It's not His Girl Friday
, but it's not trying to be. It's darker, nastier and less funny. It's still good, though.
It's the third movie adaptation of The Front Page, after Lewis Milestone's repellent one
in 1931 and Howard Hawks's delightful one in 1940. This one's by Billy Wilder, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and it feels more like Milestone's, but done right. Are the characters likeable? Are they hell. Wilder isn't even slightly interested in trying to pull off Hawks's impossible balancing act, but instead is shoving our faces hard into the dirt. These people are slime. They're appalling. Lemmon's character has some vestiges of human decency, but Matthau's has none whatsoever. He's a miserable pit bull who's so unremittingly evil that it's funny to see him pretending (badly) to stand up for ethics.
It feels very 1970s in that, despite being set in 1929. (The period setting is lavish, with lots of name-dropping references to historical events.) Seventies cinema could be raw, uncompromising and not afraid to give its audiences a hard time. This was apparently Wilder's first to show a profit since Irma la Douce in 1963, which seems extraordinary to me.
It also feels 1970s in its anger. It's an acid-dripping assault on politicians, police and the press, giving us corrupt vote-grabbers (Nixon resigned that year) who are obsessed with Communists (during the Vietnam war) and using electoral slogans like "reform the Reds with a rope" (at a time when many real politicians, including Nixon himself, were running on 'law and order' platforms). Meanwhile the press get treatment that's very nearly as hostile, e.g. the line about the rape victim.
There's no racism, thank goodness. However there is homophobia, both in the dialogue and in the form of character who'd previously been a hypochondriac.
One striking element of the film is its treatment of women. Both Susan Sarandon and Carol Burnett are so real and true that they break the comedy, although that said the film doesn't feel as if its main priority is wringing laughs out of you anyway. Burnett was so unhappy with her performance that she once apologised to her fellow passengers after flying in an aeroplane that had had this as its in-flight movie. I think this is nonsense. She's lacerating and gives unprecedented truth and power to the role of Mollie Molloy. You won't laugh, but that's because the role isn't funny.
Sarandon meanwhile is both astonishingly beautiful and giving her character's decisions more weight and emotion than had either Mae Clarke or Ralph Bellamy.
At the end of the day, though, it's the Matthau-Lemmon show. They're a famous screen partnership, having done ten films together. I could imagine hunting down this film just to watch them. Matthau's Walter Burns is unusual because he's so grumpy. Matthau was born to be a grouch. He shouts, snarls, bullies and doesn't seem to enjoy any of it, whereas Adolphe Menjou and Cary Grant's Burnses loved being evil and were having the time of their lives. Lemmon on the other hand is overflowing with happiness. He has a song on his lips and he'll flirt with the cleaning ladies. He doesn't flirt with Matthau, though. That would be disturbing. He hates Matthau and so would you, although they make quite a team when they're not at each other's throats. They're kind of scary when they're smiling in that cell near the end, for instance.
Mind you, Matthau and Lemmon disagreed with Wilder on whether or not to do overlapping dialogue, which I imagine was part of their not getting on well and not wanting to work with him again afterwards. "I had one regret about the film. Billy would not let us overlap our lines more. I think that would have made it better... I feel it's a piece in which you must overlap. But Billy, the writer, wanted to hear all of the words clearly, and he wanted the audience to hear the words. I would have liked to overlap to the point where you lost some of the dialogue."
The film feels as if it's going out of its way to find ways of being brutal. The bit where Lemmon stops the sheriff from murdering an innocent unarmed man has been done before, even if Wilder's version gives it more weight. However I don't remember previously seeing police storming "Friends of American Liberty" with orders to shoot to kill.
The humour, when it eventually comes, is thus jet-black. "Are you implying that the Examiner would aid and abet a criminal?" Ahem. Similarly I was amused by the sheer unrepentent viciousness of what the journalists are writing. The film even rips the living daylights out of Martin Gabel's Dr Max J. Eggelhofer, who here is a hysterical imbecile who can't talk of anything except sexuality in childhood. "Let us get back to masturbation. Did your father ever catch you in the act?" He's a piss-take of Sigmund Freud, of the right nationality and age. He was funny. He's also so bone-headed that he lets the film get away with a certain plot point that derailed the 1931 film.
There are a few innocents, all in danger of being crushed under the wheels of the machine. The adorable Austin Pendleton is my favourite Earl Williams yet, while the "snot-nosed kid" (a new character, invented for this film) could have seemed like a spare wheel and instead is lovely. I've already praised the women.
It's a two-by-four in the face. It's funny, but not in a way that spreads sunshine and flowers. In hindsight, I suppose it's what I should have expected from a 1970s The Front Page. You might not have expected anyone to be able to follow Howard Hawks and Cary Grant, but Wilder, Matthau and Lemmon is a sufficiently heavyweight line-up to make it seem possible. Well, they succeeded. They pulled it off. Admittedly Wilder wasn't particularly pleased with what he'd done, saying later that "I'm against remakes in general" and "It was not one of my pictures I was particularly proud of", but I think his film proves him wrong on both counts.
"Well, if it's in the papers, it must be true. They wouldn't print a lie."