DVD Review: PARK ROW Is A Love Letter ... But I Wanted A Film
Fuller directed some of the standout American films of the past five decades, from the lurid psychodrama of Shock Corridor to the rough-and-ready war stories in The Big Red One, and even his detractors would probably concede there were few directors so passionate as Fuller when he got going. But unfettered passion can be pretty tiring. Tarantino describes Park Row as Fuller's love letter to journalism, but it's a love letter in the worst sense. It's ninety minutes of adolescent fervour in which the writer seems completely unable to credit there might be anything wrong with the object of his adoration.
Fuller's know-how is hardly in question here; the director began working in tabloid journalism as a young man and his early career proved to be a key formative influence on his outlook as a filmmaker. The story is loosely based on real figures from the late 19th century, and the events they had a hand in, most significantly Joseph Pulitzer's drive to raise funds for the building of Lady Liberty through New York's paper the World. But Park Row is less a drama in three acts than a eulogy for these bygone titans, as if Fuller realised $200,000 wouldn't stretch to a giant statue so it'd have to be a sermon how on real men had vision back then, and morals, and fury in their eyes like a wildfire.
Fuller had already worked with veteran character actor Gene Evans (and would do more films with him after this), and gave him a rare shot at a lead role as Phineas Mitchell, a newspaperman who's just been kicked out of a job for holding his bosses to account over damning a criminal with their front page coverage of his trial - convincing their readers the defendant's guilty to the extent he ends up with a noose around his neck almost by default. When Mitchell gets a once in a lifetime opportunity to start a paper of his own he seizes the chance to run it the right way, standing up for truth, justice, liberty and all that good stuff, but Charity Hackett (Mary Welch) the owner of his previous paper doesn't appreciate the competition.
This is part history lesson, part battle hymn of the republic. Listen, kid, Fuller wants us to know, this was how we used to do things in America - back in a simpler time, when you could do pretty much anything with enough moxie, a green eye shade and a pencil stuck behind your ear. Fuller's enthusiasm is compelling, up to a point, as he leads the audience through the trials of getting a paper off the ground, be it spinning a throwaway story into a front page headline to whip up the masses or the rigours of manual typesetting before Ottmar Mergenthaler came along. The director's at his best here, the camera weaving through a hive of activity so deftly you can almost forgive the rose-tinted nostalgia.
But it is so pink you can almost see the haze. Mitchell's only sin is being too headstrong, if that - Fuller's hero is less a man than an exemplar of patriotic "truthiness". To hear Park Row tell it, good journalists always did the right thing and never bowed to even the most crippling financial pressure, or else - when they did finally give in - their noble sacrifice so impressed their enemies the bad guys simply upped and quit. Mitchell as played by Evans is part saint, part debonair scoundrel, forever burning the midnight oil to get the real story out there, so utterly incorruptible yet ruggedly handsome it's a wonder Welch doesn't beg him to take her right there and then over the printing press.
The craft is there - DOP John Russell (Psycho) shows a great aptitude for black and white, with a smoky, noirish texture to the hustle of the newspaper room and the quiet night shots, along with a surprising amount of grit for a low-budget production. Again, Fuller's direction is frequently a two-fisted live wire of a thing, long, whirling takes through the thick of the action and little showy flourishes dotted through even the most mundane stretches of dialogue or scene-setting. The man's determination to make every last cent of his meagre budget count is palpable.
But none of this automatically makes for a great film. Park Row flopped on release, and you have to wonder if this was less Fuller being under-appreciated than his being so painfully over-eager to sing journalism's praises he forgot to give his audience anything else that might hold their attention. There's no real tension here, and nothing ever feels at stake. You can read the narrative arc a mile off, and even then the final resolution - how Mitchell and Hackett work out their differences - is such a pitifully damp squib as to have your eyes rolling straight out of your head.
