Chuck Tatum: “I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” [Kirk Douglas, “Ace in the Hole” (1951)]
News and the reporting of the news whether it’s by newspapers, other forms of publications or various media sources like radio, TV, and the internet have been popular subjects for representation in films and on television since the very beginning. Two major themes have consistently been popular for motion pictures to explore: (1) the crusading reporter(s) investigating or uncovering corruption/illegality and exposing it while possibly risking their own life/livelihood/reputation in the process, and (2) the actual individuals reporting and providing the news in the various newspapers/media outlets and their own corruption, incompetence, or criminality where their focus is not on reporting the facts, but rather shaping opinion or utilizing news reporting for their own personal agenda. It is this second theme which will be the subject for this month’s Blog Post.
Perhaps the most famous and early successful film showcasing the rough and tumble newspaper industry’s reporters and staff willing to make up, distort, outright lie or do any illegal thing just to grab a lead story over any other competing news outlet was the famous film, “The Front Page” (1931) directed by Lewis Milestone. Many other versions of this film have been done over the years like “His Girl Friday” (1940), an early CBS television series (1949), a 1974 re-make, as well as others. This 1931 version was maybe, the very first screwball comedy film ever made, and it was based on the famous 1928 play written by former Chicago reporters and future Oscar winning screenplay writers Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. The storyline revolved around two principal characters. The first one was “Hildy” Johnson (Pat O’Brien), a Chicago newspaper’s star reporter who wants to quit his job, get married, and move with his future new bride to a far better paying job in New York City. The second one was Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou), his manipulative, sleazy, cut throat newspaper editor/boss, who will stop at nothing to keep Hildy there. Burns’ hook is to have Hildy investigate a sensational murder case with the supposed killer currently on the loose while trying to also sabotage Hildy’s exit plans. Things change when Hildy stumbles onto the killer, finds out that the facts of the case don’t add up, and decides to hide the guy to get the news scoop.
Since this film was made Pre-Code, you could get away with all kinds of stuff that wouldn’t be allowed if it was made, say, a few years later (nude pictures on walls, a reporter giving the corrupt mayor the “F…You” finger, general crude slang and dialogue, etc). Like the play, most of the action took place in a press room. However, Milestone, a great director who had just won his second, Best Directing Oscar the year before (“All Quiet on the Western Front”) was at the height of his directing powers. He used a fluid moving camera style that he was well known for [and which Orson Welles later stole in his direction of some of the scenes for his own great movie about a newspaper tycoon, “Citizen Kane” (1941)] along with some great film editing to keep the action as fast paced as the smart, razor-sharp dialogue from the Hecht and MacArthur screenplay. Both Menjou (Oscar nominated) and O’Brien fire lines at each other faster than a machine gun while continually trying to get the upper hand over one another. Seen today, this movie is terribly dated suffering from sound limitations (talkies were only being made for a few years at this time), and exaggerated Silent Movie acting styles that would make even Marcel Marseau blush. However, it is still sarcastically and cynically funny while skewering politicians, law enforcement, and the newspaper industry itself.
The aforementioned “His Girl Friday”, another screwball comedy, and “Citizen Kane”, a serious drama as well as being one of the greatest movies ever made were two other fine films about the newspaper industry. I could easily discuss both of them, but am I going to? Hell no! Instead, let’s turn to a film category where individuals in the newspaper/publishing business actually commit murder. Two films with this noir theme are “The Big Clock” (1948), and “Scandal Sheet” (1952). “Clock” was based on the fine novel by Kenneth Fearing and starred Ray Milland as George Stroud, editor-in-chief of “Crimeways,” a magazine under Janoth Publications run by his tyrannical boss Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton, sneering like he just smelled a fart). Janoth has a fetish-like fascination for clocks with his main one being a giant sophisticated monstrosity dominating the lobby of his Publishing Building. Stroud has perfected a unique investigative system for catching criminals whereby his investigative staff piece together all possible clues or information from a crime and quickly act on the information using major resources to both identify and find the criminal before law enforcement can. Fortunately, Stroud’s magazine is successful. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop Janoth from firing Stroud when Stroud refuses to postpone a long overdue vacation with his wife. As if that wasn’t bad enough, soon Stroud’s crime solving system will be utilized by Janoth after he murders his mistress, Pauline, to find a stranger that he briefly saw in shadow leaving her apartment, and to have that person both blamed for the crime and immediately killed, preferably by his mute murderous henchman (lover?) Bill (Henry Morgan). The only problem… “That person happens to be Stroud!” Now Stroud, who Janoth rehires to handle the overall investigation, has to sabotage his own system while trying to (1) find evidence to prove Janoth murdered Pauline, (2) hide from any witnesses who could previously identify him with Pauline, and (3) act quickly when one of the witnesses sees him enter Janoth’s Publishing Building resulting in all of the building’s exits being sealed while having building security sweep the building floor by floor to flush out the stranger (Stroud) for the witness to identify and for Janoth to have killed.
