Chuck Tatum (Douglas) is an abrasive, tough reporter looking for a chance to make a name with a big news story. Unfortunately hes stuck in a little town where almost nothing happens. One day, while going to report on a nearby town's annual rattlesnake hunt, he runs across a much better story: a man, named Leo Minosa, who's been trapped by a cave-in. Tatum sees this as his big chance and tries to squeeze the news for all its worth, convincing the local sheriff and engineer to prolong the rescue labor for at least a week.
One of the most famous movies about irresponsible reporting out there. It wasnt very well received when it was first released, but with time it has found new respect from the critics.
- The Alcoholic: Tatum's had problems with this in the past and returns to it as the film progresses.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Between Chuck and Minosa's wife, Lorraine.
- Cassandra Truth: Ironically coming from the most mendacious character. The New York editor doesn't believe Chuck when he tries to tell the real story.
- Da Editor: Chucks old boss from New York.
- Deadpan Snarker: Chuck.Deputy Sheriff: You wanna know something? He [the sheriff] don't like you.
Chuck: And I was going to propose to him.
- Dirty Cop: The sheriff.
- Downer Ending: Leo dies. So does Chuck.
- Expy Coexistence: Chuck mentions the Floyd Collins case, on which the film's premise is based.
- HeelFace Door-Slam: A rare case when it happens to the protagonist. Chuck dies before he can make at least some amends.
- The Hero Dies: And it's pointless to argue who the real hero is since they both die.
- Human-Interest Story: Chuck not only wants it, he even fabricates it.
- Hypocrite: While Leo's wife is a nasty piece of work, Tatum doesn't really have any moral ground on which to condemn her.
- Immoral Journalist: Chuck is perfectly fine with talking the authorities into delaying the efforts to rescue Leo, so long as he can make a profitable news story out of it.
- Indian Burial Ground: A variation. The local Indians and Leo himself say Indian spirits may have caused the cave in because Leo has been raiding the mine for old religious relics.
- Intrepid Reporter: Chuck Tatum, whos also a Manipulative Bastard.
- Lurid Tales of Doom:Chuck Tatum: I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog.
- Manipulative Bastard: Tatum.Lorraine: I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you - you're twenty minutes.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Chuck goes through a slow-motion breakdown when he realizes Leo is dying because he prolonged the rescue efforts.
- Police Are Useless: And more than willing to cooperate if you promise the sheriff a reelection, it seems.
- Really Gets Around: Chuck apparently lost one job because he "started something" with the editor's wife. His new editor informs Tatum his own wife is a grandmother three times over, and if Chuck wants to "start something" with her, she'll be quite flattered. Tatum later has an affair with Leo's wife, Lorraine.
- Ripped from the Headlines: The plot was inspired by two real-life events. Cave explorer W. Floyd Collins was trapped in a cave in 1925, and a three-year-old girl, Kathy Fiscus fell into an abandoned well in 1949. Just like in the film, the victims became media sensations and died before they could've been rescued.
- Secret Stab Wound: Lorraine stabs Chuck when he tries to strangle her with Leo's present for her (some expensive furs). Chuck then foregoes getting himself treated in favor of getting a priest to administer Leo's Last Rites, and drops dead when he returns to the Sun-Bulletin at the end.
- Shout-Out: One character identifies himself as a salesman for Pacific All-Risk Insurance, the same company Walter Neff worked for in Wilder's Double Indemnity.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Heavily cynical.
- Small Town Boredom: At the start of the story, Chuck has come from New York to Albuquerque to work on a small newspaper after his reputation has hit rock-bottom. One year later, he's voicing his weariness at living in such a sleepy town compared to New York's fast pace. Leo's wife Lorraine also hates the nearly deserted Escudero where they live and is determined to take advantage of Leo's situation to leave.
- Stylistic Suck: "We're Coming, Leo", an inappropriately joyful-sounding song recorded to capitalize on the current events. When Billy Wilder hired Jay Livingston and Ray Evansnote to write it, he actually told them to make it the worst song they could think of.
- Title Drop: "What'd you have, pair of deuces?" - "This is better... Here we've got an ace in the hole."
- Vehicle Vanish: Subverted, when Leo's wife is about to enter the bus that would take away but decides to stay.