Monday, October 6, 2008


Anybody who thinks journalists are a paragon of objectivity is probably deluding himself. Anybody who thinks today's state of affairs is any worse than it was in the past is, however, also deluding himself. Journalists have been bending the rules for decades if not longer, as we have already discussed regarding 1933's Picture-Snatcher. One of the best movies about dishonest resporters is airing on TCM at 10:00 AM ET on October 7: Billy Wilder's Ace In the Hole.

Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a drunken reporter whose lack of ethics has gotten him fired from or made persona non grata at, all the important papers in major US cities. Tatum is passing through the Albuquerque of the early 1950s, a time when New Mexico was even more sparsely populated compared to the rest of the US than it is today. The editor of the newspaper there gives him a chance, and Tatum takes it to go quickly back to his old ways.

While driving around the more out-of-the-way parts of New Mexico, Tatum comes across a man who's trapped inside an abandoned mine that caved in. When Tatum investigates and finds out that the man seems to be OK for the time being, he decides to engineer things such that the rescue will take much longer than it should, in order that he may draw out the rescue and have it be a major news story for longer. Anybody who remembers Jessica McClure will recognize that such a story presents more than enough opportunity for a media circus. In the case of Ace In the Hole, a literal carnival forms at the mine entrance, complete with bright lights and amusement-park rides.

Tatum, meanwhile, grows even more scheming, deciding to try to bribe the trapped man's wife (the impossibly gorgeous Jan Sterling; one wonders how on earth she got stuck in the middle of New Mexico) and getting the local sheriff to sign off on his plans because there's an upcoming election. Of course, everything eventually goes wrong: we find out that the wife really doesn't love her husband, and was planning to divorce him, and the poor trapped man eventually dies. But who cares about him? To the media, he was just a story. At the time the movie was released, it was a commercial failure, so much so that they tried re-releasing it under a more friendly title, The Big Carnival. That didn't help.

Normally, I don't care to hear that a movie is "relevant" half a century on. However, things haven't changed in the media, and that's true regardless of one's political views: reporters seem to have no qualms about trying cases in the media, or about exploting children, for example. (Every time you hear a reporter say that "ten people died in a fire; three of them were children", ask yourself why they don't mention that seven of the dead were adults.) Ace In the Hole is a pretty damn good indictment of all this, yet remains a highly entertaining movie in its own right.

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