Although author Fearing’s book was unusual in that each chapter offered a different character’s perspective as the story unfolded, this movie was directed as a straight forward suspense thriller in fine style by journeyman director John Farrow. Farrow’s fine direction contrasted the huge size of the building, its main lobby, and the huge clock itself where you find Milland’s Stroud terrified and hiding in it at the very beginning of the film, to Stroud himself in numerous closeups throughout the film registering his increasing fear, confinement, and desperation almost like a rat in a maze trapped with “No Way Out” (That was deliberate, Folks! This movie was remade, badly, in 1987 with Kevin Costner). The acting is terrific with Milland’s increasing panic offset by Laughton’s ice-cold aloof arrogance only showing cracks by an uncontrollable facial twitch whenever he starts to lose control over the situation. The secondary roles are led by scar-faced George Macready as Janoth’s Iago-like assistant (and also, maybe lover?) Hagen, Henry Morgan’s Bill, and, in a hilarious scene stealing role, Elsa Lanchester as an avant-garde painter who provides laugh out loud comic moments between all of the tension. Former Chicago journalist, Jonathan Latimer, who specialized in writing hardboiled crime fiction mixed in with screwball comedy wrote the outstanding screenplay as well as including hints of moral rot in all of the characters (including Stroud) which was also hinted at in the original novel. Although “Clock” is not a film specifically relating to the newspaper industry, it still exposes some of the unsavory individuals involved in reporting the news.
“Scandal Sheet” starred Broderick Crawford as Mark Chapman, the editor of the “New York Express”, a highly successful newspaper that specializes in sleazy sensationalism instead of responsible journalism. He is assisted by his young ace reporter and protege, Steve McCleary (John Derek), who is every bit as obsessed as Chapman is in covering (exaggerating?) these types of news stories. However, as this tale unfolds, you soon discover that Chapman has a hidden past. His real name is Grant, which he changed long ago when he abandoned his wife, Charlotte who, when she discovers him by accident, now threatens to expose his sordid past. Bad career move, Charlotte! Unfortunately, after making her death look like an accident, Chapman now has an even bigger problem: Steve McCleary! Once Steve figures out that Charlotte was actually murdered, he slowly starts to uncover more and more clues that could ultimately lead back to Chapman. Although this film has some similarities to “The Big Clock,” it also has some big differences. First, unlike Milland’s character in “Clock”, the focus is on Crawford, the actual killer. Second, unlike “Clock,” this film’s slow building suspense was from Crawford’s overall predicament, not from Milland’s character being physically trapped in a publishing building like some sort of animal in a cage. Third, although actor Henry Morgan was in this film too, instead of playing another sinister henchman like in “Clock,” he just played Derek’s smiling sidekick. Fourth, you actually had some sympathy for the villain, thanks to a strong performance by Crawford. Pulpy Director Phil Karlson’s adaption of former newspaper reporter turned pulpy writer/pulpy director Sam Fuller’s early novel crafted an interesting and suspenseful film. However, it’s nowhere near as good as “Clock” due to two major casting mistakes. The first was Donna Reed as a disapproving feature writer whose performance here was more wooden than a plug nickel. Even worse was the second one, “pretty boy” John Derek’s “Clutch Cargo” quality performance as Steve. Whenever Reed and Derek share a scene, besides them having zero chemistry together, they show about as much enthusiasm in saying their lines as someone reading a grocery list. “Scandal Sheet” is only worth your time due to Crawford’s performance and Karlson’s fine direction.
