Wednesday 6 February 2008

Park Row (1952)

Sam Fuller was one of the greatest independent filmmakers America ever produced and I'm eagerly watching every one I can find. I loved Run of the Arrow and Pickup on South Street and I've enjoyed everything else of his I've seen. He was a really honest filmmaker, who made films on his own terms and told the stories he wanted to tell, regardless of what the current trend was. He played in many genres and always managed to stamp his voice on them in no uncertain terms. He does a blistering job here from moment one with some stunning dialogue and an ever moving camera. This film is the cinematic equivalent of a slap in the face and it's impossible not to pay attention.

We're on a huge set that encompasses half of Park Row, the home of newspapers in New York, and which took most of the $200,000 of his own money Sam Fuller invested in the film to make it his way. It's 1886 and Phineas Mitchell gets fired from the Star because a man he believes is innocent was effectively tried by the paper and hanged on the result. Talking into his beer once more about what he'd do if he had his own paper, but now without a job, another drinker takes him up on his word. Charles Leach has a press and a few hours later he has a paper: The Globe, with Mitchell as editor and a fascinating bunch of character actors as his workforce.

We quickly learn more in a partly fictional story than we do in most documentaries, and the story doesn't play second fiddle. The plot is written so well and so sparsely that not a single word is wasted and in fact Fuller manages to cram plot into the gaps between them. We learn about the big names who made Park Row what it was and stand guard over it from statuary, about what makes a newspaperman and a newspaper, about what it means to crusade. We learn about the Statue of Liberty, about the hell box, type lights and the printer's devil, about where 'off the cuff' came from and what '30' means at the end of a story. If that wasn't enough, there are stories here in people's eyes.

If this sounds dry and dusty it isn't in the slightest. It's a riot and it's impossible not to respond aloud to what it says, with laughs and cries and enthusiasm. There's genius everywhere here, from typesetters who can't read to people who jump off the Brooklyn Bridge to get in a newspaper to the 'births, marriages, deaths, bills' hooks. The camera is never still and I'm truly awed at how Fuller managed to move it in some of the cramped conditions he had to work in. There are also precisely no stars here but everyone does their job impeccably. I didn't know people like Gene Evans or Mary Welch, let alone Bela Kovacs, Herbert Heyes, Forrest Taylor, Don Orlando or Dee Pollock.

Evans plays Mitchell like Clark Gable but looks more like Stacy Keach. The honesty he permeates here is blistering. The story talks about there being one great newspaperman per generation and Gene Evans makes us believe that he's that man. It's stunning that this was Mary Welch's only film appearance, especially given that she acquits herself admirably in three languages here. She died six years later giving birth to a son. Her husband was David White (Larry Tate in Bewitched) and that son died on Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie. Her blood had its own stories to tell, that's for sure.

I've watched two films tonight and I was expecting to enjoy both of them. I was not expecting to be truly stunned by either of them, let alone both, but there you have it. Killer of Sheep and Park Row are two of the best and most important films I've seen in a long time. What a night!

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