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December 16, 2007 4:55 AM   Subscribe

Ace In The Hole. The best movie about a reporter ever?

Probably... at least it will show you how to light a cigarette with a typewriter.

I first watched it several years ago on Alex Cox's Moviedrome series (along with many other great films). It's now out on DVD but only Region 1.
posted by fearfulsymmetry (33 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Gee, I dunno... going by the trailer it looks kinda horrible. On the other hand, 50's-era trailers sometimes made good movies appear to be really trashy: if you've ever seen "Twelve Angry Men" and the original trailer for Twelve Angry Men you'll know what I mean. And I rather enjoyed the YouTube clip: classic fast-talking noir-ish dialogue.

This, from the trailer, wasn't terribly prescient: "Jan Sterling becomes a star of the first rank!" Well, that didn't quite happen, actually.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:29 AM on December 16, 2007


But when it comes to best movies about a reporter ever, I kinda doubt if it would beat this one.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:40 AM on December 16, 2007


Flapjax, technically you would have to say "about a journalist", since Dith Pran was a photographer.
posted by beagle at 6:10 AM on December 16, 2007


This has been on my "to see" list for a while, and I am glad to hear it is available. Also, now available on DVD for "individuals," Frederick Wiseman documentaries, which were previously priced only for institutions and only in 16mm. That happened this month.
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 6:56 AM on December 16, 2007


Man oh man, nobody could overact while shirtless like Kirk Douglas.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:34 AM on December 16, 2007


Some etymological stuff. According to Wikipedia article on "media circus" the oldest in print dates from the 1970s. Ace in the Hole (1951) was originally titled The Big Carnival, with "carnival" being another name for circus. This would push back the origin date at least 20 years, although it's unclear if there is any connection.
posted by stbalbach at 7:36 AM on December 16, 2007


Okay, now I have to see this. But how could it beat His Girl Friday, Broadcast News, AND The Paper? Okay, maybe Broadcast News isn't among the top films about journalists, but it's got a special place in my heart anyway.

Oh, and more recently, there was Good Night, and Good Luck.

Anyway, how can anything beat His Girl Friday?

PS. Isn't it amazing how much Michael Douglas looks like his father?
posted by brina at 7:39 AM on December 16, 2007


Well, Sam Waterston's character was a journalist in the Killing Fields. And one of the things Dith Pran's character kept saying over & over was "I'm a journalist too." He was a photo journalist, not just a photographer. Same job commitment to tell a story as any journalist writer, but a different medium.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:43 AM on December 16, 2007


Flapjax, that trailer is completely misleading. My guess is that the studio didn't dare convey the real plot because it's so utterly bleak. Kirk Douglas plays a dissolute hack reporter who finds himself at the scene of a cave-in that traps a local miner.

From that E&P link:
"Tatum [the Kirk Douglas character] convinces the chief engineer to abandon a plan that might get the trapped man out in a day in favor of a drilling scheme that would take at least a week. Then he convinces the sheriff to not interfere, pointing out how much the publicity might help his re-election campaign. When the national press arrives, Tatum gets himself deputized so that only he gets access to the man in the cave — whom he lies to over and over. " By the end a full-blown carnival has set itself up on the site, with Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds and a theme song: "We're coming, we're coming, Leo...." that still gets stuck in my head now and then.

Douglas is fantastic, the movie fantastically cynical and dispiriting. You'll never look at one of those "baby down a well" stories the same way after this movie.
posted by stargell at 8:00 AM on December 16, 2007


I'm with brina - maybe it's the "The best movie about a reporter ever" in world without His Girl Friday (or All the President's Men?). I didn't realize this was a Billy Wilder picture - it didn't hold together for me (although it's been a long time since I've seen it). But it does have the great line by the trapped miner's wife: "I don't pray. Kneeling bags my nylons."
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 8:08 AM on December 16, 2007


Kingfisher, thank you so much for the Wiseman info. I've been waiting to see Titicut Follies for freakin' YEARS! I know what I'm getting for Xmas...
posted by rough at 8:15 AM on December 16, 2007


Ace in the Hole (1951) was originally titled The Big Carnival

No. After the negative critical reaction from the press the studio retitled it without Wilder's permission, thinking The Big Carnival might bring in more folks. Here's an interview where Wilder discusses the negative reaction to the film, which was based on the 1925 story of trapped caver Floyd Collins, (previously discussed):

Now, I looked up the Floyd Collins story. They composed a song, they were selling hot dogs, there was a circus up there, literally a circus, people came. I was attacked by every paper because of that movie. They loathed it. It was cynical, they said. Cynical, my ass. I tell you, you read about a plane crash somewhere nearby and you want to check out the scene, you can't get to it because ten thousand people are already there: they're picking up little scraps, ghoulish souvenir hunters. After I read those horrifying reviews about Ace In The Hole, I remember I was going down Wilshire Boulevard and there was an automobile accident. Somebody was run over. I stopped my car. I wanted to help that guy who was run over. Then another guy jumps out of his car and photographs the thing. "You'd better call an ambulance," I said.

"Call a doctor, my ass. I've got to get to the L.A. Times. I've got a picture. I've got to move. I just took a picture here. I've got to deliver it." But you say that in a movie, and the critics think you're exaggerating.


It really is a savage little noir movie, with some brilliantly cynical scenes about the press and the public's salivating appetite for tragedy. Well worth seeing, especially if you liked Sunset Boulevard. Douglas is great in it, too, from early in his movie career when he was helping to redefine male leads and show that "antihero" roles could work (see also 1949's Champion, where he plays a boxer who goes horribly wrong). Its main weakness is the suddenness of Douglas' reporter's transformation from a wisecracking jerk into a total sleazebag; the decision to keep the trapped man underground happens a little too suddenly for my taste.

In case you didn't know, the Criterion Collection site posts the essays included in the liner notes for all their releases. The Editor and Publisher piece is kinda lame; if you want something meatier, try here and here.
posted by mediareport at 8:16 AM on December 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's definitely one of the top three or four or five or maybe six movies about reporters ever. Another great, unheralded newspaper movie is Phil Karlson's brilliant Scandal Sheet (1952). The editor of a sensationalist rag commits a murder, and he has to encourage his star reporter to get the big story while trying to cover up his own involvement. See it if you ever get a chance.
posted by goatdog at 8:23 AM on December 16, 2007


I rather enjoyed the YouTube clip: classic fast-talking noir-ish dialogue.

Heh. Just watched that scene again; it's perfect. Even the "belt and suspenders"-wearing editor gets great lines.
posted by mediareport at 8:39 AM on December 16, 2007


#1 it's an excellent movie, nevermind the trailer for God's sake.

#2 Netflix has it, but make sure you don't get the documentary about finding Saddam instead.

#3 It was NOT originally titled The Big Carnival, that was the title the studio slapped on it when it bombed on initial release.
posted by anser at 9:12 AM on December 16, 2007


It seems clear to me that this "best movie about a reporter" thing in the FPP has some seriously cynical baggage.

It may well be a fantastic example of the sub-genre of films about (often dissolute hack) reporters and their moral choices. Call Northside 777, A Flash of Green, and Miracle Town, and The Quiet American are all examples that spring to mind. The unifying principle is a fairly bleak view of the ethics of the profession; where they reporters do the Right Thing, it's often in spite of themselves or to their detriment.

But there's another sub-genre about reporters that's also about reporters and their moral choices, but it's fundamentally less cynical -- they start out in the light and stay there. Good Night and Good Luck, All the President's Men, arguably The Killing Fields. Most of the "madcap" reporter-flicks (like The Paper, all the myriad Front Page variants) I would argue generally fit in the latter category.

Since these two sub-genres really occupy a different universe with regard to their view of humanity, it's difficult to say one is more or less honest than the other, or that one great film in one sub-genre is a "better" "film about a reporter" than a great film in the other sub-genre.
posted by lodurr at 9:17 AM on December 16, 2007


"You'll never look at one of those 'baby down a well' stories the same way after this movie."

Why? Because someone made a fictional account such as you describe? Are you really saying that reporters collude with local officials and rescue workers to prolong rescue efforts? Well here, just so you can yell "naive" in my face: I don't think they do. It's a plot device, that's all.

This reminds me of a letter to the editor I once read, in which the author wrote: "The recent movie Chicken Run proves that chickens have thoughts and feelings just like we do."
posted by argybarg at 9:28 AM on December 16, 2007


As a kind of sub-genre, media satires are a personal favorite. For great movies about journalists/journalism, I'd also add To Die For and Network.

I finally saw Ace in the Hole about a year ago and was floored. As his follow-up to Sunset Boulevard, it's one of Billy Wilder's best films. I can understand how it may have looked too cynical in the 50's. But it holds up brilliantly today.

There are no good guys in this movie (even the man who is trapped in the rocks was out to scavenge for Anasazi artifacts). And the humor in the movie is driven by the reporter's manipulations, the cheap sentimentality of the onlookers and the shockingly cold-blooded disregard the characters have for each other. And yet it still works as a kind of morality play. (Very few filmmakers could pull off such a tightrope walk. But I'd be interested to see what David Lynch or the Coen Brothers would do with this kind of material.)
posted by McLir at 9:34 AM on December 16, 2007


Pretty much anything shown on Moviedrome under Cox was solid gold. I have him to thank for introducing me to a lot of edgy and cultish stuff.

As proof that absolutely bloody everything is on YouTube these days they even have a bunch of his moviedrome intorductions, complete with old style BBC 2 logos.
posted by Artw at 9:59 AM on December 16, 2007


"We're Sending Our Love down the Well"
posted by kirkaracha at 10:14 AM on December 16, 2007


Oh, Network, such a great script. I keep this little MP3 link around. It's the moment when Arthur Jensen gets all Howard Beale on Howard Beale.
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 10:38 AM on December 16, 2007


The story in the film is loosely based on actual events in 1925, when a caver named Floyd Collins was trapped while exploring the Sand Cave. That event was the first "worldwide media sensation" and is a really interesting story on its own. The musical version of the story is actually quite fantastic as well.
posted by wowbobwow at 10:38 AM on December 16, 2007


Scandal Sheet looks great, goatdog, thanks - and it's based on a novel by Sam Fuller, whose name anywhere attached to a film is usually a good sign. It's not on DVD but Turner Classic Movies apparently plays it. If three more people go right now to TCM and ask for it, maybe they'll reschedule it soon. :) Make sure to ask for the 1952 one, looks like there've been at least 4 movies with that title.

Noir of the Week is a great site, btw. I see it also recommends The Big Clock as another good "newspaper noir." Allmovie agrees:

Clock is immensely rewarding for all viewers, but especially for those with an inclination for moody black-and-white cinematography, twisting convoluted plots, and snappy dialogue with a certain edge. Jonathan Latimer's screenplay is clever and lean, providing just enough detail to flesh out its characters without getting in the way of the intricate plot. John Farrow's direction is top notch; he does a masterful job of creating tension and suspense, showing the audience just enough to keep them hooked without giving away too much. He skillfully melds the relatively lighthearted mood of the first portion of the film with the dangerous, desperate mood of the second part.

That one's on Netflix. Life is good.
posted by mediareport at 10:39 AM on December 16, 2007


Ace in the Hole was on TCM last month, actually. It's got a nice little savage undertone, and it drills right into human nature. I liked it quite much, but I don't think it's the best movie about a journalist ever. There was something slightly out of balance about the movie that cut the realism a little. I can't put my finger exactly on what, but while it was a real zinger on journalism, as a movie it lacked something.
posted by julen at 10:55 AM on December 16, 2007


As long as we're arguing about movies about reporters, let's not forget "The Hudsucker Proxy".
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 11:05 AM on December 16, 2007


I think it's great. Perhaps the best Kirk Douglas performance I can think of, and some nice icy dialog. The new DVD has an interesting interview with Spike Lee, who apparently loves the movie to death, and even stole a shot from it in Malcom X.
posted by Bookhouse at 11:28 AM on December 16, 2007


Might as well mention Meet John Doe, in which a reporter practically directs a man's suicide for a big byline.

And -30-, which is more or less The Big Carnival played straight, notable for William Conrad's speech, in which he elevates the common newspaper into the realm of the divine.
posted by SPrintF at 12:21 PM on December 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


One of my favorite novels about a reporter, or at least an advice columnist who works with reporters, is Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts. It's been filmed, twice, but I haven't seen either one. Has anyone?
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 1:16 PM on December 16, 2007


Ack! I can't believe I forgot to mention Sam Fuller's Park Row, which is surely in the top 10 or 15 or 20 movies about newspapers ever. Seriously, though, it's really great, with that Sam Fuller over-the-top crazy, rough blend of sincerity and cynicism. It's about newspaper wars in New York in the 1880s. Of course it's not on DVD. I can't believe there are Sam Fuller movies that aren't on DVD.
posted by goatdog at 3:06 PM on December 16, 2007


Ace in the Hole is great, but greatly, viciously cynical. I'm not surprised it bombed. It makes the audience uncomfortably complicit in reprehensible events. The falsely protracted, tragic event at the center of the story develops its own crowd of ghoulish eyeballers, who set up tents and RVs, and, eventually, a literal carnival. They are all ordinary Americans, and they are all, one supposes, genuinely moved and interested in the tale they have come to see unfold. But they are also the masses, greedy for tragedy, that Kirk Douglas is selling his story to. This is not a crime picture about a lone psychopath committing lonely crimes against the American public. This is a picture in which the American public is, to a large extent, responsible for the crime.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:20 PM on December 16, 2007


Are you really saying that reporters collude with local officials and rescue workers to prolong rescue efforts? Well here, just so you can yell "naive" in my face: I don't think they do. It's a plot device, that's all.

Of course it is. But it's hard not to bring to mind the image of the Ferris Wheel and the merry-go-round in Ace in the Hole when the satellite uplink trucks start forming their compound at the latest mine cave-in, when tens of thousands line the L.A. freeways to cheer on a Ford Bronco with murder suspect inside, when the freaks turn out day after day for a troubled pop star's child molestation trial, when two helicopters crash in the skies of Phoenix while tracking a mundane police chase, when magazines milk a princess's death for 10 years of cover stories? Do I think the mass media exploits disaster, treats tragedy as entertainment, to be consumed rabidly by an unsettling portion of the population? Yes.
posted by stargell at 6:08 PM on December 16, 2007


Well, Sam Waterston's character was a journalist in the Killing Fields. And one of the things Dith Pran's character kept saying over & over was "I'm a journalist too." He was a photo journalist, not just a photographer. Same job commitment to tell a story as any journalist writer, but a different medium.

"Reporter" and "journalist" are not synonyms. All reporters are journalists, but not all journalists are reporters (editors are journalists but not reporters, so are photojournalists).
posted by Airhen at 7:39 PM on December 16, 2007


Forget the trailer, the light a cigarette with a typewriter scene above is enough to put this on my "must see" list.

"Bald tires can be dangerous."
posted by spock at 10:32 AM on December 17, 2007


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