When we first meet Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas), he is being towed into Albuquerque. Tatum is a smug, self-assured East Coast newspaper writer, but he's a bit down on his luck. Trapped in town with "A broken bearing and no money", Tatum convinces the paper's publisher (Porter Hall) to take him on. The publisher, Mr. Boot, is an old-style newsman to whom ethics are front and foremost. There's an embroidered sign on his wall that says simply "Tell the Truth", and this is a source of great mirth for Tatum, who labours under no such hindrances.
The film skips forward a year, and Tatum is still at the small paper. Now he's chomping at the bit to get out of this sleepy burg and back to a big city job. A drive out into the desert to cover a rattlesnake hunt, however, has a serendipitous stop for gas. The station is deserted except for an old woman praying in her room, and a little prying unearths a possible story. A man named Leo Minosa has been trapped in a cave while searching for Indian artifacts.
This is the break that Tatum has been waiting for, and he attacks the story with zeal. He is the one who crawls into the cave to make first contact with the trapped man, and it's in this first meeting that Charles Tatum starts to reveal what he'll do for a story. Tatum is full of concern and support at first, but watch how he subtly turns the meeting into an interview. You can see the gears working as Leo talks about the Indian spirits that are supposed to reside in the cave. Tatum is practically writing his story as he listens.
Other papers pick up the story, and there's a memorable scene where a family pulling a trailer sets up near the site, as if it were just another tourist attraction. This is indeed the ticket back to New York for Tatum, but he decides that he needs the drama to play out a bit longer. One of the delights of AITH is how Tatum manages to orchestrate the rescue operation. He bullies and bribes a contactor into a more difficult and time-consuming rescue, and extorts the help of the counties' corrupt sheriff.
Tatum is corrupt, but he is certainly not the only one. In addition to the sheriff who agrees to allow Tatum carte blanche in exchange for positive publicity, there's also Leo's unhappy wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling). She is a former dancer who was charmed by Leo with tales of his land and business out west, only to find the reality much less appealing. Tatum intercepts her trying to leave town, because he wants the distraught wife for his story. Tatum tells her that the business will soon be overrun with people coming to check out the story, and that she will soon be awash in money. She stays.
The scenes between these two charlatans are the strongest in the film, as they connive together to line their pockets at poor Leo's expense. There's an unmistakable sexual tension between the two, but it's all tangled up with their individual agendas. Money and status are what fire their engines, not sex. One of the most memorable lines occurs when Tatum denounces her for thinking of running out on Leo while he's trapped. She fires back at him and scores a direct hit.
"Honey, you like those rocks out there just as much as I do"
Ace in the Hole is also known as The Big Carnival, and both titles are apt. As people start to pour in, the story becomes less and less about Leo Minosa, and more about the story itself. There's a little running visual gag of the entrance to the cave and how the price of admission keeps going up as the drama progresses. At one point, Wilder takes the camera to the top of the mountain, and we see that hundreds of cars have converged on the site.
The story of Leo Minosa has had the desired effect for Tatum. He is writing about it every day, and thanks to the sheriff, is the only reporter allowed to speak to Leo. The big papers back east are after him to come back and work for them, and Tatum gleefully plays them off against one another.
Then, things take a dark turn. The local doctor reveals to Tatum that Leo is dying of pneumonia, and will not survive until he is rescued. The one thing that Tatum can't have is the star of his story dying on him - They would ruin everything. He does, however, grant Leo's request to have a priest brought into the cave to see him, and whilst listening to last rites being delivered, Tatum finally realizes the enormity of what he has done.
Leo's death means the end of the big carnival, and Tatum goes to the top of the mountain and announces to the throng that "Leo Minosa is dead!!! Go back to your homes!" The story is over for Leo, but not for Charles Tatum, not yet anyway. The conclusion of AITH is fairly standard stuff for anyone who has watched much film noir, but allow me to make one small point. Billy Wilder sort of has a monopoly on famous closing movie lines; "I'm ready for my close-up now" from Sunset Boulevard, "Nobody's perfect" from Some Like it Hot, and "Shut up and deal." from The Apartment. The final line of AITH belongs in that pantheon, too.
"I'm a $1000 a day newpaper man, Mr Boot. You can have me for nothing."
It's interesting to consider that in the time period we are talking about, the only real "media" was the newspaper. TV had not yet become the all-encompassing octopus that it is today, and the internet was decades from even being thought of. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, if the makers of AITH thought the media was irresponsible and self-serving then, what would they say now?
Note: Thanks to Tom Sutpen (The Wayne Gretzky of film bloggage) for providing a copy of this masterpiece.