When the movie studio renamed Ace In The Hole to call it The Big Carnival in order to attract greater crowds (how fitting), they may have picked a more clever title than they had intended. The carnivalesque element is integral to the film, though it offers plenty of other analytical possibilities. It seems oddly fitting, in retrospect, that a viewing of Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock preceded this one. Both of these films observe open rural spaces becoming invaded with alien inhabitants for a brief time, although for somewhat different reasons. The media element, prominent in Taking Woodstock, is much more important in Ace In The Hole, and yet another recent viewing – this one Robocop (more to come there) – condemns the American reality of media saturation and its negative effects.
Preeminent in Ace In The Hole at a superficial level is the character study of Chuck Tatum, the disgraced reporter who is towed into Albuquerque with bad tires, no money, and the need for a newspaper job. Making it plain from the get-go that he wants the job as a way out of Albuquerque, he’s just as honest about his past record of failures as a reporter; failures that, he maintains, actually prove his devotion to finding the biggest story and getting it published. Kirk Douglas’ performance is strong enough – maybe overdone enough – that this aspect of the film seems to have overwhelmed the rest of it back in the early 50s. It’s not surprising that this was Billy Wilder’s first real flop when one keeps in mind the philosophy of 50s Americana: I like Ike, everything’s going to be okay, and just stay away from those Russkies. Ace In The Hole comes down hard on the freedom of the press and the American everyman, so it figures that it would take fifty years or so for the film to be rediscovered and finally appreciated.
As valuable as the aforementioned point is, however, there is much more to the film than this. Human nature is not all butterflies and daises, to be sure, but Ace In The Hole rewards the viewer who absorbs it through a more phenomenological lens. Observe the spatial shift of the once-sacred Indian cliff territory in rural New Mexico. Said “Indians” have almost a complete non-presence in the film considering the magnitude of the supposed curse that is the film’s narrative catalyst. When Tatum waltzes into town at the film’s outset, practically the first word out of his mouth is directed at a Native American sitting, minding his own business: a mocking “How.” Wilder always was excellent at setting the stage, and the immediate disrespect and condescension Tatum shows toward local Native Americans ends up playing out heavily as the film goes on.
Shortly after arriving at the scene of the accident, a group of quiet Indians stands by as Tatum takes charge of the situation. He ignores them and spits on the deputy’s pathetic attempt to wield power over the crisis. As the narrative moves forward and the previously rural, sacred, undeveloped, and unpopulated space becomes filled with spectators, cars, media, small businesses, and a literal carnival, a main question being posited is, who is the cause/blame of this transformation? Yes, it is Tatum, but who is Tatum in comparison/contrast with these invaders? Of course, Tatum has everything in common with the invaders (in kind if not in degree; he’s a pro and they’re just amateurs) and nearly nothing in common with the locals, or so it would seem. It’s Tatum’s worldliness and the Albuquerque newspaper publisher’s innocence and naïveté that allows a big city reporter like Tatum to demystify a sacred space, capitalize on a human tragedy, and ultimately kill a man whose life might have been saved.
If Ace In The Hole vilifies venture capitalism and the freedom of the press, it embraces innocence, the sacred, and above all truth. When Tatum first makes his way into the office of the Albuquerque newspaper, he observes and ridicules some framed needlework on the wall: “ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH.” The permanence of these words and the respect they are paid contrasts sharply with what Tatum later says when someone commends his own printed words, pointing out that tomorrow they’ll be used to wrap fish. In many ways it is the transience of Tatum’s facts versus the virtuous and lasting truth of the newspaper’s ideals that serve to reveal Tatum’s story-obsession for what it really is.
The small town people are not above Wilder’s critique, though. The sheriff takes awhile to arrive on the scene because he’s busy wooing voters for the next election at, quite fittingly, a snake festival of some kind. In a brilliant detail, the sheriff returns to town with a baby rattlesnake as a pet. Though never mentioned in the film, it has been said that baby rattlesnakes are significantly more dangerous than adults, incapable as they are of regulating the amount of venom they inject in their victims. Not only does Tatum in particular seem quite serpentine in nature, but his youthful mixture of cynicism and idealism (such close and deadly cousins) makes him unable to control the string of lies and manipulations he injects into his story. Appropriately, then, Tatum quickly takes a liking to the sheriff’s snake. The sheriff, however, isn’t the only rural figure that the film rebukes. It’s also the aforementioned sheltered publisher and the parents of the trapped miner (to say nothing of the miner himself) whose ignorance and impotence permit the urban invasion and spatial renovation to take place.
This spatial shift, momentous as it is, is remarkably simple in nature. Fueled by greed, celebrity, and wealth, a single man is able to influence thousands to gather in the name of a good cause with only a nominal care for that cause. Those who find such a notion overly cynical or ridiculous need only question the utility and intentions of many celebrities, musicians, concert-goers, and corporations whose self-congratulatory “giving” stems no tide of suffering in the world but rather inflates egos and fattens already-thick wallets.