Some people really love this movie; it’s more of a mixed bag for me.
Once upon a time, oh best beloved, newspapers actually mattered in people’s lives, and journalism was a viable career that didn’t require a series of unpaid internships subsidized by well-heeled parents. Deadline-U.S.A., written and directed by Richard Brooks, is a celebration of those bygone days. Originally released in 1952, it stars Humphrey Bogart as Ed Hutcheson, the crusading (and self-righteous) managing editor of the big-city daily The Day (reportedly modeled on the New York World and/or the Boston Evening Transcript, which bit the dust in 1931 and 1941, respectively).
Deadline-U.S.A. opens at a moment of crisis—The Day’s owner has died, and his widow (Mrs. Garrison, played by Ethel Barrymore), at the urging of her children, intends to sell the paper to a rival who will put it out of business. To the Garrison children, it’s all about the money, but to Hutcheson, journalism is almost a religious cause. He delivers several impassioned speeches on this subject, in the first of which he restates the principles printed on its first-ever issue: “This paper will fight for progress and reform. We’ll never be satisfied merely with printing the news. We’ll never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory wealth or predatory poverty.” You’d have to have a heart of stone to not be at least a little moved by such eloquence. On the other hand, you might also wonder what an outsider is doing at the reading of a will, or note that it’s easy to be noble when you’re playing with someone else’s money, but that’s the movies for you.
So there’s the first story line in Deadline-U.S.A.: Can Hutcheson stop the sale and save the paper? The second involves a stereotypical gangster by the name of Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel), whom Hutcheson wants to bring down. The third involves Hutcheson’s efforts to convince his ex-wife Nora (Kim Hunter) to come back to him. The movie would be stronger without that third plot line, particularly since she’s considerably younger than him (the actors were 23 years apart); he lies to her and totally takes her for granted, and you might that her wishes should carry as much weight as his. But it’s the 1950s, and Hutcheson is a man’s man living in a man’s world (the only female journalist in the film, played by Audrey Christie, is one of the boys and specifically mentions not having children), so of course even his marriage is all about him and his needs.
By comparison with the state of newspapers today, Deadline-U.S.A. is set in a fantasy world, although the pleasantness of that fantasy (like most nostalgia about the 1950s) depends on whether or not you are a straight white man. If you can get past that proviso, there are a lot of great scenes in Deadline-U.S.A., of which the most enjoyable is certainly the “wake” held by the paper’s staff after they are informed it will be sold. It’s a great ensemble scene, held in a bar (where else?), with the newspaper’s “corpse” brought in on a platter surrounded by candles. One by one, the soon-to-be-unemployed newsmen step up to “testify” as if they were at a real wake, led by Jim Cleary (Jim Backus), who recalls the day someone clarified for him the difference between a reporter and a journalist: “A journalist makes himself the hero of the story. A reporter is only a witness.” It ends with a singing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with new lyrics appropriate to their current predicament.
Some people really love this movie: Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene said it was the best journalism movie of all time, and film historian (and son of a newspaperman) Eddie Muller calls it at once cynical, idealistic, and romantic. It’s more of a mixed bag for me—the blatant sexism, anti-foreigner bias (no accident that the ganger is named “Rienzi” while the good newspaper people have names like Hutcheson and Allen and Burrows), and childish world-view (right and wrong are always completely distinct and obvious, with no shades of gray allowed) rubs me the wrong way. On the plus side, there’s lots of interesting supporting characters and some nice location shooting, including good use of the New York Daily News building, as well as discussion of issues in the news business still relevant in our digital age. | Sarah Boslaugh
Deadline-U.S.A. is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, with a street date of July 26. Extras on the disc include a commentary by Eddie Muller (and boy does he love the portrayal of old-time journalism), the film’s trailer, and the trailers for several other films.