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Spectacle fuels the media in Billy Wilder’s prophetic 1951 satire Ace in the Hole

Kirk Douglas plays an unscrupulous reporter with an eye for what will sell.

Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole
Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for July 30 through August 5 is Ace in the Hole (1951), which is available to digitally rent on YouTube, Amazon, Vudu, and Google Play.

This week really began a week ago Friday, with Sean Spicer’s resignation from his role as White House press secretary. That event kicked off one hell of a political news cycle: health care votes in the Senate, Jared Kushner’s “I did not collude” speech from the White House driveway, and President Trump’s tweets attacking Jeff Sessions and transgender people in the military. By the time new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci called CNN’s New Day on Thursday morning to sling barely veiled blame at Reince Priebus for leaks, it was hard to know whether we were watching CNN, or Game of Thrones, or some kind of traveling circus that rolled into Washington overnight.

And despite Scaramucci’s own leaky crusade against leaks, the flow of information out of the White House seems unlikely to stop anytime soon, given that if a leak is ultimately discussed on Fox & Friends, it seems more likely to get the attention of the president. The more sensational, the better the chance it will attract attention.

Lots of movies about the media, from Network to Nightcrawler, have often commented on the tendency of the news — especially TV news — to favor the dramatic and spectacular over the mundane and complicated. One of the most unforgettable examples is Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder’s 1951 film starring Kirk Douglas as a disgraced reporter who’s trying to fight his way back into the journalistic spotlight by reporting, and eventually rigging, a big story.

Douglas is at his charismatic peak as Chuck Tatum, a former star reporter forced to head west and find employment at a small local paper after being fired from 11 different newspapers for a range of transgressions, from libel to drunkenness to adultery. He’s sure he’s too good for everyone he now works with at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, and all he wants is to work his way back up to the top.

Robert Arthur and Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole
Robert Arthur and Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole.

Then one day, Tatum catches wind of a promising scoop: a local man (Richard Benedict) has gotten trapped in a cave, where he was gathering Indian artifacts. Knowing how well the details of such a scenario will play in the papers (even in an era before 24/7 cable news), Tatum takes off with the paper’s photographer, Herbie Cooke (Robert Arthur), in tow. He convinces the town sheriff to get the contractor who’s tasked with rescuing the man to drill in from above: It’ll look cooler in the photos, and it will take longer, which will help Tatum’s story dominate the news cycle.

It’s no spoiler to say that things don’t end well. Ace in the Hole — which was originally released with the title The Big Carnival — is not just satirical but downright bitter about how fame can corrupt the public interest once unscrupulous attention seekers like Tatum get involved. Today, just over 66 years after its release, it feels prophetic.

When you’re enmeshed in the treadmill of the news cycle, it can be hard to make out the forest for all the trees whizzing past. But stepping back with Ace in the Hole is a good reminder that while the internet and the 24-hour news cycle and media-addicted leaders may feel like modern problems, the seeds of destructive attention grubbing have always lay there, planted way down deep in the human heart.

Watch the trailer for Ace in the Hole:

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