Finally I saw Kirk Douglas at his top. He is/was a great actor; something I always suspected but didn’t have the opportunity to confirm for myself until I saw Ace in the hole. I also think that the role he had to play–a big-city journalist, who gets stuck in a small-town (which Albuquerque was at the time) and blows up a non-story to a big event for his own gains—provided the opportunity for him to shine. I rarely see nowadays stories focusing on morals as intently as this 1951 epic. The writing was great both in its details and overall. By this I mean that the story and the tension developed at an even pace. Of course the atmosphere only got tenser and tenser if you share the moral value, that it is wrong to exploit others, particularly if their lives depend on it for your own personal fortune. Throughout the movie we, the viewers, were worried whether the guy—who gets trapped in a cave and whose rescue has to last a week so our journalist could make a headliner story out of it— in survives or not.
The writing was exceptional not just in the grand theme, but in the details as well. Lines like these capture the cynicism of journalists; at least the way Billy Wilder, who wrote and directed the movie, wanted us to think of it:
Play along with me and you’ll get re-elected. Don’t, and I’ll crucify you.
It’s a good story today. Tomorrow, they’ll wrap a fish in it.
Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news.
I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.
The movie’s working title was “The big carnival.” This reminds me that the fictional story in the movie would not have been able to grow big, if we, members of the not-so-smart mob-were not interested and jumping on stories. From his point of view, the mob is the second single most important character in the movie. The second after the journalist, who creates the story and even before the third, the trapped man, because he can be replaced with anything the journalist declares newsworthy. This mob behaves exactly as in ancient Roman times, when their primary need for circus and bread was easily satisfied. That is exactly what was craved for here, and sold at a low price.
There are two similarities that need to be pointed out. The movie was a financial failure; Wilder’s only. I think that the film’s potential audience did not like to be compared to the audience in the movie. If they see stupid, sensation hungry people as the viewers of a morally wrong story, they might have thought that it is about them. Nobody likes to be called stupid. The other parallel is between the journalist and the man in the old mine. They are both stuck in their situation; both as a a result of their actions. The journalist kept getting fired from various papers around the country for his unreliable and obnoxious performance. The man in the cave went where he was told not to go. SPOILER ALERT!!! They both pay for their mistakes. The big difference is that one of them exploits the other. But their similar fate decreases the value of the movie’s lesson—”do the right thing” or more precisely in this case “don’t do the wrong thing”–. If we all end the same way, why bother. For the answer watch the movie and compare their deathbed confessions.