We have in front of us one of the most passionate films I think I've ever seen, the movie that the great B-picture master Sam Fuller always regarded as his favorite out of a long career heavy with some of the best American movies that most people have never heard of. The film in question is Park Row, and even if I'm not sure that I quite follow the man to agreeing that it's his best ever (I have a mighty weakness for his next film, Pickup on South Street), it's impossible not to see why he thought so highly of it. This is plainly a deeply personal work for the writer-director, almost embarrassingly so; to anyone who sees his films as drenched in sarcasm and cynicism - and to be fair, nearly all of them are - this is the unanswerable rebuttal, one of the most sincere and idealistic movies ever made, where cynicism is blasted into ashes by the piercing sun of righteous outrage.

The thing you must know about Samuel Fuller is that, before he became one of the great filmmakers, and before his stint in World War II that so deeply informed his many war pictures, he was a newspaper reporter, from his teens. There is arguably no more important fact to know about him, for this history informs nearly all of his movies, most of which are tabloid-esque melodramas about life on the edges: from Pickup on South Street and Underworld U.S.A., two noirs with a miraculously real feeling to their depiction of urban grime, to his infamous pair of 1960s pulp stories, The Naked Kiss and especially Shock Corridor, a masterpiece about an investigative journalist who literally pushes himself towards insanity in his quest to discover the truth about a shady asylum. All of these films - to say nothing of his war films - are based first and above all in a reporter's desire to get all of the details right, and to let the story come out of that rigorous foundation of hard-core honesty.

Fuller more than anyone knew the debt he owed to his baptism in the news media, and that is why he concocted Park Row, a heavily fictionalised account of Joseph Pulitzer's crusade to raise money to build the base for the new Statue of Liberty by exhorting people to donate through the editorial page of his paper, The World. But there's more to Park Row than just sizzling historical drama. It is a mythic tale of the glory days of New York's great papers, all published on the titular Park Row by crusaders rendered more as gods than men by a writer for whom names like George Jones and Joseph Pulitzer were to be spoken only in hushed, awed terms. Proving that nothing is ever new, the screenplay tells the tale of noble old-school journalists fighting against the new generation of corporate plutocrats, a struggle between those who would use the newspapers as tools in their quest to right wrongs and defend the voiceless, and those who just wanted to make huge pots of money with infotainment. It was in short a love letter from a man who loved newspapers, and the promise of newspapers, more than anything else in the world.

At that time, Fuller has completed the first of a seven-picture deal with 20th Century Fox, and so he naturally went first to Darryl F. Zanuck, who was tremendously excited about the possibilities. Only... it seemed like it might even work better as a musical, doncha think? Thus ended Fuller's talks with 20th Century Fox to produce Park Row.

Instead, he dug deep into his own pockets and spent what amounts to his entire fortune to make Park Row exactly on his own terms, precisely the way he wanted to. The massive set of Park Row itself, the cast, the equipment: all of it hired by the brand new Samuel Fuller Productions. Thus, Fuller one of the most perfect examples of an auteurist film in history, in which the director and writer and producer and studio were all embodied in the same stubborn man with a vision. And while Park Row bankrupted its creator, history has been much kinder than 1952 audiences. Nowadays, we know it as a bona fide masterpiece, all thanks to the crazed vision of one man who would do anything to get this one story out into the world. It is cheap; but passion fills every frame of it, not a single image made during the feverish 14-day shoot can be rightly said to lack the touch of a craftsman who knew exactly what he was doing and why in every minor detail. It is the Citizen Kane of B-movies, an absolute masterpiece born fully-formed from one very singular mind.

In the 1880s, a decent fella and great journalist named Phineas "Mitch" Mitchell (Gene Evans) is fired from his job at The Star, not that he minds very much, since The Star has become indulgent and worthless ever since being taken over by the daughter of the old publisher, a tough businesswoman named Charity Hackett (Mary Welch), who is noted with some disgust to lack ink in her veins. Fate smiles upon a just man, for once in Fuller's universe, and so Mitch is put in charge of a fledgling one-sheet tabloid he christens The Globe. By the end of his first day as publisher and editor, he's created something that all of the old guard recognises as the truly great paper of the age, that Hackett recognises as the most deadly rival she's ever faced, and the stage is set for a good old-fashioned newspaper war.

There's something undeniably hokey about all of this, but is the kind of hokey you'd never dare to call cheesy, any more than you'd laugh in the face of a really burly, muscled guy who tears up listening to "Proud to Be an American" in a bar. Samuel Fuller believes in everything he puts onscreen, both in the details of the story and the way he puts it together. Park Row is full of arresting imagery, some of it quite easy to love, such as the ludicrously sinuous camera movements that are so prevalent, and so exquisitely done, considering the brevity of the shoot, that Fuller thought it right to give Carl Gibson a special credit as "camera movements". And some of it a bit more peculiar, though still quintessentially Fuller: at one point, Mitch beats a man's head in - don't worry, he was No True Newspaper Man - against the base of the Park Row statue of Benjamin Franklin. A campy moment? Sure, if you're a soulless post-modernist; but Fuller absolutely and completely believes in this image, and through his belief, we believe, just as surely as when he opens the film with a list of 1,772 American newspapers, before dedicating his film (in gigantic black type) to American journalism.

That, in brief, is the mentality guiding Park Row: Sam Fuller's certainty that American journalism was something that could be memorialised in a movie, something that he could memorialise in this movie in particular. And dammit, but he went right out and memorialised it, in a glowing tribute that nobody else could ever have made; a tribute not to newspapers as they were in the 1880s, nor as they were in 1952, and certainly not as they are or might ever be again in 2009. No, Park Row is a tribute to what newspapers should always strive to be.

I'd like to argue that it serves as a double time capsule: a snapshot of what 1882 looked like from the vantage point of 1952. But Park Row is by no means a musty old B-movie suitable only for scholars and enthusiasts. It's fresh and vibrant in a way that few movies are fresh out of the box, let alone nearly 60 years after its creation. There's too much wild-eyed crazy genius stuff going on to wrap the film up in a neat little box marked "the early '50s"; though Fuller was always at the far edge of what polite people might be able to do with studio money at the time (along with Nicholas Ray, but that's a conversation for another time), even he never regularly dabbled in material as flat-out loopy as this. There are small things, like the villainous Charity Hackett, and her redemption; despite what one might expect from a film of this vintage, there's never a whisper of suggestion that her failings as a publisher or human being have anything whatsoever to do with her being female; if that matters at all, it's only so Fuller can toss in some sexual tension between her and Mitch. But that's a fairly simple issue, compared to some of the film's most outrageous quirks: the dream sequence that never clearly identifies itself as a dream, and is even less clear about who's dreaming it; the constant camera movements up and down and sideways and all over the place (I honestly think that there might not even be a dozen shots to lack any movement whatever), the way that the film keeps losing track of its plot - Is it about the battle between publishers? About the Statue of Liberty? About a man's ambition? Or just about the whole quilt that is newspaper publishing (it's this one)? - and everything else about it that functions less as a movie and more as a filmed chunk of Samuel Fuller's id.

I cannot possibly speak highly enough about this film, which unforgivably lacks a DVD release at this time, and so seeing it is as much about luck and timing as choice. But if you have the chance, for God's sake take it. It is a miracle: the most outstandingly idealistic film ever made by a professional curmudgeon, it's as pie-eyed and optimistic, and tough as nails at the same time, as any movie you could ever hope to see. This is the kind of film that makes you fall in love with cinema.