ACE IN THE HOLE / THE BIG CARNIVAL (Dir. Billy Wilder, 1951, US) – Rotten to the Core

Wilder’s satire is as caustic as they come. Human depravity was extenuated with a memorable accent in Wilder’s 1944 classic noir Double Indemnity by the scheming Phyllis Dietrichson. ‘We’re both rotten’ she tells the doomed Walter Neff, only his response is more telling ‘Only you’re a little more rotten’. The corruption of an ideal is aptly demonstrated by such a metaphor – rotten souls, rotten people and rotten dreams are some of the charges levied at the grotesque journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas). It’s not surprising Wilder’s 1951 treatise on the American news media was a critical and commercial failure considering the prescient tone struck by the insidious fabrication and duplicitous manufacturing of news. Tatum like Neff is a victim of hubris but unlike Neff’s death march Tatum’s descent is a venomous trajectory of egotistical excess which offends and polarises all those around him. Wilder paints a picture of American society that is inherently unsympathetic. The parasitic hunger for sensationalising personal tragedy is sustained primarily through an ending in which imagery of rampant exploitation and prostitution is galvanised by Tatum’s dying words ‘You can have me for nothing’ he says pathetically before he drops down dead in a heap. It is a savage denouement and one that cuts deep: