On Oct. 19, 1966, Billy Wilder returned to the big screen with The Fortune Cookie, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. The film was nominated for four Oscars at the 39th Academy Awards, winning one for Matthau. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
The Fortune Cookie is Billy Wilder’s best picture since The Apartment, his funniest since Some Like It Hot. Wilder has mixed such unlikely elements as Waiting for Godot and Dr. Kronkite, or their spiritual essences, and given them the verve of his own style with a subject that is a natural for his special brand of mordant humor. The Mirisch Corp. production for United Artists cannot help but be a big, big hit.
A doctor friend of mine, visiting Los Angeles for the first time from his own, less volatile community, was impressed with the large number of persons he saw wearing neck braces. “There must be here,” he observed, “either the worst doctors or the best lawyers in the world.” Perhaps something of the same idea struck Wilder or his gifted collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond. In The Fortune Cookie, they explore the field of personal injury and the profits to be made from it. They strike a vein of human avariciousness; the ingrained belief that fortunes may be made if one just knows the angles; that the key to life’s happiness is a big wad of cash and a smart lawyer who can deliver it.
Jack Lemmon is the man trying to pry open life’s Fortune Cookie, and Walter Matthau is the man who is teaching him how to crumble the cookie his way. Lemmon is a TV photographer who gets trampled in scrimmage while on a football field capturing some of the play. It quickly develops that Lemmon has suffered no serious injuries at all. But Matthau, a lawyer known as “Whiplash Willie,” knows that this is no handicap. Matthau’s attitude towards life and those in it is succinctly apostrophized when he observes of Abraham Lincoln: “Great president, lousy lawyer.”
Lemmon, a basically decent fellow, goes along for personal reasons. He hopes word of his injury and his potential fortune will bring home his wife, a lady whose heels are so round she finds it difficult to remain upright, especially in a bedroom. Matthau has no such character flaws as Lemmon. He wants money and fame. He has seen how the big boys operate. He is sure it is a mug’s game and he is prepared to be a mug. It is only that he is inept as a mug as he is at everything else.
Wilder has little pity on his hero. He burdens him with the sort of family that spurs enlistment in the French Foreign Legion. He puts him in a home, a semi-slum of the sort that breeds anarchists. Wilder’s final touch is the wife, who hasn’t even the redeeming quality of stupidity.
Lemmon’s particular ability in this role is that he saves it from dullness or ordinariness. He does not overplay to achieve interest or sympathy. He makes the character important and vulnerable, and without overstating it, universal. Matthau, with the role of a lifetime at his hands, seizes it and makes it wonderful. As the incompetent shyster, Matthau snarls, cajoles, is breezy and sniveling by turns. He has no shame and no honor, but he is a completely engaging man, one you wouldn’t trust to drive your car around the block, but one to observe with unrelieved delight.
Ron Rich plays the football player who believes he has permanently maimed Lemmon, and who suffers mental anguish at what he has done. It is a delicate counter-theme Wilder develops here, and Rich plays it nicely. Cliff Osmond, as a remorseless private eye hired to prove Lemmon is faking, is a boldly drawn figure to match Matthau. He is very funny. Judi West makes a valid contribution as Lemmon’s shabby little wife. Miss West doesn’t cheat on her essentially worthless character, but she has a kind of faded, jaunty appeal that makes Lemmon’s attraction to her viable. Lurene Tuttle, Harry Holcombe, Les Tremayne, Marge Redmond, Noam Pitlik and Harry Davis are among those importantly cast and importantly contributing.
Joseph LaShelle’s photography, in Panavision, is shrewd and penetrating. Andrew Previn’s music score is important, particularly in his use of some standards to underscore the irony. “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to” is one of them he employs with effect. Daniel Mandell’s editing is good, and so is Robert Martin’s sound. Robert Luthardt’s art direction, with set decoration by Edward G. Boyle, dynamically carries out, in visual concept, what the story is all about. — James Powers, originally published Oct. 17, 1966