Right before he directed Kansas City Confidential, director Phil Karlson found his stride with the sensational noir Scandal Sheet. Based on the novel The Dark Page by the mighty Sam Fuller, Scandal Sheet is a lurid tale ripped from the tabloid pages the film’s characters write for. Fuller himself cut his chops in his youth as a copy boy, then as a journalist on the crime beat in his teens, so Scandal Sheet is dripping with notes of authenticity. It portrays the ruthless tricks writers and editors alike utilized to score the scoop, right down to covering up a murder (not sure if any editors ever did that, but shit, it’s in the movie).
Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) is the editor of New York’s fastest growing newspaper, the Express. When he took the reigns six months ago, the newspaper was on a swift decline. But once he became editor, he shifted the paper’s main focus to vice stories – ones about murder, suicide, hookers, the works. While this loosening of ethics has shot their circulation through the roof, many of the old school journalists (the ones with an actual sense of morality) are disgusted by Chapman’s steering of the ship.
The night of an elaborate “Lonely Hearts” ball, Chapman is confronted by the wife he ditched decades ago. He completely uprooted his life, changed his name, and left his poor lady to drown in the doldrums. Back at her apartment, she threatens to squawk to the other papers about Chapman’s life of lies, so he accidentally murders her and does his best to cover his mess up.
Crawford is slime supreme as Mark Chapman. His girth fills up the screen like a bold faced headline as he steps all over anyone in his path. Much to his chagrin (and double chin), his ace reporter Steve McCleary (John Derek) starts investigating the case, forcing Chapman to plaster the story on the front page as he attempts to impede McCleary’s inquiry. As McCleary begins to unravel the truth behind the “Lonely Hearts” murder, Chapman resorts to desperate and deadly measures to bury the truth.
Karlson’s documentary style matches the journalistic elements of Scandal Sheet. Nothing is over stylized or flashy. Even the murder scene is presented in a disturbingly matter-of-fact fashion. The New York presented in the film isn’t as gritty or grimy as I typically prefer in my noir atmospheres, but the setting of the energetic newspaper office is nicely chaotic – making it a pseudo-nightmarish world of printed lies.
Morally, Scandal Sheet is all over the place. Mark Chapman is obviously corrupt, but so is McCleary until his 180 degree change of heart near the end. Everything wraps up rather tidily, with Chapman showing a small ounce of humanity in the final minutes. While I usually prefer a bleaker end, the newsroom melodrama of Scandal Sheet delivers some entertaining moments and sharp dialogue. The film’s final shot is a nice reminder that “if it bleeds, it leads.”