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On May 2, 1968, Paramount’s big-screen adaptation of stage hit The Odd Couple opened in New York at Radio City Music Hall. The film went on to be nominated for two Oscars at the 41st Academy Awards, for editing and for Neil Simon’s adapted screenplay. The Hollywood Reporter‘s original review, headlined “Howard Koch’s ‘Couple’ Smash B.O. Hit for Para,” is below.
Capitalizing on almost every funny line in the play, and keeping physical setups to a wise minimum, playwright-screenwriter Neil Simon and director Gene Saks have adapted to the screen, fidelity-sharp, the embattled hilarity of The Odd Couple. Jack Lemmon, as the Saran-wrapped, fanatical argument against toilet training, turns in his best performance since The Apartment.
And Walter Matthau, whether playing poker in his sweat-stained shirt and blue baseball cap or throwing a plate of linguini against the wall above the Brillo’d kitchen sink, eclipses his achievement in The Fortune Cookie. He hasn’t been seen to better advantage, in fact, since he played the sardonic sheriff in Lonely Are the Brave. Paramount has a hit and laughs will ring to the sound … whether its an exclusive booking, as in New York, or a carefully selected triple-house run, as here.
The Howard W. Koch production, verbal and interior like the play, has circumvented staginess while still adhering to the basic three-part structure of Simon’s play. An opening sequence of Lemmon stumbling around Times Square (including a sharp segment at a bar as he glares at a zombie girl dancing directly above him), a scene with Matthau and Lemmon in a restaurant, sportswriter Matthau at Shea Stadium, an argument on a rooftop — all of these are convincingly worked into the screenplay and contribute to the sense of a film instead of a film of a play. More important, however, are Saks’ setups in Matthau’s hovel-turned-antiseptic tank. Cinematographer Robert Hauser’s camera tracks and [j]ollies around the eight rooms with both the restraint and movement necessary to develop the comic momentum of a couple of incompatibles.
This is, almost predictably, not a film with cinematic style but a film that comfortably settles back and allows the characters to double you up with Simon’s side-splitting lines, lines that grow out of character instead of winging like gags from the mouth of some comic. When Matthau tells a poker-playing buddy to “lend me twenty dollars or I’ll call your wife and tell her you’re in Central Park wearing a dress,” it’s especially funny because Matthau is a slob who, among other things, serves brown and green sandwiches from underneath his arm pit. That kind of humor was the essence of Simon’s Broadway success and he has transferred it all to the screenplay.
Four of the Broadway originals are also on the screen in the same roles they launched at the Plymouth Theatre under Mike Nichols’ direction three years ago: Matthau, John Fiedler, and the two birds from the apartment upstairs, English actresses Monica Evans and Carole Shelley in their first Hollywood film. They are superb as the sisters Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon, like veritable pigeons perched on Matthau and Lemmon’s living room couch. Together they work like an orchestration, a ballet of giggles.
The same sense of orchestration goes for the counterpoint of Lemmon and Matthau and the roundtable poker sessions with Herbert Edelman, David Sheiner, Larry Haines and Fiedler. Edelman’s Murray the policeman is particularly good whenever he unconsciously falls into the cop role.
In the early apartment sequences, art directors Walter Tyler and Hal Pereira have designed beautiful chaos, and set decorators Robert Bento and Ray Moyer deserve a plate of linguini or something for the smoldering heap of ashes on the poker table, the smeary collection of waste in the kitchen, and for the nifty bachelor touch of a magazine left poking through a front door mail slot and suggesting the general disarray of the dweller’s mind.
Director Saks, in his second film effort (his first was another Simon play, Barefoot in the Park), has sustained marvelous wit from beginning to end and clearly improved on his work in Barefoot. Too often, however, his selection of angles on close-ups and group shots appears arbitrary and not a little static. And editing by Frank Bracht occasionally suffers from a lack of fluidity, making you aware of the editing when you shouldn’t be.
One problem, albeit minor and built into the play, occurs when Matthau requires an uncommonly long time to mix drinks in the kitchen in order that Lemmon can go through a solo tear-jerking session with the birds in the living room. And the search by the poker gang in Murray’s police car for the missing Lemmon near the end of the film is the one exterior sequence that appears gratuitous. The exterior in Shea Stadium, however, is a beaut — Matthau has to leave his post at the press box to take an “emergency” call from Lemmon. The call turns out to be only a report on plans for dinner, and Matthau misses a triple infield play behind his back. Matthau’s press box cronie, incidentally, was played by Heywood Hale Broun.
Matthau has brought to the screen intact his Tony award-winning performance in ’65 as sportswriter Oscar Madison — his subtle manipulation of lip and eye is not the least of his skills — and Lemmon has brought to the compulsively fuss-budget portrayal of Felix Ungar a freshness lacking in most of his recent films. Only occasionally has screenwriter Simon added new laughs to the stage script, and one good one is the time Matthau complains of having to live “with Mary Poppins 24 hours a day.” — Ray Loynd, originally published on April 30, 1968
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