Outright sleaze, yellow journalism, tabloid journalism, sensationalism or anything that treats news reporting in an unprofessional or unethical manner is always a popular subject for films. Unlike “Scandal Sheet,” one of the greatest ones of them all, and which was also made at around the same time, was the scathing Billy Wilder drama, “Ace in the Hole” (1951). “Hole” starred Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a former big city reporter from the East Coast now broke and stuck in a small New Mexico town after his car breaks down. Fired from a number of newspapers due to such improprieties as libel, cheating with his boss’s wife, and general drunkenness, he walks into the office of the local newspaper run by the owner and editor-in-chief Jacob Boot (Porter Hall), and convinces Boot to give him a job even though he openly admits that he will only stay until he writes a headline inducing news story that will catapult him back into the big time again. Fast forward one year later and he is still waiting to write that big time news story until he stops for gasoline at a local trading post while assigned to cover a nearby small-town’s rattlesnake hunt. There he discovers that Leo (Richard Benedict), owner of the trading post, is trapped after the collapse of a cliff dwelling while he was searching for Indian artifacts here. In an instant, Tatum realizes that this is his big break, and he will manipulate the situation any way he can to his advantage. At first, all goes well but (You just know I’ve got to say it…) Things Do Not Go As Planned!
Billy Wilder was one of Hollywood’s greatest film directors, and specialized in dark dramas laced with caustic humor (“Double Indemnity”, “Sunset Boulevard”, etc.). In “Ace in the Hole,” Wilder crafted the darkest and most nihilistic film of his entire career. As Tatum drags out the rescue efforts more and more to milk the situation for its maximum sensationalistic impact, you see all of the worse traits of humanity in full display. You have the spectacle of curiosity seekers, vacationers, opportunists, a crooked local sheriff, Leo’s slutty wife (Jan Sterling, a fine actress who played more trampy female roles than JLo had boyfriends), competing news reporters, various rescue workers, and with Tatum at the center of it all, orchestrating everything like a carnival ringmaster (the title of the film was originally renamed, “The Big Carnival” due to low box office returns). Douglas, who from 1949 to 1956 was Oscar nominated three times for Best Actor, should have been nominated at least three other times with “Hole” being one of them. When released, this film was uniformly panned by critics and a box office failure. Now, however, it’s regarded as a cynical masterpiece. Wilder made other fine films afterward like “Stalag 17”, “Witness for the Prosecution”, and “Some Like It Hot” for example, but he never again made a film as uncompromisingly bleak as “Ace in the Hole.”
The last group of films that I want to discuss for this Blog Post are three more recent ones. The first is “Absence of Malice” (1981) directed by Sydney Pollack. “Malice” starred Paul Newman as Michael Gallagher, the son of a deceased criminal now a successful liquor wholesaler whose life is turned upside down by Megan (Sally Field), a newspaper reporter who says he is being investigated in conjunction with the murder of a union official. In actuality, Megan is being played by an unscrupulous federal prosecutor to get Mike to provide information. When Mike’s close friend Teresa (Melinda Dillon) contacts Megan to tell her that Mike couldn’t have murdered anyone then because he was helping her to obtain an abortion, Megan unprofessionally includes mention of Teresa’s abortion in her rebuttal piece even though Teresa, a devout Catholic, asked her not to mention it. Megan’s reckless actions ultimately result in disaster.
Newman originally wanted this movie to be a not so veiled direct attack on the New York Post because of its supposed inaccurate caption for a prior photo of Newman in its newspaper. “Malice”, which was written by former newspaper editor Kurt Leudtke (Oscar nominated), has been used in journalism and public administration courses to illustrate professional errors in reporting such as non-confirmation of sources and having a personal relationship with a source. My own personal feelings about this movie are that Pollack made a good, but not great, film about irresponsible reporting and how it could ruin peoples’ careers and destroy individuals’ lives. Unfortunately, it was not as good as it could have been because, once again, Columbia Studios just had to throw in a romantic relationship between the Neuman and Field characters as well as leaving it open ended, when the dramatic “dust” settled so they could possibly have a “happy ending!” Their efforts to capitalize on their two stars popularity was about as subtle as being hit in the face with a baseball bat, and it diminished the overall film. However, that wasn’t a problem for the next film that I want to highlight. That movie is “The Public Eye” (1992).
