Scandal Sheet (1952)
AKA The Dark Page
Starring Broderick Crawford, Donna Reed, John Derek, Rosemary DeCamp, Henry O’Neill, Harry Morgan, James Millican, Griff Barnett
Directed by Phil Karlson
Expectations: Fairly high.
At this point in my review series on the writing and story credits of Sam Fuller (that he did not direct), I’ve learned to expect few returns. The films rarely recall the work of Sam Fuller himself, as his fiery style had usually been watered down by a few studio writers before the films made it to the screen. But right from the opening scene, Scandal Sheet evokes the spirit of Fuller’s work. It definitely doesn’t feel like something Fuller made or anything, but there is a raw, pulpy vibe that will likely satisfy all but the most critical Fuller fans.
One of these critics was apparently Sam Fuller himself, as the film’s only mention in his memoir, A Third Face, is to quickly dismiss it as “disappointing.” I have no doubt that to Fuller Scandal Sheet was indeed a total disappointment. The film was based upon his first novel, The Dark Page, which he finished writing right before leaving for the front lines of World War II. While overseas, he learned that his mother had been successful in finding a publisher for the novel, and later (while Fuller was still at war) the novel’s film rights were sold to Howard Hawks, who hoped to direct a film version starring Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson.
From these events it’s easy to see how The Dark Page was an incredibly important work in Fuller’s life. Not only was it his first novel, the news of its success helped to provide some bit of joy between the bullshit of trying to survive in the war. Fuller’s first encounter with a printed copy of the book was when he saw another soldier reading a copy! It’s understating it to say that The Dark Page was probably very near and dear to Fuller’s heart, so I would imagine that almost any version he didn’t have full creative control over would’ve been a disappointment in some way. And the transition from an A-picture with Bogart in the lead, to a lower-budget B-Movie probably didn’t help matters. Although I’d imagine that Fuller, of all people, would have generally been more accepting of this type of transition, as he made almost primarily independent, lower-budget films outside of the general Hollywood studio system.
With that backstory out of the way: as someone who does not come to the film with any personal baggage or knowledge of the novel’s plot, I had a fantastic time watching Scandal Sheet. In fact, the specific lack of huge stars added immensely to the effectiveness of the film. There are some familiar faces here, but I was able to buy into their roles much better than if Bogart or Edward G. Robinson inhabited them (even though I have to admit that I would like to have seen that version too). Besides, all the actors — specifically Broderick Crawford & Rosemary DeCamp — performed exceptionally well, making the film effortlessly believable and captivating. I also found Phil Karlson’s direction to be tight, engaging and no-nonsense. Most of what makes Scandal Sheet such a fun ride is held within the beats of the story, but the components integral to bringing that story to life cannot be pushed aside.
About now, you’re probably wondering, “So what the hell is the story in Scandal Sheet?” Well, I won’t go into too much depth, but our story centers around the New York Express, a once respectable newspaper that has recently taken a turn towards the scandalous side of things in order to sell papers. The Express is run by Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford), a fast-talking editor who knows the newspaper business from cover to cover. His brightest reporter is Steve McCleary (John Derek), who Chapman has taught to be fearless and always in search of the next big story, just like him. The paper’s other lead reporter is Julie Allison (Donna Reed), and she is far less enamored with Chapman’s methods. One thing leads to another and the New York Express finds itself at the forefront of a murder investigation, with the audience in full knowledge of the culprit. So where’s the fun in that? Well, in seeing the pieces all come together and watching the murderer sweat it out, that’s how!
I realize now why I wrote all that stuff about The Dark Page instead of Scandal Sheet. Sure, it’s relevant and adds a context to the film at hand, but it’s also because I don’t have much to say about Scandal Sheet. It’s a pulp yarn that just zings along wonderfully. It doesn’t have any big social ideals, nor does it bring up questions of an existentialist nature. It is simply B-Movie fun (of a different variety than the B-Movie label has since become representative of), and it doesn’t have any notions of being anything else. So I guess if I didn’t have all that Sam Fuller stuff to delve into, this review could have been a couple of sentences. 🙂
One thing in relation the film’s status as a B-Movie that I do want to draw attention to is how director Phil Karlson chose to shoot certain scenes. There’s quite a few scenes in Scandal Sheet where the camera moves to capture something instead of the more direct route of simply cutting to it. Obviously camera movement isn’t a big deal, but the way it’s used here allows for a great look at how B-Movies will try to avoid cutting as much as possible, in order to save on editing costs. The best, or most recognizable, example of this is in a shot of Broderick Crawford and Donna Reed, with John Derek just off-screen. When it’s time for Derek to talk, the camera pans over to re-frame the shot with Crawford just off-screen. My usual example of this type of filmmaking are the Shaw Brothers films, so it’s fun to find an American film use the same principles.
Scandal Sheet is a wonderful marriage of film noir and journalism, hooking you into its story from the first scene and never letting go. Many of the films I’ve covered in this phase of my series on the films of Sam Fuller have featured journalism as a central theme, but none have been as effective at plunging us into the life of a reporter as Scandal Sheet. Classic movie buffs and fans of Fuller’s Park Row will definitely want to check this one out!