Kirk Douglas: Disaster Tourism for Fun & Profit

Kirk Douglas aksd falksfj Image: Criterion
Kirk Douglas discovers the Story Of A Lifetime. Image: Criterion

We humans are fascinated by disaster and tragedy.

Many tourist attractions (politely named “Interpretive Centres”) have been built on the sites of man-made and natural disasters. You want to tour the Chernobyl nuclear power station? Click HERE!

The gritty 1951 drama, Ace in the Hole, is one of the best films to explore disaster tourism, profitable side businesses and media coverage. “Bad news sells best,” is the film’s message. “Good news is no news.”

In this film, Kirk Douglas stars as a talented journalist who can’t keep a job. He brags about being fired from 11 newspapers with a combined circulation of seven million. When he finds himself in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he talks the publisher of the local newspaper into hiring him.

On the day he is sent out of town to cover an annual Rattlesnake Hunt, Douglas stops at a small gas station/hamburger stand and learns of a man (Richard Benedict) trapped by a cave-in inside a nearby mountain.

Now, Douglas wasn’t fired from the best newspapers for nothing, and he smells a story – a real story that could reboot his career, and maybe earn him a Pulitzer. Quickly he galvanizes the local sheriff (Ray Teal), the contractor heading up the rescue operation (Frank Jaquet), and Benedict’s unhappy wife (Jan Sterling). Douglas poses this question: If rescue workers were to take a few days to rescue the man, instead of a few hours, how much more profitable would that be for you?

Not one of the main characters in this film is untainted. Sterling’s character, for instance, wants out of her hamburger-slinging life; Teal, as Sheriff, wants to be re-elected; and the contractor Jaquet wants to keep his cozy government contracts.

See? With a cave-in, there’s something for everyone!

Douglas is pure magic in the role of the amoral journalist. He’s smooth-talking when he has to be, and doesn’t think twice about muscling others. He is ambitious and mean, and cannot wait to announce to the journalism world, “I’m back, Baby!”

Douglas’ ability to manipulate the rescue – and the story – is breathtaking. You hate him for his ruthlessness, but you almost admire his strategy.

Ultimately, it’s not how he manipulates the situation that causes us the greatest discomfort. It’s how easily he does so.

Douglas adresses the festival goers – er, the supporters of the traped man. Image: lskdjf dsj
Douglas addresses the festival goers – er, the supporters of a trapped man. Image: Sound on Sight

As word of the trapped man spreads, and with an elaborate rescue operation underway, the flats at the base of the mountain start to fill with tourists. Suddenly, Sterling is making more money than she can spend. People start arriving at the mountain, on vacation, with Airtream trailers and barbeques in tow. An amusement company erects carnival rides for the kids.

Douglas is now treated like a celebrity he’s always wanted to be, and Steling can’t count her cash fast enough. “Honey,” she says to Douglas, “you like those rocks just as much as I do.”

Life has never been better!

Except it’s not. Except there is a real man whose legs have been crushed beneath rock, and the sound of the rescue drill, endlessly pounding through the mountain, tears away his nerves. “It feels like someone is driving crooked nails in my head!” he cries.

This man is important only as long as he remains the ace in the hole. He’s trapped between the mountain and Kirk Douglas and, in this film, only one of them can win.

Ace in the Hole is one of our favourite movies. If you haven’t yet seen this film, promise us you’ll do so ASAP.

Ace in the Hole: starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur. Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels & Walter Newman. Paramount Pictures Corp., 1951, B&W, 112 mins.

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.

My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon 2



  1. Well, now I have to see this! The list of movies I need to see continues to grow 10 times as fast as I can try to keep up with it! 😛
    But seriously, great review! 😀


    • I’m not that familiar with her films, but I love her in everything I’ve seen her in so far. My fave line of hers is early in this film: “I know that Sheriff. he comes by once a week for steak and never picks up the cheque.” The way she says that one line, you know all you need to know about her – and the Sheriff.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Man, and I thought I submitted MY ‘thon posts early! In any case, terrific critique of a terrific movie. Back in the 1990’s, my best friend and I were discussing this movie and doing “fantasy” casting of an updated remake. We decided that Geraldo Rivera would have been good for Kirk Douglas’ role, and Madonna could take the place of Jan Sterling. Wonder who we’d choose nowadays? In any case, great blog!


