Charles “Chuck” Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is an out of work reporter who finds himself outside of the offices of the Sun Bulletin in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His car has just been towed and Chuck decides to rush into the offices and ask for the editor. He makes his pitch, calling himself a $250 a week reporter who can be had for $50, but his brand of shock journalism is not the editor, Jacob Boot’s, cup of tea. However, Boot agrees to give Chuck a job provided that he remains honest and sober which Chuck agrees to. Chuck acknowledges that his past rough and brutish behavior has cost him several high-powered jobs but he is confident that his next big break is just around the corner. Until it comes around all he has to do is wait and keep his nose clean.
One year passes and Chuck is still working at the Sun Bulletin and is becoming increasingly disgusted with his lot. He is itching for a good juicy story, the sort that will get him back on top, but the best he can get is an assignment to cover the local rattlesnake hunt. Chuck drives towards town along with cub reporter/photographer Herbie Cook (Bob Arthur) but soon stops for gas at a small trading post. Herbie goes in to find an older woman weeping and praying in the backroom and soon police sirens can be heard. While he and Chuck are wondering what is going on a young blonde woman approaches asking for a ride. Her name is Lorraine (Jan Sterling) and she is the wife of Leo Minosa, who is the owner of the trading post. Leo was exploring a nearby cave and is now trapped in a cave-in. Lorraine is bringing him blankets and a thermos of coffee and Chuck offers to drive her the rest of the way. Once at the cave Chuck hears that it is a sacred cave to the Native Americans, called the Cave of the Seven Vultures. Sensing a chance at a story, Chuck pushes his way past the sheriff’s deputy and enters the cave ostensibly to bring Leo the blankets and coffee.
Once underground Chuck soon finds Leo, trapped under the mud and rubble but otherwise upbeat. He is certain that he will be out soon and he is more than happy to let Chuck take his picture. He is especially thrilled when Chuck says that he will publish a story about Leo in the paper along with the photograph. Chuck returns to the trading post where he rents a room from Lorraine and then calls Boot. He tells Boot that he has the front page story and begins typing up the story. While talking to Lorraine, Chuck learns that she and Leo were married soon after Leo was discharged from the military. Lorraine quickly became unhappy and disillusioned with their life and is now taking her chance to leave Leo while she can. Chuck nows how this will hurt his story so he tries to shame Lorraine into staying but to no avail. The only thing that stops Lorraine is when Chuck tells her that this story will bring customers from all over the country to her tiny store. The prospect of increased profit is too enticing to Lorraine and she agrees to stay.
The trading post is soon besieged by tourists, all anxious to get a glimpse at the human tragedy that is unfolding. Lorraine begins charging for admission to the site, against the wishes of her father-in-law, and presses her mother-in-law into service to help with the rush of customers at the trading post. Chuck learns from the local physician, who has just been down to see Leo, that the trapped man is healthy and could probably last a week underground. With this in mind Chuck goes to see the Sheriff with a proposal. Knowing that the Sheriff is crooked and up for re-election Chuck suggests that they prolong the rescue effort, taking a whole week by drilling down from the top of the mountain rather than shoring up the loose walls and going in from the side (which would take only sixteen hours), so that the Sheriff can use the event to bolster is re-election campaign. In exchange for his quiet and cooperation, the sheriff will guarantee Chuck exclusive access to the story. The Sheriff agrees and uses his position to force the construction foreman to go along with the plan. Chuck tells Herbie that they are quitting the Sun Bulletin now that they have a big enough story to write their own ticket with.
That night Lorraine comes to see Chuck and flush with her recent success tries to flirt with him. Chuck responds by slapping her and reminding her that she is supposed to be playing the grieving wife. The next day the drilling begins and more reporters show up but they are to be disappointed. When they question why they are being denied access to the story while Chuck is allowed free rein, the Sheriff responds that he has deputized Chuck and no one else can have access to the cave for safety reasons. Meanwhile down below, Chuck is talking with Leo again. Leo declares that Chuck is his best friend, which Chuck has little reaction to, and tells him about a present he has bought for Lorraine for their upcoming anniversary. Back at the trading post Chuck is confronted by his old boss, Mr. Boot. Boot has figured out Chuck’s angle and condemns his “below the belt” journalism. Chuck could not care less especially as the editor of a major New York paper is on the phone, having just agreed to hire Chuck to cover the story. Things could not be going better for Chuck. He has exclusive access to the story of the century, Leo thinks of him as a friend and confidante, the tourists have turned the outside into a literal carnival and the money is rolling in, and oh yeah he is having an affair with Lorraine. But at the next visit inside the cave with another day or so to go before the drills reach Leo, the doctor delivers terrible news. Leo has developed pneumonia from laying in the cave for the past five days and won’t survive more than twelve hours.
This film did not do well when it was first released. In fact the profits were so poor that Paramount not only changed the title to THE BIG CARNIVAL, without Wilder’s knowledge, but also subtracted the losses from the profits of Wilder’s next film, STALAG 17. It is a very modern film, one that feels even more relevant today than it might have in 1951. It is also a very uncomfortable and uncompromising look at the darker ambitions and urges of people, as such it isn’t too surprising that audiences didn’t take to the film.
The most significant point of the film is the manipulation of events by Chuck Tatum, his unwavering and uncompromising desire to control the unfolding story in order to keep his exclusive. His single-minded behavior doesn’t take into account any one else, not Leo, not Lorraine, not Herbie, not the Sheriff, and not the thousands of people coming to see the spectacle. He prevents the workers from digging Leo out sooner in order to prolong the story to keep readers interested and to bolster his fame and desirability to other newspapers. He keeps Lorraine from leaving to keep the family life looking pristine. He feeds Leo’s parents false hope and accepts their kindness all because he wants the story. Of course Chuck is not alone in using Leo’s situation for his own personal gain. Lorraine hates Leo but loves money so she stays on at the trading post and even starts charging for admission. The Sheriff wants re-election and so agrees to force the miners to dig Leo out slower as well as giving Chuck exclusive access. Even the construction foreman wants to keep his new job and so agrees to dig Leo out using a method he knows is unnecessarily slow. Every person in a position to help Leo, to keep him from being trapped longer than needed, every single one of them fails to because of their own selfish reasons.
And what of the crowd of people gathering outside the cave? The cave, which before was revered as sacred to the Native Americans and considered a pit stop by tourists, now is attracting thousands of men, women, and children. They gather to sing songs about Leo, to take pictures, to ride carnival rides, and buy hamburgers. They tell their children to pay attention as this is “educational”, which it is though not for the reasons they might think. Chuck and the others certainly have a major part in what is happening but these people do as well. Who buys the papers that Chuck writes for? Who elects the Sheriff? Who pays Lorraine the money she asks for, even as the price of admission creeps higher and higher? While we have to confront the selfishness of Chuck, his callousness and puppet-mastery, we also have to confront the fact that people love to watch a car wreck. How can it be that no one thinks it in bad taste to buy hot dogs and ice cream outside of a cave where a man is fighting for his life? How can it be that a human tragedy such as this becomes a sideshow? Since when does a human life equate increased revenue?
Wilder’s film is a startling and shocking look at the darker side of men and their desires. The film never hides the truth of the matter, rather forcing us to confront it. Little wonder then, that this film was not popular when it first came out. The issues presented within are relevant at all times but in this time of social media, when everyone has a camera and can be an ersatz reporter, they are even more so. The questions it raises are even more important now than in 1951. Who is writing the news? Who benefits from the news? When is a life more valuable than a profit? We like to think we know the answers to these questions and we like to pretend that they are easy. But ACE IN THE HOLE shows that is not always the case.