Thursday, May 20, 2010

Scandal Sheet (Columbia, 1951, rel. 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Scandal Sheet began life as a 1944 novel called The Dark Page by Samuel Fuller — and though the screenplay and direction were both by other hands (Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling and James Poe, writers; Phil Karlson, director) Scandal Sheet comes off very much like a Sam Fuller movie, full of toughly drawn characters, a cynical view of the newspaper business (and capitalism in general) and a plot that turns on the exposure of a murder motivated by a sexual secret. The New York Express was once a respected and rather dull paper until a new chair of its board, overruling the objections of some of the long-time minority shareholders, brought in hard-charging editor Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) to change the paper into a tabloid and up its circulation.

In fact, Chapman has been promised a large personal bonus as soon as the paper’s circulation goes up to 750,000 — and he’s well on his way there, thanks to his nauseous mix of sensational true-crime stories and ugly staged “reality” events like the “Lonelyhearts Ball” at which up to 200 over-the-hill and excessively unattractive people of both sexes are paired off, with whoever wins the contest for an on-the-spot wedding gets a present of a bed with a TV set built-in. (Were there actually such products back then? Or was it originally a bed with a built-in radio and making it a TV — a far less likely product to be built into a bed — a misbegotten idea on the part of the screenwriters to update Fuller’s novel?) Chapman leaves most of the job of covering the “Lonelyhearts Ball” to his star reporter and protégé, Steve McCleary (John Derek, reunited with Crawford after they’d played father and son in the 1949 All the King’s Men); his photographer, Biddle (Henry Morgan, who always came off as avuncular even when he was young — perhaps because he was always being cast as sidekicks, from George Raft’s sidekick in Race Street to Chummy MacGregor to James Stewart’s Glenn Miller in The Glenn Miller Story); and feature writer Julie Allison (Donna Reed), who was hired by the Express’s previous editor and makes no secret of her distaste for Chapman and his policies.

But Chapman attends the event himself and the MC introduces him from the stage — and he’s recognized by Charlotte Grant (Rosemary DeCamp), whom he married two decades earlier when he was still using his real name, George Grant. Bracing himself for a blackmail demand, Chapman agrees to go home with her to discuss the matter — only the confrontation turns violent and Chapman shoves her against a steampipe, bashing her head into a large nut holding the pipe together and thereby killing her. From then on the story turns into a two-way chase as McCleary attempts to solve the murder ahead of the police so he can turn in a big story for the Express, while Chapman supports him but at the same time tries to cover up the investigation so it won’t lead to him. McCleary gets his first lead when he sees a bit of a badge pinned to Charlotte’s corpse that indicates she was at the Lonelyhearts Ball, even though Chapman tore off most of the badge and dropped it down a sewer grate, along with the wedding ring he found on Charlotte’s finger that could have been traced back to him. An alcoholic ex-newspaperman named Charlie Barnes (Henry O’Neill) traces the crime to Chapman when Chapman, who’s routinely been giving Charlie handouts to dodge his persistent requests for a job at the Express so he can make a journalistic comeback, finds a pawn ticket mixed in with the bills Chapman has just given him, uses Chapman’s money to redeem the ticket and finds that the pawned item was Charlotte’s suitcase, complete with two photos of the wedding of Mark Chapman, t/n George Grant, and his wife Charlotte. In one of the photos Chapman is turned away from the camera and is therefore unrecognizable, but in the other he’s facing front and clearly visible.

Charlie takes the photo in which Chapman is recognizable and offers it first to the Express, and when McCleary hangs up on him he decides to take it to another paper — only Chapman catches him on the way and kills him, but not before Charlie has stashed the suitcase and the rest of its contents, including the wedding photo with Chapman’s face obscured, with the bartender at one of his favorite haunts. McCleary and Julie recover the suitcase and, at McCleary’s urging, Chapman runs the photo as a cover and allows McCleary to go to Connecticut, where the wedding took place, to see if he can trace the person who officiated and thereby get a line on the identity of both victim and killer. Chapman calls to the town where the wedding took place and satisfies himself that no one could trace the justice of the peace who married him and Charlotte 20 years earlier, but McCleary and Julie trace him anyway — he’s retired and moved to another town — and bring him back to the office to identify the killer. The judge (Griff Barnett) says he doesn’t recognize the man visually but, since he got into an argument with his wife right after the wedding, he remembered the man’s voice and would recall it if he heard it again. Needless to say, the moment Chapman starts barking at his star reporter, the judge recognizes that angry snarl instantly and Chapman is exposed; he tries to escape by pulling a gun on his staff members, but the police come in, take his gun away and arrest him — and, in a marvelously cynical final scene that fully reflects Sam Fuller’s vision, the popularity of the issue in which the Express exposes its own editor as a murderer finally pushes its circulation over 750,000.

Scandal Sheet had a tangled history on its way to the screen; the movie rights were originally purchased by Howard Hawks, who wanted Edward G. Robinson as the murderous editor (not surprisingly, since Robinson had already played tabloid editors — albeit more guilt-ridden and less psychopathic ones — in Five Star Final and Unholy Partners) and Humphrey Bogart as the reporter. Then Hawks had one of his weirder brainstorms and wanted to cast Cary Grant against type as the editor — which might have been interesting, only with Jack Warner to contend with he could no more cast Grant as a murderer as Alfred Hitchcock had been four years earlier in Suspicion (in which, much to Hitchcock’s disgust, RKO’s “suits” insisted on a last-minute rewrite which absolved Grant’s character of murder) — and the movie rights filtered from Hawks and Warners to Columbia, where the project lay fallow until the studio made All the King’s Men with Broderick Crawford (who only got the part when MGM cancelled Columbia’s deal to borrow Spencer Tracy at the last minute!) and started looking for vehicles for an ugly middle-aged character actor with a gravely voice and proletarian but still imperious manner.

Scandal Sheet works brilliantly mainly due to Karlson’s direction — unlike Douglas Sirk with Shockproof, another Fuller story, at the same studio, Karlson had a producer (Edward Small) who believed in Fuller’s vision and allowed it to be presented on the screen without compromise, and Karlson responded by directing very much the way Fuller would have: atmospheric night shots, tight closeups and a deliberate playing against any glamour elements another, less committed director might have tried to inject into the story. John Derek isn’t much of a help — Bogart would have been too old for the role and it really needed someone like Montgomery Clift (who’d play a similar part seven years later in Lonelyhearts) or James Dean; Derek is so callow one can readily believe in his naïveté towards Chapman, whom he regards as a great editor and a role model, but the rest of his performance doesn’t really work.

Still, Scandal Sheet is strong enough in its other particulars that it can survive a weak male lead — especially since Crawford is so authoritative, nailing the character’s unscrupulousness as well as a fierce ambition that makes him understandable and almost likable: he lashes out at Charlotte less out of any lingering anger at her from their days as a couple than out of fear that her reappearance will cost him the good life he’s worked so hard for. The other fascinating thing about Scandal Sheet is its almost uncanny anticipations of both later movies and real-life events — it seems creepy to be watching a movie in which a fictional character named “Mark Chapman” commits murder in New York city 28 years before a real Mark Chapman killed John Lennon in New York City — and though at times the film might seem like a ripoff of The Big Clock (star reporter/editor for a magazine conglomerate investigates and is suspected of a murder actually committed by his publisher) Fuller’s novel beat Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock to publication by two years, while the New York Express’s transformation from historically respected newspaper to sleazy tabloid eerily anticipates the similar change Rupert Murdoch and his minions wreaked on the real-life New York Post.