Wilder & Lemmon Pull Off One More Scam

The Fortune Cookie (1966)

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie (1966)
United Artists

1. The Moment of Truth

You did it. Your con came off perfectly. There were suspicions, naturally. Some tense moments. You kept your nerve through it all. In the end, they couldn’t prove a thing. Maybe you didn’t feel great about the deception. The whole thing was really your obnoxious brother-in-law’s idea. But you shrugged off your aching conscience. You stuck with it. Now the money is all yours. More importantly, your ex is back, now that you’ve proven you’re not a loser. Everything you wanted is right there for you on a plate, if you’re strong enough to take it.

Or should that be weak enough to take it? 

2. The Unlikely Partners

 Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, and screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond made seven films together. The first two, of course, are unassailable consensus masterpieces. Some Like It Hot in 1959 and The Apartment in 1960 remain so funny and moving that not even their canonization can dent their charm. Embalm them on as many Watch This Because It’s Good For You lists as you want, their spark still refuses to be smothered. 

It was a case of complementary creative alchemy elevating everyone involved. Lemmon’s nervy, dogged American affability brought heart to Wilder and Diamond’s boot-leather-black Mitteleuropean cynicism. Born in an Austro-Hungarian Empire degenerating under the weight of its own sclerotic bureaucracy, Wilder hustled pool as a child, stole tips off of restaurant tables, and “learned many things about human nature, none of them favorable.” He managed to flee to America one step ahead of the Nazis, but not everyone in his family was so lucky.

Although Wilder had done brilliant comedy long before Lemmon came along, he’d never quite nailed a happy ending. They’d always felt like concessions, lacking the conviction of his biting satire. Thanks to Lemmon, the happy endings of Some Like It Hot and The Apartment are as earned and inevitable as the grim endings of 1944’s Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard in 1950. It feels like Wilder means what he’s saying, in no small part because Lemmon is his vehicle for saying it.

For his part, Lemmon had always shown the inherent good cheer of a privileged kid whose dad was an executive with the Doughnut Corporation of America (seriously). But that natural showmanship was never at risk of floating off into a wispy cloud of glib, fidgety vaudeville business. The roles of C.C. Baxter and Jerry/Daphne added some darker shades to his emotional palette, anchoring the clowning in moral struggle.

Thus Wilder and Diamond helped create “Jack Lemmon” as we’ve known him ever since. Even his darkest dramatic roles, from The Days of Wine and Roses to Glengarry Glen Ross, draw their power from that synthesis of light and shadow we first saw when Lemmon shimmied into that flapper costume.

3. The Kid

This is the Jack Lemmon who became one of my favorite actors almost from the time I was aware enough to have favorite actors. I was a working-class kid growing up in St. Louis in the ’80s and ’90s, a fading Rust Belt city hitting the bottom of the grim interregnum between white flight and hipster renaissance. My father was a car salesman and sometime bar-band musician whose own father was an abusive drunk. Growing up, my dad had always been the smallest kid in his neighborhood, and so he became the toughest scrapper, too. He was basically an artistic, curious person who’d been forced to fight his way through life with his fists, his willpower, and his cynical wit. While he and my mom shielded me from the roughest edges, I always had a sense that life was a brawl I wasn’t equipped for. The killer instinct didn’t come naturally to me. I never had the sense for the power play, for the smash-and-grab, for bending anyone to my will. I’m the only person in my family who is terrible at any kind of sales job. I knew I had to find some other angle, because I wasn’t going to be working any hustles on anybody.

I first saw Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple when I was 12 or 13, a time when my dad and I stayed up late a lot watching movies after everyone else had gone to bed. While my personal habits were as slobby as Walter Matthau’s Oscar Madison, it was Lemmon’s Felix Ungar who really made sense to me. His anxious struggle to maintain some order in a world of grime and spilled ashtrays, his shying away from a big night with the sexy sisters in the apartment upstairs, even his chronic sinus problems: Felix (and hence Jack) seemed like my kind of guy. He was doing his best, taking a kick here and a shove there from life, sometimes saying the wrong thing or letting an opportunity slip by, maintaining a dogged wit and a fundamental decency. He might get on your nerves, but he was constitutionally incapable of cutting your throat. It hit me right at a time when I was starting to understand that maybe there was a way through life that didn’t involve crushing my enemies (or, more likely, being crushed). 

