Filmsite Movie Review
Ace in the Hole (1951)
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Ace in the Hole (1951) is director/co-writer Billy Wilder's uncompromising, dark and harsh noirish commentary about human nature, and the unscrupulous and self-serving actions of compromised tabloid-media journalists. Co-written with screenwriters Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, the caustic film presented a scathing attack on the sensationalizing and ruthless tabloid mass media, serving as the 50's version of the 70's Network (1976) and the 80's Broadcast News (1987). Two other films in the same era that also soundly criticized the corrupted news business and its tendency toward embellishment and sensationalism included Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd (1957).

Maverick Austrian-born Wilder, the writer and director of a number of daring, caustic, provocative films with controversial themes, ultimately received 21 Academy Award nominations and won 6 Oscars during his long career. His wit and unflinching eye for hypocrisy produced a number of film classics, including a tale of adultery and murder in Double Indemnity (1944), the scourge of alcoholism in The Lost Weekend (1945), the cynical film about Hollywood in Sunset Boulevard (1950), the critique of commercial exploitation within American journalism and the media in Ace in the Hole (1951), the gender-bending comedy of the hit Some Like It Hot (1959), and the shallowness of corporate ladder-climbing in The Apartment (1960). The film inspired Robert Penn Warren's novelization "The Cave" published in 1959, and set in fictional Johntown, Tennessee.

The pungent plot of Ace in the Hole - about excessive "below-the-belt" journalism - was personified in its main character - the stranded, stagnating, and down-and-out East Coast news-reporter Charles 'Chuck' Tatum (Kirk Douglas) at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin in New Mexico. He was looking for a way to make money and boost his sour and drunken reputation after many failures. The quick-thinking, smooth-tongued newsman took advantage of a minor news-story about a spelunker named Leo Minosa who became trapped in a cave-in while searching for ancient Indian artifacts. The amoral and depraved reporter milked it into a juicy, big-scoop event by promoting the situation with national media publicity that brought a feeding frenzy of curious tourists to descend upon the site and gawk at the tragedy, while capitalizing on the public's interest and delaying the rescue efforts.

The unethical Tatum succeeded in manipulating the news media, the construction engineers, the local crooked sheriff who sought reelection in the county, and the victim's opportunistic, jaded and mercenary wife. The site of the accident soon became engulfed with profiteers and a spectacle resembling a circus amusement park, as the cursed victim died of pneumonia in the darkness of the cave. After the hypocritical rescue efforts were uncovered, Tatum received his come-uppance when he expressed some guilt and remorse over his unscrupulous actions - and dropped dead back where he started.

The film-noirish story was enhanced by the expressionistic black and white cinematography of Charles Lang, who capitalized on the blindingly bright and overexposed landscapes of the desert Southwest. On-site filming about 15-20 miles west of Gallup, NM necessitated the creation of a gigantic set that was 235 feet high, 1,200 feet wide, and 1,600 feet deep - an area including the ancient cliffside, the enormous carnival site with concession stands, rides, and booths, a huge parking lot (with hundreds of rented cars), and over a thousand extras for the crowd scenes. In contrast to the exteriors were the interior dark recesses of the labyrinthine cave-shaft sequences (shot in a studio) that were particularly allegorical - signifying the impenetrable blackness of the twisted mind of the self-destructive protagonist, as he schemed and descended further and further into his own entrapped existential state - literally a hole from which he couldn't escape.

After its first release, Paramount Studios was so concerned about the misanthropic film's unrelenting cynicism, anti-Americanism, and poor box-office that they unsuccessfully changed its name and rebranded it as "The Big Carnival." The film's clever title "Ace in the Hole" had two distinct meanings:

  • in the card game of stud poker, it referred to the ace playing card that was a player's face-down card (aka the 'hole card') - it was a player's guarantee that they would successfully win the game
  • in the film, the tabloid news-reporter had an "ace" news story - a sensational media event regarding a man (his 'ace' card) stuck in a literal 'hole' (or cave)

The film's taglines emphasized the amoral sensationalizing and manipulation of the media by the news-reporter:

  • A NEW KIND OF 'HERO' Rough, tough Chuck Tatum, who battered his way to the top ... trampling everything in his path - men, women and morals!
  • It's TENSE... it's TOUGH... it's TERRIFIC...It's a BOX-OFFICE ACE!!!!!

