“I know, they’re newspapermen.”
There’s always been something suspicious about reporters. They say their mission is to “tell the truth,” to write history’s first draft, to give common people a voice. Sometimes they perform all these duties admirably, but still there are doubts about what they’re really after. As much as they may strive to be impartial observers, they’re part of human history along with the rest of us. In the process of writing a story they may become part of it. As a matter of fact, maybe they always are. Two films, released on opposite ends of a world war, tell stories of journalists who wield power over other peoples’ lives and careers because of what they write — or keep unwritten. The products of two celebrated movements in American filmmaking, the movies capture the vibrancy of journalism while also touching on the dark side of the endeavor.
His Girl Friday is the second film adaptation of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play The Front Page, released nine years after the first one and thus making nice bookends for the screwball comedy genre. This time around, famously, the character of Hildy Johnson is a woman, the ex-wife of newspaper editor Walter Burns. She just wants to say goodbye to Walter before running off to marry an insurance salesman, but the story of the year happens to be unfolding right in front of her, and she’s the right reporter for the job. A man is charged with murder, but, claiming to be innocent, he escapes from police custody. This buys Hildy and her colleagues enough time to uncover all the machinations surrounding the case, and maybe even to save the life of the accused.
In many respects, His Girl Friday idealizes the newspaper business. The sophisticated wit, while not beyond the reach of career wordsmiths by any means, lands with the kind of speed and purity that are denied mere mortals. The “overlapping” nature of the dialogue is sometimes overstated. There’s nothing like the multiple layers of chatter that can be found in a Robert Altman film. Often two or more characters will be speaking on the phone at the same time, allowing for conveniently timed pauses. Still, the constant stream of fast-paced dialogue, the protean shifts between plot strands and emotional beats, all make for an exhilarating experience. Director Howard Hawks paces the proceedings as though he were confidently punching the keys of a typewriter on a deadline. His stars, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, ride the cyclone without breaking a sweat. Two more likable individuals have never existed. They channel the kinetic thrills of a developing story into a righteous mission, exposing political corruption and saving an innocent man. The fact that Walter’s initial motivation was to break up Hildy’s engagement doesn’t hurt him too much, mostly because he’s right.
Despite the newspaper’s stirring victory in the end, the film doesn’t spare its characters from criticism. An apologetic title card at the beginning places the story in the “Dark Ages” (an unspecified time during the previous decade), “when to a reporter ‘getting that story’ justified anything short of murder.” Walter and Hildy get their hands dirty — obfuscating, editorializing, even hiding a condemned criminal from the law. But the only actions that really register as objectionable are Walter’s manipulation of Hildy and the tricks he plays on her fiancé. Beyond that, the film dissects not so much the procedures of journalism but the callousness and detachment that sometimes underlie them. The assembled reporters at the courthouse need to be snapped out of their complacency, reminded that they can indeed affect the outcome. When a grieving woman accomplishes the snapping, it’s (almost literally) off to the races.
Billy Wilder apprenticed in the film business during the screwball comedy era, but he became a director during the time of the film noir, when World War II had put a scar on the face of the earth. In some ways, his work synthesizes the two polar opposite categories, with Ace in the Hole picking up where His Girl Friday left off. But this is a much, much nastier film. The crystalline wordplay of a Wilder script (this time co-written by Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman) can only hold off the seething rage beneath the surface for so long. Reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a fallen angel who’s landed in the desert. When a man becomes trapped by a cave-in, Chuck jumps at the chance to get an exclusive and soon discovers ways to prolong the story, to wrangle the public imagination and bring national attention to himself. Along the way, he may have overestimated the endurance of the man he’s made his subject.
Like Walter Burns, Chuck Tatum knows a great story when he sees it, and he has the all-consuming drive to get it into print. Both movies have some respect for these men, particularly their talent and charisma. But Chuck steps way over the line of disinterested transcription that Walter merely flirts with. From the very beginning, he can’t report on the situation without doing damage — as the sand in the cave testifies, falling at his every move. Writers have special insight into vice, and they know how to use it to their benefit. Again like Walter, Chuck harnesses the desires of sex, money, and power to get people to see things his way. It all contributes to a snowballing story, with pilgrims arriving to cheer the trapped man on. Chuck wants to see the man saved — the “human interest” story needs a happy ending — but the longer it takes, the more extraordinary the story will be.
Ace in the Hole uncovers the dry rot in the soul of its protagonist. Like so many tragic noir heroes, Chuck Tatum is effectively dead but doesn’t know it yet. But what truly gives the film its sting is the fact that Chuck isn’t an outlier. His accomplices — a corrupt sheriff who sees a ticket to reelection, and the trapped man’s sun-bleached wife who needs money to get back to civilization with or without her husband — don’t require much convincing. Meanwhile, the carnival that springs up at the site is grotesque but not implausible. It’s good business to give the crowd of rubbernecks something to do with their time. The film’s greatest strength lies in its depiction of honest principles warping into something vile.
Journalism was the first career path that attracted me. Warned that it was not the kind of field that would make me a lot of money, I turned to filmmaking and film criticism (clearly, business acumen is my forte). The Fourth Estate still fascinates me, though. I love the sound of a fleet of typewriters, the sparring camaraderie of a newsroom, the chasing down of leads, the slow sculpting of a narrative. Hawks and Wilder evidently loved these things too. Watching these movies back-to-back can leave a viewer with the impression that reporters are a despicable lot. Perhaps it’s a good idea to follow up this double feature with a screening of All the President’s Men, or something. In any case, the best takeaway is that people in general can be terrible sometimes. Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson turn out all right, and even Chuck Tatum sees the error of his ways eventually. One film ends like a Shakespearean comedy, the other like a tragedy. There’s nothing more human than that.