Lowdown: Journalists and authorities make a killing out of death row misery.
This blog has expressed its admiration to Billy Wilder in the past (Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot). Although I can’t point at any of his films and say I find them truly remarkable, I think I can safely point at his films and admire the systematic way in which they were done and the Wilder vision that is written all over them. The Front Page, a 1974 release, is another Wilder film to join this club, and it even features the stars that seemed to have been created for Wilder – Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Set in 1929 Chicago, at the height of Prohibition, The Front Page is a tale revolving the world of journalism. Jack Lemmon is the best journalist Chicago has, but he’s tired of the pressure and wants to marry and live a comfortable life with his girl of choice, a very young looking Susan Sarandon. His editor, Matthau, is not one to give up his best asset, so he does his best to convince Lemmon and/or to trick Lemmon into staying.
At the same time, an inmate is waiting to be hung for shooting a cop. Chicago’s main group of journalists is busy playing cards at the jail’s press room while making news up about the matter as Lemmon comes to bid them all farewell. But Lemmon is trapped without knowing it: between the mischief of Matthau, the amateur corruptness of the authorities dealing with the hanging, and his chance of a scoop, he is swept back to the world he wanted to leave so badly.
In typical Wilder fashion, The Front Page is a very theatrical affair. Most of it takes place in one room, the press room, and power is provided by the acting talents of the film’s leads and their witty lines. And in typical Wilder fashion it’s all one big satirical farce, that – in typical Wilder fashion – is not that funny, yet one cannot avoid admiring its smartness.
The Front Page makes it obvious Wilder has had a thing or two to say about the press as well as the authorities. Both are portrayed as vultures that couldn’t care less about decency and about the price their victims – the wrongly reported or the wrongly jailed – have to pay so they can make a buck or get themselves re-elected. As far as Wilder is concerned, the only innocent person in the film is a prostitute, an analogy of biblical proportions; the rest are either indifferent to the suffering of others or a part of the great plot, which doesn't say much that is good about us viewers either and the way most of us turn a blind eye to the fact the companies we work for do some pretty nasty things. That Wilder manages to deliver his message so effectively and so entertainingly is testament to his direction skills.
Best scene: The special psychiatrist brought from Vienna to assess the sanity of the death row shooter asks the guy to recreate the shooting as best as he could. Which is exactly what he does.
Overall: The Front Page is entertaining and it’s a great demonstration of fine acting, but it failed to captivate me enough to give it more than 3 out of 5 stars.