There were two real-life events that served as historical precedents for the film's central plot - the exploitative stage-management of an "ace in the hole" media-frenzied story at the site of a tragedy.

[Note: In fact, the 1925 cave-in (described below) was specifically referenced in the film by the main protagonist Tatum: "You never heard of Floyd Collins? 1925. Kentucky. The guy pinned way down in that cave. One of the biggest stories that ever broke. Front page in every paper in the country for weeks.....Then maybe you heard that a reporter on a Louisville paper crawled in for the story and came out with a Pulitzer Prize."]

  • 1925: a cave-in trapped 37 year-old American cave explorer and private cave owner (Wiliam) Floyd Collins in a section of caves within Mammoth Cave National Park known as Crystal Cave (or Sand Cave), located in Barren County, Kentucky. The incident occurred during a time known as the "Kentucky Cave Wars" when fierce competition was occurring between local cave owners for tourist dollars. Collins was searching for another entrance to the renowned Mammoth Cave when he became trapped about 60 feet underground on January 30, 1925 by falling rock, while he was only about 150 feet from the cave's entrance. The intensive rescue effort became a massive media sensation, via newspaper reports and broadcast radio transmissions. Newspaper reporter William Burke "Skeets" Miller of the Louisville Courier-Journal provided on-site coverage of the rescue effort, and his interviews with Collins led to a Pulitzer Prize. It was one of the biggest news stories of the 1920s. Collins was pronounced dead on February 16, 1925, although he had probably died a few days earlier, from dehydration and exposure. Outside the cave, 10,000 spectators created a circus-like atmosphere.
    [Note: Robert K. Murray and Robert W. Bruckner's Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins, published in 1982, recounted the entire story of the real-life Collins cave disaster.]

  • 1949: 3 year-old Kathy Fiscus fell into an abandoned well in San Marino, CA on April 8, 1949. She became trapped in a water pipe 14 inches wide and about 90 feet under the ground. The resulting rescue attempt gripped Southern California, and local TV stations KTLA and KTTV broadcast live coverage of the rescue efforts that lasted for several days. Of the 50-hour effort to rescue the child, 27 hours and 30 minutes were televised live by KTLA. (It was one of the first instances to illustrate the public's fascination with live TV coverage of a breaking news story.) Also, thousands of spectators showed up at the site to watch. Clamshell cranes and bulldozers went in action during efforts to rescue the young girl. The rescue attempt was beamed to the 20,000 television sets that existed at the time in Southern California. On April 10th, the deceased child's body was brought to the surface, and a doctor announced that she had died not long after she fell in.

The film was made for a budget of about $1.8 million, but it became Billy Wilder's first major financial box-office disaster since he began a long string of hits beginning in the early 1940s. It received only one Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, and was defeated by the year's Best Picture winner An American in Paris (1951) - and specifically, by Alan Jay Lerner's script for the musical.

Plot Synopsis

The black and white film's title credits, with white lettering, were shot with the camera pointed down at a dry plot of earthly soil or dirt. Dirt had a significant role to play in the film:

  • a cave-in of dirt entrapped a victim and created the premise for the film
  • "dirt" was slang for filthy, dirty or smutty circumstances and dealings; it also referred to mean, contemptible or vile individuals
  • "to do dirt" meant to "commit unethical behavior or corruption," in other words, to cheat, harm, or hurt someone - the protagonist's main occupation

In the Outer Office of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin Newspaper:

A tracking shot picked up a tow truck from Chico's Garage, a Repair and Towing Service in Albuquerque, NM that was towing an open convertible sedan-coupe (with white-walled tires) suspended from its front end by a hoist. Behind the wheel of the broken-down sedan was its chauffeured owner - calmly reading a local newspaper. In the memorable entrance scene, the down-on-his-luck car owner was wearing a hat and a double-breasted suit. He sat up and looked around - and yelled for the tow driver to stop in front of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin building. He exited from the car onto the sidewalk where some Native Americans (in traditional tribal dress) were standing and walking by. Inside the office, he rudely greeted one of the Indian news editors (Iron Eyes Cody) (wearing his long hair pulled back) with the condescending Indian expression: "How!" without any sense of respect for cultural differences.

He brashly walked through the busy newsroom office, and then to demand everyone's attention, he struck the return key on one of the typewriters so the return-carriage would noisily slide across and the bell would ding - to punctuate his assertive arrival. He conducted a verbal give-and-take with young junior reporter-photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), asking if he could speak to the boss - identified as editor-in-chief and publisher Mr. Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall). He then identified himself as: Charles (or 'Chuck') Tatum (Kirk Douglas) from New York. From his demeanor, Tatum was self-important, slightly belligerent, and contemptuous of New Mexico. He passed on a question he wanted answered by the boss: "How would he like to make himself a fast $200 dollars a week?" Before Herbie left his desk to deliver the message, the young boy had already sized up Tatum, calling him "cagey."

As he awaited an opportunity to speak to Boot, Tatum snatched a cigarette and match from Herbie's desk, and lit it on the moving carriage of the typewriter - exemplifying his self-igniting demeanor. He also asked the older secretary Miss Deverich (Edith Evanson) about a framed, hand-embroidered, needle-point sampler on the wall with the boss' motto: "TELL THE TRUTH."

[Note: The same motto was also hanging inside Boot's private office. Although the maxim was attributed to Boot, it also served as the reverse of Tatum's publishing principle - to 'embellish' or NOT 'tell the truth' since he was known for 'embroidering the truth.']

She told him: "Mr. Boot said it, but I did the needlework." He replied with a snarky comment: "I wish I could coin them like that. If I ever do, would you embroider it for me?"

A Disgraced Reporter's Job Application and Interview:

When given an audience with Boot, the arrogant, swaggering and critical Tatum started off with a flurry of insults. He offered his candid, low opinion of the daily newspaper that cost a nickel:

I was passing through Albuquerque. Had breakfast here. Read your paper. Thought you might be interested in my reaction....Well, sir, it made me throw up. I don't want you to think I expected The New York Times. But even for Albuquerque, this is pretty Albuquerque.

Then, with a passive-aggressive statement about Boot's ignorance ("apparently, you're not familiar with my name"), he bragged about his own experience in the newspaper business as a cocky reporter that had worked in many other big-city markets - he spread samples of his newspaper clippings, with his bylines, onto Boot's desk:

Apparently, you're not familiar with my name....That's because you don't get the Eastern papers out here. I thought maybe once in a while somebody would toss one out of the Super Chief and you might've seen my byline. Charles Tatum? Worked New York, Chicago, Detroit...

When asked why his asking salary (of $50/week, and then reduced to $45 and ultimately to $40) was so cheap (and a fraction of what he used to command), the self-obsessed and pushy Tatum bullied his way forward. He boasted immodestly that he was a multi-talented, top-notch reporter, who was capable of creating news by 'biting a dog' (a prophetic, allegorical description of the depths he would descend to in getting a news-story). However, he had been fired almost a dozen times from previous publications:

Tatum: Mr. Boot, I'm a $250-a-week newspaperman. I can be had for $50.
Boot: Why are you so good to me?
Tatum: I know newspapers backward, forward and sideways. I can write 'em, edit 'em, print 'em, wrap 'em and sell 'em.
Boot: Don't need anybody right now.
Tatum (without pausing): I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog. Make it $45.
Boot: What makes you so cheap?
Tatum: A fair question, considering I've been top man wherever I've worked. You'll be glad to know that I've been fired from 11 papers with a total circulation of seven million, for reasons with which I don't wanna bore you.
Boot: Go ahead. Bore me.

The irrepressible Tatum also had to admit - with appropriate self-deprecation - that he was an adept liar, but that he couldn't lie to the steadfast and truth-seeking Boot, whom he astutely observed was a very conservative and "cautious man." He confessed that he had been fired (and banished) from many previous news jobs for alleged libel, for cheating with the boss' wife, and for drunkenness:

Tatum: I'm a pretty good liar. (He glanced at Boot's "TELL THE TRUTH" motto) I've done a lot of lying in my time. I've lied to men who wear belts. I've lied to men who wear suspenders. But I'd never be so stupid as to lie to a man who wears both belt and suspenders.
Boot: How's that again?
Tatum: You strike me as a cautious man. A man who checks and double-checks. So I'll tell ya why I was fired. In New York, a story of mine brought on a libel suit. In Chicago, I started something with the publisher's wife. In Detroit, I was caught drinking out of season. In Cleveland...

