They were two of film noir’s most unsavory characters – and that’s saying something.
Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) and Lorraine Mimosa (Jan Sterling) were like two ships that pass in the night – and then turn around and crash into each other. In Billy Wilder’s dark and uncompromising 1951 feature Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival), Tatum and Mimosa enter the Film Noir Hall of Fame as one of the era’s most dysfunctional couples.
In Ace in the Hole, Tatum is an unethical newspaper reporter whose view of his profession is expressed early in the film: “I didn’t go to any college, but I know what makes a good story,” he says. “Bad news sells best. Good news is no news.” Determined to work his way back to the “big time” after being fired from 11 newspapers, Tatum is finally presented with the ideal opportunity – while working on a small New Mexico publication, he happens upon Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a curio shop merchant trapped in an old Indian cavern. After learning that rescuers can free Minosa within a day’s time, Tatum works in concert with the corrupt local sheriff (Ray Teal) to effect an operation that will take at least a week, providing him the chance to write a daily series of widely read articles.
Tatum’s other partner in crime is Leo’s slovenly wife, Lorraine, who initially plans to use her spouse’s accident as a chance to leave him. Tatum convinces her to stay, using her status as a “grieving spouse” to spice up his acclaimed stories. Charles and Lorraine first meet as he’s on his way to the cavern; Lorraine is walking along the road and he picks her up in his car. Even though she reveals that her husband is trapped in the cave, she doesn’t seem very troubled: “Dumb cluck,” she grouses, “everybody keeps telling him, ‘Stay out of that place, stay out of there.’” In fact, rather than centering on any sort of concern for her spouse, Lorraine’s entire conversation instead reflects her cynical nature and her complete dissatisfaction with her life. When she’s asked if it’s true that Indians lived in the cavern 450 years ago, Lorraine responds, “I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been around that long. It only seems that long.”
From the start, the relationship between Tatum and Lorraine is a contentious one – and one in which each sees the other for exactly what they are. In the scene where Lorraine shares her plans to leave town, she tells Tatum that it’s actually her second attempt – the first time, she made it all the way to Kansas before her husband caught up with her. As Tatum watches her take the last $11 out of the shop’s register, he chides her for abandoning her husband in his current state: “Nice kid,” he remarks. “Got a little jump on him this time, huh? Can’t run after you – not lying there with those rocks on his legs.” But Lorraine isn’t fazed; she knows that Tatum’s top priority is his career – certainly not the safety and well-being of her husband. “A lot you care about Leo,” she rejoins. “I’m on to you – you’re working for a newspaper. All you want is something you can print. Honey, you like those rocks just as much as I do.”
The site of the accident turns into a circus-like atmosphere.
Before long, in response to Tatum’s moving stories, a throng of curiosity-seekers and reporters from around the country descend on the area. As time wears on, the rescue site takes on a circus-like atmosphere – hence, the title – complete with carnival rides, balloons, concession stands, and even a theme song (“We’re Coming Leo”). Tatum, the only reporter allowed access to Leo inside the cavern, becomes a celebrity, and just as Tatum had predicted, Lorraine starts raking in the cash as her curio shop/diner becomes a hub for the swarm of visitors. She next turns her sights to Tatum – paying him a visit in his room, she expresses her gratitude to him for convincing her to stay, estimating that she should pull in more than a thousand dollars before the first week is out. But she soon finds that Tatum is not of a mind to join her celebration. When he tells her to stop smiling (“Your husband’s stuck under a mountain. You’re worried sick. That’s the way the story goes.”), Lorraine playfully challenges him to “make [her]”. And he does, delivering a double-cheek slap that leaves her silent and stunned.
In another scene, Tatum orders Lorraine to attend a religious service for her husband, and Lorraine drawls, “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.” But Tatum isn’t as immune to Lorraine’s charms (such as they are) as he would like to believe. Before long, he summons Lorraine, ostensibly to chide her for spending too much time with the other reporters. But Lorraine takes the conversation in a different direction, musing on her future once she leaves New Mexico and moves to New York, and envisioning an encounter with Tatum there. “Maybe you’ll buy me a couple of drinks. Maybe you’ll even take me out for a big evening. You won’t be ashamed of me. I’m going to buy me a new trousseau – I’ll look real swell.” In response, Tatum derisively suggests that she “wash that platinum out of [her] hair,” and then grabs a handful of her locks and pulls her in for one of the cruelest, least tender kisses I’ve ever seen.
The first kiss: it wasn’t pretty.
The relationship between Tatum and Lorraine – as well as the efforts to rescue Leo – continues to spiral out of control, but I’m not going to give anything else away. Just keep in mind that Ace in the Hole is film noir.
Don’t count on a happy ending.
Billy Wilder not only directed the film, he was also the producer and wrote the screenplay, along with Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels.
The song “We’re Coming Leo” was written by the songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who were responsible for a number of popular songs of the 1940s and 1950s, including Buttons and Bows and Que Sera Sera. Wilder reportedly told the men to write “the worst song you can, with bad rhymes and everything else bad.”
In addition to the well-known “baggy nylons” quote, Ace in the Hole is rife with standout lines. Two of my other favorites are these:
Tatum: “I can handle big news and little news. If there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.”
Lorraine: “I’ve met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you – you’re 20 minutes.”
The film was inspired by the real-life case of Floyd Collins in Kentucky.
After the release of the film, Billy Wilder was sued by actor Victor Desny (who can be seen in uncredited roles in such films as The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Story of Three Loves). Desny claimed that he’d contacted Wilder’s secretary in 1949 to propose a film based on the real-life story of Floyd Collins, who was trapped in a cave in Kentucky in 1917. Wilder’s attorneys claimed that Desny had not developed a formal story submission, and that because of the historical nature of the Collins case, it was not protected by copyright laws. The case eventually reached the California Supreme Court, which ruled that Desny’s oral submission was legitimate, and Wilder’s attorneys paid Desny $14,350.
In an interview depicted in the film, the first man to visit the site of the accident (played by Frank Cady of Petticoat Junction fame) states that he is an employee of the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company. This is the name of the company that employed Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944), which was also directed and co-written by Billy Wilder.
The film didn’t do well at the box office – audiences may have been put off by the unremittingly grim story. However, critics hailed the performances of both Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling. The reviewer for Motion Picture Herald wrote that Douglas “enacts the heel reporter ably, giving it color to balance its unsympathetic character,” and in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther described the actor as “full of the arrogance and the cruelty of the desperately insecure.” Sterling’s performance – which won her the National Board of Review Award as best actress of 1952 – was hailed by Crowther, who wrote that she “fills with venom the role of the victim’s trampish wife,” and the critic for Newsweek, who claimed, “The surprise of the film is Jan Sterling’s petulant, uneasy characterization of Minosa’s wife, Lorraine. Miss Sterling has been drab and desperate on screen before this, but with Ace in the Hole she becomes a star.”
You can find Ace in the Hole on DVD, as well as various sites on the internet. Check it out, if you haven’t already – and if you have, isn’t it time you dusted off your copy and gave it another look?
You only owe it to yourself.
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This post is part of the Billy Wilder Blogathon, hosted by Aurora over at Once Upon a Screen, and Kelley at Outspoken and Freckled. Visit either of these sites to check out the many great posts being presented as part of this event!