THE FORTUNE COOKIE: Blu-ray (Mirisch Co./UA 1966) Twilight Time
I adore Jack Lemmon. But the more I see of his earlier ‘magic time’ actor’s acumen, the more I have come to realize and respect a persona built almost entirely around one finely honed and utterly brilliant premise; that of the unprepossessing and proverbial ‘little guy’ – lovably shy, if slightly obtuse, begrudgingly malleable and usually, if only momentarily, swayed by the cynical world-at-large that does not abide by the inherent goodness and rules dictating the content of his own character, expecting him to fall in line. Nowhere is this personality better on display than in the films Lemmon did for director extraordinaire, Billy Wilder, and perhaps, none more richly rewarding or genuine than his ‘playing to type’ in Wilder’s farcical, The Fortune Cookie (1966): Lemmon’s pure-as-the-driven-snow, Harry Hinkle, pitted against his riotously perverse brother-in-law/attorney at law, William H. ‘Whiplash Willie’ Gingrich (Walter Matthau). The Fortune Cookie is the movie that sparked an inseparable 34-year friendship between Matthau and Lemmon, their chemistry, both on and off the screen, so genuine and disarming they would be frequently reunited for other projects thereafter, from 1968’s superb The Odd Couple to 1997’s Out to Sea (not one of their finer efforts).
Perhaps it was kismet these two should meet on the set of a Wilder picture; the director’s clear-eyed gemütlich wit wed to Lemmon and Matthau’s keen abilities, as polar opposites on Wilder’s compass of humanity, dissecting the follies and foibles of the human condition exposed by Wilder’s collaborative partnership with longtime writer/friend, I.A.L. Diamond. The other component to the success of The Fortune Cookie is undeniably, Walter Matthau; a New York-trained actor, pursuing a dramatic career and virtual unknown to the métier of light comedy. It’s oft been said that it takes a truly intelligent actor to play an absolute loon. Consequently, Matthau brings a decade’s worth of his dramatic integrity and the skill set honed from it to the role of Willie Gingrich. So easily, Willie could have devolved into screwball simplicity but under Matthau’s tight control he emerges as a truly sinister and slimy, yet extremely funny ambulance chaser and con artist. Initially Wilder, who had worked with Jack Lemmon previously and adored him ever since, proposed either Frank Sinatra or Jackie Gleason for his co-star. It was Lemmon who insisted on Matthau in their stead; a decision, nearly to swamp the picture’s budget when Matthau – a 3-pack-a-day smoker and notorious gambler – suffered a monumental heart attack, causing a delay of nearly 5 months in the shooting schedule. Returning to the set full of vim and ‘vinegar’ – and thirty pounds lighter – Matthau’s overcoat had to be padded to conceal his weight loss.
The Fortune Cookie is Matthau’s foray into comedy and he brilliantly rises to the occasion in the subtler art of irony, perhaps beyond even Wilder’s wildest expectations. It is the brutal sincerely with which Matthau attacks the role that really infuses the wooly Willie Gingrich with enough ballast – more, the heavy than the fop; Matthau, applying just enough wiggle room and jiggle to the juice to make us recognize and respect his performance – if not his alter ego’s unscrupulous nature as the proverbial ‘fox’ in this ‘hen house’ otherwise populated by a bunch of clucking capons. I prefer to regard Wilder and Matthau as kindred spirits, possessing a modicum of cantankerousness and eccentricity; each, a dark prankster and unregenerate moralist to the last. If Jack Lemmon represents Wilder’s fainter loyalties to the dwindling hope and promise such ‘good guys’ can do more than merely survive in this backdraft of the ‘great’ American ‘society’, then Matthau is undeniably Wilder’s acknowledgement of a more unvarnished, prevalent and unremittingly vulgar creature who makes America tick, hungering no less for his piece of the proverbial pie, even as he renders his high stakes in the ‘game of life’ to the charm-free crass mania of a loaded bingo match.
