Thursday, April 20, 2017

Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder found his career at the crossroads in the 1960s. Successes such as The Apartment and Irma la Douce were offset by flops like Kiss Me, Stupid and the under-appreciated One, Two, Three. It's almost as if he couldn't quite grasp what appealed to the public. I'm not suggesting that Wilder ever intentionally tried to appeal to mass audiences, but his aesthetic seemed to align with movie audiences for most of his career.
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau would become one of the great teams.
Made in 1966, The Fortune Cookie was Billy Wilder's last mainstream hit. It's an uneven dramedy that perfectly encapsulates Wilder's challenges during the decade. It's also notable for pairing Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau for the first time.

Lemmon doing his wheelchair dance.
Lemmon plays cameraman Henry Hinkle, who suffers a concussion when a Cleveland Browns football player accidentally plows into him during a game. Henry recovers with no side effects, but his brother-in-law--an ambulance-chasing lawyer nicknamed Whiplash Willie--wants to sue CBS, the Cleveland Browns, and Municipal Stadium for $1 million. Initially, nice guy Henry rejects the idea, but he falters when Willie (Matthau) convinces him it may be a way to win back his ex-wife Sandy.

The Fortune Cookie works best as a comedy, with Matthau's shyster pulling out all stops to keep the scam going. In one scene, Willie has an Oriental lunch delivered to the hospital so the "delivery man" can administer drugs to numb Henry's leg so he can pass tests given by the insurance company's doctors. When Henry asks if the delivery man can administer drugs, Willie confirms that the man is a doctor...a veterinarian who lost his license to practice.

Judi West as the self-centered Sandy. 
The film's other subplots deal with Boom Boom Jackson, the guilt-stricken football player who believes he's paralyzed Henry, and Henry's ambitious ex-wife Sandy (Judi West). In a perfect scene, Wilder tells us all we need to know about Sandy. When she calls Henry, we see her laying in a bed with disheveled hair, smoking a cigarette, in a squalid apartment with a man in the shower behind her. Her compassionate comment to Willie about Henry: "Poor bastard...I just hope he winds up with a little money."

Willie in his cluttered office.
Despite effective turns from Lemmon and West, The Fortune Cookie belongs to Walter Matthau. After years as a supporting player in dramas and comedies, he had perfected his rascally on-screen persona. He won a best-supporting Oscar for his portrayal of Whiplash Willie and would graduate to lead roles beginning with his next film A Guide for the Married Man (967). It helps, of course, to have Wilder and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond write your dialogue. And, of course, Willie is a great character, because he's not only devious, he really is a smart attorney.

The Fortune Cookie earned three other Oscar nominations, including one for original screenplay for Wilder and Diamond. It hasn't aged as well as other Wilder films and it's too leisurely at 125 minutes. Still, Matthau, Lemmon, and West (this was sadly her only major role) are three fine reasons to watch it. It was Wilder's last film for four years. He would return to the screen in 1970 with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a different spin on the famous sleuth.


  1. My dad absolutely loved this movie. It was most satisfying to me when I shared this with my daughter while she was in high school, and she enjoyed it as well. A connection across the movie universe had been made.

  2. Never much cared for TFC, but did enjoy "One, Two, Three" for its absurdity, screwball vibe, and fast pacing. Definitely under-appreciated, especially Cagney's comedic chops.

  3. Wilder's unappreciated film of the era his Sherlock Holmes. Robert Stephens' Holmes unable to match his own image, nor keep up with changing times. Much like Wilder himself.