Saturday, January 24, 2009
(Deadline—USA was shown Friday night, January 23, at the San Francisco Castro Theatre as part of the film noir series, Noir City 7.)
“A free press is like a free life—it's always in danger.”
That pithy twelve-word, melodiously planate maxim is spoken by Humphrey Bogart's The Day newspaper editor Ed Hutcheson. Hutcheson is a weary and weathered man, played by the increasingly weary and weathered movie star, Bogart, to nearly utter perfection. Deadline—USA is not truly a film noir but rather a newspaper business expose, complete with an ostensibly prescient essaying of the tergiversation by a moneyed elite that desires not the civic responsibly role of the press, but rather to simply sell newspapers off, and kill them. Bogart's editor is a principled traditionalist who recoils at the ridiculous extravaganza of sensationalism that he sees steadily overtaking the role of the “news.” Despondent, and still pungently wounded by the divorce that shattered his marriage two years earlier, he has only the newspaper to live for, and now that is being taken away. New York City's The Day is being sold off by its owner, the offspring of its creator, a mercenary daughter, who, according to Hutcheson, loathed her father and, after his death, can only kick him in his grave by killing the thing for which he lived. Hutcheson sees how the rival newspaper is churning revenue—with equally prurient and puerile emphases.
As Hutcheson says at the newspaper's unofficial “wake” at an Irish pub to his largely sullen journalistic cohorts (busily drowning their pangs and fears with alcohol), “It's not enough any more to give 'em just the news. They want comics, contests, puzzles. They want to know how to bake a cake, win friends, and influence the future. Ergo, horoscopes, tips on the horses, interpretation of dreams so they can win on the numbers lottery. And, if they accidentally stumble on the first page... news!” Bogart delivers the monologue with as much conviction as writer-director Richard Brooks could ask for, and he continues delivering many astringent, lacerating lines of acerbic and ill-tempered hostility and anger. Brooks continually reinforces Hutcheson's bitterness with reasonable idealism, which he fears he may be forced to abrogate. The dialogue is composed of numerous speeches, most of which are delivered by Bogart, but Brooks' gift for making the verbiage realistically compelling and convincing vivifies the proceedings.
Where Brooks typically falls short is in the visual realm of filmmaking and though Deadline—USA is surely always serviceable, one of the reasons it is not truly a noir is its more static, unimaginative optics. Fortunately, strong cinematography is provided by Milton Krasner (All About Eve and a few noirs such as The Set-Up, No Way Out and Vicki), casting Bogart and the supporting players in an ever slightly monochromatic ablution of lightness and darkness.
Primarily, however, the film's greatest strengths are its actors' fine turns. Ed Begley plays Hutcheson's most stalwart ally, Frank Allen, and though the character is more of a concept, he fits in as such. Brooks' screenplay deals with axiological matters, and utilizes the characters as bulwarks. The crime story that impels the narrative's forward motion, which takes place throughout a three-day span, is interesting but functions most sharply as a fulcrum against which the ensemble's numerous characters rotate. Those characters, from Hutcheson, to Allen, to Hutcheson's ex-wife Nora Hutcheson (Kim Hunter), to Martin Gambel's sinister Sicilian gangster whose existence supplies Hutcheson with a possible out from his predicament named Thomas Rienzi to an elderly immigrant lady named Mrs. Schmidt (Kasia Orzazewski) are, springing from Brooks' screenplay, Platonic representatives of variegated philosophical and conceptual panoramas.
Taken as more of a meat-and-potatoes drama, Brooks' film is a solid pressure-cooker single-picture repertory, Deadline—USA is at its most proturberant, a vehicle for Bogart, whose performance—not unlike almost all of his latter turns—is both challengingly different from his past efforts but also comfortingly akin to them. Bogart was especially adept at playing parts intended to be viewed as inspirational figures of one variation or another, as his onscreen persona was a constant contrast to the simpler, more linear trajectories his characters often traversed. Bogart was seemingly an inherently cynical figure, his dour, scuffing and caustically erosive exterior camouflaging the beneficence that lurked beneath his abrasiveness. As the oft-crusading editor, Bogart tremendously softens the role's potential hoariness; the eyes are so casual, so indifferent, that they mask the vociferous portrait of righteousness. It is quite a spectacle to watch Bogart make his case, pleadingly advancing on a character late in the film in what seems like a futile endeavor to save the newspaper. His demeanor suggests apathy while the words he spouts directly from Brooks denote zealous passion.
The issue of martyrdom is presented by Brooks. The gangster Bogart's Hutcheson is investigating tells him in the back of a car, "Show me a martyr and I'll show you a dead man." Brooks repeatedly allows "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (which in 1855 did not include a verse about John Brown or include the melody of "John Brown's Body," but was later changed to include him as the abolitionist "martyr"). Drawing from this perspective of martyrdom, influenced by the song and its reverential constitution, Brooks draws the comparison between Hutcheson and supposed martyrs like Brown, and suggests that through the press, "His truth keeps marching on!" (Changed again from the original, "His soul's marching on!") Brooks' handling of this is, and various symbolic gestures, are not subtle, but it lends some strong commentary on the film's plot and main character.
Viewing the fate of newspapers entire as an integral element of society and its healthful saliency, Brooks, born Ruben Sax, worked as a newspaperman in his early life for several newspapers. He worked primarily as a sports reporter. Drawing on some of his past experiences, and projecting the love he had for the profession, he crafts a solid screenplay that allows for substantial supporting turns to develop as greater components of the whole. Paul Stewart plays what would appear to be Brooks' onscreen alter-ego, fearless, quick-witted and sardonic sports reporter, who becomes pivotal in Hutcheson's investigation of the powerful, corrupting gangster.
Deadline—USA may not quality as a film noir in a fairly strict sense, and it is not without flaws, but it is agreeable entertainment with sterling performances. Bogart is the film's beating heart, and the role loses nothing from having him essentially reprising his own established archetype while modifying it once again. Brooks' screenplay is peppered with suspense, and made whole by the performers. One of the best attributes of the film is the authenticity that acts as a foundational support for the entire drama. The long, powerful scene in the pub early in the film demonstrably showcases the ensemble as a whole, and convinces the viewer that these characters have worked with one another for many a year. Finally, it is this small, intimate community of journalists that makes the viewer care. Brooks created a perfectly feasible small world of Platonic constructs, enriching abstractions and artfully making them into actively animated humans. Deadline—USA is a film that wins the viewer over with its sincerity, and its shining adoration of its struggling personages.