Wilder: The Fortune Cookie (1966) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Wilder: The Fortune Cookie (1966)

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A cameraman (Jack Lemmon) is knocked over during a football game. His brother-in-law (Walter Matthau) is the king of the ambulance chasing lawyers starts a suit while he's still knocked out. The cameraman is against it until he hears that his ex-wife (Judi West) will be coming to see him. He pretends to be injured to get her back, but also sees what the strain is doing to the football player (Ron Rich) who injured him.

The Fortune Cookie 1966Ryan COMMENTARY w/ Rating
One of the greatest screen pairs in the history of film is Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and it all starts here at The Fortune Cookie. Before I was a big film fan I saw these two in Grumpy Old Men and loved them together and it wasn't until I got older that I saw some of their earlier team ups like The Odd Couple and this film we are talking about. I think that the two actors have such wonderful chemistry together that they were good even in the films were complete dogs like Out To Sea. I have said it a few times but it bares repeating that if Wilder would have gotten his way with casting Matthau in Seven Year Itch the movie would have been significantly better.

With the Fortune Cookie the pair (especially Matthau) makes a decent film into a very entertaining one. Matthau won an Academy Award for playing Willie "Whiplash" Gingrich and deservedly so because his future "Matthau-ness" was in full effect in this film. The dichotomy between the two here will be used repeatedly in the future with Matthau being the schemer and funny one and Lemmon playing the put upon straight man so well.

I have not said much about the plot of the film and that is because the main draw is seeing the Lemmon and Matthau show and Wilder smartly sees the chemistry and lets them do their thing. Yet there are three questions I want to ask you about this film.

1. I noticed there are a lot of shots of Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) looking in mirrors or having his reflection noticeably in shots. Much like the compact in The Apartment these shots are really underlying the internal strife of the main character. Do you think the symbolism was a little heavy in this film or did you barely notice it?

2. After Kiss Me Stupid snubbed its nose at women's lib, we now have Wilder's next film has three main female characters that are money grubbing ex-wives, wet blanket sisters and nosy mothers. We even have a scene where the ex-wife is crawling on all fours in front of Hinkle who then kicks her in the ass. Where did this awful streak for women in his films come from?

3. What do you think of the first African-American actor to have a main role in a Wilder film? Wasn't it a bit of fresh air that his role had nothing to do with his ethnicity and it is never brought up?

I expect answers to these three questions in a 2 page paper in MLS style and please cite your sources.
Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Sorry, buddy, I only write in APA.

The chemistry between Matthau and Lemmon is dynamite. One's grouchy, the other chirpy. One scheming, the other stewing. Wilder would return to the pair twice more after this movie, and it's easy to understand why.

Most of the rest of the movie feels like a flop. It's not that it's not funny, but outside of the scenes at the football stadium, so much of it feels like a three camera sitcom. It's self contained, but any visual wit Wilder once had has died out by now. It's a television show.

The thing I find the funniest about Fortune Cookie is just a weird note. In Wilder's filmography, after Indemnity, Apartment, Ace in the Hole, Five Graves, and probably more, this is the first movie where the insurance company isn't the bad guy. I guess everyone can agree that lawyers are just that much worse.

To hit your points:

1) I think most of the film's reflection back on the Hinkle character is kind of hammy (the titular fortune cookie refers to an Abe Lincoln speech given but a few minutes earlier) (also, how boring must that film about Lincoln have been? It looked like it was only that speech).

2) I think the 60's were a tough time for the male establishment (rightfully, I should add), as it was generally encouraged to treat women interchangeably and with little regard.

3) The Fortune Cookie is essentially about two good men who have to overcome their doubts inspired by a bevvy of horrible people. They are tested and tried, and finally true love overcomes all. It's nice that Wilder doesn't make Boom Boom a Sidney Poitier type; while a bit Pollyanna at the beginning, his loss of faith in humanity is understandable as he watches the generally good Hinkle get taken further and further in.

You're incorrect that Boom Boom's race is never mentioned, since the private eye brilliantly uses a racial epitaph to finally get Hinkel to give up his phony story. But that also speaks to the bond to the two men, that the wrongness of that statement is what pushes Hinkel over the edge. He realizes that Boom Boom is a human being and deeply cares about him more than the other people in the room who he's trusted this whole time. That is what finally pushes him into being a mensch this time around.

Which leads me to my question to you, Ryan: Boom Boom and Hinkel's relationship. Both have lost their interest in women by the time the movie is over. They become little kids, playing football and having fun. Boom Boom gets in a fight when he's feeling jealous, and Hinkel stands up for him in the same way. Is this the first homosexual black man/white man romance created for mass public consumption?

