Saturday, February 14, 2009

Noir City Northwest: Deadline U.S.A. (1952)/Scandal Sheet (1952)

I’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment, and briefly toyed with the idea of running an apologia in advance saying I might not post nightly during my third Noir City. But this year’s theme is newspaper noir, so missing deadlines seems like poor form. And considering that the very paper cosponsoring the festival is itself on the clock, I think the ironies are thick enough, thank you very much.

Our host and programmer Eddie Muller is all too aware of them. He’s been asked more than once if this year’s “immersion in ink” represents a tribute or a memorial to that bygone age when being a newspaperman – not a reporter or a journalist – was the greatest job in North America.

We began with Deadline U.S.A., a film that is not strictly noir but according to Eddie has the power to make every hard-bitten city desk jockey “puddle up.” Humphrey Bogart plays the editor of a prestigious paper losing the circulation race to the tabloids and about to be sold. He pins his hopes on one last big story, a takedown of the local mob kingpin. Deadline is historic in that regard, the first studio film to depict Italian-American organized crime. It’s also prescient; the arguments Bogart makes have been taking place in newsrooms and boardrooms around the country and a stone’s throw from the SIFF theater. Speaking of stones, you’d have to have a heart of one not to “puddle up” when Kasia Orzazewski, so moving as the mother in another journo drama, Call Northside 777, haltingly delivers Richard Brooks’s speech about how the newspaper taught her how to be an American.

Hang on. I need a minute.

This year’s festival attempts to recreate the theatrical experience of the era by pairing features with true B-movies, shorter programmers meant to fill out a bill. Thus was Deadline followed by its photo negative, Scandal Sheet. Broderick Crawford plays the brains behind the kind of rag that’s driving Bogart out of business. When he commits murder, it’s his own ace reporter (John Derek) who tightens the noose. Crawford, knowing a sensational story when he sees one, can’t help putting his crime on the front page even though every column inch could put him six feet under.

Harry Morgan has a blast as a Weegee-style shutterbug. Phil Karlson, one of the finest noir directors of the 1950s, keeps the action lean and tight. It’s all based on a novel by Samuel Fuller, who in the same year made his own tribute to the fourth estate in Park Row. The greatest independent filmmaker in American movie history would still rather have been a newspaperman.

Here’s the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s article on Noir City including a sidebar on the city’s contribution to the genre, actor Howard Duff.