BR: Fortune, The (1975)

May 4, 2015 | By

 

Fortune1975_BRFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  December 9, 2014

Genre:  Screwball Comedy

Synopsis: Two bumbling con artists switch to Plan B – murder – when the heir to bread company isn’t going to deliver the goods fast enough.

Special Features:  Isolated Mono Music & Effects Track / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.

 


 

Review:

Twilight Time’s release of Mike Nichols’ The Fortune on Blu-ray (apparently its first-ever home video release) kind of echoes the situation of Peter Bodganovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), a film similarly written-off as a box office dud that vanished from distribution and took decades to emerge in a pristine HD transfer.

Both films were set in somewhere the 1920s / 1930s, but unlike Love, Fortune isn’t a musical but a screwball comedy, and perhaps a film planned by its makers in the wake of Bogdanovich’s own genre homage, the contemporary set, comedic free-for-all What’s Up Doc? (1972), which did click with audiences and remains a classic to its dedicated fans.

A major benefit of being unavailable for ages is that a film has the chance to be received by a new generation of movie fans largely unfettered by its prior reputation, which can implant a sense of expected awfulness. That’s certainly the case with Love – it was a massive bomb in its day but now has its coterie of admirers – but Fortune is blessed with a shorter running time and solid repartee, the latter free from highly questionable musical numbers interpreted by largely untrained singers & dancers.

It’s also a movie that for many might bring up the questions ‘It’s a Mike Nichols film? How come I’ve never heard of it?’

Seeing The Fortune blind, so to speak, it’s clear Nichols wasn’t after a Howard Hawksian misadventure nor something altogether classically screwball, but an appropriation of comedic elements through which an absurdly talented cast gets to play their bumbling characters like cartoon versions of Preston Sturges boobs, if not Laurel & Hardy.

In a nutshell, Nicky (Warren Beatty) bails out thieving bank clerk Oscar (Jack Nicholson) by paying off debts on condition he marry the heiress to the Mouse Bread empire, Freddie (Stockard Channing), so they can legally cross state lines to California where Nicky will divorce his wife, and eventually marry Freddie, whom he loves mostly for the future legacy payouts that’ll kick in after her dad expires.

A bored Oscar attempts to shag Freddie when Nicky’s out selling used cars, but Freddie’s decision to give her entire legacy to charities forces the two men to plot Freddie’s murder in a faux suicide plan – drastic measures for impatient con artists. Not unlike Preston Sturges’ brilliantly mordant Unfaithfully Yours (1948), the murder falls apart in whole compartments like a ballet of absolute bad luck.

Beatty’s portrayal of Nicky resembles a comedic version of his Bugsy (1991), whereas Nicholson, sporting a Barton Fink brillo do, is so broad, one suspects someone off-camera is working marionette strings to pull his eyes and inimitable smirk beyond the range of his actual skull. Channing isn’t as big, but Freddie is a classic Princess Notsobright, making her reactions to any kind of confusion rather spastic.

Added to the unconventional marriage between the three characters is a pet chicken which often steals scenes, but there’s also bungalow manager Mrs. Gould (Florence Stanley) and her increasing interest in exactly who’s shagging Freddie so loudly day & night. Small roles are also played by Scatman Crothers as a nighttime fisher, Dub Taylor as a rattlesnake vendor, and Michael Guest a boy whose nighttime tryst is interrupted by Nicky and Oliver’s hasty flight from a spit.

The strangest aspect of Fortune isn’t that it’s sometimes strained in maintaining its comedic pitch, nor features physically broad performances, or has witty monologues, but that the whole film feels like a Coen brothers movie the pair might have made decades ago. There’s an allegation the brothers love this film, and it may not be made-up apocrypha, because the weirdness of its tone and its small group of bonehead characters share a lot with the Coens’ Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Barton Fink (1991), and maybe Raising Arizona (1987).

The question, of course, is whether The Fortune actually works, and for some, it may be brilliant, and to others an outright bomb, but I kind of warmed up to the oddness of what’s an interesting misfire that sometimes tosses a fully functional moment of hysteria at audiences.

Nichols and scribe Carole Eastman (Model Shop, Five Easy Pieces, Man Trouble) may well have designed the film to hover in a safe zone bordered by excess and understatement, leaving it up to the actors to fine tune the pitch of specific gags and physical bumbling.

The 88 minute running time feels natural rather than something hacked down for pacing; the film does move at a crazy pace with little interludes involving gorgeous visuals and evocative music.

Nichols also uses elaborate long takes in which his cast clearly ran like hell to the next scene & back just to make the next shot. The wedding scene is one clever sequence, but the real tour de force is a dance & cocktail sequence where John A. Alonzo’s camera tracks a back & forth as Freddie is repeatedly joined by one of her suitors in what should be one impossible shot across a dance floor. It sounds like it draws attention to its technical brilliance, but it doesn’t; the epic shot just enhances the already ridiculous glee that bleeds from the actors as they glide, twirl, and dip before jaunting fast to the adjacent closing scene – Freddie’s birthday party, which is supposed to be her last night on Earth.

Richard Sylbert’s production design is gorgeous and highly evocative of an early L.A., when the suburbs were dotted with newly built bungalows and hotels built at the city’s nosebleed peaks, and where drives into the mountains peaks reveal no development of homes or paved roads whatsoever.

David Shire’s adaptation of source tunes (isolated in a mono music & effects track) is very jaunty, emphasizing small orchestra and swing combo with plenty of giddy piano and violin churning out zippy rhythms.

Stu Linder’s editing is very sharp – at least whenever Nichols allowed him to make a cut. There are a handful of scenes that play out uninterrupted, and while they may not always work – a nighttime bus ride the boys take after supposedly dumping Freddie’s body by a spit is visually murky – they are kind of ballsy, allowing the actors to apply their own pacing to scenes, and work out the beats of the jokes in real time.

The Fortune might mature into a peculiar, subjective classic, given there’s a weird counterbalance between subtle repartee and broad performances that often clicks to create Coens-style, Laurel & Hardy nonsense, but it’s the kind of film best savoured with zero expectations.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a really lovely HD transfer that brings out the stellar colours and compositions of Alonzo, a master cameraman who also produced the extraordinary visuals of Chinatown and Conrack the year before.

The mono soundtrack is clean, and Julie Kirgo’s liner notes provide both an appreciation of the film and its quirky status as one of several productions when Hollywood seemed a little obsessed in depicting the boneheads, underdogs, and tragic heroes of the 1920s & 1930s; and the ‘incestuous’ career relationships between the film’s stars, writer, director, production designer, and more.

Many cast & crew had already worked together and would reunite for other projects, but the most amusing trivia lies in Fortune’s raison d’etre: Columbia had huge expectations for their costly, guaranteed box office hit, but it was the lesser film, Warren Beatty’s Shampoo, that eclipsed the former, and kicked it from the distribution circuit into oblivion for a few decades.

A potential gem, if not a secret inspirational work fans of the Coen Brothers can now examine, and perhaps relish.

This title is also available as a Sony on-demand DVD.

 

 

© 2015 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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