Ace in the Hole (1951)

ace in the hole poster 1951 movie
9.0 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 9/10

Still feels poignant


Movie Info

Movie Name: Ace in the Hole

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Genre(s): Drama

Release Date(s):  June 14, 1951 (Premiere)/July 4, 1951 (US)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

ace in the hole kirk douglas richard bendict

Don’t worry…I’m a journalist

Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a down-and-out reporter who has fallen from the big times due to a drinking and reckless reporting.  Getting the only job he can at a small Albuquerque newspaper, Chuck wants out.  When he learns of a man trapped in a cave in named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), he realizes Minosa could be his meal ticket and the story could be big news if marketed right.  As Chuck manipulates the situation through a sheriff named Kretzer (Ray Teal) and Minosa’s distant wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), the story turns into the circus that Chuck has dreamed of…Minosa is the ace in the hole he needs.

Written, directed, and produced by Billy Wilder (with addition writing credits for Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels), Ace in the Hole is a noir-drama.  It is loosely based on the death of W. Floyd Collins in Sand Cave, Kentucky who died in 1925 in a cave in and of Kathy Fiscus in 1949 who fell in a well in San Marino, California.  The film was poorly received by critics at the time and was a commercial failure but did receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing—Story and Screenplay.  The film has been reassessed over the years, and the Criterion collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #396).  Ace in the Hole was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2017.

Ace in the Hole was on my list for a long time, but I kept passing it up.  I like noir, and I like journalism stories.  The idea of a journalist abusing a story for his own gratification is both scary and realistic on both sides of the aisle nowadays.  Ace in the Hole is a classic, but it still a timely movie.

ace in the hole location kirk douglas

The circus has come to town…and it’s name is Chuck Tatum

The movie has a lot that critics didn’t like because of the portrayal of journalists.  Chuck Tatum has no scruples.  Minosa’s safety isn’t his goal and his well-being takes a backseat to the chance for Tatum to score big (an even that echoed the W. Floyd Collins story).  He schmoozes Minosa’s wayward wife and lies to his father and the other members of the press about the situation. Near the end of the movie when Chuck realizes Minosa’s fate has been sealed by him, he has a change of heart, but that part of the movie doesn’t feel entirely believable…it almost feels like he’s more upset that he also blew his chance.  The whole movie is cynical and feels dirty…but it also feels very true.

Kirk Douglas eats up his scenes with the bravado that always encompassed his acting.  He’s brash and loud, but he is also playing a character that is a showman at his heart so it works…he is a smooth talking snake-oil salesman.  Both Jan Sterling and Ray Teal are just as culpable in Chuck’s actions because both put Leo’s health on the backburner when the money starts rolling.  The movie presents Porter Hall as the voice of reason in the media as Jacob Q. Boot who plays the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin editor and owner, but he could also be seen as a backwater little town paper who doesn’t get “news”.  The most sympathetic character is Leo’s father played by John Berkes who only wants his son back…and you could also argue Robert Arthur’s Herbie Cook is just too enamored with Chuck Tatum to see straight (but he is an adult).  The ultimate loser in the situation is Minosa played by Richard Benedict who believes Tatum until the end.

ace in the hole kirk douglas jan sterling

Listen, lady…you’ll wear this fur and like it!

The movie looks quite good.  The cave in “set” is pretty typical of mining sets in movies and not very special, but the location shooting of the film gives the movie a grand scale.  Shots near the end of the film where you can see the crowd and circus (literally) that has built up around the event in a short period of time are well done, and you can understand how out of control things became.

Ace in the Hole is a morality tale and a warning.  For journalists, it is a story about telling a story vs. becoming the story (or making it).  For society, it is a film about what can happen if you buy into sensationalism and don’t use good judgment when considering sources and the real impact on people…something that feels particularly poignant in today’s internet fueled age with cancel culture sometimes mistakenly tagging innocents.  Ace in the Hole might be an older movie, but it still has bite.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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