Ace in the Hole - The Kirk Douglas Film You Haven’t Seen

Ace in the Hole - The Kirk Douglas Film You Haven’t Seen
Kirk Douglas stars as a cynical journalist (Source: Paramount Pictures)


This week we lost one of the last great stars of the Hollywood Studio Area. Kirk Douglas wasn’t just a star, but he was a great artist, a maverick who bucked the “system” that he equated with servitude. He started his own production company and one of its most famous projects was the very successful “Spartacus” (1960) directed by the brilliant taskmaster Stanley Kubrick. Douglas previously worked with Kubrick in “Paths of Glory” (1957).

My favorite film that Kirk Douglas is in, is A Letter to Three Wives, (1949) written and directed by the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who won two Oscars for the film, best director and best screenplay. He repeated these wins the very next year for his more famous film All About Eve. These quadruple consecutive wins have never been duplicated. But I digress, this isn’t about Mankiewicz, it’s about Douglas. Douglas doesn’t have a lead role in Three Wives, he plays one of the husbands of the wives. He is great by the way as the intellectual, high school teacher who must deal with making less money than his ambitious wife played by Ann Sothern. A Letter to Three Wives is one of my favorite films and I watch it at least once a year, but it isn’t a Kirk Douglas Film.

I recently saw Douglas’ film debut, 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers with the great Barbara Stanwyck. About the same time, I saw Spartacus finally for the first time, but by far the film I most associate Douglas with is Ace in the Hole, which was formerly known as The Big Carnival – directed by the great Billy Wilder and released in 1951. For a long time the film wasn’t available on DVD, the rights mysteriously tied up in a legal battle. I was living in Los Angeles in the 1990’s and wanted to see the film and someone gave me a tip on a down low video house, deep in “the valley.” If you pay to rent a decoy movie (on VHS at the time) they slipped you a VHS for Ace in the Hole-like a back alley drug deal. But you didn’t technically pay to rent Ace in the Hole, so it wasn’t illegal.

This brilliant cynical film is the tale of an out of luck journalist played by Kirk who gets the biggest scoop of his life when he is the first journalist on the scene of a mining accident that traps a lone miner underground. During the lengthy attempt to dig him out and save him, the small town nearby explodes with activity as local businesses and townsfolk benefit financially with the flood of onlookers who want to be close to the doomed miner. The situation grows out of control and Kirk’s character struggles to maintain power of information leaked to the public and his conscience as he exploits the situation for his own gain. When the rescue of the submerged worker is purposely delayed to increase revenue and the influx of people to the town; it becomes a matter of ethics. The film is remarkably modern and was prescient in its views of media manipulation, much like Network (1976). It is also ranked as one of the best films about journalists as well.

It is a great message film that doesn’t preach its message too loudly…it just is. It is a perfect role for the athletic, tough, but intellectual Douglas, who was very adept at selecting projects that supported his belief in the power of the (or lack of power of the) individual to keep their integrity as ruthlessness and venality occur all around them.

It is now available, thankfully, on DVD. I highly recommend it.

Did you know that Douglas single-handedly stopped the black list by giving credit to the blacklisted writer of Spartacus, Dalton Trumbo.

Did you know that Kirk Douglas was born in Amsterdam, NY, check out the sign marking his birthplace?

Kirk Douglas birthplace, Amsterdam, NY
Kirk Douglas birthplace, Amsterdam, NY (Source: City of Amsterdam, NY)

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