Billy Wilder’s best films are dominated by a cold, unforgiving eye for the more venal realities of American life. His movies comprise a cinematic hall of fame for some of the most wondrously ill-spirited pictures ever made. Here we will review about his 1996 movie The Fortune Cookie.
Jack Lemmon Plays TV Cameraman
Lovably schlubby Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is a CBS network cameraman who’s mildly hurt covering a Cleveland Browns game when a star player accidentally bulls into him along the sidelines.
Enter Harry’s greedy, ambulance-chasing brother-in-law, “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich. Walter Matthau took the supporting actor Oscar for Willie, the role that marked his first on-screen pairing with Lemmon.
Willie, the prototypical shyster lawyer, wants Harry to fake a much more serious injury in order to scam the insurance company for what he hopes is a million-dollar payday.
Matthau Enlists Lemmon’s Scheming Ex-Wife
But the only way Willie can convince Harry to go along is to conspire with Harry’s gorgeous, two-faced ex-wife Sandy (Judi West). She temporarily abandons her anonymous lover to return to Cleveland to con Harry, who’s still madly in love with her.
Wilder and longtime writing partner I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond divvied up the story into 16 “chapters,” each introduced with a title card. For example: “1. The Accident” opens the film and sets up the entire story; “3. The Caper” has Harry in a hospital bed, as Whiplash Willie tries to talk him into cooperating in the scam.
Ron Rich Plays Good-Natured Football Star
Rich plays the soft-hearted Cleveland Brown who crashes into Harry and soon befriends him. His character is among the film’s few genuinely decent people. Unfortunately, Rich’s performance as Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson is highly problematic. While “Boom Boom” is sympathetic and thoughtful, Rich’s interpretation is one-note and monotone. (The role did nothing for his career, and Rich quickly faded into obscurity.)
Boom Boom volunteers to take care of his newfound friend – cooking meals, helping with physical therapy, etc. Of course, the developing friendship between Harry and Boom Boom is built on a falsehood – Harry’s not really hurt. But their mutual respect and affection are real — and take the edge off the otherwise acidic screenplay.
The film is peppered with an all-star cast of character actors, including Les Tremayne, Lurene Tuttle as Harry’s mom and Cliff Osmond as a quirky private detective hired to unmask Harry as a fake.
Shot on location, the film is a snapshot of Cleveland in the mid-1960s – a city already past its prime and sliding rapidly into the disarray and decay that would culminate in municipal bankruptcy in 1978. It’s no coincidence Wilder chose to shoot in black and white, which suggests a noir-style bleakness in Cleveland and in Harry’s life that is perfectly suited to the lack of color on the screen.
In a way, the city of Cleveland itself is a metaphor for Harry, whose apartment is a grimy hole, his neighborhood blighted, his life empty since Sandy ran off to New York, hoping for a career as a singer.
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