Bogart Nails the Point in Ever-Relevant Newspaper Film
DIRECTED BY RICHARD BROOKS/1952
STREET DATE: July 26, 2016/Kino Lorber Studio Classics
Like a most appealing parade of truth that refuses to be stopped, 1952’s Deadline- U.S.A. rolls off the presses as an impressive blu-ray release. Starring Humphrey Bogart in one of his later roles, the film crackles with wit, power, and energy throughout. Although prescient then, the questions it asks will make anyone paying attention to today’s news sit up and take notice. So I ask this one: Is Deadline- U.S.A. the best newspaper movie ever made?
Like the tried and true journalists who gave themselves over to their profession, the newspaper movie is a special thing. From The Front Page and His Girl Friday, to All the President’s Men and Absence of Malice, to the 2016 Best Picture winner Spotlight, the obsessive truth-seeking that fuels these films have taken to the screen like ink on newsprint.
Hailing from a faded era when many screenwriters first had legitimate careers as reporters, these films, certainly in their heyday, took pride in the power of the press, the responsibility therein, and the sacrifices that come with the job. Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller, and Richard Brooks are just a few of those to valiantly make the jump from the daily page to the silver screen – all proudly with the black ink still on their fingers.
Popular cinema, by contrast, is a medium built on artifice, but always hungry for baseline truth. We don’t get many “quest films” these days – the kind of movie that revolves entirely around a hero’s singular journey from one obstacle to another in pursuit of a defined goal. Yet, when we did, movies and quest stories proved to be a natural fit. (Think the output of Ray Harryhausen.) The common thread, obsession, is not just key to many great movies, it’s what gets movies made. Just as every screenplay begins with a lone individual at a keyboard, so do does every headline, every expose, begin with the single reporter charged with a “quest”. Often, the quest giver is just as driven if not more so.
Richard Brooks, the writer and director of Deadline- U.S.A. seemed to be a filmmaker with a firm and vocal self-righteous streak. But, having been a journalist for a great metropolitan newspaper, the man knew his stuff. This is him, with only his second movie, taking a bold stand for what he saw as a crumbling integrity of the once mighty “the third estate”. The film is full of talk about the changing face of journalism, and the consolidation and decline of the institution of the daily paper. But, it is very much okay. For one thing, there are passages in this film that are downright prophetic of the here and now. And also, as Film Noir expert Eddie Muller points out on his terrific commentary track, star Humphrey Bogart brings just the right blend of sincerity and irony. As the editor-in-chief about to lose his job, his paper, his reason for being, he’s spot on in his performance. It goes to show that one or two too many self-righteous speeches need not sink a film. Even as he lectures in courtrooms, offices, city rooms, everything Bogart says here is no less true, and worth the effort of saying.
The character Bogart plays is a rich one. His Ed Hutcheson is the purest of purist, someone who sees funnies and crossword puzzles as mounting encroachments to the NEWS. His handling throughout the film of a seemingly sensationalist story of a nude model found murdered tells us all we need to know about him. The plot point proves to be a most clever one on behalf of Brooks, proving his screenwriting chops alongside his directorial ones. Bogart’s performance is fueled with world-weary rage, but the fire still burns. After hours, he has nowhere to really go, his marriage long nullified by his work. His poor ex-wife, played by an up-and-coming Kim Hunter, must deal with his drunken self when he turns up looking for some “quality time”.
At work, his beloved paper, The Day, is on the brink of being sold to the competition, only to be folded. But even in the face of doom, the presses still run. Paul Stewart, Jim Backus, and several others turn in memorable performances as the devoted newsmen who make the place click. Ethel Barrymore is the widowed matriarch left in a tough spot holding the keys to the kingdom. It isn’t long before she’s working to salvage whatever she can of her husband’s proud legacy in the face of her offspring, who are only looking to cash out.
Aside from a few trailers, the only major extra on the disc is the afore mentioned commentary track by Eddie Muller. But it is enough. Although Deadline- U.S.A. is not a Noir film by any stretch (despite the wording on its case, and the presence of Muller), the author proves to be a perfect host. Muller, who boasts a personal family connection to journalism, enthusiastically knowns his stuff, and knows this movie. He is apt to point out just how prophetic Richard Brooks’ film is, as it over and over again speaks sharp truths about the business it depicts. In an age of the vanishing commentary track, it’s great to get one that is as entertaining, engaging, and entirely worth one’s time as this one is.
Deadline-U.S.A. looks and sounds fantastic on blu-ray, and belongs on the shelf of any classic film buff interested in newspaper films, Humphrey Bogart, or snappy, effective, personal filmmaking of an era gone by. The daily paper is not what it once was, but the integrity of the press is ever at risk. This is a film that smartly and entertainingly reminds us of that, and that we as viewers/readers must keep our eyes and ears open in terms of the news we’re getting, but also to the construct of how we get it.
The images in this review are intended only to represent the film itself, and are not necessarily indicative of the quality of the blu-ray itself.