(Weegee takes a shot)
The seventh annual Noir City festival is drawing to a close this weekend — and programmer Eddie Muller talked a big enough game about an exquisite print of Siodmak’s The Killers to make me think about making the trip across the bay for a last fling. I’ve only been able to make a few of the programs this year, but continue to be amazed at Muller and co-programmer Anita Monga’s ability to pack the Castro. We can talk about the pros and cons of a noir cult, but the experience of watching big-screen silver with a thousand other souls is too rare to regret. I’ve taken to sitting in extreme parts of the theater (close and off to the side or else boosted up in the balcony), the better to commune with ghosts.
So this is a little late in the game, I know, but I wrote an essay about this year’s festival and, specifically, its newspaper theme. Muller and Monga’s focus (and challenge) was a canny way to stoke the widespread pessimism for the future of newsprint. The links to stories about the foundering fourth estate are too many to collect here, but I would appreciate it if anyone could refer me to interesting fictions dealing with the death of the newspaper.
Black and White
The newspaper in film noir
The newsroom is as much a part of noir’s topography as the police station, boxing ring or nightclub. Deadline-U.S.A. (1952), Scandal Sheet (1952), The Big Clock (1948), While the City Sleeps (1956): the titles bow to the newspaper’s ubiquitous pulse by slinging shop-talk into nighthawk poetry. The press curries a surplus of centralized power in this cycle of films, exerting a primary influence over the whole urban mechanism.
Citizen Kane‘s (1941) foretaste of noir’s camera style and fragmentation is commonly asserted; its particular character types, embedded narration and knowing irony are less so, though they cast a long shadow on the newspaper noir. Another significant precursor is His Girl Friday (1940) — a comedy, of course, though its shards of dialog raze the soundtrack with something closer to fury than most Hollywood gunfire. Hawks’s screwball was adapted from The Front Page, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play based on their earlier experiences working for the Chicago press. Whether it’s Sam Fuller’s Park Row (1952) or David Simon’s work on the fifth season of The Wire, this variety of fictionalized memoir exhibits a zest for the crackling colloquialisms and professionalism of newspapering even as it looks sharply on its cronyism and corruption.
Hollywood’s unrequited fascination with the newspaper provides a striking instance of one arm of the media-industrial complex contemplating another. In a stock sequence, the generative power of the news story travelling its channels to the press harmonizes with the industrial assemblage of film montage. These passages often end with the pleasing, heavy thud of a newspaper bundle hitting the sidewalk, or else the horse newsboy’s cry. At least as far back as M (1931), movies depict tabloid crime coverage to be, in the words of Edward Dimendberg, “a social adhesive, a mode of collective reception, that holds together the metropolis.”
As the newspaper links the city’s space, so too does it act as its timekeeper, with the multiple daily editions standing in for morning, noon and night. The titular timepiece of The Big Clock renders newspaper time as a tyrannical master, inescapable and surreal. The job of keeping abreast of breaking news gives its gatherers a peculiar clairvoyance; Mabuse-like editors seem to have the whole city at their fingertips and, in a recurring scene in these films, the reporters beat the cops to the scene of the crime.
These figures are often dishonorable louts, perfectly willing to go below the belt to score above the fold. Even when we get a scrupulous editor, as in Deadline U.S.A., he still haggles for the story — and drinks plenty along the way. Deadline U.S.A.‘s world of dwindling circulation, buyouts and layoffs is a familiar one. Ed Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart) helms the New York Day, a paper of record that is to be sold to a “scandal sheet” competitor. Hutcheson is an editor with ethics — a point made clear early on when he refuses a photographer’s racy shots of a woman’s corpse. The film’s stale investigation plot mostly functions to clear way for sententious speeches about the importance of a free press — all of them true enough, but Hollywood then as now has a way of overplaying its hand. Nonetheless, the bittersweet ending resonates in the current climate: the Day triumphs, but it’s the last story they’ll put to bed.
Beleaguered journalists today may be in a Deadline U.S.A. mood, but the rest of the Noir City program takes a more corrosive view of newspaper work. The most scabrous of these hold Hutcheson-style platitudes up for ridicule. In While the City Sleeps and The Big Clock, Kane-like overlords (the mogul is even named Kyne in the former) only rely on this kind of rhetoric when they’re trying to talk a reporter out of a vacation. In Ace in the Hole (1951), ex-communicated city reporter Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) doesn’t disguise his contempt for an Albuquerque editor’s folksy integrity — nor does writer-director Billy Wilder, who pokes fun at the rube’s crocheted axiom, “Tell the Truth” (like Kane’s Declaration of Principles crossed with the hokiest Capracorn). Tatum is undoubtedly the most bilious of the whole Noir City lot — his misanthropy is bracing, even for Wilder — but many of the newsmen in these films follow his iron law: “Bad news sells best because good news is no news.”
