Posted: 03/26/2004


Ace in the Hole


by Alan Rode

Alan attends American Cinematheque’s annual Film Noir fest and laments the passing of Ms. Jan Sterling.

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Down on his-luck NYC reporter (Douglas) takes a job with a small-town paper that provides him with no challenges until he exploits the story of a man trapped in a mine.

When I walked into the Egyptian Theatre tonight to watch Ace in the Hole (1951) as part of the Cinematheque’s weekend series of “Movies Not on Video,” I was momentarily elated to see Jan Sterling’s photo displayed in the lobby.

Miss Sterling is a frequent visitor to the American Cinematheque in Hollywood, attending screenings of her own films including The Human Jungle, Caged and Union Station, as well as taking in other pictures. I assumed that she would be an unannounced screening guest at this, one of her most prominent and greatest feature films.

My momentary pleasure evaporated when I noticed the accompanying sign that stated, “Jan Sterling – 3 April 1921-March 26,2004.”

Miss Sterling passed away this morning at the Motion Picture Home and Hospital at Woodland Hills. She would have been 83 next week.

The good folks at the Cinematheque dedicated the screening to her memory with some nice words offered to the audience. According to Marvin Paige, Miss Sterling had been fighting diabetes, a broken hip in January and then a series of strokes. She is now at peace.

Jan Sterling was a unique, talented actress whose screen portrayals during the 1950’s were emblematic of the classic ‘femme noir’ portrayal. She will be sorely missed.

The screening of Ace in the Hole was a terrific show. A beautiful 35mm print showed all of the deep focus detail that can’t be had on television or broadcast VHS tapes. This film is vintage Billy Wilder at his most cynical and unsparing. A flop during the initial theatrical release, (The screened print had the alternate The Big Carnival title that replaced the original Ace in the Hole in attempt to increase the box office draw,). This was Wilder’s first commercial failure after a string of successes starting in 1942. He really didn’t like discussing this film too much in his later years and hated the title switch made by Paramount after the initial release in 1951.

Too cynical for 1951 audiences, Ace in the Hole has garnered well deserved accolades and increasing respect over the years. As with all Billy Wilder films, the bitingly acerbic script makes for the foundation of an enduring cinema experience. The audience laughed at the right parts and was properly silent during the dramatic moments. Half a century later, this film detailing the media exploitation of a trapped man in a New Mexico cliff dwelling due to the darker reflexes of the human condition continues to resonate with topical clarity.

An example of perfect casting was the pairing of a snarling Kirk Douglas (at his peak) and Jan Sterling’s slatternly venal wife of the trapped man. A great supporting cast is headed by Ray Teal, superb as a corrupt sheriff, Fred Jacquet as an apparatchik contractor, Frank Cady, Richard Benedict (the ‘Ace’ trapped in the hole), the always reliable Porter Hall, and a youthful Robert Arthur (who sent his condolences to the audience for Jan Sterling).

Great film, sad night.

R.I.P. Jan Sterling.

Alan Rode is a film noir aficionado living in Encino, California.

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