THE BIG CARNIVAL
Paramount's ace screenwriting team of Billy Wilder, Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels came up with their bitterest, most trenchant screenplay to date with 1951's The Big Carnival--which, perhaps significantly, was one of the team's few flops. Kirk Douglas stars as a hotshot big-city reporter who has drunk himself out of every job he's ever held. Reduced to working for a backwater New Mexico daily, Douglas smells an opportunity to return to the Big Time when a miner (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a cave-in. Thanks to Douglas' promotional savvy, the miner's plight turns into a national news event, attracting thousands of onlookers, newsreel cameramen, radio commentators and sideshow hucksters. To prolong the ballyhoo, Douglas deliberately slows down the rescue of the unfortunate miner--who dies as a result. Thoroughly disgusted with himself, Douglas returns to his newsroom to deliver an impassionated speech of self-hatred, then drops dead at the feet of his startled editor. Test-marketed under the title Ace in the Hole, The Big Carnival turned out to be too bitter a pill for audiences to swallow. As a result, Billy Wilder would never write or direct so uncompromising a project again. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
Ed here: I watched this movie yesterday for something like the tenth time in my life. I came to it late, I was in my Thirties, and came to it with the belief that the hype surrounding it ("Hollywood's darkest movie") was only that, hype.
"Dark" is so overused these days (including by me) that it means a variety of things to a variety of people. So let's call this cynical. It posits the idea that average people like us play a major role in urging the press to titillate us with thrills that frequently involve the deaths of innocents. In this case, the innocent is a miner trapped in a cave-in. The Douglas character is the villain here--and given his limitated but powerful skills this is likely his masterpiece--and he is breathtaking in his evil. Only at the very end is he as sick of himself as we are--though I suspect that Wilder ended it this way because there
would be riots in the theaters if the reporter didn't die.
As it turned out, theater riots weren't Wilder's chief worry. Quite the opposite. Getting people into the theater was his concern. The picture bombed.
For me the fim is like watching a coiled rattlesnake, waiting for it to strike and inflict its poison. I don't know if it's major Wilder but it's certainly an important and brave look at mass media. Given reality shows and news of Paris Hilton etc, though, Wilder's snarling disdain for hyped media events seems almost quaint.