Just because “Tell the Truth” is embroidered on the wall of the Albuquerque Sun=Bulletin newspaper’s office doesn’t mean Charles Tatum has to follow it.
Part newspaperman and part shyster (the weightage is debatable), Charles has definite views on what journalism is and can be. Billy Wilder’s enduring classic Ace in the Hole is a blistering drama about the headline-hunting Charles, who stoops very low to conquer. The 1951 black-and-white film is available to rent on Prime Video. The Hindi film it inspired, Peepli [Live], is on Netflix.
Kirk Douglas is in raging form as Charles, who has washed up in Albuquerque against his will. After slogging in a newsroom he scorns over stories he despises, Charles gets the scoop of his lifetime when fuel station owner Leo gets trapped in a mine. It’s a potential tragedy – and a Pulitzer Prize-level opportunity to pursue a human interest story that is only partially factual.
The ensuing media circus is expertly orchestrated by Charles and aided by the town’s residents. Local business explodes with the arrival of disaster tourists. The sheriff makes a devil’s deal with Charles. Idealistic photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur) soon begins to resemble the opportunistic and amoral Charles. Meanwhile, Leo remains stuck in the mine.
The movie has barely aged, whether in its writing, filmmaking style, or themes. The dialogue has a razor-sharp edge that matches the rugged setting. Charles’s self-serving ways initially have a twinkle to them, until the film gets darker in its treatment.
Charles’s success at stretching out the situation is depicted through long shots of the mine, which gradually fill up to resemble a bustling carnival. “I can handle big news and little news,” Charles brags. What this memorable muckraker can’t handle is the truth.