  3. I promise! I’ve not even heard of this before, but I’m off to search for a copy right now. I can’t wait to see it. Thanks!


  4. Love this line: “Ultimately, it’s not how he manipulates the situation that causes us the greatest discomfort. It’s how easily he does so.” So true. An amazing film. It’s first on my list of the films I’m using to convert my sister into a classic movie fan.


  5. Love this movie. Wilder saw the press exploitation in its early stages, but it is still relevant today. I think that’s part of the reason the movie has held up so well. Great post!


  6. I love your comment: “Ultimately, it’s not how he manipulates the situation that causes us the greatest discomfort. It’s how easily he does so.” That perfectly sums up ACE IN THE HOLE, a film which has become only more relevant in the Internet-cable news era. These days, the media is more ready than ever before to seize a news event and exploit it–though perhaps not to the extent of Kirk’s character.


    • I agree, Rick. Sometimes media manipulation is so obvious it’s almost laughable, but when it’s so subtle you don’t learn the truth until much later…that makes me worry.

      Thanks for hosting this blogathon! Here’s to National Classic Movie Day! •clink!*


  7. Great film that you do a fine job with. Wilder is one of my all time, going way back, favorite filmmakers and this is one of top five Wilder films. An acidic nasty film that rings true more today than ever.


  8. This movie knocked me out when I first saw it on TV many years ago. It definitely should be better known. A more cynical frame of mind might be required to totally enjoy it, though. I once saw a revival showing of it at a theatre, and it was apparent that the movie really bummed out some of the audience. Most likely it was devastating back in 1951.


    • I always thought this would be interesting to see on the big screen, but didn’t anticipate how much of a downer that would be. I’m going to research audience reactions when it was first released. Thanks for dropping by! 🙂


  9. As I make my ay thought the many wonderful posts for this blogathon, I’m beginning to think it might end up being a Billy Wilder blogathon! You picked a great film, not one often seen, and you did a marvelous job. Douglas is at his very best here – not always likable, but still compelling.


  10. I knew this film as “The Big Carnival” and had never heard the other name until well into adulthood. This is one of the few movies that elicited the same emotional responses when I was a kid and again when I was an adult. Man’s cruelty to man, greed, callous exploitation — I can’t think of another movie that explored those things as well and as realistically as this one. Great choice of film!


    • Agreed. This film doesn’t shrink from the ugly side of human nature. Even if you’ve seen the film before, you still get that same shocked, almost sick feeling as the movie progresses. Thanks for dropping by!


  11. I love how you write with small paragraphs and yet delivers all the messages you want to.
    A few days ago I thought about this film and how tragedies are exploited to benefit someone or something like the press. It is a very powerful film, and I think I’ll never forget it as long as I live! Kirk Douglas and Billy Wilder are spots-on in the movie.


  12. I’ve been thinking a lot about disaster tourism recently, when in Rome a few weeks ago we also visited Pompeii and, whilst it was incredible, I felt so uncomfortable sightseeing around what’s essentially the final resting place for so many people. I have a well-known fascination with the macabre, but this just felt different.
    It’s interesting to think about this idea explored on film too – will give it a watch in the next fe weeks!


  13. Thanks for the great review! I have never seen this film, but I surely will as Billy Wilder is my second favourite movie director and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it because I enjoyed every Wilder’s films I’ve seen so far! 😀


  14. Wow, I honestly thought this movie was about something completely different…how interesting though! Definitely seems like it would still play well to a modern audience. Am adding this one to my list now!


  15. Wow, this sounds so good – even though a bit depressing when you see where our society is at now. Sounds like it should be a requirement for every journalist or newsperson to see, although it applies to all of us because we are the ones that watch. Your term disaster tourism is a phrase I had never heard before. Really makes you think. Thank you, Ruth. I’m going to look for this on Netflix.


    • Shari, this is one powerful, hard-hitting movie. I was quite shocked the first time I saw it because you have no idea where the story is going to end up. The acting is so good! The movie packs a lot of meaning into its run time, and it’s one you’ll never forget.


  16. Oh! So that’s what ‘Ace in the Hole’ stands for. Great Review ( as always 🙂 ). I promise to chk it ASAP (which, in this country, could be ages; but at least, it’s a movie, I’ll be on the lookout for).


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