In practice, this means duplicity and callousness, if not outright fabrication. Scandal Sheet, a punchy Phil Karlson cheapie based on Sam Fuller’s novel, The Dark Page, opens with star reporter Steve McCleary (John Derek) running up the steps of a tenement to scoop an interview with a recently bereaved woman. He lets her believe he’s a police officer and then has his photographer snap a couple of shots over her wailing protestations. Shakedown (1950) begins with would-be Weegee Jack Early (Howard Duff) staging a street fight to land an action shot in the morning paper. Later, he compels a man sinking into San Francisco Bay to pose for a candid before leaving the rescue to someone else.
In both films, the tension between reporting and exploiting the news hardens into outright criminal behavior. Early bluffs his way into blackmail, striking more than one Faustian bargain in the process. In Scandal Sheet, ruthless editor Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) kills his former wife when she confronts him with an unwanted past — a murder ripe for his tabloid and which is drummed up in its pages accordingly. Karlson films the cramped newsroom as if it were an underworld setting, with Chapman as its perspiring kingpin. In a final chiaroscuro flourish, the editor’s world is as small as the narrow arc of light carved by his desk lamp. Scandal Sheet ends with Chapman feeding McCleary the lead on his own demise; Early’s last act is to snap the photograph of his killer (a colleague dryly remarks, “I bet for the first time he really just happened to be passing by”). Their dying thought, the irresistible scoop.
There is a filament of reflexivity lining the newspaper noir’s portraits in sensationalism. What is film noir, after all, if not a stylized treatment of violence? There is also the erotic element; as the female corpse is prime fodder for the tabloid beat, so the femme fatale haunts the film noir. This proxy is most intricately woven in While the City Sleeps, Fritz Lang’s caustic send-up of skullduggery. As with The Big Clock, the news agency here is a multimedia giant, with newspaper, wire service and television all consolidated into one self-regarding feedback loop. When the elder publisher dies, his vindictive son (Vincent Price) sets the various department heads against each other for an executive position. An ignoble quest for the scoop on “The Lipstick Killer” is interlaced with the manipulative sexual politics of the newsroom. This office is one of Lang’s paradigmatic modern spaces, its glass partitions exposing the power plays and raw ambition animating the media system. Even more than in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), While the City Sleeps shows a world in which information is pressed as an advantage before it is turned over as news.
Charles Tatum is the monstrous outcome of this hothouse environment. The first part of Ace in the Hole consists of the reporter expertly manipulating those around him — engineers, sheriffs and wives are all easily corruptible — to prepare his “human interest” story: a man stuck in a mine shaft. Tatum ensures exclusive coverage and maximum drama , even if it means the underground man needs to stay put for a little longer than necessary. Midway through the film, the deception expands multifold. We hear a radio announcer reporting live from “the scene,” and the camera cranes to take in the bulge of parked cars and carnival kitsch. A train stops nearby, and passengers race across the expanse of desert, hungry for spectacle. What was then called a “media circus” has since been rechristened the “media event,” but Wilder’s vision has the clarity of a nightmare. Thanks to the schadenfreude of his flock, Tatum is a false prophet on the order of There Will Be Blood‘s (2007) oilman and preacher.
The films on the Noir City program were, of course, steeped in the hypocrisy and opportunism of the blacklist era. The coincidence-laden plot of a film like The Big Clock may appear fantastic, but seems less so when one considers it a parable for the personal, moral compromises one has to make working for a media giant. This is clearer in Kenneth Fearing’s original novel, in which George Stroud’s existential anomie is directly linked to his job. Fearing himself frittered away a considerable talent for poetry doing hack work for pulps, ad companies and Time-Life, and his disillusionment is palpable in Stroud’s narration:
Newsways, Commerce, Crimeways, Personalities, The Sexes, Fashions, Futureways, the whole organization was full and overrunning with frustrated ex-artists, scientists, farmers, writers, explorers, pets, lawyers, doctors, musicians, all of whom spent their lives conforming, instead. And conforming to what? To a sort of overgrown, aimless stenciling apparatus that kept them running to psychoanalysts, sent them to insane asylums, gave them high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, killed them off with cerebral hemorrhages and heart failure, sometimes suicide. Why should I pay still more tribute to this fatal machine? It would be easier and simpler to get squashed stripping its gears than to be crushed helping it along.
If the newspaper noirs seem especially acute in their cynicism, this passage helps explain why.