That’s the Press, Baby! – Noir City Opening Night

Last night it rained in San Francisco. It always rains in San Francisco for two weeks in January–when she opens the Golden Gate to murder, lust, corruption and cheap cigarettes.

Yes, it was Noir City night at the Castro Theater, and Bay Area residents let the rain drops drip from their fedoras, and sauntered over to a sold-out movie palace to pay tribute to urban poetry. Noir Czar and Czarina Eddie Muller and Anita Monga have programmed a punchy, timely and provocative theme this year–Newspaper Noir, from the days when the press didn’t mean smarmy, politicized gossip from ill-educated and attention-seeking hacks.

… or did it?

One thing a steady dose of noir will teach you–and I’ve been dipping into it for a long, long time–is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. So last night we were treated to two films that dealt with the distintegration of news to sensationalism and the tawdry manipulation of fear and wish-fulfilment ala “reality tv” … only the year was 1952.

Just as the internet threatens — and some would say, has sealed the fate — of the printed “wuxtry!” that was the most popular and affordable media of its time, back in the early ’50s the threat was TV. And then–as now–the owners of said news outlets wrestled with what to do.

The first film, Richard Brook’s DEADLINE–USA, is an obit for the ethical newspaper man … the current editor and now-deceased owner who believed in the power of the press and in the dignity of the human being. In newspapers that function as social outlets, the voice in the wilderness crying for reform, the byline that isn’t afraid to speak the truth to the masses, not just cater to their taste for sensationalism.

And what a movie … no film about the press captures its allure and its power and the Sophie’s Choice of its purpose–to report or to exploit?–better than DEADLINE. Only the sardonic comedy of The Front Page and its remake, His Girl Friday, comes close at all.

Richard Brooks (Brute Force) wrote a snap-crackle screenplay, sharp with wit and observation, and matched it with flawless direction. Humphrey Bogart is perfect casting as the epitome-of-decency editor, Ethel Barrymore also perfect as the owner’s widow who regains her self-respect and fighting spirit in battling to save the paper her husband founded. No one–and I mean no one–ever played those parts as well as Ethel, my favorite of the Barrymores.

The always believable Kim Hunter rounds out the stars of the cast as Bogie’s ex-wife, but the film really sang with stellar performances by some terrific character actors. Fleshing out the roles of reporters were Paul Stewart (Citizen Kane, The Window, Kiss Me Deadly) perfect as the tough sports writer, Jim Backus in an understated and convincing performance as the gossip man, Warren Stevens as a cub reporter determined to get the story, Broadway actress Audrey Christie as the hardboiled press dame, and Ed Begley as Bogie’s right-hand man. Martin Gable owned the part of Rienzi, the untouchable city crime boss, and never overplayed a moment (it’s the kind of role Rod Steiger would have chewed to bits).

Uncredited and virtually unknown actress Kasia Orzazewski portrayed the immigrant mother of a crime victim and dominated a moving scene late in the film. This was a character actress made for noir. Though her filmography is unfortunately tiny, she played small but memorable bits in three other top-notch noirs: Call Northside 777, Thieves’ Highway (one of the very best) and I Was a Communist for the FBI.

Watch DEADLINE-USA if you can catch it on TCM, and advocate for its release on DVD. It’s a truly great film, and a loving ode to the power of the press … baby.

SCANDAL SHEET rounded out the opening night double-feature, and Broderick Crawford–always a superb actor–makes a dynamic and convincing editor, one who can recognize the merit of a story to emotionally manipulate the “slobs” that increase his tabloid’s circulation. Yes, ladies and gentlemen–this was tabloid “journalism”, and the year was 1952.

“Yellow” journalism is something you might remember hearing about in your high school history class, often linked with the name “Hearst”. While Bogart and his paper recognized the power of the press and lived up to the moral responsibilities that came with it, Crawford and his Board of Directors — despite hypocritical complaints about “immorality”–recognized the power and exploited the hell out of it.

Give the public what it wants … a sucker is born every minute … you get the idea. The more lurid the content, the more cheap and tawdry and trashy the stories, the more exploitative of people’s victimization or misfortune, the more the circulation numbers shoot up–up–and up. It’s Noir City, baby … and it’s also tomorrow’s headline.

Ironically, Crawford’s downfall begins with his reality-show-type creation of a Lonelyhearts Club, purely a publicity stunt designed to prey on the saps. It all seems so (unfortunately) modern–but Queen for a Day had been around for years (radio and then television), and no other show before–and possibly, since–so shamelessly milked false sentiment from dried up mammary ducts.

SCANDAL SHEET’S twists are many, and they all start to tighten around Crawford’s thick neck. Y’see, he kills his ex-wife, covers it up, and then his star cub reporter–the dreadful John Derek–decides to solve the crime … all in the name of circulation.

Donna Reed is terrific as the moral yet sexy good girl, Rosemary de Camp gives the performance of her life as Crawford’s ex-wife, Harry Morgan is acid and biting as the cynical photographer, and character actors Henry O’Neill and Griff Barnett give excellent performances as two men who pull Crawford’s noose ever tighter. And there are some amazing shots of amazing character faces playing rummies in the Bowery. As Morgan acerbically observes, “That does it–I’m not taking another drink.”

SCANDAL SHEET, ably directed by Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential) and based on a Sam Fuller novel, only fell short with its second lead John Derek. Though he offered a brash sort of energy reminiscent of Tom Cruise, Derek was completely unconvincing in every role I’ve ever seen, and this, sadly, was no exception. Possibly cast to capitalize on his earlier portrayal of Crawford’s son in All the King’s Men, an actual actor would have been a much better choice. Still, the film’s treasures outweigh Derek’s feather-light performance.

Noir City continues tonight with a tribute to leading lady Arlene Dahl, and yours truly will be back with more … for now, pay honor to the power of the press … quit reading this blog and buy a newspaper, baby!