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Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Front Page (1974) - Funny, Clever, Colorful, Obvious and Corny

Billy Wilder, who directed "The Front Page," never was as widely known among the American public as, say, Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg. When you look at his amazing career, which spanned much of the 20th Century, you begin to appreciate the man's brilliance.  There are so many classic films that you probably don't even know are his, either as director or screenwriter: "Some Like it Hot," "Double Indemnity," "Ninotchka," "Sunset Boulevard," "The Lost Weekend," "Stalag 17," "The Seven Year Itch," "Ocean's Eleven," "Sabrina," "Witness for the Prosecution," "The Apartment," the list just goes on and on.  And he didn't even start his career in Hollywood, there are a bunch of German films from the 1930s that also bear his stamp.

Here, Wilder is directing two of his favorite actors, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, in a classic tale.  Wilder could direct comedy as well as anyone, and Lemon and Matthau were born comedians in the acting sense.  As you can probably tell from the title, this tale is about newspapermen, but not in the way you probably think.  This looks more at their private lives and the comic escapades that can arise from ... an escaped killer.

I am not going to compare this to earlier versions of the story because I think that can be unfair. If you are not going to watch the earlier versions, who cares how good they are in comparison? So, let me just say that this is a fine, almost slapstick comedy that will satisfy anyone looking for a series of one-liners and totally hammy performances by a cast of old pros.

This is a gorgeous film to watch and hear. The theme is instantly recognizable, and the cinematography is crystal clear and full of vivid colors. Never underestimate these points in judging a film, they can raise a mediocre film to well above average - not that this was a mediocre film to begin with, because that is not the case.

Susan Sarandon was already a big-time actress in 1974!

Jack Lemmon takes top billing, but the supporting characters really make this film go. David Wayne as a prissy reporter, Vincent Gardenia as a blustering sheriff, Harold Gould as the sleazy mayor, Martin Gabel who has some of the funniest lines as a prison psychiatrist, and the boys in the press room come out with the best lines in the whole show. Austin Pendleton as the killer is a bit of let-down, playing it as a poor-man's Woody Allen, but everybody around him is so busy hamming it up unmercifully that his understatement works well.

That is Billy Wilder along with Carol Burnett

I'm not so enamored of Carol Burnett, who goes way over the top playing a stereotypical floozy and manages to bring the comic proceedings to a screeching halt.  She must have been trying to change her image here, and is badly miscast.  Susan Sarandon has an early roll, but she fades into the background.  Both have so little screen time that it is easy to overlook them and really are there just to provide complications for the two leads.

There are all sorts of in-jokes and topical humor. I noticed some anachronisms - for instance, at one point Jack Lemmon does a James Cagney impression, but Cagney didn't make his first movie until a year after the movie was set - but this is not the kind of movie where that makes a lot of difference.

I am a big Walter Matthau fan, and he does the usual superlative job as the frantic editor. Lemmon is the real problem I have with this film, at times he seems to be sleep-walking through his role, and he has surprisingly few funny lines. He basically plays Jack Lemmon in awkward situations, and the situations aren't awkward enough most of the time for that to really work.

I like the film, but there is a lot of totally unnecessary swearing and at times it slows to a crawl. It is a very good film that I put just below classic status. See it for Matthau and the brilliant supporting cast and some very witty dialogue, but don't expect to be blown away the way you would expect because it just won't happen.

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