FEBRUARY IS BILLY WILDER MONTH
Released a year after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Bill, Billy Wilder’s scathing 1966 classic THE FORTUNE COOKIE, skewering American class structure, race relations and the cultural “art of the steal” arrives in a dynamite limited edition Blu-Ray from the goniffs at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Entertainment/MGM Studios.
This was a late watershed movie for Wilder and Co., reuniting the writer-director with arguably his favorite star, Jack Lemmon; it also introduced popular Walter Matthau (whose personal fortune cookie this comedy was) to the Billy Universe. The pic also proved an admirable comeback from the lambasting Wilder had unfairly endured from his previous work, Kiss Me, Stupid; THE FORTUNE COOKIE was a critical and box-office success.
The story, in brief, concerns hapless, likeable middle-aged schlump Harry Hinkle (Lemmon), an (up-till-now) honest cameraman for CBS, who, during a televised football game, gets a milder version of what Jimmy Stewart got in Rear Window. Instead of a race car ruining his shot and injuring the photog, Hinkle is tackled and flipped by Luther “Boom-Boom” Jackson, a lauded black athlete, whose guilt and concern for crippling the videographer slam dunks his rising star.
But Hinkle’s only dazed and confused, resting in a local hospital for the night – until visited by unscrupulous brother-in-law, shyster ambulance-chasing attorney “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich. Gingrich, discovering that Hinkle has a permanent twist in his spine due to a childhood accident, parlays the painless disfigurement into a million dollar lawsuit against the football team, the stadium, and the television network. Harry, a lovesick sad sack, still pining for his sleazy ex, Sandy (who ran off with a lowlife musician), is coerced into the scam after a renewal of their vows (she, too, sees the dollar signs, and knowing Gingrich is involved, dumps the dump she dumped Harry for) is dangled in his puss like catnip is…well, dangled to a puss.
How it all plays out is Wilder at his best, turning a rogue’s gallery of reprehensible characters into specimens we concurrently cheer and jeer. Suffice to say, everyone gets what’s coming to them – sort of.
The situations and dialog (as constructed and composed by Billy and Iz Diamond) is like one of those Swiss watches you’ve always heard about. The timing is impeccable; Matthau’s Gingrich slamming Lemmon’s reluctant Hinkle for not reaching for a silver platter (while extending a bedpan) will bowel you over. Ditto, his roller-skating spawn, careening through the hospital corridors, asking Daddy to put some coins in a donation box (“Unwed Mothers,” reads Gingrich, “Well, I’m for that!” He later pilfers the contents for change to make a telephone call). Gingrich, who’s smarter than his 1% elite opposing lawyers, plays them like a fiddle, which also a joy to behold.
The cast is first-rate, one of Wilder’s greatest, and, aside from the two leads (in their initial teaming together), features Ron Rich (as the sympathetic quarterback), Les Treymayne, Kiss Me, Stupid’s Cliff Osmond (as a private eye determined to get the goods on Willie), Lurene Tuttle, Harry Holcombe, Noam Pitlik, Ann Shoemaker, Archie Moore, Howard McNear, Judy Pace, Robert DoQui, Helen Kleeb, the wonderful Sig Ruman (in his next-to-last role as a sadistic old-school surgeon yearning for the “snake pit” days), and John Anderson. A special nod must be given to Judi West (in her big-screen debut) as Sandy; the actress’s interpretation of the harpy, money-grubbing spouse is the skankiest female ever to prowl WilderWorld since Jan Sterling in Ace in the Hole. Billy also has the audacity to cast Herbie Faye AND Ned Glass in the same movie! What chutzpah!
When I called this flick Walter Matthau’s fortune cookie, I wasn’t kidding. On TV, in the movies, on stage and radio for over fifteen years, Matthau’s COOKIE turn allowed the reliable character actor to zoom to the top of the Hollywood A-list; he was suddenly a star (and more or less remained there until his passing on July 1, 2000). Icing on the cake, his portrayal of “Whiplash Willie” won him his only Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor.
The best of all the Wilder-Lemmon-Matthau teamings, THE FORTUNE COOKIE is doubly astounding in its progressive approach to mid-twentieth century mores. Often credited with directing every Lemmon-Matthau pic, Billy Wilder only actually helmed three (the other two being The Front Page and Buddy, Buddy). He was offered The Odd Couple, which he wisely turned down, due to his penchant for revising scripts from other sources; FUN FACT: many movie buffs still believe Wilder directed the 1968 Neil Simon screen adaptation (it was Gene Saks).
The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of THE FORTUNE COOKIE is aces. It looks just terrific, perfectly showcasing the beautiful black-and-white/Panavision photography of Joseph LaShelle. An excellent score by Andre Previn is also accessible as an IST, which includes the song, “So Nice to Come Home To,” quite a sarcastic choice considering the narrative. The only complaint, and it’s slight, is the audio, which I noticed occasionally goes minutely out of synch, but then pops back in perfect unison. Again, this is so slight that I was the only one to catch it. Don’t let it dissuade you from adding this Sixties gem to your collection (remember, it’s a limited edition, so, when it’s gone…that’s it, buddy!).
As indicated earlier, THE FORTUNE COOKIE canceled out the Kiss Me, Stupid debacle, and in many ways. While the Wilder/Peter Sellers relationship was hate at first sight, the director’s bonding with Matthau was instant delight; yet, there was one tense similarity. Midway through the production, the veteran actor (as Sellers had on Stupid) suffered a massive heart-attack. This was getting to be a habit that Billy didn’t like. The picture remained on-hold for several weeks until Matthau was given the green light to return to filming. When Matthau returned, he was thirty pounds lighter, a visual contrast Wilder addressed by having the actor wear a heavy black overcoat for the rest of the shoot (this would be the first of three heart-attacks Matthau would endure, the final one being fatal); furthermore, a seemingly unending series of accidents and mishaps appeared to be periodically confined to Wilder productions. In 1981, during the filming of Buddy, Buddy, Matthau took a calamitous fall down a flight of stairs, smashing his collar bone. A frantic, concerned Lemmon ran to his friend, pillow in hand, placing it under his head until EMS arrived. “Are you comfortable?” he tearfully asked. Matthau stared mournfully at his costar and Wilder, shrugged and replied “I make a living.” Billy beamed at this perfect response that thoroughly validated how fifteen years previous, on the set of THE FORTUNE COOKIE, an exclusive professional love affair with Lemmon expanded into a threesome.
THE FORTUNE COOKIE. Black and white. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # TTFORTUNECOOKIE. SRP: $29.95.