Movie review: Scandal Sheet (1952)

Is life hard enough or is there a world of hurt and heartbreak out there, with sleazy newspaper men standing by to take your picture in that moment your life is destroyed? Uh, I think it’s hard enough.

What movie did you watch? The one about a sleazy newspaper man looking to ruin lives for a quick buck, 1952’s Scandal Sheet.

Scandal Sheet opens with a woman pouring her damaged heart out over witnessing a murder to a man taking notes, only to find out he’s a reporter, and not a cop, when a real detective steps in and shoos the reporter away. The world gets harsher from there, as we are introduced to the staff of the New York Express, a once reputable newspaper where good reputation didn’t make anyone at the newspaper any money, and that’s why Mark Chapman has the paper soaring into the black and decency into the ground with its sensationalist headlines and sneaky and sleazy reporting tactics. Mark is no-nonsense about his tactics, encouraging nosy reporter Steve and alienating idealistic columnist Julie.

The paper holds a “lonely hearts” dance where, I don’t know, it seems like they have a singles dance and take pictures of everyone and somehow it’s exploitive (there is a couple who meets, falls in love, and the paper is going to promote their whirlwind wedding? And there’s sponsors?). I guess this is before The Bachelorette and so much of postwar America is entertainment and news guised as selling stuff to each other (“Don’t forget to drink your Ovaltine”). BUT get this: there’s a lady there who recognizes Mark: she used to be married to him, and then he deserted her, changed his name, and left her a broken shell with scars to prove it. Man, this movie is depressing, because things don’t get much better for his estranged wife. He accidentally kills her by roughing her up and makes it look like she died in the bathtub.

Sleazy reporter in training Steve gets the scoop on the dead woman, recognizing a torn pin from the Lonely Hearts event (how did Mark not remove the whole thing when staging the bathtub accident?). He presents the story to Mark, who decides that the best thing to do is bury the woman, like holding a funeral and announcing it in the papers (“hey, this lady attended our party and was murdered! Front page, readers!”). Mark accidentally gives evidence to a once prominent but down in the gutter reporter that is also a mentor to columnist Julie.

Well, get this: things get worse for Mark as the drunk former reporter tries to tip off Julie. Steve butts in to get the scoop, Mark overhears, Mark has to go from accidental murder to actual murder with the drunk reporter, and now there’s another story for Steve to pounce on and Julie to be even more disillusioned to the point of quitting journalism. Steve’s continued legwork brings him closer to revealing Mark, and actually wanting to solve the murder instead of just sponsoring the death of Mark’s estranged wife with more zany events.

It’s noir with a great noir ending, of course. However, Mark isn’t a likeable guy. His flaw is that he’s pretty evil from the start. He’s not suckered by anyone into doing bad, he’s just bad, so his comeuppance is dramatic as he writes his own headline in the final act. (Also, he loses the evidence that could connect him, TWICE.) I feel most for Julie because even when Steve makes up with her for letting his shamelessness on behalf of the paper get between them, it should be HER story, but he’s all over all of it. Otherwise, it packs a noir wallop, and Mark’s no-nonsense sensationalism devolves into desperation to kill a story that can’t be killed.

It’s based on a book by writer/director Sam Fuller, whose stories and movies are full on blunt news of the day scenarios that he felt society needed to face. Mark is played by Broderick Crawford, who played a number of intimidating characters through his career. Julie was played by Donna Reed, who before The Donna Reed Show won an Academy Award for From Here To Eternity. The pushy paper photographer was played by Dragnet’s Harry Morgan, and the victim, Mark’s estranged wife, was played by Rosemary DeCamp, the hilarious actress who we saw in 13 Ghosts.

This movie is a lot of fun with a lot of great performances. Recommended, though the harsh world Mark exploits through his paper might be too much. Oh who am I kidding, I love this stuff. It might be in the youtubes somewhere, I don’t know where you can find it otherwise.

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