In many ways, The Fortune Cookie is the slightest of Wilder’s movies, the plot a one-note wonder, greatly enhanced by the aforementioned stars, and one as yet to be discussed; Ron Rich as the guilt-ridden fatalist footballer, Luther ‘Boom-Boom’ Jackson. Rich, who all but vanished from movies barely two years later, is an effective third wheel here; an all-star quarterback with the Cleveland Browns, stricken with an acute case of conscience after his split-second timing causes ‘the accident’ that kicks our story into high gear. There is a genuine warmth to Rich’s honest performance, and, a far more brooding underlay of self-loathing, teetering on anxiety and fear, lurking from the peripheries of his meteoric success. It’s all come too fast to Boom-Boom; the fame, the money, a lifetime of adoration transformed into the mire of jeers from a fickle crowd after his ball-playing begins to falter, and, an even more debilitating crisis of conscience leads him to hit the bottle and become, for all intent and purposes, Hinkle’s breezy but emotionally scarred – and scared – man servant.
The other notable in the cast hails from as nondescript a career; Judi West as Harry’s gold-digging ex – Sandy. West is superb as the greedy and heartless chanteuse who almost manages to fake sincerity and convince Harry she still loves him. West acquits herself rather nicely too of the Cole Porter standard, ‘You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To’, interpolated orchestrally by composer/conductor, André Previn (whose melodic contributions elsewhere in the picture portend both the romantic folly and farce that is yet to follow). But West’s performance is extraordinary, if only for the simple fact we begin to believe in her as much as Harry. It is, after all, a Billy Wilder comedy – deliciously impeded by the opacity of shady characters and their moody motivations at the start, but ultimately meant to conclude on a note of romantic reconciliation – right? Wrong! Wilder’s supreme gift to the movies was his ability to draw on a sense of realism. Life, unlike the movies, is not perfect. ‘Nobody’s is!’ This continues to speak to the realities of life, questioned rather than contradicted by cinema’s usual pie-eyed optimism, yet cleverly illustrated in a less than tragic light, ingeniously counterbalancing humor and pathos. West brings virtually all of these qualities to her performance. Wilder’s introduction to Sandy Hinkle immediately reveals her machinations as a supreme mischief maker; sheathed in a slinky negligee and sprawled in close-up on a bed inside a modest apartment with the silhouette of a man taking a shower caught in the background. Yet, these visual signifiers are offset by West’s false notes of what at least appears to be genuine empathy for her ex-husband, perhaps, even tinged with a modicum of personal regret for having broken off their marriage in the first place.
West is arguably the least offense of the grotesques who populate this picture, including Lurene Tuttle as Hinkle’s chronically teary and manipulative mother; Marge Redmond as his sister, Charlotte Gingrich – an even more transparent gargoyle; Cliff Osmond, as oily insurance fraud investigator, Chester Purkey; Sig Ruman/Professor Winterhalter, a supposed ‘expert’ in spotting medical fakes; Robert P. Lieb, Martin Blaine and Ben Wright as a trio of nondescript ‘specialists’ too hastily to conclude the worst about their patient merely to secure their own remuneration, and finally, Ned Glass as Doc Schindler, a disgraced dentist Willy smuggles into the ward to give Harry several injections that will cause temporary paralysis so he can ‘pass’ the investigators’ probing inquisition. Wilder’s low opinion of the medical profession is on full view in The Fortune Cookie; whether, exposing the naïveté of Maryesther Denver’s battle-axe nurse or the insidious ambitions of these various ‘expert’ practitioners, who conduct their barrage of tests already with the foregone conclusion to find something inherently ‘wrong’ with him.
Wilder divides the The Fortune Cookie into a series of vignettes, punctuated by numbered title cards, beginning with 1. The Accident: as CBS hand-held cameraman, Harry Hinkle is injured after a forward pass to Cleveland Browns quarterback, Luther ‘Boom-Boom’ Jackson goes horribly awry, sending Harry ass over tea kettle to the ground. Left unconscious and carried from the field on a stretcher, he awakens in the hospital hours later with his conniving brother-in-law William H. ‘Whiplash Willie’ Gingrich hovering over him. Willie has a plan. Although Harry’s injuries are slight, Willie intends to claim nerve damage, concussion and partial paralysis as grounds for a hefty lawsuit. Although Harry knows he is not this sick he reluctantly goes along with Willie’s scheme to an even more insidious purpose; to win back his ex-wife, Sandy. Despite the fact Sandy has left Harry for another man and a career as a singer in New York (this never panned out), Harry cannot see how unworthy she is of his enduring love, much to the weepy protestations of his own mother. Suffering a crisis of conscience, Boom-Boom attends Harry multiple times during his stay at the hospital, plying him with presents (flowers, a new wheel chair) and eventually becoming so invested in his rehabilitation he begins to cut practices, fumbles him games, and, wrecks his own seemingly Teflon-coated reputation with the fans who boo him off the field. Rather insidiously, Harry allows Boom-Boom’s spiral into oblivion to happen, despite harboring a genuine affinity for him as a player. This eventually blossoms into an even more unique friendship.