Finding himself in desperate straits without employment in Albuquerque, the tarnished reporter's only chance to get back as a hot-shot to the bigger markets in the East was to resume his work in the same field, so that he could turn his luck around with one blockbuster story ("just one good beat, a Tatum special"). In the meantime, he had been relegated to becoming a 'prostitute' - to sell his services to the highest (or lowest) bidder until he found a way to return to a larger news organization:

Now, then I find myself in Albuquerque with no money. A burnt-out bearing, bad tires and a lousy reputation... I've only one chance to get back where I belong. To land a job on a small-town paper like yours and wait and hope and pray for something big to break, something I can latch on to, something the wire services will gobble up and yell for more. Just one good beat, a Tatum special, and they'll roll out the red carpet. Because when they need you, they forgive and forget. But until then, Mr. Boot, you'll get yourself the best newspaperman you ever had. At $40 per, when do I start?

Small-town, kindly teetotaler Boot had only one reservation about Tatum's background - his drinking (specifically not allowed on the job), and he asked: "And as for drinking, do you drink a lot?" Tatum affirmed: "Not a lot. Just frequently." Boot ultimately offered Tatum $60/week, the current rate for a job at the newspaper - where the pompous newman was hoping that after just one big break, he could be rehired by former employers. He was assigned a desk by the door (Boot: "You may be outta here by Saturday!"). Tatum quipped: "The sooner the better." As he walked directly toward the camera, the shot turned black - a transition.

A Year Later - Still in the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin's News Office:

The next shot began as Tatum moved away from the camera in the opposite direction. The passage of time was conveyed by Tatum's copy-cat mode of dress - he was wearing a dark black shirt, pleated khaki slacks, and a belt AND suspenders - imitating Mr. Boot's cautious clothing style (but still very calculating). He tore off an incoming teletype message and returned to his NEWS EDITOR desk (he was no longer positioned by the door).

The Indian Copy Boy (casually nicknamed "Geronimo" - reflecting Tatum's continuing bigoted attitude and insensitivity after a full year), brought Tatum his take-out lunch - and he derogatorily called it a "mess." His requested order of chopped chicken liver and garlic pickles had been replaced by chicken tacos. Tatum started to contemptuously and savagely rant about how much he missed big-city life. With his feet up on his desk and then as he strolled in the cramped news office with co-workers, he had become utterly frustrated by being imprisoned and stuck there after a year. Feeling like he was in limbo, he described how he missed New York after being mired in the god-forsaken, "sunbaked" rural state of New Mexico (with the motto: "LAND OF ENCHANTMENT"). He had still not found a "big story" to extricate himself from the 'land of entrapment.'

And he rattled off a "long-playing" series of things that Albuquerque sorely lacked - making reference to President FDR's "live in infamy" pronouncement regarding Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941:

  • ethnic food and delis, such as Lindy's
  • big-scale entertainment at Madison Square Garden
  • major-league baseball (NY Yankees and cultural icon Yogi Berra, the famed catcher from 1946–1963)
  • subways
  • incessant noise (the "beautiful roar from 8 million ants - fighting, cursing, loving")
  • Broadways shows (such as South Pacific, that played from 1949-1954)
  • classy dames in bars
  • skyscrapers (to commit suicide)
  • big hot news-stories

