Directed By: Billy Wilder
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ron Rich
Tag line: "Some people will do anything for $249,000.92"
Trivia: Several scenes were filmed at the Minnesota Vikings vs. Cleveland Browns game, held at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on the afternoon of Halloween 1965
Director Billy Wilder, who was responsible for some of the best motion pictures ever made, worked in a number of different genres throughout his career. After practically inventing film-noir with Double Indemnity, Wilder would go on to direct hard-hitting dramas (The Lost Weekend), lighthearted romances (Sabrina), a brilliant courtroom thriller (Witness for the Prosecution), a biopic (The Spirit of St. Louis), and a funny wartime flick that was also an intriguing mystery (Stalag 17). In addition, he helmed a number of great comedies, including The Seven-Year Itch, Some Like it Hot, and One Two Three. Of them all, though, the funniest is 1966’s The Fortune Cookie, a movie that features the first onscreen pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, who, after this film, would appear together nine more times (The Odd Couple being my personal favorite).
Harry Hinkle (Lemmon), an on-field cameraman for CBS Sports, ends up in the hospital when star football player Luther 'Boom Boom' Jackson (Ron Rich) accidentally bowls him over during a game. This near-calamity sparks the imagination of Harry’s brother-in-law, Willie Gingrich (Matthau), a lawyer who specializes in frivolous lawsuits. Sensing a huge cash settlement, Willie tries to convince Harry (who’s not really hurt) to fake a lower back injury. At first reluctant to go along with this scheme, Harry changes his tune when Willie convinces him that a huge payday might help him win back his ex-wife Sandy (Judi West), who Harry never stopped loving. But to pull this scam off, the two are going to have to outwit Purkey (Cliff Osmond), an investigator with the insurance company who’s convinced Harry is faking his injuries.
Along with its clever script (co-written by Wilder and I.A.L Diamond), The Fortune Cookie owes its success to the fine performances of its two stars. Lemmon’s Harry is something of a sad sack (a lonely guy who longs to reunite with his conniving ex), yet he’s also basically a good guy, and has second thoughts about faking his injury when he sees how guilty Boom Boom Jackson feels for having caused him so much pain. Lemmon has his share of funny moments (the scene where the insurance company is subjecting him to a round of tests is particularly good), but its Matthau’s fast-talking Willie who steals the show. The first time we meet him, Willie is in his office talking with Mr. Cimoli (Howard McNear), a prospective client. It seems poor Mr. Cimoli hurt himself when he slipped on a banana peel while walking out of a small neighborhood delicatessen. “Too bad it didn’t happen further down the street in front of the May Company. From them you can collect”, Willie tells a surprised Mr. Cimoli, adding “Couldn’t you have dragged yourself another twenty feet?” Willie is a cad throughout the entirety of The Fortune Cookie, and Matthau’s performance is so good that it won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
While his career after The Fortune Cookie was hit-and-miss (1974’s The Front Page and 1981’s Buddy Buddy, both of which also featured Matthau and Lemmon, were absolute duds), Wilder’s overall body of work is damned impressive, and its movies like The Fortune Cookie that have cemented his place in Hollywood history.