Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Also available in The Billy Wilder Collection Boxed set (129.96), with
The Apartment, Avanti!, Irma La Douce, Kiss Me Stupid, One Two Three, The Private Life of
Sherlock Holmes, Some Like it Hot and Witness for the Prosecution.
The Fortune Cookie was a comeback hit for Billy Wilder, after the censorship debacle of
Kiss Me, Stupid the year before. Clearly
trying to play it safe, this vehicle for Jack Lemmon stays clear of raunch and instead
mines the subject of greed. Once again, lightning struck in Wilder's favor, as Walter Matthau
became a major star in the role of an ambulance-chasing lawyer determined to milk an injury
lawsuit for a massive settlement payday. Matthau, who also won an Oscar for the film, went on
to costar frequently with Lemmon as a comedy team.
Matthau's very good, but The Fortune Cookie is a sour movie that shows Wilder retrenching
instead of innovating. Its cynicism is shrill, and the false sentimental conclusion is easily
Wilder's worst. It's one of the few Wilders that isn't on the 'let's see it again' list.
CBS Sports cameraman Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is injured when tight end Luther
'Boom Boom' Jackson (Ron Rich) accidentally plows into him while trying to outrun a long pass.
At the hospital, X-Rays show that Harry's injuries are minor, but his brother-in-law,
shady shyster Willie Gingrich
(Walter Matthau) intervenes and starts fixing everyone in sight to pretend that serious back injuries
are involved. Initially revulsed by Willie's money-grubbing and dishonesty, Harry goes along with the
insurance scam when Willie tells him that his plight will surely lure back his ex-wife
Sandy (Judi West). The insurance company puts investigator Purkey (Cliff Osmond)
on the case in an attempt to uncover Willie's deception.
The first half of The Fortune Cookie is predictable fun, mainly for the pleasure of seeing
just how crass and conniving Walter Matthau can get. Willie Gingrich has a perpetual scowl and
would have no compunctions about stealing candy from babies. Crooked lawyers were a fixture in
movies, but nobody had yet nailed this particular variety of urban shark. Whiplash Willie is
a shameless crook that makes criminals seem honest.
Willie pulls poor Harry Hinkle down a slippery slope, pretending to be his friend but obviously
using his brother-in-law for his own ends - at the thought of getting back together with his
faithless wife, the lonely Harry loses all perspective. With reconciliation as the carrot, Willie
finds him easy to manipulate.
Wilder and his creative partner I.A.L. Diamond keep the kettle boiling with developments and
distractions, mostly centering on Willie's maneuverings to keep the doctors fooled, Harry happy and
the insurance company from getting wise to his scheme. Unfortunately, and this is rare for a
Wilder film, our sympathy for the characters runs out at about the halfway point. An hour of Willie
is enough to make us wish for any kind of honest ending, and even when Jack Lemmon's pathetic
Harry recovers his ethics, it's too late to like him. The broad-comedy nonsense of Cliff
Osmond's private detective also gets tired after a while, as does 'Whiplash Willie' himself. Wilder's
direction never lags, but his famous momentum just isn't there - the comedic and emotional
payoff never comes.
Wilder and Diamond give us an integrity alternative in footballer Luther Jackson, who showers Harry
with remorse and gifts and only makes him feel more guilty. Wilder does his best with his
cutaways to Luther drinking inconsolably at a bowling alley, but the
portrayal of blacks is alien territory for Wilder, and it's all just too pat. Luther's exaggerated
sense of responsibility has him acting as valet, cook and handyman to
Harry, suggesting that a progressive black character has somehow made an end-run back to being a
standard Hollywood servant stereotype.
By the time Judi West arrives to drive more nails into Harry Hinkle's coffin, the fun has gone
out of the picture, despite Wilder and Diamond's many clever gags and one-liners centering on
hospital care and furtive surveillance. Hinkle's ex is suddenly very concerned with Harry, and
very affectionate, but there's no joy because we know the scam moola will evaporate, and take
Sandy along with it.
The conclusion on the playing field is perhaps the only Wilder ending (pre-1973) that is
conventionally predictable. Its upbeat, feel-good tone is forced, and it really makes us
think that Wilder decided
he had to calculate for a hit, and to Hell with what would make a great picture.
The Fortune Cookie
is almost an inverse Ace in the Hole, Wilder's acidic noir flop from 1951. In it, an
reporter played by Kirk Douglas purposely keeps a man trapped underground to generate a circulation
boosting news story. If you played Ace as a lighter comedy, and made its poor trapped Leo a
foolish accomplice in the scam, the two shows would be almost identical, right down to the unfaithful
blonde taking a powder at the finale (One gets slapped, the other kicked in the butt). Ace in
the Hole is honestly cynical. The Fortune
Cookie sends mixed messages: people are both rotten and adorable, swindlers are great fun, and
ethical behavior is for losers.
Robert Doqui (RoboCop) and Judy Pace (Joanna, Cotton Comes to Harlem) are
two of Ron Rich's acquaintances in the aforementioned bar scene.
MGM's DVD of The Fortune Cookie was originally released in March of 2001. The transfer is
fine, but not as good as the new titles in the boxed set, like
Irma La Douce, the enhanced picture tends
to break up in fine details when displayed on a large monitor, especially the fine-print titles.
Is this the work of over-used edge enhancement? The mono sound is excellent; the
only extra is the original trailer. Poor Judi West shares a paste-up cover portrait with Matthau
and Lemmon; all three look awkwardly out of character.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Fortune Cookie rates:
Movie: Good --
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 7, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson