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Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (1952)

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, based on a novel by director Samuel Fuller, is brilliant filmmaking.

So let’s get this out of the way right off the bat; I admire Samuel Fuller‘s work immensely, especially Underworld U.S.A. (1961), but in the final analysis, I think that Phil Karlson is a better filmmaker. Fuller was enormously talented, and a superb self-promoter, but while Fuller was making a name for himself, Karlson was simply hammering out one excellent film after another, without bothering too much to toot his own horn.

One result of this is that Scandal Sheet (1952), which is one of the toughest noirs ever made, never really got the attention it deserved, nor did it get Karlson a place in the pantheon of first-rate hardboiled filmmakers, an honor he clearly deserves. I never got the chance to speak with Karlson, who passed away before I could get in touch with him, but I did correspond with his late wife, Dixie, who confirmed that Karlson felt that he’d never really gotten the respect that he deserved – in part because Fuller, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, The Dark Page, went out of his way to slam Karlson’s work.

Somehow I think this says more about Fuller than Karlson, for Scandal Sheet is a remarkable film – one that really stands up today. As critic Michael Atkinson astutely observed, “Phil Karlson and Samuel Fuller’s Scandal Sheet (1952) exemplifies a certain strand of noir not the sweaty wrong-man-tripped-up-by-fate noirs (think Detour [1945], Somewhere in the Night [1946], Where Danger Lives [1950]), but the life-in-the-jungle noirs, dark elegies wherein citizens had to tough up to survive in modern urban sewers rife with impulse killing, squalor, crazed greed and moral desolation. Here, the systems themselves industry, community, the law, the mob, the press were rotten from the inside.

Karlson and Fuller were reigning warriors in this vein: director Karlson was a no-nonsense journeyman who with Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953) and The Phenix City Story (1955) perfected a confrontational, violent, subtlety-immune noir style in which the world, not merely the individuals stuck in it, seemed to be on the edge of social upheaval.

Fuller was, of course, Fuller, the most notorious idiosyncratic-pulpster of the postwar age, an unstoppable creative force whose particular view of the world was a vulgar, cynical mashup between first-hand realism (no American filmmaker knew the actualities of tabloid journalism, ground warfare and the criminal sector as well) and outrageous pop-cinema hyperbole.

Scandal Sheet, in any case, was not Fuller’s film. It was based on his hot-property novel The Dark Page, published in 1944 after Fuller had already defected from being a reporter to being a screenwriter, and while the young Fuller was fighting in Europe with the Big Red One. Still, it boils over with his storytelling energy and his signature reflex, the urge to discover, expressionistically, the painful, hard-boiled reality as he knew it within the movie universe of Golden Age Hollywood.

The set-up itself is nearly autobiographical: Fuller used to work on the New York Graphic, a screaming-mimi, truth-manipulating exploitative tabloid on Park Row that makes the contemporary New York Post look like The London Review of Books. (Fuller has described its editorial principle to be one of ‘creative exaggeration.’) It’s easy to see how Fuller’s own distinctive tale-telling style, visual and narrative, was formed by the daily creation of howling headlines, sensational fabrication and punchy, don’t-lose-the-reader prose.

In the film, Broderick Crawford‘s Mark Chapman is the New York Express‘s bulldog editor, pulling the daily out of its economic doldrums with lurid front pages and invented news; John Derek’s Steve McCleary is his amoral star reporter, the two of them heading a newsroom that has only Donna Reed’s Julie Allison to recommend it in the way of moral compunction and compassion. The thorny patter and amoral brio proceeds apace until Chapman is confronted at a publicity event by a middle-aged woman (Rosemary DeCamp), who immediately pegs him as ‘George,’ and summons an entire unwanted past that places Chapman’s present success in mysterious jeopardy.

Soon it’s made clear: she’s the unstable wife he abandoned years before, and now she will not be ignored – an ultimatum that leads, somewhat predictably, to a scuffle and her accidental death. From there, Chapman is all about covering his tracks, which as we all know simply creates more tracks, more corpses and more bad fortune.

Scandal Sheet is a fast-gabbing, meat-eating show [and is] expertly fashioned; Fuller was careful to make the tabloid mercenariness turn in on itself: McCleary is hot on the story, and despite his neck being in the noose Chapman must bait him on, because if he relents one iota from the Rupert Murdochian ethos that made him and the Express a hit, suspicion will fall on him like a safe from a window . . . [the film] scans today like a prescient indictment of media sensationalism, Murdoch’s and otherwise. ‘Thinking people,’ it is suggested, like Allison’s humane feature stories, ‘even if there aren’t many of them reading the Express anymore.’

Perhaps things haven’t changed in the American mediascape, we may speculate, but perhaps things have grown many times worse. The very idea of courting a ‘thinking’ newspaper reader today is ludicrous, as monopoly regulations have all but vanished, and only six corporations . . . own the vast majority of media outlets in the U.S., as compared to over 50 in 1983, and many hundreds in the 1950s. Fuller and Karlson had their ears to the ground in the mid-century, and however relevant it was in 1952, their movie feels like a prophecy come true.”

Atkinson is right on target. Seeing the film on a big screen in class today with a deeply enthusiastic group of students confirmed my high opinion of the film; Karlson’s camerawork, aided by DP Burnett Guffey, glides smoothly through the entirely amoral universe of Mark Chapman’s world.

The film absolutely brims with appropriately lurid details: a fast closeup of a would-be suicide’s wrists; a gallows-humored functionary who informs us that business at the local morgue is “dead, just dead,” a harrowing trip through the depths of the Bowery’s worst saloons; the endless tick of the clocks on the walls of the drab, grey newsrooms; an editing style that breathlessly propels the narrative to its doom-laden conclusion; and a gallery of first rate performances not only from Crawford, but also such old pros as Henry O’Neill, Harry Morgan, Rosemary De Camp, Cliff Work, and Pierre Watkin – to name just a few.

When it was made, Scandal Sheet was thrown away on double bills as just another piece of product from Harry Cohn’s prolific film factory, Columbia Pictures, even if it did have Academy Award winner Crawford (for All The King’s Men, 1949) in the leading role – but today, we can see it is much more than that. It’s a sharp, economical film, without an ounce of fat on it; indeed, Jerome Thomas’s editing is so sharp that one would be hard pressed to even remove a frame from the finished work.

It’s available on DVD as part of a box set of Samuel Fuller’s films (!!) – but no such set exists for Karlson, of course. That’s a shame, and it also isn’t right – towards the end of his life, Karlson made some junk, like the appalling Matt Helm films, but when the fever was upon him, he hit the mark every time.

Click here to read a great interview with Phil Karlson – then see the film.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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