Ace in the Hole (1951)

110-112 mins | Drama | 4 July 1951

Director:

Billy Wilder

Producer:

Billy Wilder

Cinematographer:

Charles Lang Jr.

Editor:

Arthur Schmidt

Production Designers:

Hal Pereira, Earl Hedrick

Production Company:

Paramount Pictures Corp.
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HISTORY

The working title of this film was The Human Interest Story . After the film's initial release as Ace in the Hole , Paramount changed the title to The Big Carnival , the title under which the picture is frequently listed. The title on the viewed print, however, was Ace in the Hole . According to a modern interview with producer-director Billy Wilder, Paramount head Y. Frank Freeman selected The Big Carnival as the film's new title. Modern sources note that the change was made in reaction to the picture's poor box office receipts. Actor Frank Jaquet is listed eighth in the opening cast credits, but twelfth in the end credits.
       As noted in reviews, Ace in the Hole was inspired by the much-publicized tragedy of Floyd Collins, a Kentucky man who, in Jan 1925, became trapped in a cave while searching for a new entrance to the Mammoth Cave System. Collins, who had earlier discovered the Great Crystal Cave on his family's property, was pinned down in an unstable passageway after a twenty-seven pound rock fell on his foot. A young Louisville reporter, William Burke "Skeets" Miller, was slight enough to squeeze in and out of the passage, and fed and conversed with Collins during the rescue attempt. As in the film, Miller's reports about Collins gained national attention, and a carnival-like atmosphere sprang up outside the cave. Because of the precarious state of the passageway, Collins' rescuers, a group of miners, decided to drill a vertical shaft to reach him. After the passage suffered another collapse, Collins was shut off from Miller and died ... More Less

