Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
When you think of classic screen duos, there are a lot that certainly come to mind. Limit your thoughts to comedy teams, and there are still a good number. One of those that will almost certainly be early on the list is the team of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, who did 10 films together. Their first pair was The Fortune Cookie from 1966, the brainchild of Billy Wilder, who didn’t make a lot of missteps in terms of films he made or in casting decisions. If for no other reason, the first time these two cinematic greats appeared on screen together makes The Fortune Cookie notable.
The plot is simple. Television cameraman Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is working the sideline at a Cleveland Browns football game. Star punt returner Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson (Ron Rich) takes a punt up the sideline and is pushed out of bounds directly into poor Harry, who takes a tumble over the rolled up tarp behind him. A few minutes later, Harry is removed from the stadium via ambulance. Harry’s brother-in-law Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau), and ambulance-chasing lawyer, sees this not as a tragedy or an accident, but as an opportunity. Moments after Harry is pulled out of x-ray, Willie is on the phone to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, stating that he’s planning a lawsuit against the stadium, the Browns, and ABC television for $1 million, which in 1966, was a hell of a lot of money.
The truth is that Harry is actually fine beyond a minor concussion, but Willie is having none of that. In Willie’s considered legal opinion, the compressed vertebra that Harry suffered as a child came from this accident. Further, according to Willie, Harry has no feeling in three fingers on his right hand and no feeling in his left leg. Harry doesn’t want to go along with the plan until his ex-wife Sandy (Judi West) calls, having read about the potential lawsuit. Since Harry still carries a torch for Sandy, he agrees, thinking that this might actually get her back to him.
And really, that’s the plot. Harry plays along, hoping to get Sandy back. Willie pushes the insurance company and especially their lawyers as hard as he can. Boom Boom Jackson enters a slump and starts to crawl inside a bottle because of his guilt over what happened to Harry. Sandy does return, but it’s soon clear that her arrival isn’t out of concern for Harry but entirely mercenary. Meanwhile, Harry, Willie, and Sandy are doing their best to maintain their charade because of the presence of private detective Purkey (Cliff Osmond), who has bugged Harry’s apartment and set up a camera in an apartment across the street, hoping to catch them in a scam.
Despite what seems like an intricate plot, everything is incredibly straightforward here, so everything more or less depends on the performances. All are good for the most part, although the true stand-out is Walter Matthau. Matthau won his only Oscar for this supporting role, and I’ll not be the person who says he didn’t deserve it. Matthau is funny every moment he is on screen. Apparently both Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra were considered for the role, but moments after Matthau appears on screen, it becomes impossible to see anyone else in the role. Matthau was always among the best in terms of comic timing, but he was also blessed with that hangdog expression and demeanor, which serves him perfectly here. Willie Gingrich is a shit, but Matthau makes him a funny and believable shit. Something as simple as Willie Gingrich answering the phone becomes a constant comedic moment that never gets stale. It takes talent to do that.
The Fortune Cookie takes things dark, though, and tonally, it feels off in that respect. Wilder was always a little blacker in his comedy than most, and that’s certainly the case here. While Willie Gingrich is always comic, the other characters are far more tragic or venal. Sandy, for instance, is a terrible human being, and the relationship she has with Harry is dysfunctional, and not in an entertaining way. Boom Boom Jackson’s slide into alcoholism is disturbing as well, since he admits that his father was an alcoholic. This is unpleasant stuff and many of these scenes aren’t played for comedy. Again, that’s a trademark of Billy Wilder, but it doesn’t mean that The Fortune Cookie works all the way through. There are moments that seem like pure Wilder being Wilder, but that don’t really connect with the rest of the jigsaw puzzle. The final confrontation between Purkey and our scamming team is particularly unpleasant, since it takes a decidedly racist turn.
What this all means is that The Fortune Cookie has a downside, but a bigger upside. If nothing else, it’s a near-perfect pairing of Matthau and Lemmon. It’s no wonder that the pair made 10 movies together. Paired here for the first time, it feels like they’ve been picking up on each other’s lines for a lifetime. If nothing else, it’s worth it to see the beginning of a comedy team done so beautifully.
Why to watch The Fortune Cookie: The birth of the Lemmon/Matthau pairing.
Why not to watch: The ending is dark and unsatisfying.