The Fortune Cookie (1966), Wilder's last big hit, falls into this latter category. Remembered primarily as the first movie to team Jack Lemmon with Walter Matthau, It was nominated for four Academy Awards, with Matthau winning an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.
Looking at it again for the first time in several decades at least, I was disappointed that it wasn't better than it could have been, though the high-definition transfer provided to distributor Twilight Time by MGM is as near to perfection as the earlier release of Kiss Me, Stupid. Near as I can figure, The Fortune Cookie was the last big studio black-and-white movie of the black-and-white era, and exemplifies the compelling argument that could be made that no format looked better on big screens than black-and-white ‘scope. (The fine cover art reflects this nicely.)
At a Cleveland Browns-Minnesota Vikings game at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, CBS sideline cameraman Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is injured when African-American star player Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson (Ron Rich) runs into him, sending Harry backwards over a large tarpaulin. He's rushed to the hospital with a mild concussion, but Harry's ambulance-chasing brother-in-law, disreputable lawyer "Whiplash Willie" Gingrich (Walter Matthau) sees a potential goldmine, especially after learning Harry had previously suffered a compressed vertebrae in a childhood accident.
Harry reluctantly goes along with Willie's scheme to sue the insurance company for a million bucks. Willie sends for a paroled dentist (Ned Glass) to numb Harry's right hand and left leg, but the insurance company is suspicious, first sending their own doctors to confirm Harry's condition, and later dispatching Cleveland's best private detective, Chester Perkey (Cliff Osmond), to bug Harry's apartment and monitor his recovery, 16mm camera at the ready, from a flat across the street.
Matthau had been a supporting actor in movies, usually dramas and often as the heavy, for a decade until the one-two punch of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple on Broadway in 1965 and Wilder's film made Matthau an unlikely movie star for the rest of his life. Reportedly Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason were considered (the latter might have been even better), but Wilder and Lemmon were sold on Matthau, sticking with him even after Matthau suffered a heart attack midway through filming, halting production for two months. (The same thing happened to Wilder with Peter Sellers on Kiss Me, Stupid, only that time Sellers was replaced.) Matthau is so colorfully lacking in scruples that he dominates the film, even over top-billed Lemmon. It's an enjoyable performance, if broad and cartoony even by Matthau's standards. Whiplash Willie is motivated solely by money, with the added benefit of sticking it to Perkey and establishment insurance types, nicely played by Harry Holcombe, Les Tremayne, and Lauren Gilbert.
The basic problem with the movie is Lemmon's character. Again playing the WASP-ish everyman, Harry is a decent fellow who'd never go along with Willie's con under normal circumstances and has no interest in the payout at all. Screenwriters Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's explanation for Harry's complicity is this: he thinks that his "injury" might bring about a reconciliation with his no-good ex-wife, Sandy (Judi West), who left him for another man.
Harry's feelings are complex. He's filled with barely-contained rage and bitterness toward selfish Sandy. A would-be singer, she's only interested in her imagined career, and see's Harry's injury as a means to get the $20,000 she wants to gain a foothold in the show business. Harry is suspicious of Sandy's motives, but also too self-destructive to face the obvious. The Fortune Cookie is really, and should have been more about, the triangle between Harry, Sandy, and Boom Boom, a character so racked with guilt over Harry's supposedly life-changing injury that he's willing to throw away his very real and lucrative career to devote his energies and compassion caring for the man who's life he wrecked. Boom Boom is painfully sincere and empathetic, the 180-degree opposite of Sandy. (It's difficult to imagine in today's world of multi-million-dollar star athletes.)
Wilder's mistake seems to have been in allowing Matthau and his character to take over, in amusing and well acted but ultimately unneeded scenes showcasing the moral depths Whiplash Willie is ready to sink to in order to win that big payoff. Though 125 minutes, The Fortune Cookie shortchanges the heart of the story: Why would Harry go along with Willie's fraud, and what will it take to turn him around?
Wilder's answer provides the film's best moments, fleeting though they are, in a climax that probably surprised 1966 audiences. Without revealing too much, after two hours of mild satire, The Fortune Cookie unexpectedly becomes topical, making Boom Boom's race the deus ex machina that brings everything crashing down. Lemmon and Osmond are especially good here, but it comes so out of nowhere that, though clearly meant as a surprise, it also demonstrates the movie's basic weakness. (A sentimental, phony ending that doesn't work at all and leaves too many questions unanswered follows this scene.) Audiences should perhaps have seen it coming all along. The tensions between Harry, Boom Boom, and Sandy is where the real qualities of The Fortune Cookie lay. Whiplash Willie needs to be the engine driving the insurance story. His actions should not have been the story, with the Harry-Boom Boom-Sandy triangle an important subplot, but that's how The Fortune Cookie ended up.
(Ironically, as much as The Fortune Cookie boosted Matthau's career, it did absolutely nothing for Judi West or Ron Rich, who made very few other movies after this.)
Video & Audio
Despite its flaws as a movie, The Fortune Cookie is an absolute pleasure to watch on Blu-ray. Filmed in black-and-white and Panavision, the transfer is razor sharp and rich and inky with its blacks. Wilder often doesn't credit for the great cinematography in his movies (here by frequent collaborator Joseph LaShelle), but his expert framing and staging of scenes cannot be faulted. The 1.0 DTS-HD Master audio is good, and comes with optional English subtitles. Region free.
Supplements are limited this time to an isolated music track and a trailer, plus Julie Kirgo's usual liner notes. .
Even lesser Wilder is miles ahead of best films of most directors, and for its scintillating transfer, the performances, and aspects of the screenplay, The Fortune Cookie is definitely worth seeing. Recommended.