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Monday, November 5, 2007

The Ink Stained Heroes, Part 2 (originally published 4/99)

Considering the fact that all fictional entertainment is, by its very nature, the product of some writer's imagination, it's remarkable in a way that more stories don't end with an intrepid and heroic writer coming to the rescue. Naturally, it isn't feasible to make the hero of every story a writer, but there are times when writers' godlike ability to populate their fictional worlds according to their whim combines with the natural human tendency toward self-aggrandizement to produce a lead character with more than a passing resemblance to the author of the story.

As we saw last week, something like that happened in American movies during the Thirties, when an influx of ex-journalists into the ranks of Hollywood screenwriters gave rise to a spate of movies about crusading reporters that has not been equaled since. "True Crime," the new Clint Eastwood vehicle, harks back to that period with its story of a reporter hot on the trail of truth and justice, but in fact there have been a number of other films since the Thirties that have also recalled that golden age of the heroic journalist. For a sampling of crusading reporter movies since the Thirties, look for these titles on home video.

"Big Town After Dark" (1947). "Big Town" was a successful, long-running dramatic radio series in the Thirties and Forties (and later a television series in the Fifties) featuring the continuing exploits of "Illustrated Press" editor Steve Wilson and his star reporter, Lorelei Kilbourne. In the series of films based on the program, Steve and Lorelei were played by Philip Reed and Hillary Brooke. "Big Town After Dark" was the third film based on the radio series, in which a phony kidnapping set up by the niece of the newspaper's publisher leads Steve and Lorelei to uncover a rat's nest of underworld racketeering.

"Call Northside 777" (1948). James Stewart stars as an investigative reporter for a Chicago paper who is assigned to look into an old murder case. Initially he brings a cynical attitude to the story, assuming the convicted man to be guilty and looking to play up the human-interest angle of the convict's faithful mother who refuses to admit her son's guilt. The more he looks into the case, however, the more he becomes convinced that there has been a tragic miscarriage of justice.

"The Underworld Story" (1950). Mike Reese (played by Howard Da Silva) is a big city journalist whose ethically questionable methods have gotten him run out of town on a rail. Banished to the hinterlands, he takes on the editorship of a small town paper. As luck would have it, a sensational murder trial drops into his lap almost immediately. The crime is pinned on the black maid of a wealthy family, but Mike becomes convinced that the woman is being railroaded.

"The Night Stalker" (1971). One of the most memorable characters to emerge from the TV movie boom of the Seventies was Carl Kolchak. Brilliantly played by Darren McGavin, Kolchak was a throwback to the aggressive, in-your-face, take-no-prisoners crusading reporter heroes of the Thirties. In his debut appearance, he becomes involved in a series of brutal, unexplainable Las Vegas murders. Gradually, he is forced to come to an incredible conclusion: it appears that the victims have been killed by a vampire. This modern day fantasy was popular enough to spawn both a sequel, "The Night Strangler" (1972), and a television series, "Kolchak: The Night Stalker."

"All the President's Men" (1976). Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein ushered in a new era of the reporter as hero. No longer the action hero of the Thirties functioning as an unofficial cop chasing down underworld figures, the new journalistic screen hero sits at a table in the Library of Congress sifting through mountains of paperwork and interviews secretaries for hours on end looking for leads. No shootouts, no chase scenes, and yet these reporter protagonists bring down not an underworld kingpin but the President of the United States.

Obviously, no one took seriously the gunslinging cloak and dagger methods of the reporters in Thirties films. On the other hand, I sometimes worry that Woodward and Bernstein's story, being true, has inspired other journalists to try to emulate them. Has "All the President's Men," both as book and as movie, sired a generation of journalists who think that the only way to be a real hero is to bag another president? Just asking.

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