Directed as if he were holding a sharp knife to the gut, “Scandal Sheet” was the first in a series of noirish crime films made by Phil Karlson in the 1950’s. Based on a novel (The Dark Page) by filmmaker Sam Fuller with a screenplay by Ted Shedeman, Eugene Ling and James Poe, “Scandal Sheet” moves along at a speedy pace throughout its 88 minute running time. Karlson’s dark world is aided nicely by cinematographer Burnett Guffey who manages to make the studio bound sets feel like the dirty grit of the big city.
Once a respectable New York City newspaper, but with a falling circulation, relentless editor Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) was brought in to turn the paper into a tabloid seeking sensationalistic rag exploiting the helpless victims of crimes. In return, he has more than doubled the papers’ circulation satisfying the majority of the newspaper’s board members. Crawford is intensely uncompromising as Chapman, a cynical man who has escaped from a previously secret life some twenty years earlier. Like many noir anti-heroes though, his past comes back to haunt him. In this case, it’s his wife.
The newspaper is hosting a Lonely Hearts Club dance. Ever the cynic, Chapman and the paper’s honchos guarantee the attendee’s one couple will fall in love and marry that night. Beside, “everlasting love” the couple will take home a big prize, a bed with a built in television set! However, this high point in Chapman’s successful and cynical career turns out in turn be the foundation for his downfall. It all happens at the dance where an unfortunate reunion occurs with his wife, Charlotte Grant a resentful, bitchy low-class Rosemary DeCamp, who threatens to expose Chapman, his real name (George Grant), and how he left his previous life and abandoned his wife.
Chapman attempts to buy Charlotte off, throwing some money at her but after twenty years of living life not too far from skid row while Chapman was living a successful life; Charlotte’s bitterness at being left behind is not letting him off that easy. Things get violent and in a hot headed moment Chapman forcefully pushes Charlotte away from him. She goes falling backward hitting her head on a pipe.
Realizing she’s dead, Chapman cleans out her pocketbook and any other pieces of identification. He then strips her and dumps the body into a bathtub hoping the police will assume she accidently hit her head on the tub’s faucet.
From here on Chapman’s life spirals out of control, partially from a mess of his own creation and partially from the dogged investigative reporting by his protégé, ace reporter Steve McCleary, a surprisingly hungry performance from John Derek, who Chapman taught to never give up and sensationalize everything at any cost. Chapman’s downfall becomes inevitable. He has become a victim of his own paradigm to exploit the news, splash sensationalistic, tawdry headlines across the front page.
He taught McCleary well.
The cast also includes Donna Reed as Julie Allison, a straight laced, morally upright reporter on the paper who deplores Chapman tabloid reporting style yet has a quasi sexy thing going on with the handsome McCleary. The always reliable Harry Morgan as Biddle, McCleary’s equally relentless and sleazy photographer, provides some comic relief. But the film belongs to Crawford who only three years earlier gave one of the greatest performances ever on film for “All the King’s Men” which earned a well deserved best actor Oscar. One year later, Crawford additionally would give a superb comical performance in “Born Yesterday.” In this film, his gruff, nasty performance builds as his desperation to hide one crime after another as the screws tighten on him, eventually finding himself in a hole so deep there is no way out.
For director Phil Karlson, the 1950’s was arguably his peak period. Beginning with this film and over the next few years he would knock out some of the most powerful crime films of the decade including “Kansas City Confidential” (1952), “99 River Street” (1953), “Tight Spot” (1955), “Five Against the House” (1955), “The Phenix City Story” (1955) and “The Brothers Rico” (1957). He would end the decade with a two part TV show called “The Untouchables,” originally broadcast as part of the Westinghouse/Desilu Playhouse, and soon after released in movie theaters as “The Scarface Mob.”
For the remainder of his career, Karlson’s career was erratic with films like “The Young Doctors,” “Kid Galahad,” with Elvis, two Matt Helm films, “The Silencers” and “The Wrecking Crew.“ He had two big hits in the 1970’s, “Ben” the sequel to “Willard” and the original “Walking Tall.” He would never again reach the level of hard hitting noirish knockouts like he did in the 1950’s.