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Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole

Film Forum’s impresario Bruce Goldstein asked me to kick off his stunningly comprehensive series on “The Newspaper Picture,”  which runs through May 6.

The first film in the series, Ace in the Hole, is probably the most poisonous of the lot. It’s Billy Wilder’s first project as writer, producer, and director. (WNYC's Sara Fishko offers her take on Wilder's film, here.)

It features a tough-talking, hard-drinking abomination called Chuck Tatum, a journalist down on his luck, who stumbles upon a man in a hole. Tatum remembers the tale of Floyd Collins, another man trapped underground in the 20s, and how the reporter on the story won a Pulitzer. He wants one. No matter how high the price.

That’s the Ace in the Hole, a story that Wilder means be a seamy saga of journalism at its worst.  But of course, journalism is more complicated than that. It wouldn’t exist without its audience.

NPR’s Mike Pesca observed many years ago when he was on the staff of On the Media, that human beings are enthralled by the story of "people in holes." Not just Floyd Collins in the 20s, but the collapse of the Nova Scotia Moose River Mine in the 30s, which was covered live by the CBC.  It was one of the first times that radio displayed its power to connect with listeners on a real life event occurring in real time.

In 1949, three-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell into a well near Los Angeles. As Pesca noted, local station KTLA's round the clock coverage proved TV could generate drama outside the scripted world of the studio. Almost 40 years later there was another little girl was trapped in a well -- Jessica McClure. And CNN journalists who covered that story later conceded that CNN’s extensive coverage put it on the map. CNN stayed with the story when the networks had to keep to their schedules. Jessica’s story paved the way for wall-to-wall coverage of OJ.

So Ace in the Hole really is a true picture of journalism in at least one respect: It’s a business that thrives by reflecting the public’s hopes and dreams and nightmares - not just Billy Wilder’s nightmare of greed and excess, but a more primal horror of being trapped without air or light or sound, a living death.

Any story that can penetrate that purgatory, any reporter who can send a dispatch from that no-man’s-land between life and death, any story that allows us to speculate in the safety of air and light and life while the man in the hole teeters on the brink, will always and forever win readers.

And maybe, a Pulitzer, too.