The working title of this film was The Human Interest Story . After the film's initial release as Ace in the Hole , Paramount changed the title to The Big Carnival , the title under which the picture is frequently listed. The title on the viewed print, however, was Ace in the Hole . According to a modern interview with producer-director Billy Wilder, Paramount head Y. Frank Freeman selected The Big Carnival as the film's new title. Modern sources note that the change was made in reaction to the picture's poor box office receipts. Actor Frank Jaquet is listed eighth in the opening cast credits, but twelfth in the end credits.
       As noted in reviews, Ace in the Hole was inspired by the much-publicized tragedy of Floyd Collins, a Kentucky man who, in Jan 1925, became trapped in a cave while searching for a new entrance to the Mammoth Cave System. Collins, who had earlier discovered the Great Crystal Cave on his family's property, was pinned down in an unstable passageway after a twenty-seven pound rock fell on his foot. A young Louisville reporter, William Burke "Skeets" Miller, was slight enough to squeeze in and out of the passage, and fed and conversed with Collins during the rescue attempt. As in the film, Miller's reports about Collins gained national attention, and a carnival-like atmosphere sprang up outside the cave. Because of the precarious state of the passageway, Collins' rescuers, a group of miners, decided to drill a vertical shaft to reach him. After the passage suffered another collapse, Collins was shut off from Miller and died fifteen days into the rescue. Collins' body was recovered in Apr 1925 and lay in state in the Crystal Cave for many years. Miller was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his articles about the failed rescue. In the film, Kirk Douglas' character, "Chuck Tatum," mentions both the Collins tragedy and Miller's prize-winning reporting.
       Reviews also cite the Kathy Fiscus case as an inspiration for the film. In a contemporary interview, however, Wilder denied that his project had any connection to the 1949 incident, in which a three-year-old child fell into an oil-field pipe in San Marino, CA. Television reporters broadcast live stories on the intense rescue efforts, and the three-day ordeal became a national news event. Like Collins, Fiscus was found dead. Two other films, Warner Bros.' 1950 release Three Secrets (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50 ) and United Artists' 1951 production The Well , capitalized on the Fiscus story. For more information about the Fiscus incident, See Entry for The Well .
       Ace in the Hole marked Wilder's first effort as a producer and was the first film he made under his producer-director-writer contract at Paramount. It was also the first Hollywood picture that Wilder did not co-write with his longtime collaborator, Charles Brackett. According to Paramount production files, contained at the AMPAS Library, Wilder's co-writers, Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels, were paid out of Wilder's $250,000 salary. Modern sources note that Newman, a former radio writer, approached Wilder with the idea for the story. Modern sources also state that the opening of the first draft of the screenplay included voice-over narration spoken by Douglas' character after his death. Wilder used the same type of framing device in his 1950 film Sunset Blvd . Production files for Ace in the Hole indicate that Paramount paid Luis Kutner for the rights to the story "Cicero, Illinois," but no material from the story was used in the film.
       Paramount borrowed Douglas from Warner Bros. for the production, and studio files indicate that Douglas earned $150,000 for his portrayal. Although an Apr 1950 HR news item announced Barbara Rush as a cast member, she did not appear in the final film. As noted in production files, Richard Gaines replaced Roy Regnier in the role of "Nagel." HR news items also list Douglas Spencer, Edwin Montgomery, Kathleen Dennis, Aileen Arnold, Juanita Brandt, Joanne Cardoza, Joan Carey, Lillian Clayes , Jean Delare, Lucille Sayre, Otto Wildis and Mitchell Dylond in the cast, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. According to news items and production files, location filming took place in Albuquerque and in an area fifteen miles west of Gallup, NM. A cliff dwelling set was constructed at the Gallup site, and over a thousand locals were hired as extras, including a large group of Navajo and Zuni Indians. Additional filming was done in Old Laguna, NM, and Venice, CA. The film cost approximately $1,842,000 to produce. According to modern sources, the first cut of the film opened not with the usual Paramount mountain-and-stars logo, but with a shot of stars surrounding a slithering, biting rattlesnake. Fearful of scaring the audience too much, Paramount removed the shot from the picture.
       Although the film won the International Prize at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and was a hit with the British press, critical reaction in the U.S. was mixed. The Har reviewer described the picture as a "superior melodrama" and Newsweek called it a "tough, disillusioned and remarkably compelling account," but Bosley Crowther of NYT blasted it as a "distortion of journalistic practice...disgusting and shocking to observe" and HR labelled it a "brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions, democratic government and the free press." Many reviewers complained about the implausibility of the story's premise, deeming it unlikely that a single reporter could control and manipulate a big, breaking story. The DV reviewer praised the picture as a "tense and suspenseful piece," but accurately predicted that it would have limited appeal at the box office. In a Sep 1950 NYT interview, Wilder justified his decision to make Douglas' character unsympathetic by noting that "today everything is character. It's the new trend, and our people on the screen become three-dimensional instead of just silhouettes." Reacting to reports about the film's rocky reception in New York, Wilder stated in a Jun 1951 NYT article, "...no matter what they say, it's got something nobody can see on television." Wilder, Samuels and Newman were nominated for a Best Writing (Story and Screenplay) Academy Award for their work on the picture. According to modern sources, despite its financial failure, Wilder still considers Ace in the Hole his favorite, most accomplished film.
       After the film's release, writer Victor Desny sued Wilder and Paramount in a $150,000 breach of contract suit. According to a Jul 1956 DV article, Desny claimed that in Nov 1949, he dictated to Wilder's secretary a four-page synopsis of a sixty-page treatment about the Floyd Collins incident, which Wilder then rejected. Modern sources note that Wilder's lawyers responded to the Oct 1951 lawsuit by arguing that an oral submission could not be legally protected and that the Collins story was in the public domain. In Jun 1952, Desny filed an amended complaint and asked the court to compare his written treatment with Wilder's script. According to modern sources, Wilder and Paramount won a summary judgment in Dec 1953, having convinced the court that the story was based on a historical incident and that an oral presentation was not equivalent to a written submission. In mid-1955, however, the District Court of Appeal reversed the 1953 ruling and sent the case to the California Supreme Court. There, according to the DV article, the court "affirmed the reversal" of the summary judgment, ruling that a writer with a story based on an idea not otherwise protected by law--i.e. one that is in the public domain--can still compel payment if he takes the proper steps to protect himself. Modern sources note that in Aug 1956, Desny received $14,350 as part of a private settlement with Wilder and Paramount.
       According to modern sources, director Spike Lee, who reportedly wanted to remake Ace in the Hole , copied the last shot of the picture, in which Chuck falls dead onto the floor in a close-up, in his 1992 film Malcolm X . Many critics cite Ace in the Hole as the inspiration for director Costa Gravas' 1997 Warner Bros. release Mad City , which starred Dustin Hoffman as an overly ambitious reporter. In addition to Ace in the Hole , Collins has been the subject of books, articles and documentaries. In 1995, a musical based on the incident, written by Adam Guettel and titled Floyd Collins , opened off-Broadway to much critical acclaim. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
12 May 1951.
---
Daily Variety
7 May 51
p. 3.
Daily Variety
6 Jul 1956.
---
Film Daily
8 May 51
p. 6.
Harrison's Reports
12 May 1951.
---
Hollywood Citizen-News
15 Jan 1951.
---
Hollywood Reporter
6 Mar 1950.
---
Hollywood Reporter
25 Apr 50
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
5 Jul 50
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
7 Jul 50
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Jul 50
p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter
4 Aug 50
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
8 Aug 50
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
22 Aug 50
p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Aug 50
p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter
31 Aug 50
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
5 Sep 50
p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter
6 Sep 50
p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter
8 Sep 50
p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter
7 May 51
p. 3.
Life
19 Feb 51
pp. 57-58, 61.
Los Angeles Daily News
7 Jul 1950.
---
Los Angeles Examiner
16 Jun 1951.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
12 May 51
p. 845.
New York Times
10 Sep 1950.
---
New York Times
24 Jun 1951.
---
New York Times
29 Jun 51
p. 14.
New York Times
30 Jun 51
p. 8.
New Yorker
7 Jul 1951.
---
Newsweek
2 Jul 1951.
---
Variety
9 May 51
p. 6.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
Asst dir
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Cam op
Asst cam
Stills
Grip
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Art dir
FILM EDITORS
Ed supv
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set dec
Set dresser
Set dresser
Prop maker
Props
COSTUMES
Cost
MUSIC
Mus score
VISUAL EFFECTS
Transparency cam
MAKEUP
Makeup supv
Makeup
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod mgr
Asst prod mgr
Asst unit prod mgr
Casting dir
Loc casting
Scr supv
Dial dir
Medical tech adv
Teletype tech adv
Teletype tech adv
Auditor
STAND INS
Stand-in
SOURCES
SONGS
"We're Coming, Leo," words and music by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
"The Hut Sut Song," words and music by Leo V. Killion, Ted McMichael and Jack Owens.
DETAILS
Alternate Titles:
The Big Carnival
The Human Interest Story
Release Date:
4 July 1951
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 29 June 1951
Production Date:
10 July--11 September 1950: retakes 26 September and 13 November 1950
Copyright Claimant:
Paramount Pictures Corp.
Copyright Date:
1 July 1951
Copyright Number:
LP1106
Physical Properties:
Sound
Western Electric Recording
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
110-112
Length(in reels):
12
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
14772
Passed by NBR:
Yes
SYNOPSIS

As his car is being towed through downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, down-and-out reporter Charles "Chuck" Tatum passes by the Sun Bulletin newspaper office and rushes inside. After Chuck boldly informs conservative editor Jacob Q. Boot that he is a $250-a-week reporter but can be had for $50 a week, Boot offers him a job on condition he stay clean and sober. Chuck, who admits his reckless, caustic behavior led to his dismissal from many prestigious Eastern newspapers, embraces Boot's terms, confident that his next big break will soon come. A year later, however, Chuck is still working at the Bulletin when Boot assigns him and cub reporter-photographer Herbie Cook to cover a rattlesnake hunt. On the way, Herbie and Chuck stop for gas at a remote trading post and soon discover that the young proprietor, Leo Minosa, is trapped in a cave in a nearby Indian cliff dwelling. When an Indian tells Chuck that the cave is in the sacred Mountain of the Seven Vultures, Chuck senses a story opportunity. Ignoring a deputy sheriff, Chuck pushes his way into the cave with Herbie and locates Leo, pinned under a heavy plank inside a narrow, unstable crevice. Chuck soothes the frightened Leo, who had crawled into the crevice in search of Indian artifacts, and snaps a photo of him. As soon as he returns to the trading post, Chuck calls Boot and boasts that he has a front page feature. Chuck then arranges with Leo's cynical wife Lorraine to stay in her in-laws's bedroom, and while he is typing up his first article, they talk about Leo. Lorraine reveals that she ... +


