Friday, 13 June 2014

"The Front Page" on BLU RAY – A Review Of The 1974 Billy Wilder Film – Now On A European BLU RAY (as "Extrablatt")…

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"…May The Wind At Your Back Never Be Your Own…" – The Front Page on BLU RAY

It's 6 June 1929 - and Walter Burns is pouring Bromide from one glass into another. Nice guy Editor of the not-so-quality broadsheet The Chicago Examiner - Walter's stomach isn't churning from the 95 cent special he eat that morning - nor the constant Lucky Strike cigarette hanging out of his expletive worn dentures - nor from hearing dire poetry written by a snooty opposition reporter from The Tribune about his 'silver-haired mother'. It's from the way his city is going to execute Earl Williams the following morning at seven a.m. (a naïve socialist whose been hysterically blown up in the media as a Commie threat because he supposedly murdered someone). Chicago has the barefaced gall to hang the be-speckled puny sap - and Walter knows you can't get a decent headline from a hanging. "Now if only it was the electric chair..." Walter enthuses. "EARL WIILIAMS - FRIES! EARL WILLIAMS - ROASTED ALIVE!"

As you can imagine "The Front Page" is old-fashioned funny. Based on the 1928 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (itself filmed with Cary Grant as "His Girl Friday" in 1940) - the adapted screenplay by the legendary duo of Director Billy Wilder and Writer I.A.L. Diamond ("Some Like It Hot", "The Apartment" and "Avanti!") offers what you'd expect - rapid-fire dialogue that can only be described as comedic genius. Throw two of Wilder's favourite leading men into this hardboiled hijinx - Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon - and magic will happen more often than not. But despite its commercial success - critics disliked this retro film - calling it wildly out of place in the harsh reality-filled movie landscape of 1974. But I've always loved it.

The story goes something like this. On the eve of the Earl Williams hanging - Walter Burns' best reporter Hildebrand 'Hildy' Johnson (Lemmon) waltzes into his office whistling a love song. He announces that he's quitting the 'racket' and is heading off to Philadelphia on the midnight train to marry his new fiancé Peggy Grant (an early role for Susan Sarandon) - a pianist who plays a sing-a-long version of "Take Good Care Of Yourself" on the organ at the Balaban and Katz Theatre. Her uncle is in advertising. Burns is unimpressed. "Jesus Hildy! You're a newspaperman! You're gonna write poetry about brassieres and laxatives!"

But then a stroke of luck sees Earl Williams (Austin Pendleton) escape during a bungled psychiatric examination (to see if he's sane enough to hang) with a loony Austrian shrink (Martin Gabel) and Sherriff "Honest Pete" Hartmann (a manic and entirely dishonest Vincent Gardenia). The luckless condemned man ends up in the Press Room of the Cook County Community Court House hiding out in a desk bureau with a bullet in his arm and innocence in his heart. A hooker (Carol Burnett) who befriended him and has a soft spot for the sap takes a dive into the courtyard to distract the press hacks ("Shady lady leaps for love!"). Walter comes over to the Court House to find Hildy hiding Williams there and the two plot a way to get him out of the building and pull off a major Chicago Examiner exclusive (remove Williams and the writing bureau by crane). There's even a reprieve from the Governor for Williams if only he can get it in time. And on it goes...

Much of the humour comes from a series of brilliant lowlife dialogue pieces - Walter calls the bungling Sheriff "Stooge of Stalin or Simply Stupid!" - when highbrow reporter Bensinger from The Tribune (an effeminate David Wayne) calls in to his re-write team - a gutter press hack whose playing poker for nickels nearby listens in on his conversation to nick his ideas (so you get the quality versus the gutter). Bensinger - "The city is preparing for a general uprising of radicals at this time. Sheriff Hartmann has placed extra guards around the jail, the municipal buildings and railroad stations..." Murphy's version - "The Sheriff has just put 200 more relatives on the payroll to protect the city from the Red Army who are leaving Moscow in a couple of minutes..." When Burns tries to fool Peggy Grant into believing Hildy is a sex pervert by turning up as Otto Fishbine his Parole Officer (he nicked a star from a film poster outside to pretend it's a official badge) - he says - "He's not really a criminal! He's just sick!"

Of course you have to single out the fabulous Walter Matthau - who is custom made for this kind of wiseass role. His Burns is devious, ruthless and gloriously tacky - "We need some last words Hildy...if necessary make them up yourself!"

I've had the US DVD of this film for years and the print was always only OK - and nothing better. Unfortunately this Universal BLU RAY released in Germany as "Extrablatt" (Barcode 4250124342807) clearly uses those same elements. There's lots of natural grain and only a bit of clarity improvement. The EXTRAS are few  - Biogs on the big three (Lemmon, Matthau and Wilder) with rare but interesting publicity cards from the German release - but nothing else about the movie. There's a German/English language choice on the opening menu and trailers to other old releases - but that's it. Cheap and cheerful I'm afraid - and a damn shame no restoration has been done.

Director Billy Wilder has gone on record as saying that he shouldn't have made a remake and thought "The Front Page" wasn't his best work. But even by his lofty standards - 50% of Billy Wilder is still funnier than 100% of what today's gross-out clowns pass off as 'hilarious'.

When Hildy Johnson drops in to have a final drink with his Press Room buddies - Murphy (Charles Durning) gives him a whiskey toast with the title to this review. "May the wind at your back never be your own..." Now that's funny.

"The Front Page" may not be genius in 2014 - but it's a tabloid I'll soil my backside with any day of the week...

PS: see also my reviews for other Billy Wilder classics - the BLU RAY of "The Apartment" and the DVD of "Avanti!"

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