Ace in the Hole (1951)

What a sixty-year-old noir can tell us about the Murdoch hacking scandal

I’ve got Murdoch on the brain, but I couldn’t help thinking about the News of the World scandal while watching the sixty-year-old film noir Ace in the Hole, which is at base a story about the drive for The Story. Its protagonist is reminiscent of some hypercompetitive News Corporation hack pursuing stories at almost any cost, whether it be breaking the law, stretching the truth, or bribing the police—only he’s better-looking and wears higher pants.

If Ace in the Hole is known as one of the earliest and best film portrayals of the media circus, a phenomenon we’re all too familiar with these days—thanks in no small part to Rupert Murdoch himself, it has deeper lessons for journalists and their readers, too.

Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, a cosmopolitan reporter who’s blown through one too many big-city papers and finds himself broke in Albuquerque, reduced to begging the local rag for a job.

He gets it and plots his way back to the bigtime. But Tatum can’t find buzzworthy stories in New Mexico, so he dreams up ways to create them.

Sent on assignment through the desert to cover a rattlesnake hunt, he stops for gas and finds a real story: the storekeeper, Leo Minosa, is trapped in an Indian cave dwelling nearby. Tatum pushes his way into the cave, interviews Minosa, and turns a man-trapped-in-cave story into something bigger: White man searching for artifacts disturbs the Indian dead and is buried alive. In his bid to delay the rescue and build interest in the Leo Minosa story, Tatum conspires with the authorities, corrupts a young journalist and Leo’s wife, and eventually becomes the story.

Whatever Ace in the Hole is, it’s not subtle. Tatum is more caricature than believable journalist, but like any good caricature, his cartoonish features illustrate something about his nature, and ours, that might be lost in a more realistic portrayal.

He’s abusive, manipulative, cynical, corrupt, cold, and ambitious in exaggerated ways—but ones that tell us a little something about the nature of newsgathering itself.

In order to sew up the Minosa story, Tatum bribes the sheriff not with cash but with favorable coverage. Journalists don’t really like to put it that way, of course. We have euphemisms for that kind of trade: the beat-sweetener, the source-greaser, or, more pejoratively, access journalism.

But any reporter who’s ever worked a beat knows that there’s a fine line between being aggressive and being frozen out; between serving your readers and serving your sources. Director Billy Wilder here is showing us an exaggerated version of how the information trade sometimes works. Rarely are the trades involved so explicit, overt, and outright wrong, and some contemporary reviewers thought that detracted from the film. The New York Times, in a review of Ace back in 1951, wrote that “Mr. Wilder has let imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque.”

Indeed, the caricature is overdone at times. But beating us over the head works on a meta level: Wilder is sensationalizing sensationalism.

For instance, we often talk about stories turning into circuses or carnivals. In Ace, that happens, quite literally and in a way that, sixty years later, seems implausible. Would thousands of people really travel to the middle of nowhere to set up camp because a man fell into a cave?

Yes, they would. Ace is based in large part on the true story of Floyd Collins, a spelunker who got trapped in a Kentucky cave in 1925, setting off more than two weeks of intensive coverage that brought hordes of tourists to the cave, and “There were hustlers trying to make a fast buck; they were selling hot dogs… They composed a song,” Wilder said later.

These days, we camp out in our living rooms for sensational stories that come along, like the never-ending stream of Missing White Girls. And we still love our trapped-underground stories: the Chilean miners most recently and Baby Jessica back in the 1980s.

Journalists, American ones in particular, love high-minded talk about the fourth estate: truth and justice, watchdog of the powerful, voice for the powerless. But underlying all those highfalutin ideals is the id of journalism: the story for the story’s sake. The fascination we get when our worst fears happen to someone else. “If it bleeds, it leads.” We get more of that addictive adrenaline-rush when the airplane crash kills 180 people, not eighteen. Or when the stock market crashes 600 points, not sixty.

Here’s Tatum talking to a young whippersnapper fresh out of journalism school:

“Me, I didn’t go to any college, but I know what makes a good story. Because before I ever worked on a paper I sold them on a street corner. You know the first thing I found out? Bad news sells best. Because good news is no news.”

As journalists we’re both truth-tellers and storytellers, and there’s an inherent tension between those two roles. Sometimes the truth is just flat-out boring. There just might be a great story to be had out of some rattlesnake hunt somewhere at some point in time. But the one you’re assigned to cover on any given day isn’t likely to be it. Ace in the Hole is about when the story becomes more important than the truth.

Wise journalists will tell you that stories are better when you acknowledge the caveats that dent your thesis—the “to be sures.” But the temptation to shade facts or to assemble them in ways that fit together to create a better yarn is always there, and it’s market-driven.

Wilder’s media criticism doesn’t spare the audience, which is an essential part of the feedback loop that results in the sensationalized coverage that ends up making us all feel dirty. The carnival’s end shows a public suddenly aware and ashamed of its own complicity in the affair.

Audiences don’t like this about ourselves, that we’re drawn to Casey Anthony or O.J. or to the brain-numbing celebri-reporting on people like Lindsay Lohan. And let’s not forget Milly Dowler.

That’s another lesson of Ace: When the story becomes more important than the people we’re reporting on, we become less neutral observer than active participant.

Last week: Almost Famous

Next up: Newsies and The Paper

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , , ,