Saturday, September 15, 2018

DEADLINE - U.S.A. (1952)

Twentieth Century Fox, 87m 16s

An intriguing newspaper drama with a message about media convergence that remains relevant today, DEADLINE - U.S.A. was written and directed by Richard Brooks, who once freelanced for various newspapers. His original screen story "The Night the World Folded" has its roots in the history of the WORLD, a newspaper once controlled by Joseph Pulitzer. In 1931, Pulitzer's heirs elected to sell the WORLD to Roy W. Howard of the Scripps-Howard chain. The end result was the closure of the WORLD, with its large staff thrown out of work.

The trusted newspaper at the center of DEADLINE - U.S.A. is called THE DAY. It employs 1,500 people and has a readership of almost 300,000. Despite those impressive numbers, THE DAY is living on borrowed time. The revered man who owned and operated it was John Garrison, who passed away 11 years ago. Now his heirs want to sell THE DAY to its major competitor THE STANDARD, a less-distinguished publication that favors yellow journalism and boasts double the circulation. The pending sale infuriates THE DAY's respected managing editor Ed Hutcheson, who obstinately clings to his ethical foundation at a time of fading idealism. According to Hutcheson, the journalism trade, "...may not be the oldest profession, but it's the best."

The competition


In a statement that seems unthinkable today, Hutcheson claims his newspaper has no allegiance to any political party. A true public servant, Hutcheson is a man steadfastly dedicated to his profession. He represents journalism for what it always was intended, not what it has mutated into at inferior news organizations more concerned about profits than public service. After his reporter George Burrows (Warren Stevens) is treated very harshly by thugs, Hutcheson vows to nail Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel), reputed kingpin of the underworld and the man behind the attack that lands Burrows in a hospital bed. Rienzi alertly goes into defense mode, and it becomes clear he will not go down easily. In a thematically crucial sequence, Hutcheson proves he is completely unwilling to play ball with Rienzi, who has grown accustomed to buying off everyone who could become a problem to him. Everyone has an "angle" according to Rienzi, but Hutcheson's undying principles defy that logic.

DEADLINE - U.S.A. is not a film noir in the usual sense of the flawed lead protagonist whose errant choices magnetically attract the hand of fate. The only potential flaw of Hutcheson involves the imbalance of his professional and personal demands. His deadline-oriented professional life persistently trumps his private world; most all of his conversations are interrupted as his chosen trade shadows him 24/7. No wonder he was incompatible in marriage to Nora (Kim Hunter), with whom he would like to make amends. Hardly a man characterized by the dark impulses associated with the classic noir protagonist, he nonetheless is enveloped by a complex noir city that threatens to marginalize his existence. Perhaps there is no proper place for traditional journalism if the majority of urban readers prefer sensational headlines over objective reporting. More to the point, maybe a person need not do anything wrong to be squeezed out of his or her rightful role in society. Hutcheson always seems to make the right choices as a managing editor, but the noirish big city of DEADLINE - U.S.A. makes no allowances for the virtuous. After an impassioned courtroom plea from Hutcheson for the preservation of THE DAY and the healthy competition it provides its rivals, a judge rules in favor of the sale. Despite the imminent demise of THE DAY, the film concludes with a call for the continuity of the press as a public necessity, no matter the cost. To a modern American audience, that message is doomed to fall on mostly skeptical ears in a nation of consolidated news organizations that cater to advertisers, special interests and inflexibly partisan positions.

Some of the characters who populate the urban scene reflect standard film noir sensibilities, especially since rampant alcoholism appears to impact a broad sample of people. The pathetic character Herman Schmidt (Joe De Santis) describes how he sold out his sister (Ann McCrea), who was beaten to death and dumped in a river. Her lifeless body was found in a mink coat, the insignia of the gangster moll. On a related level, Rienzi's thugs are able to impersonate policemen and eliminate a potential witness who, in one of the most gruesome of all noir murders, is flattened when he falls into a printing press! Not the most subtle of imagery when it comes to the film's position on the dark, distinctly urban forces that threaten "an honest, fearless press." When questioned about why he could not differentiate cops from criminals, Frank Allen (Ed Begley) tellingly replies, "In this town?" The greatest danger to the city is embodied by the gangster Rienzi. He says he is in the cement and contracting trades, but in truth he is connected to far more than that. Rienzi is a powerful underworld figure who attempts to influence elections, and he maintains ties to the boxing commission (a sure sign of corruption). Though his poor grammar choices allude to a low level of education, he maintains top-notch advisers within an organization that mimics the structure of a legitimate business machine. More of a cancer to society than ever before, the 1950s-era gangster has progressed markedly since the days of depression-era bootlegging. According to this film, his most resourceful opponent is the free press.

DEADLINE - U.S.A. is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, and is a "classic film noir" according to the packaging. The transfer looks more than serviceable to my perception, with limited artifacts as framed at 1.33:1. It is an obvious must-own for fans of Bogart, but also should be coveted for its distinguished roster of supporting players that includes Kim Hunter, Ed Begley, Paul Stewart and Jim Backus. Ethel Barrymore casts a strong impression in every scene in which she appears, especially during a dramatic courtroom segment. Prior to the production of DEADLINE - U.S.A., cinematographer Milton R. Krasner advanced the film noir movement with an incredibly extensive credit list that includes some of the finest films of the genre, i.e. THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944), SCARLET STREET (1945), THE DARK MIRROR (1946), THE SET-UP (1949), HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949) and NO WAY OUT (1950). Director Brooks makes laudable use of the frame's foreground, middle ground and background to create a consistently convincing illusion of depth that compliments the cinematography nicely.

The audio commentary track belongs to noted film noir historian Eddie Muller, who out of the gate claims in no way shape or form is DEADLINE - U.S.A. representative of the film noir genre. However, he later mentions the film was screened at one of his noir festivals. That contradiction speaks to the difficulty of discussing the film from a genre standpoint. DEADLINE - U.S.A. was released in 1952, when the noir film already was showing evidence of decline. Stylized sets had been replaced by the documentary realism movement that called for location work. I completely understand Muller's viewpoint, though I do think the pervasiveness of distinctly urban problems places the film at least on the borderline of noir territory. The other factor is the presence of Humphrey Bogart, whose watery-looking eyes always look hung-over, on the verge of defeat. His health may have contributed to his appearance and reportedly crude behavior on the set.

The Kino Lorber disc includes trailers for DEADLINE - U.S.A. (2m 45s), THE CAPTIVE CITY (1952, 2m 49s) and SHIELD FOR MURDER (1954, 1m 45s).