Reviewed by Michael Scheinfeld

Inspired by the real-life Floyd Collins cave-in disaster of the 1920s, ACE IN THE HOLE is a searing example of writer-director Billy Wilder at his most brilliantly misanthropic. An uncompromising portrait of human nature at its worst, the film was so far ahead of its time in its depiction

of a media circus and the public's appetite for tragedy that it was a commercial disaster when first released, but now stands as one of the great American films of the 1950s.

After being fired from a number of big city newspapers, alcoholic reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) takes a job working for a paper in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On the way to cover a rattlesnake hunt, Tatum encounters a woman named Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who tells him that her husband Leo

Minosa (Richard Benedict) got trapped in a mine cave-in while searching for some Indian treasure. Smelling a big story that will take him back to New York, Tatum goes into the cave and befriends Leo, then makes a deal with the corrupt local sheriff (Ray Teal) to boost his upcoming re-election

campaign in exchange for exclusive rights to the story. Tatum and the sheriff coerce the contractor into prolonging the rescue operation to a week rather than 16 hours by drilling down from the top of the mountain instead of shoring up the walls and going in through the front. After a few days, a

carnival atmosphere presides as TV, newsreel, and radio crews arrive, while thousands of tourists set up camp and trucks bring in amusement park rides.

The word used most often to describe Wilder in general, and ACE IN THE HOLE in particular, is "cynical," but a closer analysis reveals that this is really a misnomer. Wilder is actually a satirical moralist and a disillusioned romantic who knows that the world is an imperfect place and that

everyone has the potential to be corrupt. The fact that the film was a box-office bomb is not surprising since the public was obviously not flattered by its depiction of them as gullible sensation-seekers who morbidly gather around a disaster for some all-American fun. Even today, the scenes of

Tatum talking with the entombed Leo as dirt pours down on his face are harrowing to watch, primarily because Wilder broke his cardinal rule of sugar-coating messages with comic elements as an audience escape-valve. As a result, the film is as grim and pitiless as the relentless drill that pounds

away at the mountain top.