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Frank Sinatra plays Joe E. Lewis, a famous comedian of the 1930s-50s. When the movie opens, Lewis is a young, talented singer who performs in speakeasies. When he bolts one job for another, the mob boss who owns the first speakeasy has his thugs try to kill Lewis. Lewis survives, but his vocal cords are cut and he cannot sing. Several years later, his buddy tracks him down and tries to help him with little success. That attempt, though, leads to Lewis meeting Letty Page (Jeanne Crain). They fall in love and she inspires him to follow up on an offer to become a comedian (a result of his buddy's failed attempt to rejuvenate his singing career). Lewis has problems, though. The assault that nearly cost him his life also helped turn him into an alcoholic and an inveterate gambler. These two character defects become the basis for his act and help to make him a smash success. Unfortunately, they also work to wreak havoc in his personal life. Written by
"The Joker Is Wild" gives us Frank Sinatra playing Joe E. Lewis playing Frank Sinatra. At least that's my read of this entertaining and rather revealing look at a performer's life.
In the 1920s, Lewis is a singer on his way up. Then he tries to part ways with a mobster who thinks he owns the singer and threatens violence if the singer thinks otherwise. Sure enough, Lewis's bid for freedom ends with his larynx slashed and his head busted in. Years later, Lewis re-emerges as a popular nightclub comic, but he's still haunted by what could have been, not to mention a taste for the bottle he works into his stage show a lot better than he does into his life.
Sinatra likened himself to Lewis; he jokes about the two of them forming an Olympic Drinking Team with Dean Martin on his classic "Sinatra At The Sands" album. Perhaps he saw a chance to portray a kindred spirit and a close friend on screen, but watching Sinatra's gritty, unsentimental performance, given at the peak of his career, suggests a deeper agenda. Even Sinatra's friendliest biographers say the man had a dark side, and certainly that is Lewis's situation here, a celebrity who falls into a deeper gloom the more he succeeds, lashing out at those who love him. He's fundamentally decent, but a manic-depressive streak runs deep inside him, coiled around his heart like a rattlesnake.
There's a scene, just after Lewis's wife leaves him, when his faithful pianist Austin Mack (Eddie Albert) suggests Lewis cancel the show. Lewis's reply is the classic entertainer's problem: "What would I do instead?" I get the feeling Sinatra knew that all too well.
Charles Vidor directs this film with assurance and a deft touch, giving Sinatra's early scenes the proper brooding background and his later ones a sense of instability as he amuses his audiences with his cocktail-fueled banter while worrying his friends, who hear the cynicism-bordering-on-nihilism just beneath the surface. The irony of Lewis's life is the bleaker it becomes, the funnier he gets. "I'm fine, I'm fine," he says after passing out on a nightclub floor. "It's you people that are spinning around."
The surrounding cast is competent enough, but this is Sinatra's film, and he carries it off very well, digging into the layers of Lewis's (and his own) tortured, schizoid persona. It's a fair criticism to call this a star vehicle (as Moonspinner55 does in an earlier review here) because Sinatra is sucking up all the oxygen on screen and every scene is designed to showcase his performance. Yet Sinatra's performance merits the treatment, because he serves the story. Watch the scene when Lewis wakes up in his hospital bed and realizes his voice is gone, a scene that works not only because it is so tautly acted but because we all know that's "The Voice" in that bed not able to muster enough vocal power to call over a sleeping friend. Watching him bang a wall in frustration is one of the lumpiest scenes in Sinatra's film career, ironically shot out of focus just like the famous card-showing sequence in "The Manchurian Candidate."
There's also great music, like "All The Way," a Sinatra classic that won an Oscar for this film and is showcased three different times, each in a different way, most effectively the last time, when Sinatra can barely get the words out. You could call this film "Star Is Born For The Straight Guy"; there's plenty of macho melodrama as we watch Lewis charging toward his own alcoholic doom while assaulted with dodgy lines like "I don't know what you're looking for in that bottle, but the faster you run toward it, the farther away it gets."
But the film does have the courage to end on a boldly downbeat note, one that leaves us wondering both about Lewis and the man who plays him. Is showbiz literally worth dying for, as Lewis seems to tell his doctor? Does that make a career like Lewis's heroism or suicide? The best part of "The Joker Is Wild" is the way it leaves you hanging. Was it a cry for help from the Chairman of the Board, or just him letting us know what's what? Your guess is as good as mine.
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