In 30 January 1925, a man named William Floyd Collins became trapped underground while exploring a network of caves beneath his native Kentucky. Attempts to free him over the next two weeks became a nationwide sensation, thanks in part to regular wireless bulletins that fed news of the rescue effort to listeners across the country. Tens of thousands of tourists flocked to the site, creating a carnival atmosphere to match the media circus. By the time diggers got to him on 17 February, though, Floyd Collins had already starved to death.
Twenty-five years later a young writer called Walter Newman suggested to Billy Wilder, then riding high on the success of Sunset Blvd., that Floyd Collins’ story might make a good basis for a film. The end result was Ace In The Hole, a critique of gutter journalism in which a cynical reporter delays the rescue of a man trapped underground to boost his career.
Harsh, cruel and coruscating, the film – retitled ‘The Big Carnival’ by Paramount in a doomed attempt to make it more palatable – was both a critical and a box-office flop. It also prompted legal action from bit-part actor Victor Desny, who claimed he owned the rights to Floyd’s story and successfully sued Wilder and Paramount for plagiarism.
Now, of course, Hole is recognised as a majestic, prescient masterpiece: a cautionary tale on the perils of an unchecked press that also castigates the gawping, rubbernecking zombies who feast on strangers’ tragedies. At its centre is one of Kirk Douglas’ fiercest and most dynamic performances. His amoral Chuck Tatum jumps at the chance to exploit another man’s misery only to eventually become sickened by the depravity he unleashes.
“I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you – you’re 20 minutes!” gasps the trapped man’s wife (Jan Sterling), an opportunistic floozy who will willingly play the part of loyal spouse if it means a ticket out of this dusty New Mexico backwater. Richard Benedict, meanwhile, breaks the heart as Collins’ stand-in, expiring slowly before our eyes while pathetically cradling the deluded belief Chuck has his best interests at heart.
A few years after their collaboration, Wilder bumped into Walter Newman on another backlot. “You know that picture we made, Ace In The Hole? That lost me power at the studio,” the former sighed, before shouting: “Fuck them all! It’s the best picture I ever made.”
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