There's plenty to admire about Park Row, but it's difficult to see anyone bar film students and scholars of the period going back to it. This is less a film than a drunken late night conversation stretching out way too long with that friend you haven't seen in years who talks too much, where the inability to get a word in edgeways or offer an opposing point of view starts to grate more and more as time goes on. Few directors were as passionate as Fuller when he was in full flood, but Park Row is so unrelentingly passionate if you're not prepared to nod sagely along with every point the man makes - yes, Sam, journalists pretty much were gods among men, it's true - you might well wonder why you're watching.
Regardless of the film's merits Eureka Video's new DVD of Park Row - part of their Masters of Cinema range, available on home video for the first time ever in the UK - is up to the company's usual high standards. While not as feature-rich as some of their releases it's still a quality release that should keep the director's fans more than happy. The disc goes straight from the Eureka logo to a simple menu over a still from the film - it's a little busy, but otherwise easy enough to navigate. The film has been divided into fourteen chapter stops.
The new digital transfer is simply gorgeous - while there are still a couple of rough spots where Park Row shows its age, for most of the running time the picture is fantastic. While the DVD obviously lacks the resolution of HD formats, details are still crisp and clear, with a bare minimum of dirt or grain, a huge range of grey tones and plenty of definition on even the deepest blacks. Some of the night shots get a tad blurred, but the terrific cinematography helps the focal points stand out all the same.
The audio is fairly typical for a film of this vintage, with a fair amount of very slight fuzz in the background, though it's much deeper and richer than some, with little of the brassy squealing or distortion you often hear on the high end of forties and fifties string sections. Dialogue is clear and perfectly audible, with no strong accents or mumbling. Removable subtitles are a little small and blocky, but still readable, and pretty much free from grammatical or spelling errors.
The most substantial extra on the disc is 20 minutes of Cahiers du Cinema critic Bill Krohn giving a primer on the film. While it's not that much more than could be gleaned from some careful browsing through Wikipedia Krohn is eloquent, knowledgeable and fun to listen to - he clearly adores Fuller and his work, though, so there's no nay-saying here. With that in mind, this is still a decent introduction to Fuller and his legacy if you don't feel like doing the legwork yourself.
Fuller's wife speaks for a couple of minutes on how Park Row relates to her husband's early years as a junior reporter, and his casting of father figures in this and his other films. While this is interesting, it's hardly revelatory stuff, and the extract feels too obviously cut from a longer conversation - perhaps with the rest of it headed for other, future Fuller releases? Both this and Krohn's feature are apparently exclusive to Eureka's DVD of Park Row.
The original theatrical trailer is pretty much what you'd expect, two minutes of highlights that make the film seem considerably more dynamic than it actually is, with Pathé News voiceover whipping the crowd into a frenzy over Evans' manly virtues and Welch's seductive good looks. (Note, also, that trailers already blithely gave away most of the good bits fifty years ago.) There's also an isolated music and effects track, for some reason - Paul Dunlap's score is pleasant enough, if unremarkable, but it's hard to argue you get anything out of watching it along with the foley. Still, it's there if you're interested.
As with all Eureka Video releases, Park Row includes a specially commissioned liner booklet, a collection of essays and testimonials from Fuller and his contemporaries, which although it sings the film's praises surprisingly doesn't shy away from bluntly admitting it was a commercial failure. It comes down hard on Fuller's side, no matter what - of course Mitchell's macho histrionics aren't glorified. What kind of two-bit fascist son of a bitch could think that? But it does acknowledge Fuller's critics' points of view, and makes for fascinating reading.
Park Row is a fascinating moment in Samuel Fuller's career, for the way it stands as a testament to the strength of Fuller's beliefs and the values he treasured above everything else. But for all he championed it as one of the best things he'd ever done it's very hard to argue it's a good film, much less a great one. For all its craft Park Row's sheer, unrestrained passion for the origins of American journalism plays out like a drunken love song bellowed at ear-splitting volume, so deaf to anything beyond the singer's feelings it's a struggle to sit through the once. Nonetheless, for anyone who's still curious (or who's long since decided this review is full of it) Eureka Video's DVD of Park Row gives the film a great presentation up to the company's usual high standards.