Throughout Deadline U.S.A., writer-director Richard Brooks displays a pleasingly casual yet exacting eye for detail and atmosphere. The film is set in a newspaper office, and its nostalgia for a fading way of life is intensified by our retrospective understanding of Brooks’s fears as more justifiable than he could have anticipated. Of course, newspapers are more imperiled now than they were in 1952, the year of the film’s release, as they’re increasingly replaced by a scattered Internet culture dominated by advertising, click-baiting, and an expectation that writing be produced as if from a tap, ceaselessly and cheaply. In the film, when a dogged managing editor of a paper expresses contempt at the interference of the advertising department into his copy, it’s meant to be shocking. Nowadays this concern feels quaint.
The film is a monument to the sort of physical, object-centric tactility that’s increasingly receding from the monolithic one-device-fits-all culture of the 21st century. Brooks lingers on the office infrastructure of The Day, a fictional publication modeled on Joseph Pulitzer’s incalculably influential New York World, bothering to show us how an editor consults with a cartoonist, type-setters, fact-checkers, and reporters when quickly throwing a breaking article together. Industry-specific phrases are bandied about with convincing authority and naturalness. We’re always aware of the sounds of typewriters, phones, and the verbal rat-a-tat of a staff that embodies the hard-bitten yet maudlin iconography of idealistic, overworked, nearly antisocial reporters. (Unsurprisingly, Brooks began his writing career as a reporter.)
This physicality is exhilarating, particularly when The Day’s editor, Ed Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart), descends into the bowels of the office near the printing presses, affording Brooks the opportunity to lovingly drink in the machinery with fluid and layered tracking shots. The film’s standout set piece tellingly involves a victim who collapses into the press from above, boldly connecting the film’s theme of fading journalistic ethos to the gangster story that serves as one of many narrative strands. Both subplots complement Hutcheson’s troubled romantic life as well as his efforts to preserve The Day from heirs who wish to sell the newspaper for a quick profit, potentially destroying it in the process.
The gangster story is routine, and Brooks doesn’t show much interest in it. The filmmaker is more inclined to follow Hutcheson as he lacerates the heirs, or stews in the good ol’ days with Margaret Garrison (Ethel Barrymore), the widow of the paper’s founder and the treacherous heirs’ mother. There’s also a remarkably textured scene between Hutcheson and his ex-wife, Nora (Kim Hunter), that revels in the familiar longing of a couple still clearly in love yet torn apart by obsession, in this case Hutcheson’s obsession with his occupation, which Nora once shared. Despite its clipped, Samuel Fuller-esque title, Deadline U.S.A. has an understatedly wandering pace that’s aged exceptionally well. Little gestures speak volumes, such as the intimate way that Hutcheson places his hands on Nora’s shoulders, or her resigned, affectionate, nearly incantatory repetition of the phrase “Yes, dear” to humor Hutcheson when he stumbles into her place drunk.
Bogart affirms Brooks’s occupation with tactility, as he’s one of the most vivid and behaviorally specific of all American actors. Bogart’s gestures are characteristically poetic and emotionally multi-pronged here, as he uses his weathered face, slim build, and evocative gait to communicate neurosis, passion, and puckish humor. The acting legend’s particularly clipped stride syncs up with Brooks’s penchant for observational tracking shots. Bogart had the soul of an artist and the look of a disillusioned working-class man, and he could exploit this irresistible juxtaposition with symphonic aplomb. Deadline U.S.A. beautifully exploits these qualities, attaching Bogart’s pathos to the battle waged between journalistic integrity and money, which is but one conflict in the war between capitalism and common decency.
The image is a little grainy here and there, but is generally stable and attractively crisp. The blacks and the whites are strong, and never inky or shrill. Textures are pronounced, particularly the actors’ faces and the characters’ wardrobes. The soundtrack offers an un-showy, multi-planed variety of diegetic sounds, most obviously in the newspaper settings. Each aural effect is distinct and identifiable, which is key to a film this concerned with small yet important details. A good, sturdy transfer.
Film historian and noir expert Eddie Muller quickly establishes that Deadline U.S.A. isn’t a noir, noting with amazement that this is the first time he’s spoken of Humphrey Bogart in an audio commentary. Muller’s commentary is characteristically enthusiastic and intelligent, as he discusses Brooks’s experience working for a newspaper, as well as the influence that Joseph Pulitzer had on the narrative. The filmmaker’s contentious relationship with Bogart, a friend, is also sketched, affirming the latter’s reputation as a great but temperamental actor. A memorable episode concerns a spat that Bogart had with co-star Ethel Barrymore, the only person on the set with the experience to command the lead’s respect with the stature of a veteran and an elder. Yet, Bogart clearly trusted Brooks, serving as a pivotal figure in the blossoming of the latter’s career, and the filmmaker returned the favor. Brooks fought for Bogart to headline Deadline U.S.A. when the studio wanted someone like Gregory Peck or Richard Widmark. Muller also discusses the influence that the legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck had on the film, as well as where Deadline U.S.A. fits in Bogart’s run of increasingly brilliant and neurotic performances. This rich, informative commentary is the only significant supplement on this disc, but it’s enough. A few trailers round out the package.
This lively, melancholic, quite prescient Humphrey Bogart film receives a sturdy restoration and an excellent audio commentary. Time to give an under-acknowledged crime drama a second look.