Tatum: When the history of this sunbaked Siberia is written, these shameful words will live in infamy: 'No chopped chicken liver.' No garlic pickles. No Lindy's. No Madison Square Garden. No Yogi Berra. (with an accusatory tone) What do you know about Yogi Berra, Miss Deverich?
Miss Deverich: I beg your pardon.
Tatum: (roaring) YOGI BERRA, Miss Deverich!
Miss Deverich: Yogi? Why, it's a sort of religion, isn't it?
Tatum: You bet it is - a belief in the New York Yankees. You know what's wrong with New Mexico, Mr. Wendell? Too much outdoors. Give me those eight spindly trees in front of Rockefeller Center any day. That's enough outdoors for me. No subways smelling sweet-sour. What do you use for noise around here? No beautiful roar from eight million ants - fighting, cursing, loving. No shows. No South Pacific. No chic little dames across a crowded bar. And worst of all, Herbie. No 80th floor to jump from when you feel like it.
Herbie: Is this one of your long-playing records, Chuck? Let's hear the other side.
Tatum: All right. I'll play it for ya. When I came here, I thought this was gonna be a 30-day stretch, maybe 60. Now it's a year. It looks like a life sentence. Where is it? Where's the loaf of bread with a file in it? Where's that big story to get me outta here? One year, and what's our hot news? A soapbox derby. A tornado - that double-crossed us and went to Texas. An old goof who said he was the real Jesse James - until they found out he was a chicken thief from Gallup by the name of, uh, Schimmelmacher. I'm stuck here, fans. Stuck for good. Unless of course, you Miss Deverich, instead of writing household hints about how to remove chili stains from blue jeans, get yourself involved in a trunk murder. How about it, Miss Deverich? I could do wonders with your dismembered body.
Miss Deverich: Oh, Mr. Tatum. Really. (He growled at her)
Tatum: Or you, Mr. Wendell. If you'd only toss that cigar out of the window - real far, all the way to Los Alamos - And boom!! (chuckling) Now there would be a story.

[Note: Tatum was referring to the secretive WWII nuclear weapons development project known as the Manhattan Project - located in national laboratories in Los Alamos, NM, about 100 miles north of Albuquerque.]

Tatum's monologue was interrupted by an accusatory Mr. Boot who emerged from his office - and glanced at an open liquor bottle sticking out of Tatum's desk drawer. But he was mistaken - it was a bottle with a miniature ship model inside - a pastime that Tatum engaged in at night during periods of boredom with matches and toothpicks ("Calms my nerves"). Good news arrived - Boot commissioned Tatum to leave town (with cub reporter/photographer Herbie) for a few days to cover a rattlesnake hunt in the remote county of Los Barrios, hours outside of Albuquerque. The sarcastic Tatum couldn't contain his feigned excitement over the 'hick' assignment to get out of the claustrophobic office:

A rattlesnake hunt. Well, isn't that ginger-peachy? A real 'stop the press, pull out the front page, get ready to re-plate' assignment....Well, it looks like we're starting our second year with a real bang.

Tatum's Philosophy of a Best-Selling News Story:

On the drive to the newsworthy event, the fresh-faced Herbie chauffeured Tatum in an open coupe and opined about how there might be some potential in the exciting and morbid 'rattlesnake hunt' story - with hundreds of the creatures being bashed in the head. He was forced to listen as Tatum described that he would prefer to cover a more impressive and real story that could get major headlines. He imagined a more disastrous scenario of mass hysteria caused by 50 rattlers on the loose in Albuquerque, creating widespread panic - with the 50th snake elusively hidden in his own news-office's desk drawer to prolong the suspense. [Note: This off-hand comment was a foreshadowing of the pet rattlesnake kept in a box by the county Sheriff.]

Tatum's outrageous musings were a portent of his desire for drama, sensationalism, disaster and personal gain - during the manipulation of news-stories:

Herbie: You know, this could be a pretty good story, Chuck. Don't sell it short. It's quite a sight, 1,000 rattlers in the underbrush, and a lot of men smokin' them out, bashin' in their heads.
Tatum: Big deal. 1,000 rattlers in the underbrush. Give me just 50 of them loose in Albuquerque. Like that leopard in Oklahoma City. The whole town in panic. Deserted streets. Barricaded houses. They're evacuating the children. Every man is armed. Fifty killers on the prowl. Fifty. One by one, they start hunting them down. They get 10, 20. It's building. They get 40, 45. They get Forty-nine. Where's the last rattler? In a kindergarten? In a church? In a crowded elevator? Where?... In my desk drawer, fan. Stashed away, only nobody knows it, see? The story's good for another three days. Then when I'm good and ready, we come out with a big extra. 'Sun-Bulletin Snags Number 50.'

Tatum concluded his wishes by emphasizing the type of 'bad news' he preferred to cover:

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.

Minosa's Trading Post and the Holy Mountain:

Along the way, they pulled in for gas at the desolate Minosa's Trading Post - a two-story, roadside adobe brick building near a rock escarpment, in the remote desert:


Herbie honked the car's horn and entered the curio shop, but it was deserted. In a small adjoining back bedroom (with a prominent crucifix on the wall), he came upon elderly Mama Minosa (Frances Dominguez) with her back to the door. She was kneeling down and praying silently before a Madonna statue sitting on a high ledge, and was unresponsive to him. Herbie returned to Tatum and their parked car, and heard a police car's siren blaring. They observed the local Deputy Sheriff's vehicle enter through a wooden gate - the entrance to a tourist site for viewing 450 year old ancient cliff dwellings - and watched as he sped down a dusty dirt road toward the rocky, cavernous mesa with a sheer rock face behind some old Navajo cliff dwellings:

FREE - Leo Minosa - FREE

Tatum made another insensitive Indian joke about why the Sheriff might be investigating: "Maybe they got a warrant for Sitting Bull for that Custer rap." He urged them to check out what was happening: "Come on, Herbie, let's go visiting. It's for free." Tatum's curiosity was also piqued about the old woman in the back-room: "What's she praying for?...Maybe it ties in."

Part of the way down the dusty road toward the cliff dwellings, they pulled up next to a young blonde woman, wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, and carrying a folded up blanket and thermos. She briefly described the reason for the emergency - her stubborn husband Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), the adult son of the trading post owner, was trapped by a cave-in of rocks inside the ancient, haunted Indian cliff dwelling. He was looting it of artifacts in the remote town of Escudero (three hour's drive from Albuquerque) - and she also revealed her attitude toward him - he was a foolish "dumb cluck" who deserved the cave-in:

He's way in there, under that mountain...We had a cave-in this morning...Dumb cluck. Everybody keeps telling him, 'Stay out of that place. Stay out of there.' Not Leo. Stubborn like a mule. He always keeps goin' back, diggin' for those Indian pots... (She hitched a ride with them) I'm Mrs. Leo Minosa. We own that trading post down on the highway. Finest store in downtown Escudero.

From her first few derogatory comments about Escudero, it appeared that Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling) was a disgruntled, unhappy, jaded and long-suffering wife, made tougher and more crude by her arid surroundings that she intensely disliked.

At the mouth of the cave dwelling site, the Deputy Sheriff (Gene Evans) was already questioning Papa Minosa (John Berkes), Leo's elderly father (with a right club foot), who reported that his son had become trapped about six hours earlier. Other bystanders included an Indian family, and two men who thought Minosa was about 250-300 feet down in the cave - they cautioned: "Best we could do was to get in about halfway. You gotta watch yourself. Swing that pick too hard in them old walls, you start a sand slide and block up the whole place. Then goodbye, Leo."

Papa Minosa took the thermos of coffee and blanket (with sandwiches wrapped inside, and cigars) from Lorraine, but was prohibited from proceeding with the supplies into the cave by the Deputy: "Nobody goes no place here without I say so." The Deputy considered asking local Navajos standing by if they would go into the cave (assuming that they were familiar with its configuration), but Papa Minosa explained why they solemnly refused and stood stone-faced - it was an ancient burial ground that was cursed by "bad spirits":

They won't go in. They never do. Bad spirits...He says it's their holy mountain. The Mountain of the Seven Vultures.

Listening nearby to everything that had transpired, Tatum was intrigued by the name given to the caves by the local Navajo man (Basil Chester): "The Mountain of the Seven Vultures. It's got a sound to it." He seized the opportunity by having Herbie retrieve his camera, as he approached the inept, cowardly and boorish Deputy Sheriff and arrogantly took charge. He took the essential supplies from Papa Minosa and grabbed a flashlight from the Deputy and headed into the cave - with Herbie following close behind: "I'll tell you who I am. I'm the guy who's going in that cave. And you're the guy that's been sounding off long enough." Papa Minosa was deeply grateful for their assistance ("God bless you"), and encouraged Tatum to lift up Leo's spirit: "Tell him we'll get him out. Tell him not to worry." But Lorraine was scornful and cynical as she lit a cigarette and sarcastically fumed: "And tell him we'll have a big coming-out party for him with a brass band and everything."

[Note: She would be the instigator and organizer of the "brass band" - the repulsive carnival that she ordered to truck in rides and concession stands.]

