Deadline U.S.A. (Blu-ray Review)25 Jul, 2016 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Kim Hunter Ethel Barrymore, Martin Gabel.
In keeping with the now quaint tradition of thriving newspapers and those honorable traditions that old-school staffers brought to them, there was once a practice (we’re talking pre-VHS days) in which party-loving journalism students with access to a 16mm projector would run some staple of newspaper cinema for a room of 40 — all while a warehouse or so of beer and chips were consumed. Yet having noted this, it should also be said that the biggest such bash I can personally recall was a J-school gathering built around a showing of Maria Montez in Cobra Woman — albeit via a black-and-white print that kind of destroyed the point.
Well, we were an aberrant group. More commonly, I’m reliably told that a popular 16mm evening centerpiece of other aspiring newshounds was 1952’s Deadline U.S.A., the cheerleading newspaper melodrama that writer/director Richard Brooks did over at Fox for his only non-MGM release from the 1950s. Brooks, oddly enough, also co-wrote the script for Cobra Woman before beginning to direct in 1950, which presumably makes him the only Hollywood principal with a Montez vehicle and a movie version of The Brothers Karamazov on his resumé. Though I’m anxiously awaiting Warner Archive’s imminent Blu-ray of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, more Brooks movies than not hit the nail a little too directly on the head for my taste. This said, a lot of people really love Deadline, and one can easily believe Eddie Muller on another of his dynamically entertaining Blu-ray commentaries when he talks about seeing his journalist father (someone not particularly a movie fan) tear up when the two of them watched the picture together on TV decades ago. Not to equate the two, but the purity of this film’s cheerleading for an institution too often corrupted occasionally brings to mind Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
I have to wonder if Alan Pakula and company took a gander at Deadline before embarking on the screen version of All the President’s Men, in that the editor Humphrey Bogart plays here seems to be cut from the same cloth as Jason Robards’ Oscar-winning portrayal of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in the later film. Bogart doesn’t wear a tux to work as Robards/Bradlee does in one great ATPM scene, but the dark suit he’s donning in his very first scene looks something like evening garb, and both characters have similarly tough exteriors. In keeping with Brooks’s windiness, some of Bogie’s platitudes here are a little much for everyday conversation — yet the greatest actors have a way of making speechifying sound acceptable, and he certainly comes off as the kind of editor here every writer would like to have.
The plot-central paper is called The Day, and it’s about to be sold for reasons that have come to sound familiar: the owner’s widow (Ethel Barrymore) is about to have the rug pulled out from her by her two daughters, who care little for journalism but would like to be more solvent in their lifestyles (a word you would never hear from the lips of the movie’s crusty newsroom vets or the professional lowlifes some of them are exposing). In fact, one of the reasons that Deadline continues to have a following is that certain things never change — as when Bogart has an angry discussion with one of his bean counters about letting an advertiser exercise a little clout in getting an incriminating story pulled from a paper that probably isn’t going to be around anymore once the new owner pulls the plug.
But meanwhile, the presses have to roll, and a lot of the picture is devoted to a seamy subplot about the city’s grafter/powerbroker (something akin to the character Alexander Scourby would play in the following year’s The Big Heat) and a party girl who has been found at the bottom of the river. The paper is reporting the story but isn’t sensationalizing it except in terms of busting the chops of the powerbroker — something that doesn’t go unnoticed in a key plot element late in the film. The staffers here are made up of a lot of familiar character-actor faces, though I was surprised to see Audrey Christie (immortalized to me as Natalie Wood’s anti-sexual and highly destructive mother in Splendor in the Grass) playing what used to be called a sob sister whose beat, to a great extent, was sex. Meanwhile, in a subplot that seems a little tacked on, Bogart is trying to reconcile with a wife (Kim Hunter) who grew tired of competing with his job — so much so that she’s planning to marry again (like, tomorrow). About a week after Deadline opened in New York, Hunter won her supporting Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire, and this was her first big-screen appearance after that Tennessee Williams-Elia Kazan blockbuster got released. Bogart won as well for The African Queen, a double whammy that must have made someone’s day in the Fox advertising department.
The relationship here between the Bogart and Barrymore characters is very sweet: two old-timers who almost seem to realize, way before the fact, that newspapers as they know them will not always be around. Neither actor would be around for too much longer, either, because both died in 1957. Despite the strong friendship between the actor and Brooks, there are a lot of stories — and these show up in the bonus section — about how Bogart was uncharacteristically grumpy and uncooperative on the set. Muller wonders on his voiceover if perhaps he became aware around this time of the cancer that eventually killed him.