Headline News: Sam Fuller’s Park Row (1952) – DVD review
Fuller’s love letter to his journalistic background is a movie written in 120-point type: bold, attention-grabbing and to the point
(Samuel Fuller, US, 1953)
It’s easy enough nowadays to learn to make a movie. Even if you can’t afford to go to film school, you can wise up fast by taking a crash-course of DVD commentaries. But all the hi-def gadgetry and honed technique in the world is no substitute for knowing what to put in your movie in the first place. We’re in the weird position of creating a generation of media-savvy filmmakers who can talk the talk but have barely learned to walk. All the more reason to cherish Sam Fuller, a man who came to the movies almost as an afterthought, having already successfully navigated careers as a journalist and soldier. While his style may be rough-and-ready, even crude, the wisdom of a life lived on the edge comes spilling out into the films.
Park Row is one of the best examples of his punchy, tabloid style because ‘tabloid’ is the subject too: a study of the early days of American journalism, when a man could set up a newspaper on bravado alone. This is an insider’s movie, at home among the physicality of print and presses, and in awe of the practitioners who can scent a news story in the air. Its romantic self-belief is so convincing that the film, although humble in scope and scale, comes close to matching the swagger of more famous newsroom movies like His Girl Friday, All the President’s Men and, of course, Citizen Kane.
The Globe is an unashamedly idealised vision of the press – crusading, innovative and enlightened – but Fuller knows that it’s a rose-tinted vision. That’s why he turns the story in a war between two rival papers, effectively two rival philosophies of creative integrity and craven capitalism. If its melodrama is ridiculously simplistic, but what Fuller lacks in subtlety he makes up for with directness. With his narrative style forged in the declamatory world of the headline, Fuller is a natural raconteur, not averse to grabbing the attention with salacious elements of action thriller and even romance.
The story borrows real life people (Linotype inventer Otto Mergenthaler) and incidents (the arrival of the Statue Of Liberty in New York) to feel like history. Of course, it’s a classic case of “print the legend” before John Ford coined the phrase; when Evans’ editor tells someone it has to be factually accurate, it’s a pinch of salt. Fuller’s idealists are forever pragmatic: while they want an exclusive for the front page, the mantra for the rest of the newspaper is “steal everything you can but make it fresh.” But the details delight: the history of American printing which the characters take pride delight in spelling out, the explanation for technical terms like pied type or the fact that you always end a story with the word ‘thirty’ is wonderful. There’s a pair of scissors dangling from the office ceiling, and even though it isnt explained you know it’s there for a practical reason in the newsroom.
The muscular, practical sense of storytelling is matched by the directness of the filmmaking style. Fuller isn’t into fussy compositions or ornate symbolism. Instead, he favours long scenes driven by rapid-fire dialogue and roving, impatient camerawork that continually darts (on a huge, elaborate set) between the Globe offices and the hustle and bustle of Park Row itself. The pace and energy is palpable: the opening fifteen minute sequence, bar a couple of cutaways, takes place in a single location but covers more ground than most movies manage in an hour and a half. It’s easy to see why Scorsese, who modelled the pool hall fight in Mean Streets on a fight sequence from Park Row, rates Fuller.
For a writer, Fuller really understands the power of imagery and, if his hero Phineas Mitchell deals in “words, not fists,” the film itself is only too happy to indulge in a good scrap to get its message across: the cinematic equivalent of the 120-point type Mitchell dreams of. The tone extends to the brusque performance style led by Gene Evans, a Fuller regular and a brilliantly unstarry actor. Evans doesn’t milk Mitchell’s heroism the way a seasoned A-lister might have done, knowing that the best idealists can often be grumpy bastards. Instead, Mitchell’s charisma comes from the very fact that Evans is a character actor, so that his emergence as a leader has to be earned. It’s one of the great Epiphanies on film, which will leave you wanting to run out and start a newspaper. Blogs? Pah. On Park Row, men were willing to get their hands dirty with blood and ink in the hope of finding a great story. Thirty.