Some Like It Hot and The Apartment confirmed for me what The Odd Couple had hinted at. In Wilder and Diamond’s hands, Jack Lemmon was an irresistible vehicle for the message I needed to hear: don’t give in, don’t degrade yourself—you don’t have to curbstomp your feelings and start throwing elbows to survive. Not only is there another way, it’s the better way. 

4. The Third Chapter

OK, that’s two movies. So far, so great. What about the other five? Surely a partnership so potent, that clicked so perfectly from the get-go, must have come up with at least a few minor gems, right?

Well. After The Apartment, teaming up Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine again seemed so surefire that MacLaine signed on for 1963’s Irma La Douce without seeing a script. She would regret it, out loud and in public. It was a huge hit, actually—Wilder’s biggest commercial success. It has its charms: the two leads, of course, and its candy-colored backlot Paris. It also turns on a reluctant scam. This time, Lemmon’s gendarme chases off MacLaine’s pimp, inadvertently taking over as her new pimp. But he’s too jealous to share her, so he puts on a fake eyepatch, beard, and upper-crust British accent, becoming her sole customer. 

Alas, it never quite clicks. Everything from its excessive length to its huge sets to its awkward casting (neither MacLaine nor Lemmon are ever remotely convincing as Parisians) gives off a whiff of something little and good taken too far and too big, like a big-budget sequel to a lovable indie film. The impact is blunted. At times, the mind wanders like it never does during The Apartment.

The Wilder-Diamond-Lemmon partnership would go on to yield a pleasant Italy-set travel farce in 1972’s Avanti!, stumble with an inessential remake of The Front Page in 1974, and fizzle out ingloriously in 1981 with Buddy Buddy, Wilder’s last film, about which, the less said, the better. As Wilder himself is quoted in Charlotte Chandler’s 2002 biography Nobody’s Perfect, if all his films were guests at a party, “Buddy Buddy I’d try to ignore.”

But in between, they put together a movie that, while not as brilliant as Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, stands up as the third chapter in a kind of trilogy. Like the first two, The Fortune Cookie in 1966 examines what happens when a fundamentally honest guy tests his moral fortitude when he’s pulled reluctantly into a con. Lemmon’s character wrestles with the same question in all three films: if everybody else is on the make, why should I be left out thanks to some stupid hangup over right and wrong?

The chemistry of Wilder’s bitter and Lemmon’s sweet is heightened by the on-screen pairing of the leading man with a thinly-veiled stand-in for Wilder himself. The ambulance-chasing courtroom pugilist “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich was written as a caricature of Wilder, a shameless, fast-talking reprobate without an idealistic bone in his body, forever working an angle. Their description of Willie in the script—”a brain full of razor blades and a heart full of chutzpah”—slyly quotes the actor William Holden, who had originally said it in reference to Wilder, according to the biography On Sunset Boulevard by Ed Sikov.

And Wilder and Diamond wrote Gingrich’s character with one actor in mind: Walter Matthau. The sardonic, congenitally rumpled New Yorker had appeared memorably in movies like A Face in the Crowd, Strangers When We Meet, and Charade, but it was his Oscar Madison in the 1965 Broadway production of The Odd Couple that made him a star. Wilder recognized in Matthau a fellow street hustler, the man Wilder would have been if he’d been born on the Lower East Side. His chemistry with Lemmon was a happy accident.

5. The Plot 

Fittingly, The Fortune Cookie opens with a misdirection. We see a packed Cleveland Stadium, home of the Browns, on gameday. Near-vérité shots of the TV production crew are spliced with actual game footage; the shots of the stands mingle the real crowd with Wilder’s crowd of 10,000 extras. It’s a rousing spectacle of mid-century sis-boom-bah football excitement.

But the bulk of this movie will take place in two cramped rooms. Despite all this coliseum-scale pageantry, the action in The Fortune Cookie is much more constrained than in either Some Like It Hot or The Apartment, let alone in Irma la Douce. Wilder and Diamond are working a bait-and-switch right from the beginning.

