Saturday, December 19, 2009
As Long As The Circulation Is Rising
I suppose there’s only one thing better than a newspaper movie and that’s a newspaper movie in black & white, the kind with wisecracking reporters who wear hats, snappy-looking Lois Lane-types to spar with at the desk across from them, gruff editors overseeing the operation and the clack of the typewriters going endlessly. It may be simple romancing of the whole idea of it, but so what? 1952’s SCANDAL SHEET, directed by Phil Karlson, is a pretty enjoyable example of this—I feel like it would make perfect sense if I sat here chomping on a cigar and called it a “damn good picture”. Speaking of people who chomped on a lot of cigars in their time, the film was based on Sam Fuller’s novel “The Dark Page” and not being involved in the production, Fuller merely refers to the final product in his autobiography as “disappointing,” adding that he wished that Howard Hawks, who once owned the rights, had wound up directing (he doesn’t mention any desire to have made it himself). This didn’t stop Columbia from including the title as part of their recent Fuller DVD box set, in which his widow Christa can be seen in the supplements speaking well of it. I can imagine a few points in there which could have been made stronger on a psychological level and something more than just a potboiler but it’s not meant at all disparaging to say that’s ultimately what it is. A version of the story directed by Fuller, or someone else even, may have allowed for some of these points but simply put, there are any number of old noirs which once you get accustomed to the cool old-school feel you realize that the plot simply isn’t connecting—it’s enjoyable but not all that satisfying as a story. That’s not at all the case with SCANDAL SHEET, which clicks together during its 82 minutes and even if it’s not a classic, it’s comes off as just the sort of thing to sometimes watch late at night and dream of that black & white world.
Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford), recently placed editor of the New York Express, has seen his cheap tabloid approach to journalism (speaking as someone who has recently departed a TV show with a similar take on things, all I can say is the more things change…) pay off with a rise in circulation and he’s intent on bringing it as high as possible, putting much of his trust in rising young reporter Steve McCleary (John Farrow). Steve, pretty much Chapman’s protégé, is all for anything his Editor wants to do to sell a newspaper, as much as it angers fellow scribe Julie Allison (Donna Reed) who has no interest in this tabloid garbage. At the night of a Lonely Hearts Ball, Chapman’s latest headline-grabbing event, he is quietly recognized by a woman named Charlotte Grant (Rosemary DeCamp) who turns out to be the woman he married years ago under his former name George Grant, which he changed when he desperately abandoned her—he doesn’t seem to have done this out of anything other than boredom and hatred—as he says, his biggest mistake was, “I fell for an attractive hunk of flesh.” When he goes to confront the woman in her tiny apartment they quarrel which leads to a fight, resulting in her accidental death (so, was it deliberate in Fulller’s original novel? That wouldn’t surprise me). Soon enough, Steve stumbles onto the crime and begins to investigate, leaving Chapman with no choice but to allow his reporter to begin snooping—after all, it means a rise in circulation and maybe he can even influence what happens as he hopes that his reporter won’t discover the deadly secret.
Broderick Crawford pats his sweating brow a few times here and there but aside from that SCANDAL SHEET doesn’t deal with the psychology too much. The basic idea here would presumably be how the younger reporter is betrayed by his older mentor/editor he’s learned all his tricks from but all this is lost is how fast the plot moves forward. This is certainly a difference between how this may have been in a version that might have starred, say, Edward G. Robinson and directed by Fritz Lang which would have been all psychological subtext (THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW and SCARLET STREET come to mind as this type of approach). Of course, that’s not what SCANDAL SHEET is meant to be about and the plot could pretty much be described as THE BIG CLOCK only without the younger lead being set up as a suspect. It’s not always clear what endgame Crawford’s character has in mind beyond the paper’s rise in circulation—he seems to not want to pull his reporter off the story but also hopes that it’ll all just fade away. The result is smoothly put together by director Phil Karlson (helmer of many things including 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE and THE SILENCERS) who brings a great deal of lucidity to the narrative, executing the script in a skillful way that wasn’t always the case with these films (Screenplay by Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling and James Poe, from the Fuller novel)--some shots are skillfully executed in how they allow the story to reveal itself as they play out. During one sequence, a character leaves one location and is then seen arriving somewhere else a short time later in nearly a real-time context tying both settings together to keep us alert to everything going on, point of clarity that the movie pulls off very well. And even in the context of the fast narrative there are touches which seem unique to this type of movie, from the somewhat depressing glimpses of the people at the Lonely Hearts Ball as well as how the film pauses to examine the faces of the bowery winos who might be helpful (“That does it, I’ll never touch another drop for the rest of my life,” someone says). It may have mostly been shot on the Columbia backlot but it still has a punchy New York feel with touches that give it a considerable amount of realism and slick style.
The camerawork by Burnett Guffey that is extremely rich and layered--one shot of Rosemary DeCamp approaching someone at the dance is extremely ambitious for this type of picture and at another point there’s even a neat trick effects shot involving an el train to give the effect that we’re actually in New York. It’s also hard not to notice how Cawford moves himself in and out of the light as he learns certain things in one scene near the very end, one of those touches that black & white is just perfect for. Crawford and Farrow do have nice interplay together in their scenes set amidst this backdrop but it still feels like the potential complexity of their relationship is only paid lip service so the climax doesn’t have quite as much punch as it should. With a little more than the workmanlike approach that’s there, SCANDAL SHEET could have been a minor genre classic but what’s there anyway is still pretty cool. It’s in black & white, it’s set at a newspaper, it keeps its crackerjack story going right up until the end and is just the sort of film you want to see when, well, you’re looking for some of these films that you haven’t seen yet.
Crawford is excellent, never making his character sympathetic but still always keeping him more interesting than just a brutish villain. This complexity may be about as deep as the film gets, but it certainly gives one something to chew on. Donna Reed is snappy and cool in her role which frankly feels just shy of underwritten and Rosemary De Camp is extremely effective in her scenes with Crawford, with the two ripping at each other in a ferocious way. John Farrow seems a little lightweight as the nominal lead but he has his moments like that glint in his eye as he tells a sobbing woman, “I have to have the facts,” willing to stop at nothing for the story. Anyway, he works better when he keeps his hat on, maybe because I wasn’t getting distracted by his pompadour. Harry Morgan, incidentally also in THE BIG CLOCK, plays the wisecracking, cigar-chomping photographer, still using Henry as his first name in the credits.
It may not be as historically notable as Fuller’s own PARK ROW, his tribute to the the rise of New York journalism in the late 1800’s, but SCANDAL SHEET is still very enjoyable on its own. Fuller may have been disappointed in it, but it in no way feels like a betrayal of his lifelong fascination with the newspaper trade although if anyone out there who is much more of a Fuller expert than myself disagrees, feel free to chime in. Anyway, for those times when I have a desire to only see black & white films that I haven’t caught up with yet, this is exactly the sort of thing I’m looking for. And, speaking from a certain amount of experience, if you just substitute ‘ratings’ in place of ‘circulation’ the very things that some of its characters are obsessed with remain true even in this day and age. The clack of those typewriters, however, is sorely missed.