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.
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.