Journo Film: Ace in the Hole (1951)


There are two types of journalists in movies. The first is the crusading journalist, the moral, upstanding reporter in search of the truth. The other is the ruthless immoral hack who will do anything to get a story. Ace in the Hole is a film where the central character is the latter.

This cynical classic from director Billy Wilder follows the exploits of disgraced reporter Chuck Tatum played by Kirk Douglas. The film begins with Tatum’s car breaking down in Albuquerque. He then blags his way onto the local newspaper, despite revealing to the editor that he’s been fired 11 times from 11 different newspapers.

Tatum’s insistence that he is a top newspaperman lands him a job on the sleepy local paper and soon he’s out covering a rattlesnake hunt. But, on the way to cover the story Tatum comes across a man trapped in a mountain. Tatum crawls into the cave to find his next big story, and he hopes to crawl back out with a Pulitzer.

Tatum begins manipulating the story from the outside and soon the whole country’s media is on the doorstep of this mountain.

The film is a modern morality tale with razor-sharp witty dialogue. The film is not ashamed of its deeply cynical take on the media and America’s relationship with it. As the literal media circus begins to grow outside of the cave in which a greedy treasure hunter has become trapped one local café owner, and wife of the trapped man asks “why shouldn’t we get something out of it?”

What can a journalist learn from the film?

Chuck Tatum is a thoroughly deplorable character. Ace in the Hole is a very interesting commentary on the nature of a human interest story. The film demonstrates where the lines blur between the reporters duty to entertain and to tell the truth.

It is very obvious that Tatum has a real nose for what makes a great story. When Tatum describes the way he wants the story to play out some journalists watching the film will probably salivate at the prospect of covering such a sensational story.

Tatum manipulates the local sheriff and the rescue team to ensure that his scoop will be as dramatic as possible, even going as far as to ensure that the man in the cave stays trapped for longer.

Ultimately the film proves that the journalist’s role is to observe and report on the facts. Any attempt to exaggerate or change the course of events will result in tragedy. A lesson Tatum learns the hard way, early on in the film Tatum sneers at an embroidered message on the wall of a local newsroom, it simply reads ‘tell the truth’.

There are some voices of reason in the film. Tatum’s editor comes down to the scene to criticise the over-blown fakery surrounding the story. He turns to Tatum and accuses him of practicing “Phoney below the belt journalism.” Tatum whips back “Not below the belt, right in the gut.”

Wilder clearly meant this film to be viewed as a reflection of what the media as a whole is like. I prefer to view this film as a commentary on journalism at its very worst.

Let me know what you think of the film by tweeting your thoughts to @nickjhp and use the hash-tag #JournoFilms.


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