“Eye” starred Joe Pesci as Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein (AKA “The Great Bernzini”), a freelance nineteen forties photojournalist specializing in street photography of crime scenes and emergencies for various New York City tabloids. Film director Howard Franklin based the character on famed New York Daily News photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig although the storyline was almost pure fiction. Bernzini, working exclusively at night and with a police radio under his car’s dashboard, constantly races to various crime or disaster scenes to get exclusive photos that he then quickly develops with a makeshift darkroom in the trunk of his car. He then sells the photos to the highest paying tabloid before anyone else. Although he is uncouth, and the sensationalistic photos that he takes and then sells to the sleazy tabloids are borderline tawdry, he has higher aspirations. He wants to be recognized as a true artist for his photographic work. This dedication to his profession results in him leading a lonely and solitary life in a small apartment until he comes into contact with Kay (Barbara Hershey), a beautiful wealthy widow who owns a nightclub. Although he has never had much success in relationships, she shows surprising interest in his work as well as genuine warmth and kindness. However, when she asks if he could investigate an individual who has been bothering her and he agrees, he gets more than he bargains for along with his growing suspicion that she is using him.
“Eye” is basically a character study of someone who, outwardly, appears to be unattractive and low class, but internally, is a sensitive and feeling individual who is a true artist with a camera and who takes his work very seriously. Pesci, who won an Oscar just two years before for the film, “Goodfellas” is wonderful in the lead role. His emotional sensitivity is delicate and touching, especially in his scenes with Hershey, who is also very good. The romantic element between these two mismatched souls is believable and not forced unlike “Malice”, and it’s the heart and soul of the film. Unfortunately, this movie was pretty pedestrianly directed by Franklin, and it was not a box office success. However, it is one of the few films that focused on photojournalism as a news source with great support provided by Pesci’s winning performance.
Another film exploring this type of news reporting, and the last one that I will discuss, is an altogether different type of film than “The Public Eye”. That film is the dark and disturbing “Nightcrawler” (2014) starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal played Louis Bloom, a skinny petty thief and con man with stringy hair oozing more grease than a truck axle and who, while driving home late one night, sees a car crash and pulls over. When he sees some guys arrive and start filming the proceedings, he starts asking who are they, and what are they doing. It turns out they are “stringers” or freelance photojournalists who sell either photos or video footage to various local news stations. Since they do not receive a regular salary but are paid individually for each photo published or video shown they can basically do whatever they want, legal or otherwise, so long as they can find someone willing to pay for it. For a street-smart lowlife like Louis, it’s a dream come true. Soon Louis will become an in-demand stringer who will do anything, from tampering or withholding crime information, to sabotaging rival stringers or to even set someone up to be killed just to make a buck. Hey, it truly is the American Dream! Right!!!
Unlike Pesci’s Bernzini, who had some real sensitivity and feelings while regarding his profession as art, Bloom regards his work, and what he is willing to do to achieve success in it as nothing more than a way to make a buck. He has no inner “self” except for one of “self” interest, and there is no back story about his character at all. It’s almost as if he appears, like some malevolent force, out of thin air. Although too often in past film roles Gyllenhaal’s emotional displays have almost been like watching someone stick their finger into a light socket, here, as Bloom, he is phenomenal in the role. He lost 20 pounds and worked out 8 hours a day to develop a gaunt appearance because he visualized his character as a hungry coyote. First time writer/director Dan Gilroy (Oscar nominated for Best Original Screenplay) originally wanted to make a film based on “Weegee” Fellig, but since one was already done previously with “The Public Eye,” and also once he started learning more about stringers, he decided to make a story about a sort of modern day Weegee, only far more amoral and far more, darker. In “Nightcrawler,” the only thing more odious than a Louis Bloom, are the news networks and the public at large who crave such sensationalism like a baby craving milk.
Whether it’s “Ace in the Hole” or “Nightcrawler,” there will always be more Chuck Tatums and Louis Blooms out there to sate our appetites…
If we’ll let them!