A team that always does business. By 1968, the year that The Odd Couple made its way to the big screen, Neil Simon’s sublime comedic masterpiece about a pair of mismatched roomies destined to remain lifelong friends in spite of themselves, had already become one of the Tony-Award winning cultural touchstones of the American theater. The Odd Couple was, and has remained Simon’s most successful stagecraft; an infectious bit of social commentary about the ties that bind and damn near can tear us apart, but in the end make the human condition and need to belong to someone else an essential part of the human psyche. The play’s lengthy run on Broadway precluded any film version being made for nearly three years; a project initially attached to Billy Wilder’s name. Wilder, the premiere director of esoteric comedies of his generation had expressed great interest in doing The Odd Couple as a film and was even instrumental in bringing Jack Lemmon on board the project.
Unhappy chance for Wilder that Paramount desired to go the quick and dirty route; balking at the expense of hiring an A-list director like Wilder to helm the project. Besides, the powers that be had already settled on a million dollar salary for Jack Lemmon as their ‘big star’ name above the title; the role of fastidious fussbudget Felix Unger initially hailed to the rafters on Broadway with Art Carney. Like so many formidable talents of his generation, Carney was quietly overlooked for a reprise of the role he had made justly famous on the stage, just as Julie Andrews missed out on movie adaptations of My Fair Lady and Camelot. Carney, who would come into his own on film a few years later, lost out to Lemmon, already a well-established and much beloved screen comedian. As for Walter Matthau; he had already appeared in movies and had even worked opposite Lemmon in The Fortune Cookie (1968); a role that won him a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. Matthau’s $300,000 paycheck may have paled by comparison, but he proved to be one half of that very necessary equation to make the movie click and a very happy marriage between best friends both on and off screen.
Much has been written about Lemmon and Matthau; the men, the legends and their mutual, life-long friendship that lasted until Matthau’s death in 2000. While the on screen pairing of these two brilliant raconteurs cannot boast the lengthy association accorded such classic comedy duos as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello or even Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the body of their work, including the Grumpy Old Men franchise, attests to a level of sincere affection and admiration impossible to fake. When we watch Matthau and Lemmon together on the screen there is a built-in history to their repartee far more enriching than the dialogue they speak; the levity in their friendship creating a subtext of sheer joy for the audience. It is impossible not to appreciate the boys for their craft, especially when so much of it comes straight from the heart.
Of course the unsung hero behind this ‘odd couple’ is director Gene Saks; a nearly forgotten – or at the very least, largely overlooked – director who managed a minor coup with Simon’s lengthy diatribes; giving cinematic structure and even reinvigorated life to what was essentially a two room play with very few changes on the Broadway stage. Saks opens up the play just enough to take advantage of the New York locations without ever distorting or diluting Simon’s razor-backed badinage. If The Odd Couple is remembered for only one scene today, it arguably remains the moment when perpetual slob, Oscar Madison (Matthau) has finally had enough of his live-in roommate, Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon); ordering him to remove his plate of ‘spaghetti’ from the dining room table. “It’s not spaghetti,” Felix insists with a condescending chuckle, “It’s linguini.” Without hesitation Oscar takes the plate and slams it against the wall. “Now,” he tells Felix, “…it’s garbage!” In this singular moment all of the elements are in play: Saks’ ability to ever so slightly intercut the sequence to heighten its dramatic/comedic continuity, and, Lemmon and Matthau’s ability to reveal something deeper and more meaningful behind this confrontation, rather than simply play to the thirty-second laugh; which comes roaring out with a defiant frustration.
Neil Simon’s great gift to the American theater has always been his ability to draw from his own astute observations on humanity; evoking a subtle poignancy from the human condition. His best plays and the movies derived from them; The Odd Couple, The Goodbye Girl and The Sunshine Boys among them, are about close-knit (perhaps too close for comfort) individuals thrust into impossibly flawed relationships and/or friendships that miraculously evolve into meaningful mainstays before the last act. Simon, who reaches into the depths of turmoil and conflict through comedy, makes meaningful even the benign and elevates ‘personal observation’ to a very fine art indeed. Oscar and Felix are not simply mismatched figures of fun because there is something genuine and, at times, even piteous about the pair; a commonality to their suffrage made obviously apparent to the audience from the start but less so to the characters until almost the end. In this case, the commonality derives from Oscar and Felix’s mutual failure in their marital relationships.
For Felix the wound is all too fresh and upsetting. But Oscar is far happier as a confirmed bachelor – his penchant for carousing matched only by his inability to manage anything better than a ham sandwich. At one point even this mere sustenance seems a stretch for him; returning from the kitchen with a stack of sandwiches tucked under his armpit, two of which have obviously passed their expiration date. Oscar may be contented to be single, but he is an incomplete person nevertheless; his sloppy mismanagement of his own affairs put into order by a man who regards mere dust specks as a sin on the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval; but who is not above making an absolute nuisance of himself by obsessively moaning inside an all-night diner simply to clear his Eustachian tubes of unnecessary pressure.
Our story, however, begins on a more ominous note; Felix’s varied, though utterly flawed, attempts at suicide following the realization that his twelve year marriage has suddenly come to an end. Trolling the seedier districts of downtown Manhattan, first to an eleventh floor hotel room where he plans to hurl himself to the ground only to realize all of the windows have been nailed shut, then to an even more derelict girlie club where the dancers cavort like mindless wax mannequins with a faraway emaciated look of no distinction that leaves Felix’s immediate need for companionship utterly dissatisfied, Felix eventually makes his way to the prearranged poker game at Oscar’s apartment.
His arrival is preceded by a phone call from his newly estranged wife that sets Oscar and his cronies, Vinnie (John Fiedler), Murray (Herb Edelman), Roy (David Sheiner) and Speed (Larry Haines) into a tailspin of manly concern. After the game breaks up Oscar takes Felix to a diner to cheer him up, leading to the aforementioned incident where Felix making a public spectacle of himself. Later the boys take a walk in the park near Grant’s Tomb where an epiphany of sorts comes to Oscar. Felix will move in with him…at least, for the time being; a decision Oscar will come to rue very shortly. The impenitent sedulousness of Oscar’s new roomie is almost immediately apparent. Felix rearranges Oscar’s life – literally – wreaking havoc on his perfect disarray. It is to Simon’s credit however that Felix’s OCD is never at the crux or brunt of the humor – in other words, the condition and its fallout do not dictate the laughs. Rather it is Oscar’s inability to articulate exactly what about bringing order from his chaos sends his blood pressure boiling that elevates the cream of the jest.
As far as Oscar is concerned all Felix needs to reset his world is a woman; good, bad or indifferently stupid – the latter exhibited in a pair of sisters newly arrived from England who are living in the upstairs apartment. Gwendolyn (Carole Shelley) and Cecily Pigeon (Monica Evans) are just the sort of loveable nonsense Oscar has in mind. He invites the pair out for dinner; a situation slightly altered when Felix insists on cooking meatloaf for them at home because it will save money that Oscar can send to help pay for his wife’s alimony already several months in the rears. Gwen and Cec’ are quite a pair indeed – bobble-headed and bubbly; full of flirtatiousness that translates into a rocky start when Felix seems incapable of warming up to the prospect of ‘getting lucky’ for the night. Oscar, however, cannot wait to get the girls drunk and alone. But after he hurries into the kitchen to get the party started with some stiff drinks, Felix reluctantly recalls the sob story of his failed marriage to the girls. Gwen and Cec’ find themselves becoming emotional and oddly maternal toward Felix. Thus, when Oscar returns he finds the trio sobbing on the couch. Dinner burns to a crisp, leaving the girls to suggest that perhaps Oscar and Felix would prefer to join them in their apartment for some leftovers. Oscar wholeheartedly agrees, promising to come straight away with the mixed drinks. But Felix stubbornly refuses to accompany him. He’s much rather wash the dishes and then his hair.
For Oscar it is the last straw. The two reach an impasse in their friendship that crystalizes into a rooftop confrontation. Afterward, the friends part company but hardly for long. After all, Felix has decided to move into Gwen and Cec’s upstairs apartment, at their insistence no less! The Odd Couple is a delightful comedy; a hilarious clash of temperaments generating its veritable potpourri of comedic eruptions. Neil Simon’s inspiration derived from the exploits between real life roomies Danny Simon (Neil’s brother) and theatrical agent Roy Gerber. Despite his many successes, Simon always regarded The Odd Couple as his favorite venture. Today, many critics agree. The Odd Couple is sublime comedy. On stage, all of the action took place inside Oscar’s apartment. On film, Simon rewrote and reworked several scenes to take advantage of various New York locations.
Although critics of the day often commented that Jack Lemmon’s Felix was more a variation on the actor’s own persona, his performance as the neurotic Felix was nevertheless embraced by the audience. As for Walter Matthau – whose career in Hollywood had been spotty at best – he achieved super stardom with this reprise of his Broadway performance and the chance to forge a new movie career that had previously been denied him. Viewed today The Odd Couple retains much of its wit, at times underplayed, which makes it even funnier. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are ideally cast as the ‘couple’ whose friendship slowly falls apart. Their off screen admiration for one another is in full view. Backstage, Lemmon was a glowing presence on the set, winning friends from both the cast and crew. Matthau, however, was a more resolute figure – preferring to indulge his betting habit. As for the film - it was a smash success. Two years later ABC re-launched the premise as a highly successful sitcom costarring Jack Klugman as Oscar and Tony Randall as his Felix. In later years, The Odd Couple was even revived as an all-black, and later all-female Broadway show. But in the final analysis it’s the original that holds up best; alongside and truer to its Broadway roots.
The release of The Odd Couple on Blu-ray comes via Warner’s acquisition of the Paramount Home Video library. I am not entirely certain which studio is responsible for the mastering effort, although I strongly suspect Paramount, because the new 1080p image yields an impeccable effort from start to finish. Colors that were merely prominent on the DVD are bold, rich and fully saturated on the Blu-ray. We also get a level of clarity only possible from a complete rescan of the original film elements. The image is very smooth but with a consistency to the grain structure. Contrast is superior and fine detail really pops. The newly remastered 5.1 audio gives renewed resilience to Neil Hefti’s catchy ‘Odd Couple’ theme. Good stuff all around and most definitely worth the repurchase. Warner has imported all of the featurettes included on Paramount’s 2 disc Studio Series DVD from a few years ago. They’re all in 720i but looking fairly solid (minor edge effects not withstanding), and really add to our appreciation of the movie, with interviews from Saks and surviving cast members, plus interviews with sons Chris Lemmon and Charles Matthau. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)