just as Leo is, and that they are all looking for a way out.

Tatum succeeds in manipulating everyone around to his advantage. As Leo is worrying about whether the whole cave is going to collapse on him, here is Tatum worrying about the whole world crashing down on him. When Leo’s wife notices that Tatum’s article on her husband has brought in a sudden wave of tourists to the place, she is lured by the thought of all the profits she can make from the resulting publicity. In addition to this, the Sheriff is looking to make a name for himself and Tatum is going to help him. Tatum’s presence and influence turns almost everyone around him corrupt as well. Everything literally turns into “a big carnival” (the film’s alternate title).

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Kirk Douglas has done his share of slimy and crooked characters as well as the good and idealistic ones in his time. Kirk is a very charismatic actor, but he has the tendency to ham up some of the parts that had been given to him. But this is a character he was born to play; it was tailor-made for him. Tatum is one of the most arrogant, manipulative and crooked characters put on film. It’s his thoroughly captivating performance that drives the film. He reminded of Burt Lancaster’s J.J Hunsecker from Sweet Smell of Success. But if both of them were put in a room, Hunsecker would swallow him.

Billy Wilder had proved himself adept in handling feel-good comedies as well as darkly cynical dramas.  This one belongs to the latter. It’s a sharp and scathing attack on tabloid journalism. I didn’t appreciate it much on first viewing but I found myself coming back to it again and again. I’ve now seen it 6-7 times. The razor-sharp lines deserve to be framed on a wall. It makes a mockery of the general public’s infatuation with bad news, and this one line of Tatum sums it up perfectly: “Bad news sells best. ‘Cause good news is no news.”

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