THE FORTUNE COOKIE was the fourth of seven collaborations between director-writer Billy Wilder and star Jack Lemmon, and the first of ten times Lemmon would appear in a film with Walter Matthau. Wilder would direct Matthau three more times (all with Lemmon) but this first-off was the one he helped guide Walter to an Oscar for, as Best Supporting Actor. The corrosive 1966 comedy also pulled Academy nominations for Story & Screenplay (Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond in his 7th of 12 working with the director), plus noms for Cinematography and Art Direction. Filmed at a cost of $3,705,000, it amassed an international gross of $6,800,000. Cogerson places it an also-ran 59th place for the year, while another ‘source‘ moves it up a full 35 notches to #24. Of such discrepancies are a reviewer-person’s headaches germinated. Most of you do not care, nor should you, with the main strain being “Can It With The Dough-Ray, Already: Is It Worth 125 minutes of My Time”?
If you’re a fan of the director or the two stars, the answer is ‘yes’ (qualified); if you are young enough (as in, most everyone now) to not know (or sadly, much care) who these old fogsters were, the answer could lean into the region the ancients dubbed “nether”.
TV cameraman ‘Harry Hinkle’ (Lemmon), filming a Cleveland Browns football game, is accidentally clobbered cold while capturing a play by ‘Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson’ (Ron Rich). Harry’s not badly hurt, but his king-of-shysters brother-in-law ‘William “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich’ (Matthau) smells blood-money in the astroturf. Harry knows Willie is full of it, but, in true p-whipped fashion, he so wants his ex-wife back, slut-foxy golddigger ‘Sandy’ (Judi West), that he goes along with Willie’s never-say-settle schemes. ‘Respectable’ corporate lawyers and a corporeal private eye go to work to try to catch Willie, whose shark instincts are as natural to him as those of a hammerhead. Harry is an idiot. Willie is a genius, the sort who should reside in the Senate. Trouble is, Boom Boom is a decent guy, and we know where
we/you/ those slobs end up.
Walter Matthau is really funny here, and there are some good bits from supporting players like Lurene Tuttle (as Lemmon’s hysterical mother) and old hand Sig Ruman in one of his last roles, as a suspicious Swiss medical professor. Judi West does a neat turn as Lemmon’s sultry, scheming wife. Twenty-three here, she only appeared in two other movies. The same was true of Ron Rich, whose shot in this film never generated more than a few paychecks.
Lemmon’s whining character isn’t appealing, and at over two hours, the basically sourball story runs into overtime, with a definite slump in the last quarter, gasping toward a limping finale. Matthau owns it: his Oscar and follow-up leads in the popular A Guide For The Married Man and big hit The Odd Couple turned him into a comedy star, after 16 years of mostly serious supporting roles. *
With Harry Holcombe, Les Tremayne, Archie Moore, Noam Pitlik, Ned Glass, Lauren Gilbert, Marge Redmond, Howard McNear, Herbie Faye and Ben Wright.
* The 46-year-old Matthau had a heart attack which suspended filming for six weeks. He looks different in some shots because during recovery he dropped 30 pounds.