Quick, think of your favorite comedy film duos! If you thought of Laurel and Hardy, or Abbott and Costello, or Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke, you wouldn’t be wrong. They were all magnificent. However, the duo that stands out for me as the most brilliant and iconic of all time is that of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, two actors I have intense respect for and adore as if they were my own uncles. They made film history, and I finally watched their first ever collaboration, the brilliant comedy, The Fortune Cookie.
Like any great Lemmon/Matthau film, it features the two men playing polar opposites. In The Fortune Cookie, Lemmon is Harry Hinckle, an honest camera man who has an unfortunate encounter with a football star that lands him a minor injury. Matthau plays “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich, the sleazy lawyer and brother-in-law that makes that tiny injury into possibly the greatest piece of insurance fraud ever committed in a film. Honestly, I could watch these two men banter on and on forever, but it also helps when they have a solid story behind them, written by Billy Wilder, one of the greatest writers and filmmakers to ever walk the streets of Hollywood. Of course, like all Lemmon/Matthau films, there is no progressively enormous story here. Instead, we have a small and quaint little film that makes the banalities of life its driving force, and like all Lemmon/Matthau collaborations, its absolutely amazing.
I honestly could just make this entire review entirely me gushing about how much I love these two actors. I am firmly in the Lemmon/Matthau fan-club, and to see screen magic and film history be born is very special. Seeing them here is the same as seeing Aaron Sorkin write his first story, or the first time Martin Scorsese picked up a video camera. They have instant chemistry I have never seen before in any other film duo, even the greatest ones. They just fit each other like perfect little gloves, and its an absolute joy to watch them here, or in any film (thankfully they made about a dozen, so there is absolutely no shortage!). However, this review is praising The Fortune Cookie, so let’s praise The Fortune Cookie…
Billy Wilder just had a knack for writing interesting characters in extraordinarily boring situations. If you are looking for something exciting, in the normal film terms, you won’t find it here. Lemmon spends 90% of the film either in a bed or in a wheelchair, and the action is pretty much limited to three spaces – the hospital, Hinckle’s apartment and Willie’s office. It is a very nihilistic method of storytelling, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t successful and effective. Its a theatrical piece performed on film, which is tricky to get perfectly right, but Wilder hits it right on the nose here, and he does a brilliant job of taking the theatrical nuances we see in live performance and translating it to film. Of course, the gorgeous black and white photography add to the bland and simplistic story. It is through this simplicity that we get some truly memorable comedic moments. What makes us laugh is those moments in everyday life that just aren’t quite right or normal – someone walking into a door, someone slipping on a banana peel (which happens in the film, I’ll have you know), and this attention to minimalistic comedy is one of the reasons why Billy Wilder is one of the most brilliantly visionary filmmakers of all time.
Its damn impossible to think of this film and not immediately associate it with Jack Lemmon or Walter Matthau. They are just that magnetic and brilliant. However, the supporting cast isn’t to be ignored, as there are some truly great performances there, but none that match up to the fantastic performances the leads give. Ron Rich is perfectly sweet as Boom Boom Jackson, the guilt-ridden football player trying his best to make amends with Hinckle. Cliff Osmond is sleazy and fantastic as the corrupt and bumbling private detective, and Lurene Tuttle has the funniest moments in the film as Hinckle’s worried mother. Its a great cast, but one that is entirely anchored by the natural charisma of its stars.
I loved The Fortune Cookie. While it wasn’t my favorite Lemmon/Matthau film, it certainly is a brilliant film and a great start to an iconic friendship, both on-screen and off. Billy Wilder was an absolute genius, and this is proof of that. An absolutely stellar film, from beginning to end, and something absolutely amazing. Bravo, gentlemen!