(Scandal Sheet was screened at the San Francisco Castro Theatre on Friday, January 23 along with Deadline USA as part of Noir City 7.)
Scandal Sheet is directed with a particularly pungent, uncensored acumen by Phil Karlson, whose fidelity to the screenplay by Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling and James Poe, based on the novel “The Dark Page” by Samuel Fuller, enriches the film for its entire eighty-two minute runtime. (The film's title in the United Kingdom was The Dark Page.) Karlson, aided by cinematographer Burnett Guffey—whose lens seems to inescapably capture every last sealed crevice on the gritty sidewalks or clammy characters' faces—creates a verisimilitude out of mise-en-scene that perfectly imparts the scabrousness of the picture's very story. Surveying the relationships in a scandal rag “newsroom” controlled by a bulldog of a man who behaves almost like a centurion guard, managing editor Mark Chapman (a relentless Broderick Crawford), Karlson makes the camera an impartial observer, making casual note of the rampant, anfractuous headline-grabbing (and -making) that is made into a virtue by the avaricious Chapman. Chapman's running of the newspaper, once a respectable publication, The Comet, creating a “scandal rag,” has dramatically increased the circulation of the paper, and he reminds the partnered owners of the institution of that unalterable fact.
Fuller's novel, “The Dark Page,” came about when he decided to write a book about some of the more outstanding experiences of his career as a newspaperman. Fuller had to serve in World War II (with the “Big Red One”) and was notified by his mother while he was away that a publisher was quite interested in purchasing the rights to his first draft. Only a couple of years later, Fuller learned that none other than Howard Hawks was quite interested in adapting the book into a film, and bought the rights for $15,000. Fuller's mother was ecstatic and sent her son $1,000 while he and his unit were fighting in Europe. Sadly, Hawks never made the film, and sold the rights for several times what he paid for them. The buyer was Columbia Pictures, and Karlson would direct it.
The atmospheric component Karlson brings to the picture makes it somehow more compulsively watchable than most films with similar “set-ups.” Crawford's Chapman, like almost all of the best noir protagonists, is a man who has skillfully managed to escape his past, but, as in so much of noir, it is the past that he cannot truly evade. And, as in most noir, the chilling hand of irony finds itself practically slapping Chapman's face—it is through a very idea originated from his greedy mind that his past catches up with him. The newspaper actually hosts a “lonely-hearts ball,” where many companionless people are brought to one venue. Chapman's cynicism is unrestricted, and he guarantees a prize to a couple who marry on the very evening they meet one another: a bed, with a built-in television set.
It is at this “lonely-hearts club” event that Chapman's past runs into him and he is eventually placed in an unenviable position. Suffice it to say he makes a mess out of an already unfortunate situation, and is compelled to cover up a crime he has committed. In pursuing that crime, however, his ace reporter, the young, handsome Steve McCleary (an exceedingly effective motor-mouthing John Derek), digs up just enough dirt to make it into a story—and one so sensationalistic that Chapman is practically forced to run his reporter's story in the newspaper, despite it being highly dangerous to himself. The delicious paradoxical scenario—the potential undoing of Chapman's person due to his own recalcitrant desire to see the most controversial subject matter splash across his front page to ensure wider and wider circulation—is quite the cinematic meal to be engorged.
Fuller is widely attributed the line that the very beginning of a film should give the viewer a “hard-on,” which crudely approximates what his directorial outings would later achieve. (Including the fine newspaper noirish melodrama Park Row from the very same year.) Scandal Sheet almost achieves that standard of criteria—Derek's McCleary behaves like a policeman gleaning gruesome details of a murder, only to be thrown out of the crime scene by a disgusted cop—but unlike Fuller's dyspeptically fast-paced book, it is has less alacrity to its rhythm. Whereas Chapman's irredeemable act occurs right at the beginning of Fuller's novel, Karlson's film is slower to uncover it. Fortunately, Scandal Sheet gains momentum in its aftermath. One highly memorable scene involves a group of woebegone drunkards being questioned by McCleary and his partner Biddle (a well-realized and queasily comical Harry Morgan), as the newspapermen attempt to get to the bottom of the crime at the film's center. Donna Reed as morally upright Julie Allison sometimes veers into didactic, lifeless platitudes, but her relationship with the borderline courting McCleary is well-rendered and believable.
In many ways, however, Scandal Sheet is a film that would not be nearly so sibilating without Crawford's ardent performance. Known for barking like a bulldog, Crawford utilizes his (at this point in his career, especially after winning the Oscar for All the King's Men) on-screen identity, and creates an indelible noir protagonist driven to sheer desperation. As he finds himself committing yet another unspeakable crime against a sympathetic character simply to hide his earlier ones, the audience may find in him, not quite empathy, but responsive connection. It may help that Crawford's Chapman is softened and curiously mollified; in Fuller's novel he is far more incorrigibly awful a person. In Karlson's film noir, however, that aforementioned callous hand of fate entraps Chapman, and makes an already ugly person only far uglier. The very ending of Scandal Sheet may be interpreted as a sight gag of sorts, but it reinforces the smoke-filled verbal lacerations that have come before. (For an example of only one brutal comment to be found throughout the film, McCleary once refers to a dead woman as a wonderment to Reed's Allison—a dame “with her mouth shut.”) The last shot of Scandal Sheet in actuality surpasses its apparent comicality, and comments on the paradoxes that haunt Chapman, driving a man to destroy himself through his own megalomania.