ACE IN THE HOLE (THE BIG CARNIVAL) (1951) B/W 111m dir: Billy Wilder

w/Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall, Frank Cady, Richard Benedict, Ray Teal, Lewis Martin, John Berks, Frances Dominguez, Gene Evans, Frank Jacquet, Harry Harvey, Bob Bumps, Geraldine Hall, Richard Gaines, Paul D. Merrill, Stewart Kirk Clawson

From The Movie Guide: "A bitter pill, brilliantly done by Billy Wilder. Boozy, but ruthlessly ambitious newspaperman, Douglas, down on his luck and desperate to improve his lot as a result of a mining accident, builds a media circus. Gut-busting performance by a growling Douglas, matched easily by snarling Sterling, who gets the best line: 'I don't pray. Kneeling bags my nylons.' An uneasy classic."

Be forewarned: the following material contains specific story information you may not want to know before viewing the film:

From Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, this entry on ACE IN THE HOLE, written by Julie Kirgo and Ward: "The Big Carnival is one of the most grimly cynical motion pictures ever to emerge from Hollywood. It was condemned as a compassionless and contemptuous distortion of human nature, while several newspaper film reviewers complained that American journalists had been slandered. However, although the film was reportedly banned in Malaya for portraying a facet of American life 'that might be misunderstood,' it received the Venice Film Festival award for the outstanding Hollywood film of that year. The controversy inspired Paramount executives to nickname the film 'Ass In the Wringer,' a take-off on its original title, Ace in the Hole.

"None of this can detract from The Big Carnival's evident strengths. Its cynicism is so unrelenting that it becomes compelling; and the atmosphere in which that cynicism is presented is so painstakingly detailed , so richly realized, that its point of view defies repudiation. Audiences of the postwar witch-hunt years were forced tot turn their backs on such darkness; if The Big Carnival had been made today, in an age that makes a fetish of acknowledging errors, it might very well have been a success.

"The film has two determinedly noir performances by Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling. Douglas is all bluster and calculation; never has he made such significant use of his manic laugh, his egotistical ferocity, and the cheap, slick side of his personality. In contrast to Douglas's 'big' performance, Sterling's is quiet and subtle, conveyed by the obsequious look of her saucer eyes, in the twist of her pouting mouth, and in the brassy tone of her voice. Urged to pose praying for her husband in publicity photos, she snarls, 'I don't pray. Kneeling bags my nylons.' The highlight of Sterling's performance is that she reveals the fear and the emptiness beneath the tough broad facade.

"Her emptiness is reflected also in the film's bleak locale: the tawdry roadside cafe and souvenir shop, typical of those that unremittingly punctuate the American landscape. Familiar, too, is what this emptiness becomes when inundated by gawkers, sensation-seekers, profiteers, and 'gentlemen' of the press --- all feeding off the misery and ultimately the death of another human being. The enthusiastic attempted rescue of Leo Minosa is shown to be a universally hypocritical, exploitative side-show and is presented by Wilder with exaggerated precision and detail. It includes an interview with the doomed man, a topical tune entitled 'We're Coming, Leo,' sung by the spectators to cheer him, and then culminates as these people garner grisly souvenirs from around the death site. The major events of the film take place in glaring desert sunlight that relentlessly beats down on the crowd and gives a hard edge to every action of the characters and plot. In contrast to the literally bright and cheerful sympathizers, Leo is truly suffering in a dank cave. He ultimately dies of pneumonia --- a disease associated with cold temperatures. In Wilder's noir vision, the individual is figuratively frozen by the neglect of his fellow human beings, even as they imitate concern. Leo, as a film noir protagonist, could not be more alienated as his world is supported by humanitarian ideals that are made of sand."

ACE IN THE HOLE was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman).