Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Ace in the Hole (1951)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Ace in the Hole (1951) (aka The Big Carnival)

Director/co-writer Billy Wilder's powerful noir was an uncompromising, scathing and harsh commentary on human nature, and on the sensationalizing media comprised of self-serving, compromised tabloid-media journalists. After its first release, Paramount Studios was so concerned about the misanthropic film's unrelenting cynicism, anti-Americanism, theme of entrapment, and poor box-office that they unsuccessfully changed its name and rebranded it as "The Big Carnival."

  • the most powerful character in the film was Charles 'Chuck' Tatum (Kirk Douglas) - a belligerent, self-obsessed, unscrupulous big-city newspaper reporter who was angling to work for the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin (with its hand-embroidered, needlepoint motto "Tell the Truth"); the reckless, down-and-out East Coast news-reporter was forced to move West after being dismissed for alleged libel, for cheating with the boss' wife, and for drunkenness; he was looking for a way to make money, get a big break, and boost his sour and drunken reputation after many failures
  • stranded in Albuquerque, NM, he was first seen seated at the wheel of his broken-down convertible sedan as it was being towed into the city; inside the newspaper office, he rudely greeted one of the Indian news editors (Iron Eyes Cody) (wearing his long hair pulled back) with the condescending Indian expression: "How!" - expressing great disdain without any sense of respect for cultural differences
  • the arrogant Tatum successfully barged into the office of managing editor-in-chief Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall), seeking employment; he bragged immodestly that he was a multi-talented, top-notch reporter, who was capable of creating news by 'biting a dog' (a prophetic, allegorical description of the depths he would descend to in getting a news-story)
  • one of his boasts was that he had been fired from eleven different publications: ("You'll be glad to know that I've been fired from 11 papers with a total circulation of seven million, for reasons with which I don't wanna bore you"); he explained that he could turn his luck around with one blockbuster story ("Just one good beat, a Tatum special and they'll roll out the red carpet. Because when they need you, they forgive and forget"); in the meantime, he explained how he had been relegated to becoming a 'prostitute' - to sell his services to the highest (or lowest) bidder until he found a way to return to a larger news organization; remarkably, Boot ultimately offered Tatum $60/week -the current rate for a job at the newspaper, and specifically warned about not drinking on the job
  • after being stuck in New Mexico for a year, the impatient, stagnating Tatum gave a contemptuous rant about small-town life and how he missed New York: ("...Too much outdoors. Give me those eight spindly trees in front of Rockefeller Center any day. That's enough outdoors for me...).
  • the quick-thinking, smooth-tongued newsman was on an assignment from the claustrophobic office, to make a report on a rattlesnake hunt; on the drive to the event, he mused with young junior reporter-photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) about his desire for drama, sensationalism, disaster and personal gain in news-stories - and concluded his wishes by emphasizing the type of 'bad news' he preferred to cover: "Bad news sells best. Because good news is no news"
  • on their way, they came upon the remote Minosa's Trading Post to get gas, where it was learned that a man was caught inside an ancient, haunted 450 year-old Indian ancient cliff-dwelling (Mountain of the Seven Vultures) by a cave-in of rocks 250 feet inside, while looting it of Native American artifacts in the remote and deserted (fictional) town of Escudero, 3 hours' drive from Albuquerque. The cave-in had trapped good-hearted spelunker Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a military veteran and the adult son of the trading post owner

Minosa's Trading Post

Site of Cliff Dwellings' Cave-In

At the Cave-In Site - The Wife of the Local Trapped Man
  • at the site of the cave-in, Tatum met Leo's long-suffering, jaded, and cynical femme fatale wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who was complaining about her husband's foolishness. It appeared that Lorraine was a disgruntled and unhappy wife, made tougher and more crude by her arid surroundings that she intensely disliked:

    "He's way in there, under that mountain...We had a cave-in this morning...Dumb cluck. Everybody keeps telling him, 'Stay out of that place. Stay out of there.' Not Leo. Stubborn like a mule. He always keeps goin' back, diggin' for those Indian pots."

  • at the mouth of the cave dwelling site, the Deputy Sheriff (Gene Evans) was already questioning Papa Minosa (John Berkes), Leo's elderly father (with a right club foot), who reported that his son had become trapped about six hours earlier

Tatum Inside Cave Speaking to Trapped Leo

Trapped Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict)
  • Tatum decided to venture into the cave when no one else dared, although Lorraine was scornful as she lit a cigarette and sarcastically fumed: "And tell him we'll have a big coming-out party for him with a brass band and everything." As Tatum twisted along in the labyrinthine cave, he was already formulating in his mind his irresponsible plan to get the scoop on this disaster - his own personal ticket for getting out of the entrapping Albuquerque. Tatum sensed a major opportunity to stage-manage an "ace in the hole" media-frenzied story (ripe with drama, sensationalism, disaster and personal gain) involving an orchestrated rescue operation.
  • Leo was pinned at the waist under some very large, and heavy rocks, and was worried about the very unstable confines of the burial cave. Tatum realized that this might be end up being the perfect story to exploit. His objective was not really the man's extrication, but to prolong the perilous situation as long as possible, while befriending Leo and keeping him assured of his trusting nature. Tatum took two photos of the trapped victim - so that he could print the story in the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin paper - a feature article that he had already begun to create in his mind.
  • it was really only a minor news-story about a cave-explorer who became trapped, but the amoral and depraved reporter milked it into a juicy, big-scoop, blockbuster front-page event by promoting the situation with national media publicity that brought a feeding frenzy of curious tourists to descend upon the site and gawk at the tragedy, while capitalizing on the public's interest and delaying the rescue efforts. The unethical Tatum succeeded in manipulating the news media, the construction engineers, the local crooked sheriff who sought reelection in the county, and the victim's opportunistic, jaded and mercenary wife
  • from the start, Tatum had to deal with Leo's disloyal wife Lorraine. The hard-hearted, bleach-blonde Lorraine watched Tatum as she smiled and calmly munched on an apple - a Biblical reference to Eve (a corrupted temptress). She was already aware of Tatum's underhanded nature - knowing that she was the crucial linchpin that could either hold together or unravel Tatum's manipulative plan. The self-interested and jaded femme fatale Lorraine also undoubtedly saw Leo’s entrapment as a convenient way to exit from her unhappy marriage.

Femme Fatale Lorraine Eating an Apple

Lorraine Planning to Desert Her Husband With Her Packed Suitcase

Lorraine: "Yesterday, you never heard of Leo..."
  • Lorraine and Tatum both hustled the situation - the heartless, opportunistic Lorraine was seriously considering running off from her good-hearted husband after five years of unfulfilled marriage. She had packed her suitcase and was poised to leave. She seemed completely unaffected by the entrapment her husband was experiencing. She realized that Tatum was capitalizing on her husband's predicament:

    "Yesterday, you never even heard of Leo. Today, you can't know enough about him. Aren't you sweet?"

  • she also sensed Tatum's true motives - that he was a scheming, hypocritical hustler who was creating a "trapped man" story for his newspaper - to stir up excitement and readership and to jump-start his career:

    Tatum: "Got a little jump on him this time, huh? Can't run after ya, not lyin' there with those rocks on his legs."
    Lorraine: "Look who's talkin'! Much you care about Leo. I'm on to you. You're workin' for a newspaper. All you want is something you can print. Honey, you like those rocks just as much as I do."

  • Lorraine strode over to the Trailways Bus Depot sign for pick-up - ready to desert her husband. Tatum made it his goal to convince her to stay - by pointing out how she would benefit. He promised the bleached-blonde that there would be a financial windfall and monetary rewards for remaining and pretending to be a grieving and virtuous wife:

    "There's gonna be real dough in that cash register by tonight. When they bleached your hair, they must have bleached your brains too."

  • she was easily persuaded by the promise of revenue from gathering throngs to remain with her ailing husband - the Trailways bus she was supposed to depart on pulled away to reveal Lorraine had changed her mind and was walking back inside.
  • Tatum also sided with local corrupt Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal) up for re-election: "What did ya have? A pair of deuces. This is better. Here we've got an ace in the hole." There were frenzied scenes at the rescue site - looking like a drive-in theatre with tourists, a literal circus (S & M) amusement park and carnival, a camp ground, rising admission prices, etc. And all the while, Tatum's main goal was to deliberately delay rescue efforts.
  • Lorraine was fast becoming rich, and she gratefully admitted how thankful she was to Tatum. She complimented him on his cold-hearted pecuniary greed that she was benefiting from:

    "I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you, you're 20 minutes....I've been doin' my own figurin'. Took in 70 bucks so far. By tonight, it oughta be $150. Seven times $150. That's over a grand. That's the first grand I ever had. Thanks. (She moved and snuggled closer to him) Thanks a lot."

Lorraine Insulting Tatum: "I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you, you're 20 minutes"

Lorraine in Pleased Satisfaction - Tempting Tatum to Slap Her to Wipe Away Her Smile

After Slapping Her Twice: "That's more like it. And don't wipe those tears."

Lorraine to Tatum: "Don't ever slap me again!"
  • Tatum was forced to reprimand Lorraine for deviating from her feigned sorrow as the worried wife with an ever-widening smile - he slapped her face twice to literally wipe away her pleased satisfaction, to cool her sexual desire for him, and to also batter her into submission (just as Leo had unintentionally trapped her). When tears formed in her eyes, he approved: "That's more like it. And don't wipe those tears. That's the way you're supposed to look. Put on your wedding ring. Go on back and peddle your hamburgers."
  • Tatum encouraged her to continue her fake charade of grieving for her husband, and to be available for a photo-op of her grieving at the church. But she cautioned him about ever physically striking her again: "And another thing, mister. Don't ever slap me again."
  • as an accomplice in Leo's prolonged predicament, Lorraine became his own monomaniacal self's mirror-image - reflecting his own cold callousness, selfishness, shamelessness and venality by always angling for the best set-up for herself. When she seemed to be maneuvering to join him back in New York after the crisis was over, Tatum's fist grabbed the back of Lorraine's bleached hair as he drew her close to him ("Why don't you wash that platinum outta your hair?") - their only kiss in the film - obscured by a close-up of the back of Lorraine's head.
  • on the 5th wedding anniversary of Leo's marriage to Lorraine, Tatum retrieved Leo's present for her (a cheap mink stole) and gave it to her, but she snidely rejected it: "I got enough money to buy me a real fur, a silver fox...I hate it, Chuck...It's like him touching me," but Tatum picked up the wrap, slung it around her neck, and insisted that she wear it as he pulled it tighter and began to strangle her: "He wants you to wear it...Don't take it off!" She struggled to free herself, and then suddenly in self-defense, in the film's most shocking moment, she stabbed him in the lower right side of his gut with the pair of scissors in her hand.
  • at the same moment, the site of the accident was engulfed with profiteers as the cursed victim died of pneumonia in the darkness of the cave. Last rites were administered by Father Diego (Lester Dorr) to pneumonia-stricken Leo after 6 days of being unnecessarily trapped in the cave-in; Leo was prepared to die and told them: "I'm ready"; Father Diego absolved Leo of his sin as he confessed: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I'm sorry"
  • finally realizing that he was beyond redemption and that the spectacle was over, the severely-wounded Tatum delivered a speech to the crowds to go home after Leo's death:

    "Leo Minosa is dead. He died a quarter of an hour ago... with the drill just 10 feet away. There's nothing we can do anymore. There's nothing anybody can do. He's dead. Do you hear me? Now go on home, all of you! The circus is over."

Ending Sequence

"Rescue Fund" Sign
Tatum's Speech: "Leo Minosa is Dead....The circus is over"
  • after hearing the news, Lorraine (without the wrap) turned away from her window and soon emerged from the trading post's second floor apartment with her suitcase - dressed for travel and finally free. However, she remained an outcast and undesirable - she was unable to hail a departing bus and was last seen walking away from the camera amidst the stream of departing cars that were beginning to clog the highway. She vainly sought a hitchhiking ride to escape.
  • Leo's forlorn Papa Minosa looked at the "Rescue Fund" sign (that earlier promised proceeds to go to rescue Leo) after everyone's departure - with litter blowing in the wind.
  • in the conclusion, after Tatum's hypocritical rescue efforts were uncovered, he received his come-uppance when he expressed some guilt and remorse over his unscrupulous actions - and dropped dead back where he started.
  • there was a final low-angled shot of bleeding, defeated journalist Tatum collapsing at the feet of his editor-in-chief Mr. Jacob Q. Boot and delivering his final words:

    "How'd you like to make yourself a thousand dollars a day, Mr. Boot? I'm a thousand-dollar-a-day newspaperman. You can have me for nothing."

Charles "Chuck" Tatum (Kirk Douglas) - Angling For a Newspaper Job with Managing Editor Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall)

Tatum's Rant About Missing New York

Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), Leo's Wife - Who Called Her Husband a "Dumb Cluck"

Lorraine to Tatum: "I'm on to you. You're working for a newspaper"

Front-Page News-Story: Cave-In

Tatum Convincing Trapped Wife To Stay In Order to Benefit Financially ("There's gonna be real dough in that cash register by tonight")

Lorraine Deciding Not to Take the Trailways Bus

Tatum with Corrupt Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal)

Business Booming at the Trading Post for Lorraine

Throngs of People at The Rescue Site

Spectators Being Interviewed

Amusement Trucks Arriving

Arrival of "Leo Minosa Special" Train

"Why don't you wash that platinum outta your hair?" - Fist Grab of Her Hair For a Kiss

Dying Leo's Last Moments in Cave-In

Lorraine with Leo's Mink Stole Gift Around Her Neck

Tatum Strangling Lorraine

Tatum's Reaction to Being Stabbed

Lorraine with Suitcase Abandoning the Trading Post

Wounded Tatum Helped Into the Newspaper Office

Tatum's Collapse Face-First

Tatum Falling Dead: "You can have me for nothing"


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