There is one scene in Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival (aka Ace in the Hole) that would tell 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 that he 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 he 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. One year and 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 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 cooking up the byline and envisioning the structure of the story.
He thinks that the story of a single man trapped is far better than the story of eighty people trapped. It’s a “human interest story” for him. 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 admonishes her. She retorts 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 hits back by reminding her that him and her are buried, just as Leo is, and that all three are looking for a way out.
Tatum succeeds in manipulating everyone around to his advantage and he will soon learn that as Leo lies there worrying about whether the whole cave is going to collapse on him, he too is going to have to worry about the whole world crashing down on him.She decides to leave town for a while to have a good time. But when she notices that Tatum’s article on Leo has brought in a sudden influx 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 looking to make a name for himself and Tatum’s going to help him. Tatum’s presence and influence turns almost everyone around him corrupt as well. Just as the film’s title implies, everything literally turns into a big carnival.
Kirk Douglas has played his share of slimy and crooked as well as good and idealistic characters in his time. Even though he is one of my favorite actors and found him to be a very charismatic actor, I’ve also found him hamming up some of the parts that had been offered to him. But his role in The Big Carnival is one that he was born to play. It was
tailor-made for him. It’s his thoroughly captivating performance that drives the film. One of the most arrogant, manipulative and crooked characters to grace the silver screen,
he is capable of going toe-to-toe with another similar character, J.J Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success. But Hunsecker can eat him for dinner and
there is no question of that.
Billy Wilder had proved himself equally adept in handling both delightful, feel-good comedies as well as darkly cynical dramas. The Big Carnival belongs to the latter. It’s a sharp and scathing attack on tabloid journalism. This is a film that I didn’t appreciate much on first viewing but I found myself coming back to it and I have seen it 6-7 times by now. The dialogues are razor-sharp and 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.” Most of today’s
newspapers provide more coverage of bad news and place them right in the front page instead of the good or inspiring stuff that has happened lately.