Monday 15 August 2016

Deadline - USA (1952)

Director: Richard Brooks
Writer: Richard Brooks
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ethel Barrymore and Kim Hunter
This review is part of the Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. This is my Ethel Barrymore review; watch out for John tomorrow and Lionel on Wednesday.
Ah yes, the Barrymores. I’m a fan of all three siblings, who had very different careers in film. Lionel was most prolific, finding his way to the big screen early and staying there for a long time. John was most prominent, the Great Profile commanding attention, but he waned quickly in the sound era. Ethel was most reluctant, but she made it to film and did amazing work. For this three day blogathon, I chose a film from each of them which I hadn’t seen before, that filled other filmography gaps for me beyond just the Barrymores and which are connected not merely by their presence but by another theme: that of writing, appropriate given that I’m doing my duty as a writer in reporting on them. So pay attention over the next three days for Ethel Barrymore in one of my few Humphrey Bogart gaps, a fifties drama called Deadline - USA, John Barrymore in a Carole Lombard comedy I’ve somehow not seen called True Confession and Lionel Barrymore in The Yellow Ticket, a pre-code melodrama with a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff.

I was pleased with that plan, but it almost came a cropper immediately. It turns out that Ethel Barrymore isn’t actually in Deadline - USA much, even though she’s prominently placed on the poster and on the screen, right after the title card, alongside Kim Hunter. It’s testament to her reputation that she be so highly billed, given that lead actor Humphrey Bogart came to this from The African Queen and Hunter to it from A Streetcar Named Desire. By comparison, Barrymore came to it from a trio of 1951 movies that I hadn’t even heard of, though I have every intention now of tracking down Kind Lady and The Secret of Convict Lake, if not perhaps It’s a Big Country: An American Anthology. She does get a few scenes of power, as the widow of a newspaperman. ‘Girls these days have stuff,’ she tells Bogart, ‘but they’re brittle, break more easily.’ That’s a telling line from a stage actress who could easily be described as a gentle battle-axe. Bogart’s character jokingly proposes to her. ‘You’re too old,’ she replies.
She’s Margaret Garrison, the widow of John Garrison, the founder of a serious newspaper called The Day. It’s about to be sold to its competitor, Lawrence White, who will close it down. Garrison’s daughters just want the money from the sale because they have no interest in running a paper. Margaret is too old to do so and she initially agrees to the sale too, but she’s a wildcard as she knows it has importance and she remembers her husband’s passion for it. Ed Hutcheson, the current managing editor, has that passion too, and Bogart sells it magnificently. We see his tone quickly, in his treatment of what the town’s other papers see as sensational front page news: the discovery of ‘a nude in a fur coat’ who has been drowned in the river. They plaster photos on page one; he chooses to run a more sedate story inside and without imagery. That’s an important decision, partly for demonstrating what sort of a man he is and partly because it becomes a plot point later in the film, as the story becomes important for reasons nobody knows yet.

It’s clearly Bogie’s film quickly and effectively, even if we start with Martin Gabel as a local mafioso called Tomas Rienzi, dismissing whatever questions a senate subcommittee throws at him. When a Day journalist, George Burrows, asks Hutcheson if he can stay on Rienzi, he tells him that ‘we’re not detectives and we’re not in the crusading business.’ However, they soon become both, once Rienzi’s thugs send Burrows to the hospital and Hutcheson discovers the fate of the paper upstairs from the heirs and lawyers. He prowls that room, polite but demonstrative, quoting the front page of the first edition from memory. He dominates effortlessly and Ethel Barrymore lets him. Margaret clearly feels guilty at this point, knowing that he’s a good man and a good reporter who runs a good paper. Her spine will return later in the film, but his never left. As he goes back downstairs to sweep into his office, a colleague tells him that the mayor is on the phone. ‘I’m busy,’ is his response, because he has bigger things on his mind.
He’s far from the only actor to impress early on. Jim Backus gets a great scene in the bar, as The Day’s journalists all go to get drunk and mourn the loss of the paper; his monologue is characterful and memorable. Audrey Christie was already impressive before we got to this point, but she gets another great scene in the bar. She was my big discovery here, as I’d forgotten her dark journalistic wit in Keeper of the Flame, released a decade earlier in 1942 but still her previous film. She was primarily a stage actress with plays on TV a prominent sideline and features a distant third in her priorities. She only made ten over three and a half decades, even if they did include Carousel, Splendor in the Grass and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. There’s also Ed Begley (Senior not Junior), who was always reliable and both the featured ladies, Barrymore and Hunter, get moments. The latter is Hutcheson’s ex-wife; she does still love him but knows he’s married to his paper. To quote Margaret about John, he loved her ‘passionately, but between editions’.

