The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Fortune Cookie

Ever been sued? No? Let me tell you. It ain't fun, mostly because you'll no doubt have trouble shaking the suspicion that the sue-es (Not you) are trying to stick it to you. Okay, that was my issue. So how about a 1960s comedy about such a suing scam? Well, if you're going to do it right, then let's do it. Enter 1966's The Fortune Cookie.

Working as an on-field camera man for CBS Sports, Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is knocked out on the sidelines when Cleveland Browns star Luther 'Boom Boom' Jackson (Ron Rich) crashes into him. Harry is diagnosed with a concussion, but nothing too serious.....until his shyster lawyer of a brother-in-law, Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau) steps in. Nicknamed Whiplash Willie, he finds out Harry had a childhood injury that resulted in a compressed vertebrae in his back. Who or what's to say the injury wasn't sustained during the on-field accident? Convincing Harry to go along with the scheme (pretending to be paralyzed in one leg, partially in his hands), Willie puts it into action. They're going to sue the Browns, their stadium, and CBS for $1 million bucks. Can they keep up the act?

If that's not a spot-on, ideal description of a really funny movie, I don't know what is. I'm joking of course. Nothing about that even remotely screams 'THIS IS FUNNY! COME WATCH!' So how does it become funny? A director by the name of Billy Wilder, who had a few successful movies during his career.  Teaming with I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder's script is pretty perfect, taking an extremely dark situation and breathing some comedic life into it. This isn't obvious physical humor. It's much more subtle although come to think of it, Lemmon does have a great scene late with some physical comedy. It's about the style, the dialogue, the story that knows where it's going and isn't in a huge rush to get there.

Like so many other genres of the 1960s, there is a certain charm to this movie. Wilder's confident style comes through in one criminally simplistic but incredibly unique storytelling device. Scenes are introduced via on-screen title cards/written words like 'Chapter 1: The Accident' and 'Chapter 4: The Legal Eagles.' There are 16 in all, wrapping up with 'Chapter 16: The Final Score.' Scenes fade to black and then fade back, the chapter titles introducing what's next. It's an effective technique for sure. Wilder also shoots in black and white and in Panavision, giving the film more depth with each passing scene. Some Cleveland locations include Municipal Stadium and St. Vincent Hospital, little touches that go a long way.

In the first of 10 pairings between the duo, Lemmon and Matthau show off an easy-going, effortless chemistry that carries the movie. Is it always laugh out loud hilarious? No, but when it's funny, it's because of these two. Lemmon is one of the all-time comedic greats, but this was one of Matthau's first comedies after years of drama and heavies. His line deliveries are hard to describe in their perfection, that deep voice going high-pitched and happy to the point it's even sing-songy. I loved their scenes together, both Lemmon and Matthau (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) arguing like an old married couple. In one of his three career movies, Rich is a bright spot too as Boom Boom, the star NFL player who feels the guilt for "hurting" Harry. Also look for Judi West as Harry's gold-digging ex-wife, Cliff Osmond as Purkey, a private investigator (working with whiny Noam Pitlik), and Harry Holcombe, Les Tremayne, and Lauren Gilbert as O'Brien, Thompson and Kincaid, the powerful lawyers working against Whiplash Willie.

What I like most about so many Wilder films from the 1950s and 1960s is that while they are funny, they don't try to be too funny. It's human drama with touches of humor -- typically smart and/or underplayed -- that brighten up some pretty dark stories. Amidst all the scheming and insurance fraud, a surprising relationship develops between Harry and Luther. The football star feels extreme guilt for what he thinks he did, not realizing it's all a fake on Harry's part. Similarly, the scam starts to weigh on Harry's mind, leading to a satisfying ending for all involved. Yet another solid effort from Billy Wilder, and a good sign of things to come for the partnership of Lemmon and Mattau. Also worth mentioning? This is the earliest movie I can remember that has a woman character called 'a bitch.' So it's got that going for it.

The Fortune Cookie <---trailer (1966): ***/****

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