Journalism July: Deadline - U.S.A. (1952)

This July we will examine films that give insight into the media, the way they can shape society and the people involved. Today Adam and Samantha discuss Deadline - U.S.A. from 1952.

ADAM: Ed Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart) is the editor of The Day, a newspaper that operates under the rubric, “This paper will fight for progress and reform. We’ll never be satisfied merely with printing the news. We’ll never be afraid to attack wrong whether by predatory wealth or predatory poverty.” These principals are put to the test when the paper is surreptitiously put up for sale in the midst of an expose on notorious mobster Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel).

SAMANTHA: This is an inspiring movie that will make you appreciate the efforts good journalists go to to report the news without sensationalizing it and to work toward making their community better. The Day and its rival paper are contrasted by their reporting on the news of a dead women found in the river wearing a mink coat. The Day reports the facts without speculation on who the woman was whereas The Standard sensationalizes and victim blames.


AW: The Standard also shamelessly splashes a photo of the dead woman on the front page. As with most movies of this genre, the greatest appeal of this movie is the bustling goings on in the newsroom. To the rhythmic clacking of the Remingtons, the paper employees scamper about the cluttered fluorescent-lit office like rabble rousing characters in an opera buffa. They toss papers about, shout for the copy boy (“Boy!”), take swigs from the bottle, and brawl. After work they meet at the neighborhood bar O’Bryan’s for “anesthetic.” It’s in these comfortable surroundings where the movie’s most memorable scene takes place.

The soon-to-be-unemployed Day employees hold a wake for their beloved rag. Bogart sits in the background nursing a drink whilst the character actors take center stage. Mercury Theatre alum Paul Stewart—who, ever since seeing Kiss Me Deadly, I implicitly distrust—acts as master of ceremonies. Jim Backus electrically performs a mock evangelical testimony that teaches us the difference between a reporter and a journalist: “…a journalist makes himself the hero of the story, a reporter is only the witness.” Stage actress Florence Shirley as phenom researcher Miss Barndollar makes the most of a tipsy hiccup. Audrey Christie piles on the jaded rhetoric—“I covered everything from electrocutions to love nest brawls”—while stifling all her regrets. Finally, Ed Begley plays up the sarcasm touting the sensationalist competition.

SG: For me, this film's strongest element is the writing, very befitting a movie about writers. The excellent screenplay is peppered with powerful, memorable lines that drive home the message of the film. Deadline - U.S.A. was written and directed by Richard Brooks who also wrote the screenplay for excellent films like Crossfire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the latter of which he also directed. He provides authenticity in choices like keeping a dead man's eyes open as his body is carted away. The film feels like and looks like noir without really fitting that mold. There is optimism lingering in the reporters who decide to stay on and work the way they always have for a few weeks before they become unemployed. "A free press, like a free life, is always in danger." Isn't that all the more true now in the era of "fake news"?

AW: Brooks no doubt took inspiration from his own experiences as a reporter in Philadelphia and New York. He is one of those directors who seemed to choose his projects carefully—24 features in the 35 years since his first film at the helm, 1950’s Crisis. Incidentally, that Cary Grant political thriller is an unsung gem of his filmography much like Deadline – U.S.A. is for Bogart.

While this supporting cast would be stellar in a minimalist set, the production is cluttered with beautiful things. There are three main floors in the set of The Day. The pneumatic tubes, Associated Press newswire machines, rotary phones, water coolers, domineering wall clocks, chronograph wrist watches, and intercom systems litter the office floor. The press room is sticky with ink and alive with the motion of thousands of papers on the conveyors. Then there is “the dome” as Bogart’s character calls it. This is the boardroom with velvet curtains, elegant woodwork, subdued lighting, and an arched window overlooking the city. The sound design is distinctly muted in contrast to the din of the preceding two floors. Clearly, the fleeing board of directors are far removed from the proletariat below.

SG: Let us not forget how exceptional Bogart is as the flawed, passionate and tormented manager watching his beloved paper crumble away at his feet. There is a scene when he first discovers the fate of The Day when he stares out the window. He doesn't say a word, but he conveys a great deal with a few seconds of screen time, that his character is ready to give up and hurl himself out the window, but decides against it, and not only does he decide to live, he decides to go out with the bang. Kim Hunter's part exists mainly to illustrate Hutcheson's devotion to the paper. He has let his marriage to a beautiful woman that he loves dearly fail in favor of his job, and now he is losing that too. Another standout is Ethel Barrymore as the widow of the paper's founder. Her scenes are short but memorable, which isn't surprising coming from an acting legend. I love the way she tells someone off, "Oh shut up-- please?"

AW: Besides featuring a fabled Barrymore, the first-rate cast has an impeccable pedigree including members of the Actors Studio (Kim Hunter and Warren Stevens) and Broadway stars (several including Begley and Christie). This wasn’t the only appeal to the intelligentsia. François Truffaut noted that the film’s lack of incidental music linked it to the still-fresh Italian neorealism movement. It’s worth keeping in mind that 1952 was a year of Technicolor spectaculars like The Greatest Show on Earth and Ivanhoe, the introduction of ultra-wide Cinerama, and the new dimension of Bwana Devil. This film was in stark contrast to those extravaganzas and decidedly East Coast: intimate, literate, and it wielded a social conscience. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was undeniably pleased with the film’s quality and happy with the way his industry was portrayed. He wrote, “…the honesty of the effort rates a newspaper man’s applause.” So, all of these qualities—the Barrymore-level casting, serious tone, and important subject matter—are perfect fodder for the critics. Consequently, the film's attack feels too mannered.

It’s interesting to compare Crowther’s review of this with his tepid take on Billy Wilder’s indictment of the press in the preceding year’s Ace in the Hole. The latter film is a much more dynamic experience. This is partially because the villainy is much more striking—and omnipresent—than in Deadline – U.S.A. While this movie has much to recommend, my biggest complaint is a dull antagonist. Martin Gabel as Rienzi does not provide the requisite danger. Gabel was married to Arlene Francis and their son turned five the year this was released, so I can easily forgive him for being too contented. It’s still worth a watch: 3 stars.


SG: I haven't seen Ace in the Hole but this movie impressed me. I was caught up in the performances and the strength of the sentiment behind the story. Four stars.

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