Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Bob Arthur, Porter Hall
Director: Billy Wilder
Audio: Dolby Mono
Video: Full Screen 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 111 Minutes
Release Date: July 17, 2007

“Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news.”

Film ****

By the time of the release of Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder had already established himself as one of the first big filmmakers of the time. Such films as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard, as well as many pictures later in his career would earn Wilder the status of filmmaking legend. Ace in the Hole, from 1951, is perhaps the most unique entry on Wilder’s resume.

It was a financial disappointment when released to theaters, but has gone on to be known as one of the director’s most important films. It was clear that the studio at the time wasn’t taking the film very seriously. For one thing, the film was being released under the title The Big Carnival.

The film was unquestionably Wilder’s darkest film yet, but the subject matter itself would help make it a film way ahead of its time. The idea of a film shedding light on some of the darker aspects of American culture in the early 50s was something very unheard of. In the case of Ace in the Hole, the elements explored are that of greed and the unrelenting driving force of a media circus.

And Kirk Douglas, having just garnered an Oscar nomination for his performance the 1949 film Champion, delivers one of his most outstanding performances as Charles “Chuck” Tatum, a fearless newspaper reporter in New Mexico. Chuck has hit streak of bad luck lately in terms of turning up hot stories. That all changes when he comes across something of a breakthrough story.

The story involves a Curio seeker named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who is trapped in a cave in the small town of Escudero. He happens to be trapped in a cave that is located under what the Indians call the “Mountain of the Seven Vultures”. Chuck at this point sees an opportunity to shape a story into a sort of circulation builder that will help him soar into the journalism big leagues.

And Chuck makes no hesitation of convincing the town sheriff that he will get huge publicity for a reelection campaign if he turns away all other reporters. He even promises the suffering wife of the trapped man, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), that huge profits will ensue by big crowd turnouts at the sight of the incident. It’s clear by this point that Wilder has created one of the most diabolical anti-heroes to ever be depicted in film.

What’s most fascinating about Ace in the Hole is that all of the characters surrounding the trapped man in the cave are not very likeable. This was something a bit new at the time. Billy Wilder was clearly taking a big risk by writing such a film, because at that time to have a film with so many anti heroes or unlikable personalities was considered somewhat dangerous by Hollywood standards.

The brilliance of Ace in the Hole is the boldness it possessed at the time of its release, and it remains a brutal and powerful film to this date. Without this film, there couldn’t have been a Dog Day Afternoon, Network, or Mad City. What Billy Wilder had crafted was a truly a one-of-a-kind watershed film, and when it comes to any film dealing with any kind of “media circus”, this is the film to refer to. After all, Ace in the Hole is the first one to examine it.

Video ***1/2

Criterion does yet another brilliant job in rendering a classic film. It’s probably one of the best Black & White presentations I’ve ever seen in the DVD format. Though there are some early cases of noticeable grain, the overall presentation is astonishing when you consider the age of the film. The overall image quality is clear, crisp and strikingly impressive.

Audio ***

The Mono track delivers exactly what one would expect from an early 50s dialogue driven piece, but Criterion makes the most of it, as dialogue delivery is extremely clear in delivery. In addition, music playback is very well handled. Extremely well handled all the way.

Features ****

Criterion once again illustrates their excellence in DVD crafting with this outstanding 2-Disc release.

Disc One includes an extraordinary commentary track by film scholar Neil Sinyard, and a Theatrical Trailer.

Disc Two features several intriguing documentaries, including “Portrait Of A 60% Perfect Man: Billy Wilder”, a 1980 documentary featuring in-depth interviews with Wilder by film critic Michael Ciment,
A 1984 interview with Kirk Douglas, Excerpts from a 1986 appearance by Wilder at the American Film Institute, Excerpts from an audio interview with co-screenwriter Walter Newman, a new video afterword by filmmaker Spike Lee (quite fascinating), a Stills gallery and new essays by film critic Molly Haskell and filmmaker Guy Maddin.


Ace in the Hole is Billy Wilder’s monumental film achievement that was way ahead of its time and is more powerful than ever by today’s standards. Wilder’s creation, along with a remarkable performance from Kirk Douglas combine to make this a true cinema classic, and thanks to the fine folks at Criterion has finally made it to DVD!

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