Meanwhile, the insurance company lawyers at O'Brien, Thompson and Kincaid (Harry Holcombe, Les Tremayne, and Lauren Gilbert) have begun to circle their wagons for an entrenched counteroffensive. They have good reason to suspect fraud. Willie’s track record is hardly that of an upstanding lawyer. In fact, he is a cold-hearted and not altogether successful con whose clientele are just as sleazy and/or misguided. Willie’s sharp shoot-from-the-hip philosophies play fast and loose with the art of the swindle. What he might have been if only he had channeled all of his energies and cleverness into a legitimate career. After getting Doc Schindler to inject Harry with a numbing agent, Willie allows the insurance company to subject his client to their own roster of ‘medical experts’ for another barrage of evasive tests. All but Professor Winterhalter concur on Harry’s legitimacy, citing a compressed vertebra as the likely culprit. But Hinkle has suffered from this condition since childhood. Miraculously, it has not worsened due to his most recent injury.
As Boom-Boom ratchets up his commitments to Harry’s recovery his own future with the Browns is thrown into jeopardy. Once their star player, Boom-Boom has since become the team’s number one liability, skipping practices, throwing games and losing the respect of his teammates, coaches and, worst of all, his most ardent fans. Despite having set his father – a recovering alcoholic – up as the manager of a lucrative bowling alley, Boom-Boom now follows in his footsteps by taking to the bottle to conceal his own anxieties and assuage his guilt. This culminates in a drunk and disorderly confrontation at the alley’s adjacent bar over Elvira (Judy Pace), a flirtatious peroxide blonde. With no medical evidence to prove a fraud, O'Brien, Thompson and Kincaid hire private eye, Chester Purkey to keep Harry’s apartment under constant surveillance. However, Gingrich sees Purkey entering the apartment building across the street and lets Harry know they are being scrutinized and recorded.
Momentarily, Harry’s mood becomes euphoric after Sandy, learning of his injury, agrees to help nurse him back to health. Perhaps she really does love him after all. Curiously, Sandy’s return leads to a minor rift in Harry’s friendship with Boom-Boom, the latter ever more adrift from both his past and future plans. Willie informs Sandy the apartment is bugged and she agrees to do everything she can to carry on with the ruse to help Harry collect on the settlement sure to be coming his way. Willie presses O’Brien, Thompson and Kincaid for a manageable figure. Yet, even as the two sides continue to dicker over money, Willie, Charlotte and Harry’s mom have embarked upon spending the ill-gotten gains yet to materialize; Willie, buying a new Mustang, Charlotte – a fur coat, and mother Hinkle gets shipped off to a glorious Florida vacation. To expedite the payoff, Willie now orchestrates his most devious deception; a plan to make Harry a truly pathetic figure from coast-to-coast. He will appear at the Browns’ invitation, to give a speech at their season opener and make the announcement he plans to use all of the insurance money above and beyond his own ‘medical expenses’ to start a non-profit charity – the Harry Hinkle Foundation. Realistically, this too is just a scam – yet another way to high-pressure the insurance company to pay out sooner rather than later.
Alas, by now Harry has faced his own guilt over the effect his ‘fake illness’ has had on Boom-Boom; their bro-mantic chemistry superseding any chances he might have had to go on with the scam and aim for any reconciliation with Sandy. When Boom-Boom becomes incarcerated for engaging in the barroom brawl, Harry implores Willie to help him out. But Willie absolutely refuses to lift a finger. He is far too busy sewing up his enterprising negotiations with O'Brien, Thompson and Kincaid. Harry also unearths the real reason for Sandy’s return: to skim enough off the top, leaving again to kick start her non-existent singing career with an engagement at the high-fashioned Persian Room. Willie jauntily turns up at Harry’s apartment, shouting victory to Purkey and waving a check for $200,000 – a far cry from the million-dollar payout he was asking for, but infinitely more satisfying than the $10,000 kiss-off the insurance company initially offered him.
