BR: Fortune Cookie, The (1966)

May 23, 2017 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: April 21, 2017

Genre: Comedy

Synopsis: After

Special Features:  Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and



For most of the 1940s and 1950s, Billy Wilder was a prolific, unstoppable force, often collaborating with I.A.L. Diamond on a variety of scripts that tackled vanity, greed, hypocrisy, and sex, but The Fortune Cookie (1966) would mark a gradual slowdown of Wilder’s career, capping a series of Oscar-winning and nominated classics. Four years would pass before he returned with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), a film whose final edit was overtaken by longtime studio United Artists, after which Wilder directed a quartet of films before the wry auteur was pushed out from active duty by a changed Hollywood in the early 1980s.

Fortune could be regarded as the last film produced during his golden run, and in spite of his amusing hook of a lawyer who bullies his brother-in-law into faking serious injuries to bilk a TV network, the city, and the football league out of $1 million, it lacks the punchy pacing of earlier works, perhaps because with UA having a more laissez-faire stance with its artists, as long as the film was good and worked, a few hairs above 2 hours was fine.

The hook is simple and sweet: after getting smacked by quarterback Luther ‘Boom Boom’ Jackson (Ron Rich) and back-flipped while covering a football game, CBS cameraman Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) wakes up in a hospital to find brother-in-law / personal injury lawyer Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau) has already set in motion a perfect plan to sue multiple parties. Although he initially refuses to participate in the shenanigans, a call from his ex-wife Sandy (Judi West) convinces Harry that a little immorality and illegality are okay if the defendants are too loaded to miss a few bucks, and in the end he gets his wife back after she ran off with a drummer.

Wilder and Diamond’s structure is letter-perfect: not an emotional beat is out of place, nor are the levels of selfishness enjoyed by several key characters. The high powered legal team repping the defendants move from hardball to softies, wanting to end the ordeal with a quick payout, while their hired detective, Purkey (Cliff Osmond, sporting a Hitler mustache), takes his dismissal poorly, and maintains surveillance on Harry’s apartment, waiting for the inevitable moment when an accident is captured on film and tape, and he can claim victory.

At 125 mins., Fortune is a bit too long, and Wilder relies on the physical performances and extended banter between stars Lemmon and Matthau for energy, filming many exchanges in portrait master shots. The downside is scenes that feel longer, but the upside are some great visual gags, often accomplished in single takes. When Sandy calls and teases Harry from her shitty apartment, drummer boy lies tussling in bed in the background, or is seen takes a shower, with his silhouette moving behind the fuzzy glass – shots that resemble slick n’ tawdry novel covers, and convey a wealth of information without a single cut.

The oft-cited ‘wheelchair ballet’ in which Harry pivots, twirls, and zips in and out of the living room without crashing into a single object is impressive: Lemmon clearly spent time rehearsing his moves to transform a static wide shot into a bravura vignette of physical comedy.

Guilt is the toxin that flows through Harry’s veins, but he can’t let go of Sandy, hence his exploitation of football hero ‘Boom Boom.’ BB’s a decent guy whose acts of philanthropy extend to his own family, steering his father away from an alcohol addition to managing a bowling bar business, but steeped with massive guilt for causing Harry’s ‘injuries,’ BB becomes Harry’s daily caregiver, determined to nurse him back to health, just in time for a huge tribute at the stadium.

Rich gives an honest, believable performance as a good man who becomes too obsessed with Harry’s rehabilitation instead of his football career, but 50 years later, it’s a bit unnerving in the way BB, an African American sports star, is reduced to a classic 50s servant, something Wilder and Diamond may have intended to ignite Harry’s tussle with Purkey in the finale.

When BB realizes he’s sacrificed his career for a faker, he’s oddly stoic, blaming himself for permitting such deceit instead of Harry and Willie. Harry ultimately owns up to his exploitation of BB, but it’s not due to a sudden moral shift, but a seething self-disgust that’s triggered when Purkey uses racial slurs to rile Harry and unmask on film his faked injuries. The assumption is Wilder and Diamond extended BB’s scenes of servitude to starkly demonstrate how low Harry has sunk, but it’s the film’s most uneasy relationship. (Wilder also brackets the narrative with onscreen chapters, sticking to colloquial phrases that are in tune with his wise guy dialogue, but among the chapters is “The Indian Giver.”)

Flaws aside, there are moments of brilliance that show Wilder in full form. Adept at tackling genre clichés – The Seven Year Itch (1955) was a media-savvy riff on the sex comedy, as experienced by a suburban nebbish father, with hysterical pokes at TV advertising – Fortune has a poke at film noir, although it’s done through stark lighting and cruel angles. To appease the defendants’ team of lawyers, Willie allows doctors to examine Harry, and like an elaborate monologue with keywords and comedic beats, it progresses as Harry’s poked, prodded, x-rayed, and penetrated, while a Prof. Winterhalter (prunish Sig Ruman) keeps dismissing each passed test (“Fake!”), punctuating the whole ordeal with one of Wilder & Diamond’s funniest closing lines.

Fortune is a beautiful production, exploiting Cleveland’s working class neighbourhoods, and boasting striking compositions by one of Wilder’s favourite cinematographer, Joseph La Shelle (The Apartment, Irma la Douce, Kiss Me Stupid). Andre Previn’s score is heavily anchored to Cole Porter’s classic tune “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” which re-emerges in amusing guises, including a version sung by Sandy, ostensibly a wannabe lounge crooner trapped singing TV adverts.

Twilight Time’s Blu sports a gorgeous transfer and offers Previn’s score on an isolated stereo track, plus a spoiler-laden trailer that sells the film as ‘Another Billy Wilder Laughfest’ – a mistake, considering the film’s highly contemporary elements. The basic story and its characters are so strong, they could survive a reinterpretation and update in a modern remake.

Although there’s no audio commentary, Julie Kirgo’s essay cites parallels with Wilder’s other classic, Double Indemnity (1944), which also dealt with insurance fraud (albeit in a much darker manner). Kirgo notes Ron Rich’s short acting career included a few more movies and TV appearances until 1978, and sexy West had a similarly brief acting streak.

Lemmon is the de facto star, but Matthau deservedly earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his fast-talking, verbose and agile performance. Willie’s no ordinary ambulance chaser, which he proves through his unwavering confidence, easily blowing swarming insurance lawyers, and rattling off in rapid succession legal precedents that are so sharply said with added finger pointing, they just have to be true. Matthau’s performance is even more amazing for being bisected off-screen with a heart attack that held up production, and had him returning more fragile, losing 30 pounds during his recovery.

The Fortune Cookie has enough vintage Wilder percolating from scenes to keep one chuckling, and a superb cast of supporting actors, including Osmond and Les Tremayne (War of the Worlds) and their magnificent radio voices, Harry Davis as Dr. Krugman (“I said no kibitzing!”), and Maryesther Denver as Harry’s Nurse Ratchet.

This film also marked the first screen teaming of Lemmon and Matthau, whose subsequent pairings include The Odd Couple (1968), the Wilder films The Front Page (1974) and Buddy Buddy (1981), and later Grumpy Old Men (1993), Grumpier Old Men (1995), Out to Sea (1997), and The Odd Couple II (1998).



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan


External References:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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