Thursday, November 03, 2005

Billy Wilder's THE FRONT PAGE (1974)

Just picked this up on DVD, since I always find Wilder's films so interesting. I wasn't expecting too much from it, but I really enjoyed it more than I expected.

It was the only one of Wilder's post-"Some Like it Hot" films that I had not seen yet. For me, his post-"...Hot" period is interesting if not always successful. I did not care for IRMA LA DOUCE much (well, Lou Jacobi was great in it, though), and really disliked KISS ME, STUPID (just crude and unfunny, in my opinion). I actually really liked THE FORTUNE COOKIE, PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES and AVANTI! (this one was a real treat). As for FEDORA, I found it interesting but I can't say it was one of the better Wilder films I've seen (especially compared to the work he was doing 20 years earlier). As for BUDDY BUDDY, it was amazing to see that the man who began his Hollywood career writing films like NINOTCHKA, and directed films as classy and witty as SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT and ONE TWO THREE would end his career directing something on the level of AMERICAN PIE. It's a long way from "Nobody's perfect" and "Shut up and deal" to "Are you out of your f**king mind?" every other sentence. But still, BUDDY BUDDY was just one crude joke after another, and seemed at times that its only purpose was to see how crude it could get (the pot joke felt especially forced, in my opinion). Of course, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau still did their best with the material they were given and its always a pleasure to see them in films together.

Which brings me to THE FRONT PAGE. From what I'd read, I was expecting something like a rip-off of THE STING, played with loads of late '20s nostalgia but highly dated now. I was wrong. I actually found the film to be highly enjoyable, and very funny. Not a "classic" of course, but enjoyable for what it was. I also noticed the film was made by Universal Pictures rather than through the Mirisch Company, suggesting perhaps that Wilder was brought in by the studio for this project rather than developing the entire project on his own, as he often did with his other independent films with I.A.L. Diamond. Wilder and Diamond, however, did write the new script for "Front Page", and it seemed like a great vehicle for Lemmon and Matthau. It was also really well-photographed and the music score was alot of fun if not great.
The dialogue exchanges weren't on the same level as "His Girl Friday" (no surprise there), but I found it to be better paced than the 1931 version (a movie I *really* wanted to like, but couldn't quite get into for some reason. O'Brien and especially Menjou were great in it, but I almost felt distracted by the overly-mobile cinematography in alot of scenes. I understand this was trying to offer an alternative to the static photography of many early talkies but sometimes I personally found it distracting).

As with alot of Wilder's films, one of the best parts is the supporting cast. Surprisingly, I didn't find Carol Burnett to be at her best in this film but that was really more a problem with the script. However, Austin Pendleton was incredible as Earl Williams. It was a treat to see Charles Durning as one of the newspapermen and Harold Gould as the Mayor (the casting here might have been a nod to their appearances in THE STING?). Vincent Gardenia was hilarious as the Sheriff. He was a great character actor in the right roles.

Overall, I enjoyed the film very much, found it both well-written and well-paced, and I feel it overcame the low expectations I had of it being another remake.