Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Every Man's Entitled To An Epitaph
People generally have a fixed notion of what certain movies are, what they’re supposed to be. One reason that the films of Sam Fuller have survived—hell, how the myth of Sam Fuller has survived—might be that they are constantly at war with their tabloid B-movie origins within their fixed genres in their cigar-chomping quest to sometimes become something else entirely. At their very best his work transcends its pulp origins and forcefully wrenches you out of your seat and in the faces of the people onscreen. From that point on you can’t quite shake the film you’re watching and Fuller certainly wouldn’t have wanted you to. This feverish pulp ferocity is a lost art in this day and age as the directors who I would have liked to have reached this feverish peak never did—John Sayles only gazed at the possibility from afar through films that he wrote but didn’t direct, Oliver Stone never quite embraced the notion as it seemed he might at one point and Larry Cohen’s career has been too erratic, making for productions that are more interesting to hear about than to see.
Standing out in Fuller’s lengthy filmography among crime tales and war epics that remain gripping today would have to be PARK ROW, which he directed in 1952 and maybe is the most personal work of his career. It’s a film that pays tribute to the newspaper world that he came from early in his life and career, a world he loved more than anything. It’s a no-nonsense B-Movie approach to history, an epic set on a single street, a tabloid approach to telling the tale of, well, tabloids. I’d love to show this film to my sister, who comes from a lengthy career in journalism, to see what she might possibly think of it. That special screening will probably never happen and if it did she might not see past the schmaltz, but I would still be curious to know what she thinks of this immensely personal vision of history done in pulp style that might even have to do with something she read about long ago. It means everything it says in its attempt to bring us the legend of something Fuller cared so much about—the love of newspapers, the idea of chasing the story, of forming that language, of getting that ink on your hands, in your blood, a passion this valuable film displays that is truly palpable.
New York, 1886: Hard-nosed newspaper reporter Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans), recently fired from the powerful Star for insubordination, gets the chance to run his own newspaper, the kind of paper he thinks needs to be read by people. Dubbing it The Globe, is efforts get attention almost immediately but it also catches the eye of Charity Hackett (Mary Welch), publisher of The Star and the one who fired Mitch. When she can’t compete with the new printing press he has hired someone to develop she tries to come up with her own plan to defeat The Globe. As Mitch launches a campaign to use The Globe to help get the Statue of Liberty erected in New York Harbor even the obvious attraction between he and Charity can’t stop an all-out war eventually occurring between the two rival papers.
Sam Fuller originally pitched PARK ROW to Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth-Century Fox who liked the idea but saw it as a big, splashy color musical. Fuller, who envisioned his dream project as gritty, intimate, in pure black & white and as hard-nosed as anything else he’d ever made, turned down Zanuck’s offer and financed the movie himself, something he may have regretted when he would up losing every cent he put into it. At the extreme risk of angering hard-core Fullerphiles out there, I honestly think I’ve heard worse ideas than filming this as a musical with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner—even now I think there’s something in there that might make good material for a Broadway musical, so help me—but I definitely can’t argue the passion that comes through in every frame of what he did make which is emotional, passionate and 83 minutes of intense fury of the dream of journalism, making me glad that Fuller succeeded in getting his version on the screen.
Filmed entirely on a soundstage with a stylized set used to represent the famous street of the title it’s tempting to think of this approach as resembling the most elaborate live television production ever produced during the golden age but to say that would probably diminish the technical achievement. While there is some slight awkwardness in the opening minutes the predominate effect Fuller’s style gives off is one of giant, piercing close-ups that emphasize the intensity of Mitch’s feelings, the long takes that observe how everyone interacts with each other and the astonishing pre-Steadicam shots that race through the sets as word of sabotage to the press comes in—it’s been called “one of the most violent tracking shots in the history of cinema” and that violence comes as much from the ferocity of the camera movement itself as it does from anything that happens in front of it. You can almost see the lightning bolt that streaks from the screen towards the young Martin Scorsese’s brain as he forever remembers these shots and eventually does his own version of them in MEAN STREETS years later (the events here are set over two decades after the riots in GANGS OF NEW YORK but I still can’t help but think the two might go together in a double bill).
