Big Carnival, The / Ace in the Hole (1951)

“I don’t make things happen — all I do is write about ’em!”

A fame-hungry journalist (Kirk Douglas) seizes an opportunity to cover a story about a man (Richard Benedict) trapped in a New Mexico mine. While Benedict’s parents (John Berkes and Frances Dominguez) pray and worry, his cynical wife (Jan Sterling) earns money from gawking visitors who’ve come to see the media spectacle created by Douglas, and a corrupt local sheriff (Ray Teal) hoping for re-election conceals Douglas’s nefarious plans to keep Benedict buried longer than necessary.


Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “cynical Billy Wilder film” — which “attacks the American public” for “always [being] willing to exploit tragedy for personal gain” — is “extremely well made, brilliantly acted by Douglas, and, sadly, truthful”. He notes that “many people detest this depressing picture” — and while I can’t say I fall in that camp (it’s far too well made to detest), it sure is a helluva consistent downer. DVD Savant refers to it as a “blanket condemnation of humanity”, adding that “Wilder’s dark viewpoint is not only unrelenting, it’s unrelentingly unrelenting”. Based on a true story of a cave explorer named Floyd Collins, the screenplay — by Wilder, Walter Newman, and Lesser Samuels — builds this real-life tragedy up to satirically outlandish proportions; literally nobody is spared, not even Douglas’s seemingly clean-cut apprentice-photographer (Robert Arthur). I enjoy Jan Sterling’s sullen performance as the buried man’s no-good wife (that scene with the scarf!), and Charles Lang’s cinematography is outstanding — but this is one classic I’ll happily leave behind now that I’ve been reminded of its technical brilliance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Jan Sterling as Lorraine Minosa
  • Charles Lang’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a harsh but powerful classic. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Alternate Oscars.


(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


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