Scandal Sheet (1952)
directed by Phil Karlson, starring Broderick Crawford, John Derek
Note: This is my entry in the Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay's Movie Musings
Once upon a time, the Daily Express was a respectable newspaper. In the hands of the unscrupulous editor Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford), it's devolved into little more than a tabloid, with headlines like "Police Seek Gorilla Man-Slayer." Honor and prestige don't matter much to Chapman though, so long as circulation keeps rising. His star reporter Steve McCleary (John Derek) is a chip off the old block, resorting to tricks and lies to get the best headlines. Columnist Julie Allison (Donna Reed) is appalled at Chapman and McCleary's tactics but her objections are always steamrollered.
But Chapman's latest gag will wind up tying a noose around his neck. At a Lonelyhearts Ball sponsored by the Daily Express, a woman (Rosemary DeCamp) approaches Chapman with news that could break his career. She's the wife he abandoned twenty years ago and she's going to let the whole world know what a crook he is. They struggle and Chapman accidentally kills her. He covers up the crime, but he doesn't reckon on just how well he trained his protege McCleary. The young man is convinced that the Lonelyhearts Murder will be the story of his career and he's determined to sniff out every possible lead. Now Chapman is caught in a game of keeping McCleary off his trail without drawing suspicion. He's got to keep this story buried...no matter who he has to bury along with it.
One of my high school English teachers used to quote from a text that said detectives are the most natural heroes of a story because they want the same thing the reader wants: to know what's going on. The same thing could be said for fictional reporters with one crucial difference. It's the reporter's job to tell the truth, to broadcast it and sell it. A fictional detective can uncover the murderer and go home to tea and biscuits, satisfied that his work is done. The reporter always has to make a choice in how the information is used. It's a distinction that makes the reporter equally adept in the role of villain or hero. Things will never be clear-cut for them. There will always be consequences. There will always be one eye on the profit margin. No wonder reporters are always such cynics in the movies.
Scandal Sheet takes a basic but irresistible premise: what if the reporter was the one who committed the crime? And what if he had to make it look like he wanted to uncover the truth, even while doing everything possible to conceal it? The movie raises the stakes even further by pitting the villainous protagonist against his own protege, a man who'll do anything to get the story because that's what his boss taught him. The irony is that the investigation begins to turn the selfish younger reporter into a more principled man just as his mentor keeps sinking further into evil.
The movie was adapted from a novel by Samuel Fuller, the same Fuller that went on to direct Pickup on South Street and Shock Corridor. Before he went into movies, he was in journalism, starting work as a crime reporter at the age of 17. His experiences gave him a perfect insight into the workings of a journalist's world and he would return to the theme many times, from the obsessive, ambitious protagonist of Shock Corridor, convinced he'll win the Pulitzer to the dedicated, idealistic reporters of Park Row (Fuller's own favorite film). Fuller unfortunately did not adapt the screenplay for Scandal Sheet nor did he direct; it would have been a real pleasure to see Fuller's gritty, chaotic take on the misfits that live on the edges of scandal rags. Few noir directors had Fuller's affection for the sleazy and grimy back alleys of the city or his ability to characterize its twisted inhabitants without condescension. The only one I can compare him to is Jules Dassin but Dassin was always more elegant and broadly humanistic in his approach. Fuller is messy and eccentric and that's what makes his style so fun.
But if we can't have Fuller, director Phil Karlson is no slouch either. In fact, he's probably the film's biggest asset. Karlson's greatest gifts were pacing and control; his movies transition smoothly from scenes of talk to scenes of brutal shocking violence in a way that leaves you dizzy. His masterpiece The Phenix City Story is a prime example, slowly upping the ante with each killing and somehow managing to make each one a sadistic surprise. Here, he stages the initial killing with a striking shot of Chapman's wife moving around him, her voice rising to a shriek as she threatens him with the destruction of everything he's worked for. Karlson's camera follows her in a circle, as if the woman is literally walking in the shape of a noose. When she and Chapman begin to struggle, it feels truly violent, with the wife digging her nails into the man's hair. The fight ends with her cracking her head on a pipe and Karlson lingers on the agonized expression of her face.
Even better is Chapman's later killing of an innocent, alcoholic former reporter (Henry O'Neill). The man knows too much and can't be allowed to live. Another director might have framed the scene to allow Broderick Crawford's threatening bulk to overwhelm the older O'Neill. Karlson keeps them in a merciless extreme closeup, cutting between Crawford's shadowed face and O'Neill's immediate awareness of his own death. The faces tell the whole story.
