powered by AFI
For a half-century or more, noir has become one of America's signature vocabularies, having triumphantly survived its passage from under-loved programmers (in their heyday) to retro-cool reference bank (from the 1970s, and Chinatown , on), to campy image file exploitable by advertisers, to full-on grizzled cred resource (the neo-noir 1990s, its Jim Thompson rediscovery, and so on). Today, its dark streets, Venetian blinds and rumpled raincoats are too clichd for reuse but the films themselves, restored and showing on TCM and coming out on DVD (when many other, less resonant mid-century "hits" remain in the vault), appear newly fresh, startlingly energetic and passionately tragic. Because it was saying something genuine and urgent and even universal about America in the postwar years, the genre's shadowy fatalism, rich racetrack patter and character archetypes still leaves heelmarks on our consciousness. Of course, part of noir's allure lies with its reputation as a school of films that arose naturally out of our cultural anxieties, not out of a Hollywood marketing ploy. However true that may or may not be across the board, let's consider, then, that American film history can and should have its own retrospectively designated "folk" domain, an organic region in which primitive impulses and semi-artless revelation gave voice to the nation's bitterest woes and disillusionment. Is noir a genuine American folk art, the Hollywood version of Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie? Why not?
Phil Karlson and Samuel Fuller's Scandal Sheet (1952) exemplifies a certain strand of noir not the sweaty wrong-man-tripped-up-by-fate noirs (think Detour , Somewhere in the Night , Where Danger Lives ), but the life-in-the-jungle noirs, dark elegies wherein citizens had to tough up to survive in modern urban sewers rife with impulse killing, squalor, crazed greed and moral desolation. Here, the systems themselves industry, community, the law, the mob, the press were rotten from the inside. Karlson and Fuller were reigning warriors in this vein: director Karlson was a no-nonsense journeyman who with Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953) and The Phenix City Story (1955) perfected a confrontational, violent, subtlety-immune noir style in which the world, not merely the individuals stuck in it, seemed to be on the edge of social upheaval. Fuller was, of course, Fuller, the most notorious idiosyncratic-pulpster of the postwar age, an unstoppable creative force whose particular view of the world was a vulgar, cynical mashup between first-hand realism (no American filmmaker knew the actualities of tabloid journalism, ground warfare and the criminal sector as well) and outrageous pop-cinema hyperbole.
Scandal Sheet, in any case, was not Fuller's film it was based on his hot-property novel The Dark Page, published in 1944 after Fuller had already defected from being a reporter to being a screenwriter, and while the young Fuller was fighting in Europe with the Big Red One. Still, it boils over with his storytelling energy and his signature reflex, the urge to discover, expressionistically, the painful, hard-boiled reality as he knew it within the movie universe of Golden Age Hollywood. The set-up itself is nearly autobiographical: Fuller used to work on the New York Graphic, a screaming-mimi, truth-manipulating exploitative tabloid on Park Row that makes the contemporary New York Post look like The London Review of Books. (Fuller has described its editorial principle to be one of "creative exaggeration.") It's easy to see how Fuller's own distinctive tale-telling style, visual and narrative, was formed by the daily creation of howling headlines, sensational fabrication and punchy, don't-lose-the-reader prose. In the film, Broderick Crawford's Mark Chapman is the New York Express's bulldog editor, pulling the daily out of its economic doldrums with lurid front pages and invented news; John Derek's Steve McCleary is his amoral star reporter, the two of them heading a newsroom that has only Donna Reed's Julie Allison to recommend it in the way of moral compunction and compassion. The thorny patter and amoral brio proceeds apace until Chapman is confronted at a publicity event by a middle-aged woman (Rosemary DeCamp), who immediately pegs him as "George," and summons an entire unwanted past that places Chapman's present success in mysterious jeopardy.
Soon it's made clear: she's the unstable wife he abandoned years before, and now she will not be ignored an ultimatum that leads, somewhat predictably, to a scuffle and her accidental death. From there, Chapman is all about covering his tracks, which as we all know simply creates more tracks, more corpses and more bad fortune. Scandal Sheet is a fast-gabbing, meat-eating show, with only one typical handicap: pretty boy star John Derek (future husband of Bo) is a baby-faced cipher beside the roaring rockface of Crawford, and even the quick-eyed beauty of Reed. But the story is expertly fashioned; Fuller was careful to make the tabloid mercenariness turn in on itself: McCleary is hot on the story, and despite his neck being in the noose Chapman must bait him on, because if he relents one iota from the Rupert Murdochian ethos that made him and the Express a hit, suspicion will fall on him like a safe from a window.
It's amusing to consider Fuller his industry's most uncompromised moralist, given his racy, flush-faced sensibility, but that's what he was and with Karlson's fast-&-knuckle-hard pacing, Scandal Sheet scans today like a prescient indictment of media sensationalism, Murdoch's and otherwise. "Thinking people," it is suggested, like Allison's humane feature stories, "even if there aren't many of them reading the Express anymore." Perhaps things haven't changed in the American mediascape, we may speculate, but perhaps things have grown many times worse the very idea of courting a "thinking" newspaper reader today is ludicrous, as monopoly regulations have all but vanished and only six corporations profit-maximizing, homogenizing, stockholder-focused own the vast majority of media outlets in the U.S., as compared to over 50 in 1983, and many hundreds in the 1950s. Fuller and Karlson had their ears to the ground in the mid-century, and however relevant it was in 1952 their movie feels like a prophecy come true.
Producer: Edward Small
Director: Phil Karlson
Screenplay: Eugene Ling, James Poe, Ted Sherdeman, Samuel Fuller (novel)
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: George Duning
Cast: John Derek (Steve McCleary), Donna Reed (Julie Allison), Broderick Crawford (Mark Chapman), Rosemary DeCamp (Charlotte Grant), Henry O'Neill (Charlie Barnes), Harry Morgan (Biddle).
by Michael Atkinson