Entering the Cave - Speaking with the Trapped Victim:

The two reporters Tatum and Herbie entered the darkness of the subterranean cave and its narrow passageways, and found a rope that pointed in the direction where Minosa was located. Tatum emphasized the importance of 'human interest' in any journalistic story. During his analysis of how to create the greatest circulation, he stressed how he favored a single individual in peril over hundreds or thousands being killed - and Minosa fit his preferred scenario perfectly:

One man's better than 84. Didn't they teach you that?...Human interest. You pick up the paper, you read about 84 men or 284, or a million men, like in the Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn't stay with ya. One man's different. You wanna know all about him. That's human interest. Somebody all by himself, like Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic.

Tatum then recounted the real-life incident from 1925 of a Kentucky cave-in that trapped a man named W. Floyd Collins - after being disgusted and scolding Herbie and his journalism education that hadn't included the famous Collins story:

You never heard of Floyd Collins? 1925. Kentucky. The guy pinned way down in that cave. One of the biggest stories that ever broke. Front page in every paper in the country for weeks....Then maybe you heard that a reporter on a Louisville paper crawled in for the story and came out with a Pulitzer Prize.

As Tatum twisted along in the labyrinthine cave, he was already formulating in his mind his plan to get the scoop on this disaster - his own personal ticket for getting out of the entrapping Albuquerque. When they approached closer to the trapped man, the deepening, treacherous cave became more threatening to both of them with heaps of dislodged boulders, rubble, dirt, and timber supports. Trickles of suffocating sand flowed down upon them, so Tatum ordered Herbie to stay back before he proceeded along by himself - he offhandedly mentioned and hinted that he wanted the story for himself, even though it was risky: ("I like the odds").

Once he reached the trapped victim, he was kept separate from him and able to communicate only through a small aperture in the rocks - appearing like a 'magic-mirror' figure. It was obvious that Leo was pinned at the waist under some very large, and heavy rocks, and was worried about the very unstable confines of the burial cave: "You want those rocks to come down on my head?...They're all pretty shaky. It's an old place been comin' apart for a long time." Tatum suggested that they would have to be very careful in extricating him: "Looks like we'll have to take them out one by one."

Leo confirmed his increasing worry about how fragile the cave was, how a landslide might easily be triggered, and why it might take a long time to rescue him: "Don't try it by yourself. It's gonna take a lot of figurin'. The way they are now, if one goes, they'll all go, roof and everything." Tatum realized that this might be end up being the perfect story to exploit. He passed through the supplies (hot coffee, blanket, and cigar) to Leo, and then tried to calm the pinned-down and helpless man who was anxious to be extricated. However, Tatum's objective was to prolong the perilous situation as long as possible, while befriending Leo and keeping him assured of his trusting nature:

Easy, Leo. They'll get you out. But you know what you just said. It takes figuring, maybe some special equipment....They'll do it as fast as they can, but they got to do it right.

Leo explained why he had entered the cave in the first place - to steal Indian artifacts to sell at the trading post. He held up one of the valuable relics that he had discovered - an old Indian funerary urn - before the cave-in occurred. He suggested that he now believed that the Navajo curse (about supernatural "bad spirits") was real:

I guess I crawled in too far this time. You've got to, to find a good one. Back there, it's pretty well cleaned out. But I found me a beauty. Worth 50 bucks any day. Just then the whole floor caved in under me. I guess maybe they didn't want me to have it...The Indian dead. They're all around here. This is a tomb, mister, with mummies 400 years old. They used to bury them here with these jars alongside, you know, full of corn and wampum...I guess maybe they've been watchin' me all the time I've been takin' things outta here and got mad.

Tatum maneuvered Herbie's camera to get two photos of the trapped victim, holding up the urn - so that he could print the story in the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin paper - a feature article that he had already begun to create in his mind. After the first shot, Tatum popped out the used flash-bulb and the discarded object flew in Leo's direction and struck him! Thrilled by the thought of publicity for himself, Leo (forgetting his dire circumstances) began to think of himself as a celebrity, and suggested how he could be positively portrayed in the story:

Tatum: Everybody'll want to see how ya look. And I'm gonna write a story. They'll wanna know all about ya. They'll be pulling for ya.
Leo: How do you like that? Me in a paper....But don't say anything about those Indian spirits. I don't want anybody to think I'm scared.
Tatum: Don't worry, Leo. I'm your pal.

For a moment, Leo remembered his fear during the war, but then found soothing comfort and inspiration by singing a song that he often sang with his comrade buddies - "The Hut Sut Song" - a novelty hit song in 1941 with non-sensical lyrics. A few moments later, Tatum excused himself to organize rescue efforts on the outside: ("But there's a lot to do outside getting things organized"), while promising to get Leo out as soon as possible ("Well, you wanna get out, don't ya?"). As Tatum moved back toward the entrance to the cave, a small cave-in threatened him as well, but he was able to reach Herbie and handed him the camera: "I got me some pictures, fan. Guard them with your life."

Even before getting back to the cave's entrance, Tatum described for Herbie how he had a "BIG" story. He shared how he had already devised the story's angle in his head to take advantage of its sensational aspects (it was "Floyd Collins plus") - he would also play up the mountain as a haunted place:

I'm writing the lead to the story....Big. As big as they come, I think. Maybe bigger than Floyd Collins. Floyd Collins plus....Plus King Tut. You remember that one, don't ya? The curse of the old Egyptian pharaoh when they came to rob his tomb? How's that for an angle? 'King Tut in New Mexico.' 'Curse of the old Indian chief.' 'White man half buried by angry spirits. What will they do? Will they spare him? Will they crush him?'

When Herbie asked how soon they could rescue Leo, Tatum responded that he needed a week to soak the story for all it was worth. Herbie was so upset that the victim would have to suffer for a week, that devious Tatum had to soften his approach by claiming he wasn't embellishing the truth:

Tatum: I don't know. Floyd Collins lasted 18 days. I don't need 18 days. If I just had one week of this. Oh, brother.
Herbie: You're kidding, Chuck. You don't really wish for anything like that.
Tatum: I'm not wishing for anything. I don't make things happen. All I do is write about them.

Outside the cave, Tatum reassured Papa Minosa that Leo would be rescued, but maybe not immediately: "You can be sure of one thing, we'll get him out....There's nothing we can do here tonight....As soon as we get an engineering crew on the job. And I'm gonna get them, Mr. Minosa, the best. And I'll get that doctor. And the sheriff, too." Tatum was not too upset that there would be delays in assembling local rescue efforts to extricate Leo.

While a tense drama unfolded underground, he reveled in the thought of orchestrating everyone above-ground at the site for the story of a lifetime: "They'll all be here. The sheriff, the doctor, the engineer...." It would be the perfect and exclusive 'human interest' story involving grieving parents and a wife that he had always wanted to generate a media frenzy - to catapult him back into importance.

One Possible Roadblock: The Introduction of Lorraine:

Tatum returned to the trading post (a combination curio shop and restaurant), and next to the wall phone inside, he told Lorraine that he would be contacting all the key people to be brought together: "We'll get some action here. You'll see. By tomorrow, this place will be jumping if I have to call Santa Fe and get the Governor out of bed." When he asked for overnight lodging, Lorraine fancifully fabricated an answer about their on-site luxurious hotel: "Sixty beautiful rooms. The Escudero Ritz. What'll it be, ocean view or mountain view?"

He closed the bedroom door (where Mrs. Minosa was quietly praying) to keep his business dealings private. The first call of the scheming, serpentine-like protagonist was to his boss Mr. Boot in the Albuquerque office - it was his main priority to break his exclusive story - with pictures (the next "front-page feature"), to be brought back by Herbie:

I'm in a dreamy little spot called Escudero about three hours down the line. Forget the rattlesnakes. We got something nicer here. We got birds, vultures. Seven of them. How does this hit you? 'The Curse of the Mountain of the Seven Vultures.' Of course you don't know what I'm talking about, but I'm gonna tell ya. And wait till you see the pictures. I'm sending them up with Herbie. No, I'm not drunk, Mr. Boot. Maybe a little excited, because unless war is declared tonight, here's your front-page feature.

While Tatum was excitedly speaking on the phone about "the Curse," Herbie was at the gas pump being offered gas at no charge by the naive and innocently-trusting Papa Minosa. In between them was hard-hearted, bleach-blonde Lorraine watching Tatum as she smiled and calmly munched on an apple - a Biblical reference to Eve (a corrupted temptress). She was already aware of Tatum's underhanded nature - knowing that she was the crucial linchpin that could either hold together or unravel Tatum's manipulative plan. The self-interested and jaded femme fatale Lorraine undoubtedly saw Leo’s entrapment as a convenient way to exit from her unhappy marriage.

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