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The Fortune Cookie

The Fortune Cookie
MGM Home Entertainment
1966 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 125 min. / Meet Whiplash Willie / Street Date July 15, 2003 / 14.95
Starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ron Rich, Judi West, Cliff Osmond, Lurene Tuttle
Cinematography Joseph La Shelle
Art Direction Robert Luthardt
Film Editor Daniel Mandell
Original Music Andre Previn
Written by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder
Produced and Directed by Billy Wilder

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 unredeemable 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 --
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 7, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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