“Race” never figured in the comedies, thrillers and dramas of the great Austrian-American filmmaker Billy Wilder. You can wade through his entire 50 year career and wonder why you never see a Black face.
The rest of his industry in his adoptive home found places to at least recognize American diversity, even in subservient roles — waiters, porters, entertainers, etc. Not Wilder. “Double Indemnity,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Some Like It Hot,” his films can feel “erased” if you look at them through that lens.
And it’s not like he deserves “credit” when he finally made race and Black characters a part of his comic universe in “The Fortune Cookie.” A movie that came out years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s like he was half-heartedly jumping on the bandwagon just as it was finally leaving town.
The film is celebrated as the first teaming of the great comic duo Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, for finally tapping into Matthau’s comic grump persona and winning him an Academy Award. Lemmon and Matthau would go on to team up in nine films, Lemmon would direct his pal in one and act in Matthau’s son’s “The Grass Harp” with him.
But here’s what I distinctly remember about first watching “The Fortune Cookie” on TV as a child. A CBS Sports TV cameraman (Lemmon) gets bowled over on the sidelines of a Cleveland Browns game. His shyster lawyer brother-in-law, “Whiplash Willie” (Matthau) talks him into faking debilitating injuries and suing.
And despite his best efforts, the dogged insurance company investigator Purkey (Cliff Osmond) can’t unmask the fakery, despite staking-out and bugging the injured man’s apartment.
The cameraman, Harry Hinkle, has a conscience, and he sees what this scam is doing to the unknowing footballer (Ron Rich) who fears he has paralyzed the victim for life. The only thing that gets Harry up out of that chair is his outrage when Purkey baits him by calling his new friend a “coon” with a “Cadillac.” Harry decks the racist.
It seems such an obvious “the least he could do” scripted action now, 57 years after “The Fortune Cookie” came out. But it was startling enough to stand out and inform the way the movie sits in the memory, at least for some of us.
As for Wilder, “the least he could do” after making a sizable portion of America invisible for his entire career was to cast Rich, in what would become his biggest role, cast the boxer Archie Moore as running back/kick returner Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson’s dad, and give Boom Boom a story arc and agency, making him a compelling victim at the heart of this “harmless” comic scam.
Watching now, I’m touched by Rich’s sensitive and athletic turn — Boom Boom loses his love for the game and crawls into a bottle thanks to this accident. A guilt-stricken star athlete finds himself turned into Harry’s Black nurse and manservant, and Harry sees it, too, and starts to feel shame for it.
And then you take in the narrow scope of Rich’s career and remember just how difficult it was just to get even a day gig on film or TV in an era which we celebrate for letting Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll break through.
I went into this re-viewing of “The Fortune Cookie” expecting to focus on The Making of Matthau, a mostly-dramatic actor who honked, bellowed and mugged his way into a persona that took over his career with this Oscar-winning turn.
Fast-talking “Whiplash Willie” has a dozen precedents to fling at the insurance company representing the Cleveland Browns, the NFL and Municipal Stadium. He gives everybody — wife, family, kids, nurses and Harry Hinkle the bum’s rush. He bulldozes them with his shtick, his certitude and his manic sales pitch.
“l don’t want my brother-in-law to be a nobody. I wanna see you in a fastback Mustang, Italian silk suits, a decent apartment, a go-go baby all the way!”
“Think of your mother. Think of your mother, Harry. Bronchitis every winter. She shouldn’t be in Cleveland. She should be in Florida, baking her chest!”
Lemmon’s twitchy, antic put-upon Everyman act got him through the ’50s (“Mister Roberts,” “Some Like It Hot,””The Apartment”). We see him aging into the Felix Unger of legend here, paired-up with the blowhard who’d become his perfect comic foil.
“Of course he’s upset. He’s a lawyer – he’s paid to be upset.”
Wilder and his longtime co-writer I.A.L. Diamond concocted a crooked caper that had roles for many a comic character actor, some of them (Sig Rumond as a “specialist” from “Vienna”) dating back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. William Christopher, billed as “Bill,” was years away from his role as the priest on TV’s “M*A*S*H,” when he played a young and insulted young internist here, and Howard McNear put down his “Andy Griffith Show” barber’s scissors to play another client of Whiplash Willie.
That gives the snarky, one-liner-laced script a hint of “screwball” about it.
They filmed this in black and white, which made mid-winter Cleveland even more “Cleveland,” and realistic. They scored something a lot harder to land for such “edgy” subject matter today, the full cooperation of the NFL. If you want to remember the glory that was Keith Jackson announcing a game in the booth, here he is in his salad days.
But beyond the monochromatic cinematography, there’s something faintly dispirited about it all, as if the movie — or at least the guy who made it — felt a little guilt about the “victimless crime” his movie is about, and a racist society’s victims he finally got around to acknowledging existed with this 1966 classic.
“The Fortune Cookie” still plays as funny. Not as funny as “One, Two, Three,” his grandest farce, or the more celebrated “Some Like It Hot.” Matthau makes it amusing. But there’s just a sliver of hope and the tiniest hint of “bittersweet” about it, something Wilder occasionally allowed into his screenplays.
The Old World filmmaker would basically slip into nostalgia after “The Fortune Cookie,” remaking “The Front Page,” setting a couple of his final films in Europe and becoming a Grand Old Man of the Cinema even before he hung it up. But just as in the beginning of his career, his latter years saw him never put another Black actor on screen again.
I wonder if Cameron Crowe, who idolized him and got to know him, ever asked him why that was?
Rating: “passed,” smoking, adult situations
Cast: Jack Lemmon Walter Matthau, Ron Rich, Judi West, Sig Rumond and Cliff Osmond.
Credits: Directed by Billy Wilder, scripted by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder. A United Artists release on Tubi, Youtube, Amazon, etc.
Running time: 2:05