Power of the Press – 1943, 64 mins, Blu-ray
My third review of a film included within Indicator’s tremendous Fuller at Columbia boxset. This boxset is now sadly OOP, but thankfully the four individual discs are now available separately, albeit minus booklets.
With Power of the Press, I think we hear Sam Fuller’s own voice rather more clearly than the previous two films in this set (It Happened in Hollywood and Adventure in Sahara), if only because it is inevitably informed to at least some degree by Fuller’s own experiences working in journalism, first as a copyboy at the age of just twelve and later becoming a crime reporter at just seventeen- this would later resurface in a novel, The Dark Page which would itself inspire a film, Scandal Sheet, a viewing of which is what brought me here to this Indicator boxset, but more of that later.
I can fully understand Power of the Press being ridiculed because of its relentlessly patriotic preaching, as it certainly isn’t subtle and the film was evidently a ‘message’ film extolling the virtues of America entering the Second World War, but it also contains passionate arguments regards ‘the truth’, and the ability of the press to manipulate that truth or to represent falsehoods as truth for either political gain or to the advantage unscrupulous powerbrokers. “Freedom of the press means freedom to tell the truth. It doesn’t mean freedom to twist the truth“, a character states. The film doesn’t raise the term ‘fake news’ but its surely something never far away from viewer’s minds today, and its horrifying, really, that this film’s messages are as valid and timely today as they possibly were back in 1943.
The film is set shortly after America has entered the war, when John Cleveland Carter (Minor Watson) the publisher of the isolationist New York Gazette, realises that his newspaper is betraying its readers and the American public by distorting stories in order to sell newspapers and foster a growing discourse against the war effort. When Carter is about to change the paper’s policy and support the US war effort he is murdered. In his final moments Carter makes a last will and testament to enlist an old colleague, Ulysses Bradford (Guy Kibbee) a small town patriotic editor to take charge of the Gazette. Bradford reluctantly takes on the challenge but soon realises he is outmatched by devious co-publisher Howard Rankin (Otto Kruger (711 Ocean Drive)) who is responsible for the Gazette’s editorial direction (and indeed Carter’s murder). Rankin will stop at nothing to twist the truth and further the Gazette’s isolationist, anti-war stance, including resorting to further murders using his criminal stooge Oscar Trent (Victor Jory).
I really did enjoy this film- with its elements of warm patriotism it has the feel almost of a Frank Capra film, but there’s a darkness underneath perhaps hidden by its overly too simplistic arguments regards fifth columnists. This was deliberately alarmist but typical at the time, something familiar to sentiments of other espionage thrillers I’ve seen that were made during the war (and the character Rankin might as well indeed be a fully paid-up member of the Nazi party). Its not subtle at all, and this really does harm the film but it remains absorbing- perhaps its just a case that the films sentiments are so admirable that its difficult to resist. Of course in todays world of social media and the blurring of truth or indeed outright lies being delivered as truth, and the various instances over the last few decades of deplorable elements of the UK press running monstrously amok resulting in all sorts of shocking scandals…
Its terrible to admit it, but the subject of this film should have been something consigned to distant history, but instead remains perhaps more timely than it ever was- its just a pity the film isn’t as sophisticated as it needs to be for it to truly work. Its a case of a minor jingoistic film that might have been a classic under better circumstances.
That all being said, I’ve gone all through this review without mentioning Gloria Dickson who practically steals the show with powerful female protagonist Edwina Stephens – here’s the prototype for Sam Fuller’s future heroines, and perhaps the one thing that dates the film is how it somehow sidelines her in favour of the male characters, when really its her that’s instrumental in saving the day. Dickson is very good, and I’m horrified to read in that she died in a house fire two years after this film was released, at the age of just 27. Yet again reading about old films proves to be distressing and I’m left reeling from real-life being more harrowing than any noir.