Technically, the crew back up the cast superbly, with only a few obvious rear projection shots detracting from the film’s power. It has a decent, if conventionally dramatic, fifties score from Cyril Mockridge, sharp editing from William B. Murphy and a suitably restless camera, courtesy of Milton Krasner, who had been Oscar-nominated the previous year for All About Eve, his second of six nominations; he would win in 1955 for Three Coins in the Fountain. The most obvious name to call out, though, perhaps after Bogart but perhaps not, is that of Richard Brooks, who wrote and directed; he’d go on to direct Bogie’s next picture too, Battle Circus. Of all his screenplays, which include Key Largo, Blackboard Jungle and Looking for Mr. Goodbar, along with adaptations of The Killers, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and In Cold Blood, this may be one of the closest to his heart, as he used to be a reporter in New York with Samuel Fuller and we know what that was like from the latter’s magnificent Park Row. They took the news business very seriously.
This often felt like Fuller to me, but that’s presumably because Brooks brought something very similar to it. Clearly the philosophy uttered from the screen by Hutcheson as managing editor of The Day could have been uttered by Brooks or Fuller off screen, just in private conversation. ‘It may not be the oldest profession,’ Hutcheson tells one wannabe journalist, ‘but it’s the best.’ And he’s just told us what a profession is: it’s ‘a performance for public good’. Some of the dialogue is more conspicuously written for Bogart. In one scene, a Day photographer bemoans putting himself at risk for a paper that’s about to close and Hutcheson promptly fires him. ‘Everyone knows we’re washed up,’ he suggests. ‘That’s your mistake,’ replies the editor. ‘But I worked here four years!’ complains the photog. ‘That’s my mistake,’ quips Hutcheson. That’s surely dialogue tailored to Bogart, as much as the hilarious back and forth in Rienzi’s car. ‘Not a drinking man?’ the kingpin asks him, when he refuses refreshment. ‘Not in an armoured car,’ he replies.

This may be Bogart’s most traditional scene because, frankly, was there anyone in Hollywood better equipped to stand up against a bully of a crime boss in the latter’s own vehicle? The only actor I could think of who could have played this scene better than the Bogart of the fifties is perhaps the Bogart of the forties; he’s as utterly at ease being threatened as Rick in Casablanca and his lines are just as snappy. ‘I think I like you,’ says Rienzi. Hutcheson simply fires back, ‘Why?’. ‘I’d like you to be my friend,’ offers Rienzi. ‘I’ve got a friend,’ he replies. Martin Gabel does a great job as the mafioso but, while he’s neither a Cagney nor a Robinson, Bogart is still Bogart. ‘Never beat up a reporter,’ he tells the crook. ‘It’s like killing a cop on duty.’ He blisters into him, with infuriatingly simple lines that bite, all while watching him like a hawk. When Rienzi finally realises that he can’t dominate this newspaperman and slaps him with a copy of his own paper, Hutcheson finally grins. He’s got him. This is quintessential Brooks and Bogart.
this film partly on location at the New York Daily News, using both their newsroom and their printing plant, with many real employees fleshing out the backgrounds, so it looks and feels authentic. They did reproduce the newsroom on set, but the difference isn’t noticeable. It wasn’t based on that paper, of course, The Day apparently being an amalgam of a pair of other New York papers, The Sun and the New York World. The former was a serious broadsheet that had been founded by Benjamin Day in 1833, but it had just printed its last edition under its own name in 1950. It was a city editor at The Sun who famously said that, ‘If a man bites a dog, that is news’; ironically, his name was John B. Bogart. The latter paper had been gone longer and was less serious, having pioneered yellow journalism under no less a publisher than Joseph Pulitzer. However, when it ceased publication in 1931, his heirs went to court to sell it to a competitor, Roy W. Howard, who promptly closed it down and laid off its 3,000 employees.

So this tells quite a lot of newspaper history, wrapped up in a fictionalised setting, and that discovery perhaps weakens the ending, which is left open, the future of The Day left to the minds of readers. History tells us precisely what happened and it wasn’t good. It also spins a good story itself, with Bogart magnetic as an editor who finds himself crusading against a bad man in order to keep his paper alive and the twists and turns of that crusade fascinating to watch. There’s also an odd romantic angle, which is woven into the wider story superbly. Hutcheson is a very capable juggler, able to keep many balls in the air at once; he frequently skips from one strand of dialogue to another like lightning. However, he’s dropped what Hollywood would usually see as the most important ball of them all, his marriage, and when he tries to pick it up, it’s too late. What’s telling is how little this really affects his drive, as he’s a newspaperman not a husband. As Margaret suggests, ‘You wouldn’t have had a wife if that newspaper had beautiful legs.’
That brings us neatly back to Ethel Barrymore, who I know mostly from the 1940s, when she was in her sixties. We remember that she resisted the call of Hollywood for a long time, unlike her brothers who became as important on the big screen as on the stage, but she actually made a string of thirteen silent movies in only six years, starting in 1914. But then she left again and returned only rarely, making just two features over almost a quarter of a century. The twenties saw only Camille and the thirties Rasputin and the Empress, albeit a major event with all three Barrymores acting together for the first time. It was only with None But the Lonely Heart in 1943, which won her an Oscar, and The Spiral Staircase, which won her a further nomination, that she really became an actress of film. I’ve seen a few of her pictures from the forties, in which she hasn’t yet disappointed, but this was my first experience of her a decade later. As brief as her appearance here was, it highlights how she was just as powerful in her seventies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi. Sorry for the late reply on your post. I've been battling sickness, and have also been busy, so I'm only just getting around to reading the entries, and announcing other blogathons. Thanks so much for your triple duty in this blogathon. I look forward to reading your other two entries. I enjoyed reading this impressive post. It makes me want to watch the movie again.

Anyway, I've announced another blogathon, and would love to invite you to join in. Here's the link below.