Park Row – DVD reviewPark Row – DVD review by Ian Johnston.
Director: Samuel Fuller
Stars: Gene Evans, Mary Welch.
Released on 22nd October 2012

Quentin Tarantino was quoted as saying of Park Row that it “…is one of the greatest love letters in the history of film, and it’s a love letter to journalism.”

It’s also being reissued next week so we’ll all be able to get a chance to see this fantastic film in all it’s glory. Till then though here’s our review.

Though never considered to be in the same exalted cinematic upper echelons as Welles, Ford and Hitchcock, former journalist & larger-than-life director Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) the pugnacious, cigar chomping, World War II veteran, casts a very long shadow over much of modern cinema. Although the number of films Fuller produced during his illustrious career is comparatively small (23), directors as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard, Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Bertrand Tavernier and Quentin Tarantino have, to varying degrees, been profoundly influenced by either his conversion of word into image (and the reverse), his “emotional violence” (Scorsese’s term), his unyielding allegiance to substance in his movies and the sheer overwhelming tabloid intensity of his work.

In all his films, be it his great war pictures – Steel Helmet (1951), The Big Red One (1980) – his crime pictures – Pick Up On South Street (1953), House of Bamboo (1955, one of Godard’s favourite movies), Underworld USA (1960) – his melodramas – Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1964) – & his Westerns – Run Of The Arrow (1957), Forty Guns (1957; Fuller’s intended title for this picture, starring was The Woman with a Whip) – Fuller, probably one of the most all–American directors, is always offering a critique of the country that he was clearly totally devoted too.

Samuel Fuller began his remarkable career as a newspaper copyboy before he turned 12, then he work as a tabloid crime reporter at 17, and he thrillingly draws on those skills and experiences in his self-financed, studio-set, astonishing 1952 melodramatic labour-of-love, Park Row (Manhattan’s Fleet Street)). Park Row is rarely seen since the low budget, black and white picture under-performed at the box-office upon it’s release (as 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck had predicted; Zanuck loved Fullers’ script yet wanted the director to make the picture for Fox, in colour, as a musical called In Old New York), but as Tarantino succinctly surmises: “Park Row is one of the greatest love letters in the history of film, and it’s a love letter to journalism.” An invigorating homage to the principles of a free press and righteous popular journalism, this typically no holds barred Fuller account of battles on and off the printed page in 1880s New York is a key American film revival.

1886. Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans, introduced with loud music amid statues of German printer Johannes Gutenberg, influential American newspaperman Horace Greeley and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin), is so appalled by the brand of journalism peddled by The Star, the newspaper where he works, and its publisher, Charity Hackett (Mary Welch), that he deliberately gets fired. Rather than look for other employment, the visionary newspaperman Mitchell launches his own title The Globe, his eye-catching headlines and approach to news stories quickly catch on with a swiftly growing New York readership.

Charity Hackett, proprietor of the long-established Star, is very unhappy with his efforts and pours derision upon Mitchell’s ideals but is alarmed by his ingenuity and concepts. Mitchell welcome the onset of new technology, such as the Linotype machine, and advances such as by-lines and newsstands only heighten Hackett’s mixed emotions of esteem, desire and alarm. When Mitchell seizes upon the Statue of Liberty, just arrived from France but literally without a base to stand on (or a requisition from Congress for the cash to construct one), The Globe takes up the cause to raise the money through donations from its readers, who will see their names published in The Globe. Having attempted flirting with Mitchell, Hackett’s endeavours to denigrate The Globe soon escalate into an all-out newspaper war, then real war and violence, bombings and attempted fraud.

Filmed in ten to fifteen days for $200,000 (“I left $1,000 in the bank for cigars, brandy and vodka,” Fuller stated) and filling more dramatic incident into its 128 minutes running time than many directors manage in a career, Fuller’s Park Row is a fervent, utterly distinctive work of determined myth creation. Surprisingly contemporary and relevant, in the light of current deliberations on the role of the press, this is one of the most positive cinematic depictions of the world of journalism. Brimming with Fuller’s inimitable brand of ripe dialogue, Park Row is further enlivened by some high-quality performances (noted stage actress Mary Welch is particularly effective in her sole film acting role before her tragic death during child-birth) and by the uncommon sight of a member of the press as an energetic force for the moral high ground in a movie.

Fuller and his brilliant cinematographer Jack Russell make tremendous use of the large, three blocks high 1880s Park Row Street set (most of Fuller’s dollars were spent on it). Fuller and Russell repeatedly track the camera up and down the road, inside and outside of buildings, with no cutaway shots, to highlight the dynamism of the story and the overwhelming passion of it’s crusading hero: the wonderful character actor Gene Evans (a featured player in Fuller’s Steel Helmet) is essentially Fuller’s cigar smoking alter-ego rather than a historical figure based in reality. Fuller encapsulates the contagious exhilaration within a newsroom, occupied by a diminutive but devoted workforce (including an Italian typesetter Mr. Angelo (Don Orlando) who is unable to read English and a man named Ottmar Mergenthaler (Bela Kovacs) who is incessantly tinkering with a revolutionary invention named, by Phineas Mitchell, the linotype machine), making tremendous use of character actors (such as Herbert Heyes as Mitchell’s journalist father figure, Josiah Davenport) who too infrequently were unable to obtain such rounded parts. As a film that charts the birth of modern journalism Park Row is rich in detail, despite the small budget.

The special features on this excellent Eureka! DVD (the first full DVD release of Park Row anywhere in the world) includes a new digital progressive transfer in the film’s original aspect ratio, isolated music and effects track, insightful remarks on the picture by widow Christa Lang Fuller and the original, and typically histrionic Fuller theatrical trailer (“Written, produced, directed by a newspaperman—about newspapermen!”). Best of all is the illustrated booklet featuring an extract from Fuller’s superlative autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale Of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, about the making of Park Row, an excerpt from a long, superb 1979 interview with Fuller by Bill Krohn for Cahiers du Cinema (Krohn also contributes a filmed discussion of Park Row), a lengthy informed essay by Tag Gallagher, a selection of Fuller quotes through the years from various sources (including Lee Server’s terrific 1994 tome Sam Fuller: Film Is A Battlefield) and marvellous rare archival imagery.
If you are a Sam Fuller fan this is a mandatory purchase, and if you are not, Park Row is a hell of an initiation into his brand of tabloid cinema. As Fuller wrote, “Goddamnit, Park Row was me!”

Park Row is released on 22nd October 2012.

All words by Ian Johnston. More Louder Than War articles by Ian can be read here.

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