Billy Wilder's work is characterized by the acidity and virulence with which it represents various facets of the American way of life, but none of his films is so blackly ferocious as Ace in the Hole, a bitter, corrosive portrait of gutter journalism, public voyeurism and blatant official corruption. Like Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955) the film can be read as a harsh critique of the whole 'hard-boiled' Hollywood tradition. It can also be seen as going still further and, long before the under-rated Fedora (1978), attacking a whole tradition of cinema, a typically American tradition - the cinema of spectacle.
Wilder's films are packed with hard-boiled Americans, such as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944), Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend (1945) and Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard (1950), but for sheer unmitigated avarice and naked ambition Chuck Tatum has no equal, except perhaps Walter Matthau's Willie Gingrich in The Fortune Cookie (1966). However, Wilder is even more uncomprimising in his depiction of the grasping and hypocritical society surrounding Tatum, of which the reporter is but an extreme personification. The huge crowds which gather at the scene of the accident, the carnival atmosphere surrounding the whole event, all this recalls the vision of the monstrous mob in the Nathanael West's novel The Day of the Locust. Tatum, atop the mountain marshalling the multitudes, resembles nothing less than the director of some cinematic epic, the ultimate metteur-en-scene.
Ace in the Hole demonstrates how the forces of show business and commercialism cater to the public's basest instincts by exploiting disaster. Just as in Sunset Boulevard, in which the Hollywood audience is characterized as a mob of 'heartless so-and-so's' feeding off an ageing film star's personal tragedies, so here the holidaying crowds' relationship with Leo's situtation is represented as essentially vampiric. It is their appetite for sensation which makes possible the whole 'rescue' charade that prolongs Leo's agony. The Mountain of the Seven Vultures under which Leo is trapped becomes the Mountain of the Seven Thousand Vultures as crowds of people come to 'gorge' off a private tragedy and stare at a 'real-life drama' as if it were a mere series of images on a cinema or TV screen. The way in which Wilder organizes this 'audience' and its physical relationship to the spectacle actually turns the site into the equivalent of a drive-in cinema, as Adrian Turner and Neil Sinyard point out in their book Journey Down Sunset Boulevard:
'The cars line up in orderly rows, just as people sit in theatres, their attention focused on the mountain. The spatial relationship between the viewer and the screen is precisely echoed, and to the thousands of spectators the drama on the mountain must resemble a movie. They have to purchase a ticket (at an ever-increasing price...) to get a decent view, and Lorraine's trading post becomes the traditional popcorn kiosk, providing refreshments during the the "intervals" when nothing is happening.'
When Leo dies, the crowds evaporate: within minutes the place is deserted, liked an empty cinema strewn with litter. Once the spectacle is over, no-one wants to listen to Tatum or hear his uncomfortable words.
Hardly surprisingly for a film which attacks so many cherished American totems, not to mention the audience itself, Ace in the Hole was a financial disaster; indeed, it seemed to manifest such an utter and complete disregard for the usual commercial, box-office values as to be actively courting the dubious distinction of becoming a film maudit.
Paramount appeared not to know what to do with a film which aroused so much hostility. They decided to change the title to The Big Carnival, thereby ironically publicizing the very phenomenon which the attacked so vehemently. In the wake of official attempts to stop the film being shown in countries that harboured American interests, it was banned in Singapore on the grounds that it protrayed a facet of American life that 'might be misunderstood'. In Hollywood it was said that the film, Wilder's first after his break with his long-time collaborator Charles Brackett, proved, as the critic Axel Madsen put it, that 'Wilder had no heart and less taste'. Madsen continued:
'He was a compassionless cynic whose excess of contempt for humanity had only been controlled by the elegant and wise old Brackett.'