PARK ROW has the tabloid B-movie sensibility that we expect from Fuller, which those who revere his films love him for, coming off as the newspaper world of CITIZEN KANE done on a budget--some of the giant close-ups and long takes throughout are framed in a way that it could very well be a sort of prequel. Along with the glory of journalism is one thing, the fascination he shows for the intricacies of how all this is put together with the printing press, typeface, ink and newsprint uses is displayed as well—you get the feeling the director may very well have wanted to make a documentary which was about nothing but that—as well as soaking us in as much as he wants to tell us about this world as possible, such as why a reporter always places “Thirty” at the end of an article. And we feel the passion, the determination of everything Mitch is striving for—when one of Charity Hackett’s men notes that The Globe is being printed on butcher paper it’s clear what that fact alone means to these people—this paper is being put together by people who care, who want to get this out more than anything in the world. It’s not something that Charity (of which she has none, as one character notes) recognizes at first and she simply doesn't have it in her to understand.
What develops is a story not just about the love of all aspects of journalism but one of love and hate between these two people, as well as between the competing newspapers they run. What Mitch requires from those who work for him and what Fuller requires as well is total reverence for this world and its history. And what, you say it’s corny when the young boy (as much of a surrogate for Fuller as anyone else in the film) begs to work on the paper because, like Mitch, he’s got “printer’s ink in me too.” Corny? Says who? The film means it. Fuller means it. PARK ROW is very obviously made on a low budget for 1952 and for Fuller these sets are the filmic equivalent of butcher paper but his blood and sweat comes through in every scene with more passion than any number of bloated epics made then or now. And it only takes him 83 minutes. Right down to its unforgettable final title card in lieu of saying “THE END” that makes me want to rise up in respect and admiration for what we’ve just seen PARK ROW is genuinely stirring to me, thrusting our faces into that nasty dialogue and harsh imagery with all the power in the world. And in those quiet moments between Mitch and old reporter Davenport who speaks truths into his ear to inch him towards what he needs to do, needs to be, the film allows us to feel the passion of people who are searching for greatness, not sure which way they’re going but fully intent on getting there.
The cast who all cram into the frame throughout works together like a finely tuned theatrical troupe—Gene Evans appeared in several other films for Fuller as well as lots of TV during his long career and he infuses his cigar chomping editor with the fury and emotion it’s needed. Mary Welch, who died during childbirth just a few years later, carefully balances the nasty side of her character always dressed in black to be an antagonist for Mitch along with just enough attractiveness to make the relationship work. The energetic Bela Kovacs is Mr. Mergenthaler who offers his new press to the Globe but no one else and Herbert Heyes of A PLACE IN THE SUN is Mr. Davenport, the angel over Mitch’s shoulder telling him that “the joy of working for an ideal is the joy of living,” and who helps turn The Globe into what he finally calls “a good newspaper”.
It’s that calm, reasoned voice of Mr. Davenport that stays with me after viewing the film, someone with enough confidence in humanity to believe in the concept of the good man, the better man, coming along and proving his belief of the glory of American Journalism. Davenport speaks of his own death that he’s not ready for yet and, indeed, there is talk of death throughout the entire film as if to remind us, to stress to us, that what we are watching in this film is history. Journalists like this once fought for this such a free press and what they did during another time still matters (maybe, as newspapers are dying all over, we need to know that now more than ever) and Samuel Fuller is going to make sure we know how important this story is. It was his favorite of all his films as well and as long as PARK ROW is around, as long as each of Sam Fuller’s films are around, we will remember what he cared about because that kind of passion can never be extinguished once it is forced into the projection booth that runs through your head.