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The Prisoner Of Second Avenue

The Prisoner Of Second Avenue(1974)

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Home Video Reviews

The film adaptation of Neil Simon's seriocomic stage opus The Prisoner Of Second Avenue (1975) has recently made its way to DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. Thirty-odd years ago, when this tale of a Manhattanite's crushing battle with mid-life angst had its Broadway run, it was hailed as a worthy effort by the noted farceur to tackle more weighty and existential issues with his craft. Looking at the results today, though, the story, much like its hero, can't help but show how much it has frayed with the passage of time.

It's a stiflingly hot summer in the Big Apple, and despite the hyperactive air conditioning in his highrise, aging adman Mel Edison (Jack Lemmon) finds himself in a 24-hour torpor. He shows up at his recession-wracked firm with little to do but watch the clock, learn which co-workers have been cashiered, and wait for his own pink slip to inevitably arrive. When the ax finally does fall, he can't even bring himself to tell the truth to his eternally patient wife Edna (Anne Bancroft), and its takes the burglary of their apartment for him to admit that there's nothing with which to replace their belongings.

From the upstairs neighbors who douse him with water whenever he takes to the balcony to scream his frustration to the German stewardesses next door who party to all hours, nobody offers Mel much sympathy for his plight. In her attempts to soothe her husband, Edna returns to the workforce as a TV production assistant. Her breadwinning only makes the now-housebound Mel feel that much more emasculated, however, and it isn't long before she's echoing his same neuroses regarding the neighbors, the city, and existence in general. She struggles to find answers as Mel veers dangerously close to nervous collapse.

It's stronger stuff than you'd expect to find at the core of a Simon play. Viewing it in hindsight, the shifts in tone between the trademarked banter and the extreme pathos are really very jarring, and the result of the whole is ultimately less than satisfying. Lemmon and Bancroft had the onus of providing emotional honesty where the script failed to, and they proved up to the challenge. Lemmon's proficiency in conveying mounting desperation was used to best effect, and Bancroft was affecting as the loving spouse whose reservoirs of strength run close to exhaustion.

The story doesn't provide a whole lot for the supporting players, but Gene Saks is enjoyable as Mel's prosperous and empathetic big brother. Time has made The Prisoner Of Second Avenue notable for bit players who've gone on to bigger things. Those include a young Sylvester Stallone as the kid who has a fateful Central Park run-in with Mel; F. Murray Abaraham as a cabbie; and M. Emmett Walsh as the building's less-than-helpful doorman.

The image presentation, offered in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, is clean and more than serviceable. The special features provided with The Prisoner Of Second Avenue include a seven-minute segment from Bancroft's promotional appearance for the film on Dinah Shore's talk show. The Dinah! clip incorporates footage from the film's gag reel, and many of the same outtakes appear in the grainy, six-minute "making of" short that is also included. The theatrical trailer completes the extras package.

For more information about The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, visit Warner Video. To order The Prisoner of Second Avenue, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay S. Steinberg