As his car is being towed through downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, down-and-out reporter Charles "Chuck" Tatum passes by the Sun Bulletin newspaper office and rushes inside. After Chuck boldly informs conservative editor Jacob Q. Boot that he is a $250-a-week reporter but can be had for $50 a week, Boot offers him a job on condition he stay clean and sober. Chuck, who admits his reckless, caustic behavior led to his dismissal from many prestigious Eastern newspapers, embraces Boot's terms, confident that his next big break will soon come. A year later, however, Chuck is still working at the Bulletin when Boot assigns him and cub reporter-photographer Herbie Cook to cover a rattlesnake hunt. On the way, Herbie and Chuck stop for gas at a remote trading post and soon discover that the young proprietor, Leo Minosa, is trapped in a cave in a nearby Indian cliff dwelling. When an Indian tells Chuck that the cave is in the sacred Mountain of the Seven Vultures, Chuck senses a story opportunity. Ignoring a deputy sheriff, Chuck pushes his way into the cave with Herbie and locates Leo, pinned under a heavy plank inside a narrow, unstable crevice. Chuck soothes the frightened Leo, who had crawled into the crevice in search of Indian artifacts, and snaps a photo of him. As soon as he returns to the trading post, Chuck calls Boot and boasts that he has a front page feature. Chuck then arranges with Leo's cynical wife Lorraine to stay in her in-laws's bedroom, and while he is typing up his first article, they talk about Leo. Lorraine reveals that she married Leo, a veteran, right after the war, but quickly became disillusioned and bored. When Lorraine declares that she is leaving Leo while she can, Chuck, mindful of how her desertion will hurt his story, tries to shame her into staying. Lorraine refuses to feel guilty, but changes her mind about going after the vacationing Federber family shows up, eager to observe Leo's rescue and buy food and trinkets. Along with Chuck, Lorraine realizes that as news about Leo's predicament spreads, business at the trading post will explode. The next day, after Chuck's first story appears in the Bulletin , the trading post is besieged by visitors. After learning from Dr. Hilton, who has gone into the cave, that Leo can survive a week of entrapment, Chuck approaches Sheriff Gus Kretzer with a proposition. Noting how much publicity the sheriff would earn if the rescue went on for a week, Chuck convinces Kretzer to use his position to prolong the operation and, in exchange for Chuck's silence and support, guarantee him exclusive access to the story. By threatening to ruin his career, the sheriff then coerces engineer Sam Smollett to drill a shaft from the top of the cave down to Leo, instead of shoring up the walls and getting Leo out in a day. That evening, Lorraine, now flush with cash, tries to flirt with Chuck, but he slaps her. As Smollett's rescue team begins drilling the next day, the area is flooded with reporters, cameramen and tourists. Taking in the spectacle, Chuck tells the wide-eyed Herbie that they are quitting the Bulletin . When other reporters complain about Chuck's favored position, the sheriff announces that he has deputized Chuck and will not allow anyone else inside the cave for safety reasons. In the cave, Leo tells Chuck about his upcoming anniversary and his hope that his predicament will somehow save his marriage. Chuck again reassures Leo and is nonplussed when Leo declares him his best friend. At the trading post, Chuck runs into Boot, who has deduced Chuck's scheme and condemns his "below-the-belt" journalism. Nagel, a New York editor, then calls and agrees to pay Chuck $1,000 a day to cover the story. While the sheriff makes campaign speeches, spectators and newsmen continue to pour into the area, which now boasts a full-fledged carnival. Restless, Lorraine asks Chuck to take her to New York with him, and he responds with a hard kiss. Five and a half days into the ordeal, Dr. Hilton informs Chuck that Leo has developed pneumonia and will only last twelve more hours in the cave. Leo begs Chuck to stop the drilling, which is only twenty-six feet away, and bring a priest. Although Chuck refuses, he asks Smollett to shore up the walls as originally proposed but learns that because of the drilling, the walls have become dangerously weak, making shoring impossible. The next morning, Leo, struggling for breath, asks Chuck to give Lorraine the anniversary present he bought for her. Desperate and angry, Chuck finds Lorraine as she is about to cut her platinum hair and forces her to put on Leo's present--a cheap fur stole. When Lorraine protests, Chuck starts to strangle her with the stole, and she stabs him with her scissors. Though bleeding, Chuck stumbles to the sheriff's car and drives the priest to the cave. Leo dies as the priest prays, and once outside, Chuck grabs a microphone and announces his death. As the stunned crowd takes in the news, Chuck's rivals rush to file the story. Numb with pain and guilt, Chuck calls Nagel, declaring that he has murdered Leo, and drives Herbie to the Bulletin office. After shoving Herbie back to his desk, Chuck tells Boot, "You can have me for nothing," then collapses and dies. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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