Before the film started on TCM, Ben Mankiewicz noted that Billy Wilder’s 1966 film, The Fortune Cookie, was the first of many collaborations between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and it was this film that demonstrated the pure, raw chemistry that these two share. It is why, he said, this film works.
While I do agree that the chemistry between these two individuals was remarkable, I think more credit should also be given to the man behind the camera himself – Billy Wilder. If I have not yet said so in earlier blog posts, I will now state that Mr. Wilder is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time (along with Christopher Nolan and Ingmar Bergman). He also seems to be continually underrated.
Not his films – most people admire and praise his films as classics.
But considering that this is the guy who gave us films including Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Stalag 17, The Apartment, Sabrina, Some Like it Hot, and – my personal favorite from him – Sunset Boulevard – you’d think the general public would have a better knowledge of who the man was. In my own personal opinion, Wilder ought to be as well-revered as Hitchcock and Kubrick as a film-making artist. If I recall correctly, Wilder was also one of the first people (if not the first) who won all three Oscars for producing, directing, and writing a movie (he did so for The Apartment). He was a legend, and deserves more respect.
Of course with such an impressive career portfolio, Wilder’s work in The Fortune Cookie is not groundbreaking. It’s a simple movie, with a plot that has been done many times before. Man gets relatively minor injury that he is persuaded to exploit to the maximum degree in order to win a lawsuit (if I recall, there was actually a Simpsons episode with this exact plot – maybe inspired by The Fortune Cookie? )
In this case, Harry Hinkle (Lemmon) is a CBS camera operator that gets hit by a Cleveland Browns player (Ron Rich) and injured.
Note: you can tell this is an old film when it is mentioned that the Browns are looking to be ‘repeat champions.’ Any such language in a modern film would have been met with raucous laughter, plus it reminds me of a joke from Road Rovers (Hunter: “You’re mad that the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore!”) Ah the 90’s…how I miss thee.
It is Harry’s brother-in-law Willie Gingrich (Matthau) who convinces him to exaggerate his injuries by toying with Lemmon’s secret desire to get back together with his ex-wife (Judi West). At the same time, Harry begrudgingly accepts the friendly treatment and help by the kind, guilt-ridden football player who ran into him (Ron Rich).
Even with this in mind, The Fortune Cookie is a smartly written, highly entertaining, and brilliantly acted piece of cinema. It is a very light film, and though Wilder’s direction is solid, it is the wit found in the writing of this script that stands out the most (Wilder along with I.A.L. Diamond penned the screenplay).
As usual, Lemmon is wonderful as the kind-hearted man who falls victim to his swindling brother-in-law. You genuinely feel for him throughout the film as you understand he wants to end the charade if it were not for the likelihood of him getting his ex-wife back (who calls Lemmon with “concern” for his condition while her current lover sleeps and showers behind her).
But it is Matthau who steals the show as the smarmy, conniving lawyer. He won an Oscar for this role, which was absolutely deserved. He is the jerk that in real life would be despised, but is so entertaining to watch that as a screen character one cannot take their eyes off of his presence. From the very start, where he takes money from a can collecting for unwed mothers, we understand that his character is the money-hungry lawyer of legend. A stereotype, yes, but one that in the right hands can never grow old, and boy are Matthau’s hands right as rain in handling this character.
The film is not perfect, especially the somewhat cheesy ending where everything works out far smoother than expected. On one hand I despise the ‘liar revealed’ trope, but on the other I felt that Rich’s football player character who had originally bought into Harry’s deception that he had hurt him badly, and had accepted his help would have been a bit more upset at the man who conned him.
Even so, that might be one of the only gripes I have with this film. I still feel that if you enjoy Wilder’s light comedic fare you should definitely check it out. It is an entertaining, well-written movie with great performances by the cast.
Though not necessarily essential viewing like many other of Wilder’s films (The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard, and Double Indemnity), it is still very well-made and enjoyable.
4 out of 5
The Fortune Cookie wikipedia (also for picture)