Writer-director Billy Wilder’s view of human nature takes on an even sourer tone in his 1966 comedy The Fortune Cookie.
The Production: 4/5
Writer-director Billy Wilder’s view of human nature takes on an even sourer tone in his 1966 comedy The Fortune Cookie. With masterful comic actors Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau being teamed for the first time and Wilder and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond focusing on human nature at its most avaricious, The Fortune Cookie offers bittersweet entertainment amid a clutch of wonderfully ingratiating performances.
While covering an NFL game for his hometown Cleveland Browns as the number four CBS cameraman, Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is hit by star Cleveland player “Boom Boom” Jackson (Ron Rich) which sends his camera flying and his body flipping head over heels. Sustaining a mild concussion, Harry is eager to get back to work, but his ambulance chasing brother-in-law lawyer Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau), known to insurance companies far and wide as “Whiplash Willie,” sees a lucrative payday ahead if he can convince Harry to play along with his scam in suing the Cleveland Browns and CBS for a million dollars for injuries sustained on the job. At first Harry doesn’t want to go along with the scheme, but renewed interest in his rehabilitation from his ex-wife Sandy (Judi West) persuades him the scam might be worth the trouble. But what Harry didn’t bargain for is the effect his “injury” has had on “Boom Boom” Jackson whose guilt becomes almost all-consuming making him lose focus during games, miss practices, and incur fines just to be with Harry and serve as his guardian angel. Meanwhile, the insurance company suspecting a sham injury sends private investigator Perkey (Cliff Osmond) to dig up the dirt on Willie’s scheme.
The Oscar-nominated Billy Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond screenplay, despite its expected dry, wry lines and a surfeit of comic set pieces in its sixteen chapter layout, really doesn’t paint a very positive picture of human nature. Even Harry, who otherwise might seem to be a nice guy and upstanding citizen, falls victim to his temptation, not so much for money but rather to get back his ex-wife who indeed is only after $20,000 she needs to fulfill her show business ambitions. The insurance company executives (played nimbly by Harry Holcombe, Les Tremayne, and Lauren Gilbert) are pictured as negatively as practically everyone else in the picture. In fact, between the inept doctors and sarcastic nurses and bitter private detectives, really only one person emerges as a Good Samaritan – Ron Rich’s Luther Jackson, and even he turns to the bottle when it appears Harry doesn’t need him any more once Sandy moves back home. Wilder uses the wide Panavision frame to offer us plenty of views of the human nature he’s so acidly castigating, and he’s always adept at placing actors across his frame even in tightly enclosed settings like Harry’s hospital room or his tiny kitchen once he returns home. He even allows Walter Matthau to occasionally break the fourth wall to almost seem complicit with the audience in his money-grubbing shenanigans, all the more reason that the actor walked away with the movie in his hip pocket even though he’s only a supporting player.
Yes, this is the role that won Walter Matthau his Academy Award, and it’s easy to see why with his quicksilver mind adept with any piece of information regarding potential larceny and its litigation. He jump starts the movie, which in truth is about fifteen minutes too long, every time he appears on the scene, and his ability to adroitly handle all of the other charlatans he comes into contact with only endears him all the more to the viewer despite his own essentially shameless nature. Jack Lemmon, confined to a bed and a wheelchair for much of the movie, is much more limited with physical shtick even though there’s a wonderful moment when he does elaborate, funny choreography with his battery operated wheelchair and late in the movie he’s allowed some amusing acrobatics once he breaks free of Willie’s spell. But he (with the assistance of director Wilder) hands the movie to Matthau on a silver platter. Ron Rich is outstanding as the deeply feeling pro footballer whose guilt and shame lead him to practically destroy his own life in the process. Judi West as the chain-smoking Sandy Hinkle is adequate in the primary female role in the movie, but a more adept comic actress might have gotten more out of the part. Lurene Tuttle is a hoot as Harry’s constantly wailing mother shipped off to Florida to get her unending sobbing out of the way, and Cliff Osmond has some funny business as the slimy private eye. Marge Redmond as Matthau’s wife, Sig Ruman as a scoffing doctor, and Archie Moore as Jackson’s concerned father also make the most of their smaller roles.
3D Rating: NA
The Panavision theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is faithfully delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Despite a few dust specks and some light white scratches along the right side of the frame, the transfer is for the most part quite excellent. Sharpness is superb allowing us to notice blemishes and pitting in facial features, and the grayscale rendering offers very dark black levels and quite effective shadow detail. Contrast has been consistently applied for a first-rate image. The movie has been divided into 24 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix presents the well-recorded dialogue clearly and cleanly (important since most Wilder films live or die on their verbal dexterity). It’s been mixed nicely with the background score supervised by André Previn and the atmospheric effects to make a very listenable mono track. No problematic age-related audio artifacts weigh down the aural presentation.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Isolated Music Track: presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo.
Original Theatrical Trailer (2:36, HD)
Six-Page Booklet: contains some effective black and white stills, original poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s astute essay on the movie.
Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie offers a bittersweet satire on national greed and avarice that paints a pretty seedy picture of mankind. The Twilight Time Blu-ray release, however, offers an excellent rendition of the film for home video enthusiasts. There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested in purchasing it should go to either www.twilighttimemovies.com or www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.