Kirk Douglas plays his cards wrong in ‘Ace in the Hole’

Kirk Douglas died recently at the insane age of 103. He’s played Spartacus, Vincent Van Gogh and Ulysses (Odysseus), but the role I love him most for is Chuck Tatum in the 1951 film “Ace in the Hole.”

If you hate journalists or operate a fake Facebook account specifically for trolling newspapers, you’re going to love this film. This movie is the epitome of fake news.

Fun fact: The Simpsons parodied this film in the episode “Radio Bart.”

“Ace in the Hole” follows a sleazy newspaper man who’s been kicked out of nearly a dozen different metropolitan publications. In Chicago, he was fooling around with the publisher’s wife. In Detroit he was “drinking out of season.” God, I love that line. What the heck does that mean?

He’s also just a jerk. After his car breaks down in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he walks into the local newspaper office to find work. There, he sees a Native man cutting clips out of that day’s paper and greets him with a deep “How.” The Native man replies with “Good afternoon, sir,” and Tatum gives a look as if to say, “They talk like me, go figure.”

This guy is hitting pretty much all the deadly sins, and we’re only in the first few minutes of the film. But worst of all, he’s a liar and a faker, known for libel (the No. 1 no-no for journalists) and he even says it to the editor while asking for a job.

“I can handle big news and little news, and if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog,” he says.

To be real, though, journalist do say things like this. If it’s a slow news day, the go-to joke is “go light something on fire.” But that’s a joke, not a job pitch.

Tatum somehow gets the job.

A few months go by, and he’s tasked with covering, like, a snake festival or something — soft news that doesn’t really matter. On the way to the festival, Tatum and his young coworker pull off to a roadside diner next to a sacred Native cave. They discover that a man has been trapped in the cave all morning. A digging crew says they can get the guy out in a couple of hours, but Tatum isn’t having that. Oh no, he smells the story of a life time. He’s got his ace in the hole, quite literally and figuratively. He’s going to bite the dog.

Tatum manages to convince the local sheriff and the digging crew to take a much longer, exhaustive route to the trapped man, delaying the rescue by about a week and bringing in tourists who want to see how the story plays out. Pretty soon thousands of people show up to basically witness a man suffocate. They pull up in their cars and set up tents. One group even brings in a Ferris wheel. Tatum also gets the sheriff to block any outside reporters, so that he’s the only one writing the story. And just to add to his jerkiness, he hooks up with the dying man’s wife.

BUT, and this is very important, Tatum lights his matches by sliding the carriage on a typewriter. That ultimate act of cool nearly saves our main character from absolute despicableness. Nearly.

So as we look back at the impressive film career of Kirk Douglas, do yourself a favor and go watch “Ace in the Hole,” especially if you’re a news junkie. It’s the perfect film that teaches what not to do in the world of journalism.


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