Faces are a constant visual theme in Scandal Sheet. Karlson keeps returning to extreme closeups throughout the film, allowing scenes to play out through the changing expressions of the actors. He also collects interesting faces to populate the film, from the beaten-down but elaborately made-up former wife (Rosemary DeCamp) to the pop-eyed drunk that comes with information. One of the more striking shots of the movie is a scene where McCleary goes to question the local alcoholics and Karlson lets the camera travel slowly down the bar, letting us look closely at each man's face, seeing the wrinkles and shadows and disappointments that make up these men's lives. That single shot tells us so much about how society and the glib McCleary view these men, while letting us see the barhounds' grim humanity. The whole movie in fact, hinges on people's ability to remember faces. It's that which trips Chapman up and it's his fatal flaw. He's so focused on circulation numbers and suckers and slobs that he can never truly see the faces, only the figures.
I've had an allergy to Broderick Crawford since Born Yesterday. His one-note, blustery, growly performance and lack of comic timing just dragged scene after scene through the cement mixer. Thankfully, Scandal Sheet asks him to play it cool and contained so the shouting is kept to a minimum here. As the editor and unwilling murderer Mark Chapman, Crawford is gruff but professional, careful to keep his frustrations under wraps. He conveys the man's growing panic mostly through the eyes, his gaze shifting away just a little too fast when someone tries to bring up a new angle on the Lonelyhearts Murder. Chapman ends up as the embodiment of "win-at-all-costs" journalism, a man whose disregard for the human beings behind the circulation numbers will be his undoing. Complete scum but Crawford finds a note of pathos in the man's ultimate fate.
What Crawford can't convey, however, is the kind of sleazy charisma that elevated other "evil journalist" films like Sweet Smell of Success and Ace in the Hole. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were black of heart but nobody could doubt their smarts, the pleasure they took in working over the masses. They were con man, but you couldn't help admiring their style. Broderick Crawford has bull-headed determination on his side, but no allure. This really deadens the impact of the film's central relationship; the one between Chapman and his slick, admiring protege McCleary. Crawford just doesn't seem believable as the object of someone's hero worship. Put someone like Robert Ryan in his place and it would make more sense.
John Derek's performance as Steve McCleary has the opposite problem. While Crawford's performance only really becomes great at the end, Derek's only really great in the beginning. He's perfectly suited as the callow reporter, so convinced of his charm and appeal that he can hustle Donna Reed into buying him dinner and dismiss her in the same breath. Derek's long lashes and skinny good looks seem bizarrely contemporary for a mid-century film; he's almost drowning in the heavy overcoats of the period. You could CGI him into any random CW show today and he'd fit right in. Still, the man carries off McCleary's fast-paced dialogue and smug reactions well; it's like watching a man bang around in a sports car, not even realizing how much he's scratching up the paint job. Derek's on shakier ground when McCleary has to discover sincerity. The movie doesn't set up any great chemistry between him and Crawford and Derek can't supply the emotional depth on his own. You imagine something like the relationship between Edward G. Robinson and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and Scandal Sheet could have been a great film.
But if I'm faulting the movie for not achieving greatness, that's only because it so often seems close to getting there. The screenplay crackles with the kind of sharp, zinging lines that's essential to any great newspaper movie. "Don't count your steaks before you hear the sizzle." "I always said you were born in a field of shamrocks." "You're still too big for Dead End Street." "Does the judge's needle sew anything up?" "Everything but knotting the thread at the end...I mean the noose." The movie is full of clever details that add greatly to the atmosphere and themes. For example, The Lonelyhearts Ball lures couples to the altar with the promise of a bed with a built-in television set (oh great shades of the reality shows to come). The newspaper office is overshadowed by a giant clock that marks the rising circulation numbers. The numbers grow with the Lonelyhearts Murder Coverage, just as Chapman's time starts to run out. There's a lot of creativity and a lot of intelligence at work here. Ultimately the movie ends up as a good, sharp noir that promises a little more than it can deliver. But then, every journalist knows that it's not just the story. It's how you tell it. And Scandal Sheet does a fine job at that.
"We got a new man on this beat that's built like you between the ears. He saw a hole in the back of the dame's skull and figured she was slugged."
The final confrontation. Karlson manages to take a climax that would be disappointingly basic, a simple case of a man remembering one crucial detail while the murderer foolishly hangs around rather than making a break for it, and makes it completely riveting. Everything plays out in tight closeups, with Broderick Crawford sliding in and out of the shadows. You can see his last shreds of hope warring with his fear as he tries, futilely, to hide his too-famous face from view. All while his protege slowly comes to realize that the man he's idolized has been a stranger all along. It's slow and suspenseful and finishes on a wickedly smart final image, a fitting riposte to the career of Mark Chapman, the man who traded in scandal.
Final Six Words:
Gives new meaning to "screaming headlines"