Last night I watched The Prisoner of Second Avenue again. This time it was an HD screening on TCM, so it’s evidently doing the rounds on that channel for awhile- worth chasing down if you can, especially if you’ve never seen it. It is one of my favourite all-time films, probably even in my top ten- it breaks my heart everytime I see it, and makes me laugh in all the right places too; some jokes never grow old, and the sadness of the film is as poignant as ever.
The great Jack Lemmon, my favourite actor, stars as Mel Edison, a 48-year old New Yorker married to Edna (Anne Bancroft). The middle-aged couple are besieged by modern life- whether it be the unendurable heatwave and their apartments faulty air conditioning, or the thin walls and the two air stewardess’ who live next door having noisy nights entertaining men, or warring neighbours from the floor above who at one point throw a bucket of water over Mel. This mid-life crisis intensifies further when Mel is made redundant – and then their apartment is robbed and he suffers a nervous breakdown. Its might sound like a tragedy but it isn’t- its a touching and painful film and yet also incredibly funny. And its Marvin Hamlisch score is utterly sublime, and never released on album (but we did get The Odd Couple OST a little while ago, so there is still hope).
Its a rather underrated film, something I have never really understood. Lemmon and Bancroft are magnificent; utterly beguiling, natural performances that belie the craft at work. My fondness for the film likely stems from my own circumstances when I first saw it back in the mid-eighties, chancing upon it on afternoon television. I’d left college and was bouncing from job to job, and was at the time mid-way through a few months being unemployed. I felt washed-up and a failure and connected powerfully with Lemmon and his character’s plight. I often write here on this blog that the best movies are those that we connect to. It isn’t always the established ‘classics’ or ‘great movies’, and we can love bad movies for all the right reasons. The Prisoner of Second Avenue is not a bad movie- I’d say it was a greatly under-appreciated film, with one of the 20th Century’s greatest actors at his very best with an able cast around him and a genuinely fantastic script penned by no less than Neil Simon. But in anycase, I love the film dearly.
It is curious to think that watching it now, I am older than Mel Edison is in the film. Across the span of some thirty-plus years my life has changed dramatically, but my connection with the film is as intense as ever- perhaps even more so, as I watch it with older eyes and empathise with Mel even more than I did back when I first saw it. Over the years I have watched it numerous times and as I have noted earlier, everytime it breaks my heart and makes me laugh. Some films linger alongside us all our lives, and this is one that does with me.
Please, somebody, somewhere, release this film on Blu-ray (I would imagine its only hope is a Warner Archive release in the States, and the films underrated status likely doesn’t help that being likely, but you never know). Too many of Jack Lemmon’s great films are lacking releases on Blu-ray, and I guess as the physical disc format declines the outlook is grim regards such releases in future. That would be a terrible shame, because Lemmon made some truly great films and The Prisoner of Second Avenue is certainly one of them. If nothing else, the film deserves to be seen and rediscovered.