Columbia Pictures, 82m
The influence of the past on the present is one of the most definitive film noir themes. That consistent connection probably is best explained by an element of fate. Although the forces of darkness that rule the noir world sometimes appear random, other times the genre’s protagonists encounter self-imposed difficulties. Indeed some of my favorite film noirs involve a protagonist who falls into a trap of his own making. One of the finest examples of that template is director Phil Karlson's terrific SCANDAL SHEET (1952), based upon the novel THE DARK PAGE by Samuel Fuller. One of many fine noirs produced by Edward Small, this adaptation moves at a brisk pace and, unfortunately, still accurately reflects our nation's appetite for sordid news reporting.
What plays out in the narrative has its roots in an event that transpired two decades ago in Connecticut, when Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) deserted his unstable wife Charlotte (Rosemary DeCamp), whose wrists show irrefutable evidence of a suicide attempt. Having moved on from the relationship better than she has, these days Chapman is the unapologetic executive editor of the New York Express, a once respected news publication he converted into a far more financially viable tabloid operation. The more sensational the news, the higher the circulation jumps. The paper's brand of journalism has been altered so unrecognizably that onetime Pulitzer Prize winner Charlie Barnes (Henry O'Neill) has been reduced to a pathetic drunkard, abandoned to the company of the city's wastrels.
Chapman's place in society is threatened when Charlotte returns to the Lonely Hearts Club Ball that Chapman himself engineered in the interest of generating another lowest-common-denominator news feature. In a tense scene, Chapman quite ironically creates another such story when he accidentally kills Ball attendee Charlotte, which predictably leads to an avalanche of trouble for the master of yellow journalism. One crime almost always begets more crime in the film noir, as the embattled protagonist cannot stop digging when he finds himself in a deep hole.
But as one man falls in SCANDAL SHEET, another man must rise. Reporter Steve McCleary (John Derek) is first glimpsed at the film's exposition scene at a squalid apartment complex, where he impersonates a cop to get all the dirt from a hatchet murder eyewitness. Later he bribes the chief examiner (Cliff Clark) with baseball tickets. Though he no doubt learned such tactics from Chapman, to prove his worth as an investigative reporter, McCleary (unknowingly) must endeavor to bring down Chapman. This is the greatest of the film's many ironies, that to succeed we must destroy someone we admire. The tabloid editor slowly being condemned by his own protégé suggests an absurd justice rules noir territory, especially considering the newspaper readership boost that results from Chapman's own criminal activity.
Broderick Crawford was one of those few actors uniquely suited to the noir form. His infamously hard drinking made him difficult to work with, yet I never have questioned his performances. Here his forehead really beads up with sweat as the thumbscrews gradually tighten. Similar to Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) in WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950), Chapman must observe the dogged investigation of the crime he committed. On another thematic level, Chapman is a man torn between two identities, an unenviable challenge shared by other major noir characters that came before him. Multiple identities complicated the lives of the protagonists in numerous film noirs prior to SCANDAL SHEET, including THE DARK MIRROR (1946), NORA PRENTISS (1947), HOLLOW TRIUMPH (1948) and THE CROOKED WAY (1949). Fittingly, Chapman's dismissive treatment of the fallen journalist Barnes accelerates the editor's downfall. Less compelling than Crawford's presence is the performance by John Derek, who offers a rather one-dimensional turn. Donna Reed casts a better impression in her role as the embodiment of journalistic integrity. The cinematography for SCANDAL SHEET was handled by Burnett Guffey, who served as director of photography for that same year's unforgettable film noir THE SNIPER (1952).
SCANDAL SHEET was predated by other essential film noirs that portrayed journalism in a negative light, i.e. THE BIG CLOCK (1948), FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (1949), THE UNDERWORLD STORY (1950) and, most notably, ACE IN THE HOLE (1951). All are well worth your time. Be prepared when SCANDAL SHEET airs next on Turner Classic Movies, or hand over the cash for the pricey Sony DVD box set The Samuel Fuller Film Collection.