"Bad news sells best 'cause good news is no news."
Charles (Kirk Douglas)
"If you build it, they will come."
That line belonged to another movie, not the one that premiered on this day in 1951 — Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole." But it could have.
Kirk Douglas played one of those old–fashioned reporters — the kind who learned the trade in the field instead of the classroom. Don't get me wrong. That can be a good thing if the right lessons are learned, but Douglas' character didn't learn the right lessons.
Early in the movie he practically boasted about losing nearly a dozen big–city newspaper jobs for one infraction or another (i.e., libel, adultery, drinking) as he worked his way west, and he hoped to get a big–city newspaper job again. For that, he needed a big story, a human interest story that would capture the public's imagination — and would be a valuable scoop for whoever hired him.
In the meantime, he needed to put food on the table — and get some repair work done on his broken–down car.
So Douglas walked into the newsroom of the newspaper in the city where his car had given out on him — Albuquerque, New Mexico — and sweet–talked his way into a job. But after a year on the job, he still wasn't sitting on a blockbuster human interest story. In fact, he was being sent out to rural New Mexico to cover a rattlesnake hunt.
But a funny thing happened along the way. Douglas and the newspaper's young and idealistic photographer stopped off in a bump in the road sort of town — where, they learned, a local man had just become trapped inside a cave where he had been searching for Indian artifacts. Douglas figured this could be his ticket to that big–city newspaper job and did the very thing that my journalism instructors told us not to do — don't become a part of your story in any way, they admonished us, and they were right.
No instructor ever told Douglas that, of course, because he never attended journalism school, and he began to manipulate the rescue effort behind the scenes, making the trapped man and his family believe he was their friend when really he was using them and persuading an ethically challenged sheriff to lean on the contractor who was trying to drill his way to the trapped man and get him to follow a strategy that would delay the rescue and keep the story on the front pages longer.
Douglas' character was really more of a showman than a journalist, and he knew that the best possible outcome would be a happy ending in which the trapped man was saved, and the people who had been following the story were left with that warm, fuzzy feeling. The more time that the outcome was in doubt, the higher the anxiety — and the greater the payoff when that warm, fuzzy feeling happened.
Douglas' character knew that people who follow dramatic stories make emotional investments in them — and they expect an emotional payoff at the end. Call it the feel–good factor.
That is what he was aiming for, but there were complications, you see ...
As the days dragged on, the man who was trapped became more despondent. And then, there was his wife, played by Jan Sterling, who was remembered for her performance as the "sluttish, opportunistic wife" in "Ace in the Hole" after she died in 2004 (Ronald Bergan of The Guardian wrote at the time that it was "[b]y far her best role"). When her husband was trapped in the cave, she had been planning to leave him — but she was persuaded to stay when Douglas told her the big story would bring crowds of people to the area, and the little diner/curio shop run by the victim's family would make more money than ever.
He turned out to be right about that. In almost no time, the area became a circus. Well, actually, it was a carnival, with rides and food vendors and all of that; it sprang up after its operators paid handsomely for the privilege. There was even a song that was sung about the victim by a traveling troubadour.
As I said, Douglas' character was, at heart, a showman, and in this case the show followed the showman. It was really drawn more by the fact that so many people had already arrived on the scene, hoping to witness a dramatic rescue.
And the victim's wife had dollar signs in her eyes as she watched a line of traffic coming through that quiet New Mexico valley that put the line of traffic at the end of "Field of Dreams" to shame.
After all she knew that people needed to eat.
But the good times came to an end when the victim died before the drill could reach him. No happy ending. Actually, there wasn't a happy ending in the real–life inspiration for the movie — a case in which a man named Floyd Collins was trapped in a cave in Kentucky in 1925. A reporter from Louisville won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the event — even though that victim died before his would–be rescuers could reach him.
Douglas' character mentioned that event — by then more than a quarter of a century removed from the fictionalized account that played on America's movie screens in the summer of 1951. Just in case you were inclined to think that media obsession over a single story is a new phenomenon. My guess is it's been going on at least since Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable–type printing press in the 15th century.
"Ace in the Hole" was a first in several ways, though, virtually all involving Billy Wilder.
It was the first time Wilder was writer, producer and director of a movie. That was a combination that worked really well in Wilder's later films, like "Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment" and "The Fortune Cookie."
It was also his first project without Charles Brackett, his collaborator on "The Lost Weekend" and "Sunset Boulevard."
Last but far from least, it was the first of Wilder's projects to be both a critical and a commercial failure. Given his record of award–winning successes, the fact that Wilder ever had misfires is shocking to me — even though he had his share, like everyone else.
But if you understand something about the times, it isn't so shocking.
Wilder had been critical of the media of his day for its bias. Consequently, "Ace in the Hole" got bad reviews in American newspapers, and that kept attendance down.
Nevertheless, I have heard it said that "Ace in the Hole" was one of Wilder's favorites — high praise indeed when you consider the other movies Wilder made in his career.