Jack Lemmon and Walther Matthau would work together 10 times over their storied careers, but maybe their most popular film is 1968's The Odd Couple.
Felix Ungar (Lemmon) and Oscar Madison (Matthau) are best friends, both men middle-aged and living in New York City. Felix is a compulsive -- possibly OCD -- neurotic cooking and cleaning machine, apparently unable to sit still for even a minute. Oscar is his polar opposite; sloppy, unreliable and more free-wheeling. But when Felix is kicked out of the family house and his wife wants a divorce, Oscar (a divorcee of 6 months) takes his best friend in. The friends could not be anymore different, and what starts off amiably enough quickly deteriorates. Who's going to budge first? Maybe the one who keeps his sanity the longest.
When I write multiple reviews of films featuring the same acting pairs, I feel like I'm on a broken record at times. Here goes anyways. This is the second pairing of Lemmon and Matthau following 1966's Fortune Cookie, and they pick up right where they left off. Just looking at the two men, from their acting styles to their general appearance, they were born to play the Odd Couple. They look and act like polar opposites, and that's what so perfect about this movie. It's a comedy, but you believe the two actors are really Felix and Oscar. Their back and forth appears effortless. Their dialogue and interactions are basically perfect. Don't try to fix what isn't broken.
From a Broadway play and screenplay by the almost always reliable Neil Simon and directed by Gene Saks, 'Odd' is what smart comedies should aspire to be. Is it the perfect comedy? I can't go that far, but it sure is close. The screenplay from Simon is a gem. The humor and laughs are never obvious either. They are so subtly underplayed to perfection that you just sit back and enjoy it. The focus is more on the verbal, not physical humor, but there of course is both. Matthau's Oscar's march around the apartment to upset Lemmon's Felix was hilarious; Matthau walking on furniture, throwing and dropping trash, wiping his shoe high up on a curtain. There are comedies that just get it. They know how to get a laugh and waste little time getting those laughs.
Setting almost the entire story in Oscar's expansive eight-room apartment (wonder what the rent was?), it's easy to see Simon's Broadway play having an impact on the filmmaking here. The style from Simon's screenplay and Sak's direction is an easy-going one. A 105-minute movie covers three weeks, but you never feel rushed. Several fairly long scenes get all the message and story across that's needed. The intro has the weekly poker game at Oscar's apartment with Murray (Herb Edelman), Roy (David Sheiner), Speed (Larry Haines) and Vinnie (John Fielder) is an ideal scene-setter. A quasi-double date with Felix, Oscar and two British sisters, Cecily (Monica Evans) and Gwendolyn (Carole Shelley), is perfect in its forced nature and awkward moments. These extended scenes -- easily seen in a play setting -- do a great job of showing a quick snippet of the time passed, but telling us everything we need to know.
I liked this movie a lot. The more I think about it -- and review it -- the more I like it. I love the style of these 1960s comedies. I loved the performances, and the laughs are there from beginning to end. From the instantly recognizable theme (listen HERE, I defy you not whistle along) to the effortless pairing of Lemmon and Matthau, this film is a winner. It would inspire a TV show of the same name as well, The Odd Couple, running for five years and starring Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar. I feel dumb for having missed this flick all these years, but I'm glad I caught up with it.
The Odd Couple <---trailer (1968): *** 1/2 /****