Prisoner of Second Avenue, The (1975): Neil Simon’s Comedy on Screen, Starring Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft

Melvin Frank directed The Prisoner of Second Avenue, a plodding version of Neil Simon’s 1971 black comedy, starring Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft, giving irritating, over the top performances.

Grade: C (* 1/2* out of *****)

The story revolves around the escalating problems of a middle-aged couple living on Second Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Mel Edison has just lost his job after many years and has to cope with being unemployed at middle age during an economic recession.

The action occurs during an intense summer heat wave and a prolonged garbage strike, which exacerbates Edison’s plight as he and his wife Edna deal with noisy neighbors, loud street, and burglary of their apartment.

Mel eventually suffers a nervous breakdown and it is up to the loving care of his brother Harry, his sisters, and Edna to restore him to firm existence.

What was semi-funny and semi successful on stage has become intolerable in the screen version, which is essentially a mechanically constructed sitcom about a subject that is not novel anymore.  There have been too many works on urban angst, and the ordeal of living in big cities (the painful craziness of everyday life).

As usual, the script is full of one-liners, with each joke canceling out the one that came before.

It’s a blunt movie, in which there is no subtext: the two leads are made to say out loud what they actually think (and what we expect them to say).

Here and there there are so funny bits, some conveyed via radio news bulletins, such as the flash that a Polish freighter has just run into the Statue of Liberty.

It doesn’t help that the direction is statics and monotonous; even Mike Nichols theatrically version was more dynamically staged.

Jack Lemmon as Mel Edison
Anne Bancroft as Edna Edison
Gene Saks as Harry Edison
Elizabeth Wilson as Pauline
Florence Stanley as Pearl
Maxine Stuart as Belle
Sylvester Stallone had a cameo as a Youth in Park


Directed, produced by Melvin Frank
Written by Neil Simon
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Cinematography: Philip Lathrop
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date: March 14, 1975
Running time: 98 minutes