Purkey decides to play a vicious end game. Presumably, he arrives to debug Harry’s apartment. Instead, he makes casual racist remarks about Boom-Boom that stir Harry’s honorable intensions. Without a thought for Purkey’s cohort, still be filming from across the street, Harry discards his medical corset and other paraphernalia and assaults Purkey in front of Sandy and Willie. To make certain the incident is caught on film, he pummels Purkey again, this time with relish, before embarking upon a jaunt about the apartment, performing tumbles on his bed and swinging from the rafters. Having lost a contact lens, Sandy scrounges on the floor for its recovery. Crushing the invisible lens, Harry abruptly pushes Sandy to the ground with his foot, adding “I don’t want to find you here when I get back!” To save face, Willie feigns ignorance and disgust for his client’s fake. Arriving at the football stadium hours after the game, Harry finds Boom-Boom already packed and ready to quit the team for good – perhaps, to embark upon a new career as a wrestler named ‘The Dark Angel’. Harry reveals the truth to Boom-Boom and helps to renew his faith in himself. The two engage in a spirited exchange of the pigskin as several of the stadium’s caretaking crew affectionately look on.
Although The Fortune Cookie concludes on this modest note of optimism, it is arguably Wilder’s darkest comedy. Immediately following its release, Wilder would take an almost four-year hiatus from picture-making, returning to form, but with decidedly disappointing reviews on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). Today, this picture is justly regarded as one of the best Holmesian yarns of all time and a genuine Wilder masterpiece. Regrettably, at the time of its release it was all but demonized by the critics as a hopelessly old-fashioned throwback, untrue to Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary sleuth. Wilder would never again regain his popularity, either amongst his peers or with his fans; a tragedy indeed, since he still had at least three solid movies to make: 1972’s Avanti, 1974’s The Front Page (both with Jack Lemmon) and, 1978’s Fedora – perhaps the wickedest indictment of Hollywood’s self-destructing crass commercialism and the fallout it inflicts on those unwilling, and more directly, unable to escape the specter of perpetual youth the movie industry insidiously demand from its stars. Upon his death in 2002, Billy Wilder was interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park, his tombstone inscribed thus: “I’m a writer, but then, nobody’s perfect!”
Indeed, in his own time, Wilder increasingly met with criticism, his body of work endless re-evaluated as the creator of some brilliant movies and yet, some as equally pedestrian to outright flops. And yet the merit of his work, as well as the body of his legacy, has only continued to ripen with age. Like a fine Madeira, afforded its proper allotment of years to be aged to perfection, a goodly number of Wilder’s pictures – including The Fortune Cookie – have withstood the litmus test of changing times and tastes. After all, a good vintage is still a good vintage – whatever the hour of its uncorking. And Wilder’s cinematic legacy is truly that of a master storyteller and craftsman, unapologetic in his views and unafraid to be as outspoken in life as he was on the screen. As example, of the infamous Hollywood Ten – the blacklisted writers who suffered the slings and arrows of the McCarthy witch hunts, Wilder reported commented, “Of the ten, two had talent, and the rest were just unfriendly.” Oh, Billy – dear Billy…how I miss him today.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of The Fortune Cookie is another solid offering that will surely delight. It is gratifying to see MGM, the custodians of the Mirisch Bros. catalog, finally taking an interest in properly remastering at least some of it for hi-def. This 1080p B&W Panavision image reveals a startling amount of clarity, tonality and over-all fine details that sparkle with renewed luster. Age-related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. Save the briefest of white speckles here and there, and one momentary instance of a hair caught in the upper right corner of the frame, this is wonderful looking transfer with much to recommend it. The image is razor sharp without appearing to have suffered any untoward DNR or other digital manipulations. There is no edge-enhancement either, allowing the purity of Joseph LaShelle’s gorgeous B&W cinematography to shine through. So, bravo, props and kudos to everyone responsible for this release. The 1.0 DTS mono is adequately rendered for this presentation with clean, crisp dialogue. TT affords us the opportunity to indulge in Andre Previn’s score on an isolated track. What a superb orchestral offering it is! The only other extra is a theatrical trailer and liner notes from Julie Kirgo – always much appreciated. Bottom line: The Fortune Cookie may not be a A-list Billy Wilder. Actually, more like A- or B+, but it remains highly enjoyable. This release is practically perfect. As Wilder astutely pointed out, “Nobody ever is…entirely.” Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)