Tuesday, June 28, 2011

MGM MOD DVD of the Week: Park Row / Laws of Gravity

Along with The Big Red One (1980), Park Row (1952) may be Sam Fuller’s most autobiographical film. It was a labor of love for the scrappy director who made it as a tribute to the journalists he knew as a newsboy in the 1920’s. By the time he was 17, Fuller became a crime reporter in New York City working for the New York Evening Graphic. He attempted to get Park Row made at 20th Century Fox but when studio head Darryl Zanuck wanted to turn it into a musical, Fuller refused and started his own production company, which allowed him to make it without any creative compromises.


Dedicated to American journalism, Park Row takes us back to the early days of newspapers and depicts the bitter rivalry between Charity Hackett (Mary Welch), owner of The Star, and one of her employees Phinneas Mitchell (Gene Evans). He resents her tactics, which include condemning the wrong man to death. As he says at one point, “The day The Star reports the facts Judas Escariot will be sainted.” He dreams of running his own newspaper, free of political influence and that would answer to no one. As luck would have it, a wealthy businessman offers to bankroll Mitchell’s dream.

Mitchell is ambitious and quickly assembles a staff that is equally hungry, chief among them veteran reporter Josiah Davenport (Herbert Heyes) who gets to deliver one of Fuller’s trademark impassioned speeches about journalism: “But a fighting editor is a voice the world needs. A man with ideals.” Mitchell’s The Globe gets off to a strong start with its attention-grabbing headlines which doesn’t sit well with Hackett over at The Star.

Frequent collaborator Gene Evans breaths life into Fuller’s pulpy prose and with an omnipresent cigar and no-nonsense attitude, he is the director’s cinematic alter ego, a blue collar Charles Foster Kane. Evans plays Mitchell as a passionate man, a two-fisted defender of the truth and freedom of speech.

Fuller does an excellent job recreated period details on an extremely low budget right down to the tools of the trade, the clothes that people wore and how they spoke. Park Row takes an authentic look at how newspapers were run in the 1880’s, from copyboys to the editor-in-chief. He shows how an issue of a newspaper is put together in a way that hasn’t been done in many years making this film a valuable historical document. In many respects, Fuller’s film is Citizen Kane (1941) on a much lower budget and scale with Evans playing a Kane-esque newspaperman that influences and sometimes creates the news his paper reports on in typical tabloid journalism fashion. However, where Orson Welles’ film attacked the worst aspects of tabloid journalism, Fuller also celebrates its best aspects – call him a cynical idealist. He spends more time showing the actual process of putting together a newspaper and the hard work involved as well as the cutthroat competition that arises among rival papers.

 
Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity (1992) was part of an exciting crop of American independent films to come out in the early to mid-1990’s and arguably the best of the Mean Streets (1973) wannabes to be made. It also featured a cast of young, up and coming actors that would go on to solid careers in film and television. Peter Greene and Edie Falco are probably the two most well-known to come out of this film but Adam Trese (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) and Paul Schulze (The Sopranos) also have prolific careers as regular character actors on T.V.


Set on the gritty streets of New York City, Laws of Gravity is about the relationship between two friends – Jimmy (Peter Greene) and Jon (Adam Trese), two small-time crooks that deal in stolen goods. Jimmy is the responsible one while Jon is the wild card always getting into trouble. When we meet them, Jon has skipped out on his court date for a shoplifting charge because he didn’t feel like showing up. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with his girlfriend Celia (Arabella Field). Jimmy has problems of his own – he owes a sizable chunk of money to local tough guy Sal (Saul Stein) who’s breathing down his neck. As luck would have it, Jimmy and Jon’s friend Frankie (Paul Schulze) rolls back into town with a bunch of guns he wants to sell. Jon and Jimmy see this as an opportunity to make some fast, easy money but of course it doesn’t go as well as they planned. As Jon’s behavior gets increasingly erratic, Jimmy has to make a decision whether to stick by his friend and risk his future or cut him loose and focus on his own problems.

Gomez does a good job showing how a good-natured conversation can turn into a shouting match when Jon gets annoyed with Celia’s nagging criticisms. The dialogue and the way the scene is shot – cinema verite style – feels like we are intruding on an intimate conversation between real people. Gomez employs a restless hand-held camera, which replicates Jon’s anxious energy. He’s a schemer always looking to make some easy money and doesn’t care about who he pisses off.

Based on his solid work in Laws of Gravity, it’s amazing that Peter Greene isn’t a bigger star. He has had small but memorable parts in classic films like Pulp Fiction (1994) and The Usual Suspects (1995) but nothing as substantial as Laws of Gravity (although, there is his startling turn in the little seen Clean, Shaven). He has natural charisma and brings an authenticity to the role of Jimmy that is impressive to watch. This was also an early role for Edie Falco and she demonstrates considerable acting chops. It is easy to see why she has become such an accomplished actress.

Jimmy and Jon are constantly roaming the streets pulling petty crimes like shoplifting but to what end? They get into arguments that break into fights where nobody wins. These guys seem to have little aspirations and are content to live in the moment. Laws of Gravity is a fascinating slice of life look at people just trying to get by any way they can. It depicts the unstable relationship between two men and how it affects their friends and family. Gomez really captures how people from this social strata speak and act. His film is an under-appreciated gem waiting to be discovered and will hopefully find new life thanks to MGM’s MOD program.

 


4 comments:

  1. Nice shout-out for "Laws of Gravity"! I have an old worn out VHS copy and its definitely in my top 5 movies of all time in which I recommend whenever I can. That final scene is just a gut-punch. It's a shame director Nick Gomez hasn't done a movie in several years, mostly relegated to TV work.

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  2. Yeah, it's a shame about Gomez. He started off so well but had to switch to TV after the indie scene kinda collapsed financially. Still, LAWS OF GRAVITY is fantastic debut.

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  3. I thought Peter Greene was destined for a lengthy supporting actor career after scoring the villain role in The Mask, a career like William Fichtner's, but Greene followed up his first really great roles with B movie stuff. He does seem to work a lot, even though most of it seems to be things I've never even heard of. That might say more about me than him.

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  4. Stacia:

    Good point. I also read somewhere that for awhile he had a really bad drug problem so that may have contributed to less than stellar film roles. One can hope he gets some more memorable roles in the future.

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