Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder / U.S., 1951):
(The Big Carnival)

The image is drawn swiftly, a New York jackal amid lemmings in a desert that could be von Stroheimís. Stranded at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, the banished big-city reporter (Kirk Douglas) seeks a huge news item and finds it when a spelunker (Richard Benedict) is pinned under a collapsed mine while looking for Indian antiques. Douglas knows a scoop when he sniffs one, his article paints the mountain as a haunted attraction and the manís unhappy gal (Jan Sterling) as a virtuous wife. When "Mr. and Mrs. America" drop by to gawk, his piratical moxie skyrockets -- news wither fast ("Tomorrow thisíll be yesterdayís paper and theyíll wrap fish in it"), so he contrives to delay the manís rescue, milk the publicís lust for spectacle, and auction himself off to editors. The literal media circus that ensues (carnival rides, cowboy bands, political deals) has the blessing of the sheriff (Ray Teal), whose pet baby rattlesnake feasts on bubblegum. "I donít make things happen. All I do is write about them." Nobody has clean hands. The only thing Billy Wilder despises more than the heel manipulating pain into entertainment are the masses who passively swallow it hook, line, and sinker. Douglas and Sterling match each other's guile, he slaps the smile off her face and then clutches her bleached pelt: their liaison expands Double Indemnityís acrid pas de deux, and it builds toward strangulation by fur coat and scissors in the guts. Wilder dissolves from the clod in the mine to his wife overseeing the show (the "Great S&M Amusement Corp." is pulling in), and cuts, stingingly, from the eager tourists to the old man (John Berkes) who canít quite believe the fairgrounds thatís sprouted around his sonís tragedy. The embroidered newsroom motto ("Tell the truth") becomes the crucifix in the victimís house, the drill pounds the mountaintop and the sinnerís mind. Man Bites Dog and There Will Be Blood are just two of the works that profit from this prophetic scald, the beast finally drops before the camera in a shot saluted in Fassbinder's Fox and His Friends. With Robert Arthur, Porter Hall, Frank Caddy, Lewis Martin, Frances Dominguez, Gene Evans, and Frank Jacquet. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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