City Paper is not for tourists
Editor & Publisher‘s Greg Mitchell is arguing today that Billy Wilder‘s 1951 Kirk Douglas vehicle, Ace in the Hole, is the best movie about a journalist ever, a sentiment that was recently echoed somewhat by Jack Shafer in Slate. Like both of them, I discovered the film through its recent Criterion Collection reissue, and I liked it well enough. I’m certainly a sucker for a good noir, and I understand that part of what makes Ace‘s portrait of journalism work is the way it overinflates the venality of reporters. Douglas’ opportunistic, egotistical prick borders on parody, but it sells the basic point that, in a hypercompetitive, byline-driven industry, being an opportunistic and egotistical prick can be a useful survival tactic.
Still, the argument that the film is the best movie about a journalist ever is nonsense. (It’s certainly not the most accurate portrayal of a journalist’s work on film, though I know that Mitchell and Shafer aren’t arguing that; tongue somewhat in cheek, I’d argue that Naomi Watts‘ performance in The Ring does the best job of showing that reporting is often just the simple, unsexy business of hitting archives, walking around, looking, and talking to people.) The best movie about journalism, to my mind, came out a year after Ace: Park Row, Samuel Fuller‘s 1952 hard-charging film about the hypercompetive world of New York newspapering in the 1880s. It’s not available on VHS or DVD, and my memory of it is now somewhat fuzzy (I caught it at a Fuller revival in Northern California sometime around 2000). But I very clearly recall that it got much of the emotional pitch of journalism right—the eagerness to be first, the need to zig when everybody else is zagging, the collision of reporters with management, drinking. There are some silly bits—the Linotype machine gets invented in about 30 seconds, and there’s a tacked-on and chintzy romantic subplot. But even those flaws felt like assets. Fuller, a former reporter himself, seemed to inherently understand that the slap-it-together feel of a B-movie neatly matches the gotta-feed-the-copy-monster pace of a newsroom.