FortuneCookie5Ryan COMMENTARY w/o Rating
I don't think it is homosexual relationship but if I missed that underlying current good for Wilder for being 40 years ahead of the curve. I think of the 3 main guys relationships as a precursor to the boys hanging out comedy genre that has become big in the last decade or so. We have movies like Old School, The Hangover, and 40 Year Old Virgin where the movie celebrates the stupid stuff guys do when they are together and women are a very small subplot of the film or not in at all. Maybe it was because Matthau/Lemmon were the original buddy pair but I feel The Fortune Cookie is more interested in "boys being boys" than any other agenda.

I am curious what you would think about this since I am a much bigger sports fan than you but I don't think you could remake this film today with the same characters. Sure Whiplash could be the same and Hinkle could be the same man but we have seen too many occasions of what real athletes are like to believe in someone as sweet and earnest as Boom Boom. We have had football players threaten to beat up a co-worker after the football player caused a car accident, run over a meter maid without a second thought and many athletes burn the earth just to get their way. I think it would be hard to believe a famous athlete would be as concerned as he was in this film.

This also brings up the fact that although he is awful to his women characters in this film, The Fortune Cookie also brings out Wilder's optimistic side that he tries to conceal so much. Boom Boom is a good guy and generally cares about Hinkle and not just because of the lawsuit. Hinkle is going along with the lawsuit not because he wants to or even feels comfortable with it but because he hopes it will get the love of his life back. Whiplash himself is doing it for the very good reason of really wanting a Mustang. I can emphasize with all three of these plights and it shows Wilder isn't as much of a bitter man because he ends the film with the characters doing the right thing and everyone is forgiven. Shoot, the good natured streak in this film is so deep the way the hoax is proven is by the PI playing with the humanity of Hinkle.

You said the movie felt like a TV show, is part of the reason because of this everyone learned their lesson type ending or was it something else?

The TV show feeling emerges more from the look of the film. It's kind of a chintzy black and white production, where it looks and feels flat and bland. And while that may be appropriate for a movie made in the city of Cleveland, it gives everything a very straightforward feeling. The chapter breaks also add to this, putting another artifice between the audience and the story, with no good reason that I can figure out.
I can see what you're saying about bad boys, Ryan, though Ocean's 11 with the Rat Pack going gonzo on Vegas was nearly a decade old at this point. It's got a lot of bristle under it, but I'd say there's a lot more of The Apartment built into movies like The Hangover that we'd like to admit, to the 'friends' all obsessed with bedding dumb girls to the schmuck and his one true crush.

For what you're saying about how this movie is a product of its times, I will admit that I almost did a spit take when Boom-Boom mentioned that three more years of pro football may be enough to pay off a bowling alley. When you see the place later on, it sure is nice, but I'm sure even the worst punter in the league right now isn't sweating out purchasing one of those. And while there are certainly a bevvy of bad apples in professional sports (where the headlines you make will translate to the dollar signs you can draw on the field), I can still believe that there's someone as sweet as Boom-Boom working the straights. I can see why modern audiences would find that hard to swallow, but I think there's an eternal hope in mankind for the arrival of an innocent soul.

While you say it's optimistic, I think that Fortune Cookie is a nice dose of cynicism, and while it's not as nasty as Wilder could be, it was about as unflinching. It's about how one man with dollar signs in his eyes can almost destroy people, and how, at the end, that man doesn't learn a lick of a lesson. I'm puzzled by you saying that Whiplash got anything out of this other than the fact that his Mustang will be repossessed, because his final scene has him dictating about how he's going to go after the people who proved that he was trying to swindle them; it's not a hearty concession that maybe being a swindler is a bad life, but an escalation of greed.

As long as you can fool all of the people some of the time or some of the people all of the time, Whiplash is in business. And while people like Boom Boom and Hinkle can get past that temptation with friendship and understanding, not everyone can.

We've danced around feminism a bit in these last few reviews, so here it is a bit more direct: what do you think of Sally Hinkle?

FortuneCookie3Ryan COMMENTARY w/o Rating
I kind of like Whiplash because he really doesn't learn anything, it gives him a little bit of a sleazy side but with Matthau behind the character he is still the cuddliest sleazeball around. Sure he got his Mustang taken away but it is better to love and lost and all of that good stuff. I am kicking myself that I missed the Rat Pack comparison but it does make sense.

Like I mentioned earlier in the review, it is kind of jarring how awful a person that Wilder makes Sally in this film. She was a gold digging, awful bitch of a person that it is unpleasant when she is around. I still don't understand how we can go from the woman nobly sacrificing herself in Wilder's early Five Graves to Cario to this. The movie, much like Kiss Me Stupid seems to revel in the moments where men can lord over women and make them seem smaller.

Was this Wilder as an older man striking back at women's lib? He seemed to be forward thinking in a lot of instances but women seem to be getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop in the last few films. The man who knew the power a woman could have with just a well placed anklet should have been on the forefront of this women's lib boom instead of being way in the back. I think this shows Wilder is slipping more than all the other things we have mentioned these last few weeks.

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Next time: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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