The Front Page (1974)

BILLY WILDER

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5USA, 1974Screenplay by , , based on the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthurCinematography by Produced by Music by Production Design by Costume Design by Film Editing by Golden Globe Awards 1974.

Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in The Front Page.

Billy Wilder reunites with his Fortune Cookie stars for a remake of Ben Hecht’s much-lauded play, closer to the Lewis Milestone version than the gender-bending remake by Howard Hawks.  This time it’s Walter Matthau as the conniving editor who knows that his ace reporter Jack Lemmon is about to get married (to Susan Sarandon) and take a job in the cushier world of advertising, but he is determined to keep him from quitting.  First he tries to manipulate the situation by telling Sarandon that Lemmon is wanted on a sex offender charge, but when that fails, he pulls out all the stops and goes for something he knows his friend can’t resist: this is all happening on the day of the planned execution of an accused, possibly innocent murderer (), who then escapes before being gassed and finds his way into the courthouse’s press room overlooking the gallows.  What reporter can avoid such a good story when they know they’re the only one who can write it properly? The period details are rich and comforting and the dialogue just zings by in Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s expert adaptation of Hecht’s play, though their keeping it to a mostly stagebound setting won’t work for all viewers and might come across a bit stifled. appears in a supporting role as a maligned sex worker who speaks out against the dishonesty of the journalists who have been so unkind to her; following its release she was very critical of her own performance, feeling she hadn’t given it enough preparation and she’s only halfway right about it.  Burnett is too talented to be bad in anything, but there is a sense that she’s not sure if she’s playing a real person or taking part in a farcical caricature (which is actually Wilder’s problem, not hers).  The film is more generous to her, though, than it is to Sarandon, who is completely dampened by her role as the ingenue and barely makes an impression. Matthau and Lemmon show off the crackling chemistry that would serve them so well in their ten movies together, and their fans will have a great time watching this one.

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