Harry (Lemmon) is a cameraman working the sidelines on a frigid Sunday afternoon. He wisecracks that the director should send down some coffee with “a little antifreeze in it,” delivered with a classic Lemmon jittery chuckle, then scampers off to follow the play on the field. That’s when Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson (Ron Rich) runs out of bounds and right into Harry, sending the hapless cameraman tumbling over a rolled-up tarp.

At first, Boom Boom is the only one who seems to notice the unconscious Harry. He’s distraught with guilt over clobbering the little guy. As the medical staff gathers around, the referee has to order the fretting Boom Boom back onto the field. He huddles up with the other Browns, but is distracted by the sound of the ambulance taking Harry away.

At the hospital, Harry’s brother-in-law Willie Gingrich (Matthau) paces the hallways, chain smoking, tipping his ashes into a drinking fountain. His kids ask for a dime for a charity box for unwed mothers. “Unwed mothers? I’m for that,” he smirks as he hands the coin over, then goes back to scheming how he can make this high-profile accident pay.

Between the howls and sobs of Harry’s mother, something catches his ear. Ma Hinkle tells a story of a childhood accident that left Harry with fused vertebrae. Willie’s found his angle. He fishes his dime back out of the charity box and calls the papers to announce his intention to sue the Cleveland Browns, CBS, and Cleveland Stadium for $1 million on behalf of his poor, dear brother-in-law.

The tour-de-force verbal struggle that ensues in Harry’s hospital room lays out the film’s conflict neatly, in rapid-fire jabs as sharp as anything else Wilder had done, so it’s worth describing in detail. No sooner has Harry blinked to groggy life than Willie is drilling him with the details of the scam they’re going to pull. Harry, having none of it, calls Willie a “cheap chiseling shyster lawyer” and looks for his pants. Willie tries to stoke populist fervor, ranting about insurance companies with so much money “they have to microfilm it.” Willie hides Harry’s clothes. Willie pleads with Harry to think of his poor sainted mother.

None of this works. “I’m not saying I’m any better than the next guy,” says Harry. “Maybe I add a few bucks to my expense account. But an out-and-out fake like this—” Willie interrupts to say that they have 83,000 eyewitnesses to the collision; it’s an open-and-shut case. Harry insists he’s leaving.

Then the phone rings. It’s Sandy (Judi West), Harry’s ex-wife, recently run off with a jazz musician, now calling from New York.  Willie answers, careful to control access to his walking goldmine. (He’s already turned away Boom Boom, flowers in hand.) “I have no wife,” barks Harry to Willie. “Tell her to drop dead.”

From our first look at Sandy, we know she’s the kind of trouble a nebbish like Harry is helpless to resist. Lounging at a messy kitchen table in some skimpy little sheer-and-ruffle thing, she’s haloed by silver cigarette smoke, flinty-eyed, bottle-blonde coif fetchingly tousled, the scent of prey in her nostrils. 

Then we see she’s not alone: a naked man sleeps in the next room, on a bed next to a drum kit. Her breathy, solicitous tone is half act, half caution to not wake her drummer boyfriend up. Later, in another cut to this be-bop love nest, the compulsive censor-baiter Wilder will show us the jazzman’s naked silhouette through a shower curtain.

Based on her performance here, it’s surprising how little Judi West went on to do. She’s a compellingly anachronistic presence, like a noir femme fatale played by an indie screen queen, kind of a platinum-blonde Catherine Keener. She also has the quality that many iconic stars share, of looking like a classic movie bombshell from some angles and arrestingly weird from others. Seems like Hollywood could have done more with her.

Anyway, Willie knows an ally when he hears one. He and Sandy do a dance of mutually unchallenged fake concern on the phone. Harry snatches the receiver to curse her for running out on him. She lets the mask slip a little and jabs back: “You’re too nice a person, and too kind. You should have run after me, and belted me a few, and dragged me back.”

Violent sexism aside, this is the question Harry will have to answer. Is he too nice to get what he wants? Is he doomed to be a nebbish? Or can he swallow his compunctions, club destiny over the head, and drag it back to his cave?

After the call, Willie immediately goes to work on that sore spot. “Play along with me, Harry, and you’ll get your wife back.” Harry’s yearning eyes belie his denials. By the time the doctor shows up, he’s all in, from stage groans to “seeing double” to smoking a cigarette with his pinky because his other fingers are numb. Willie’s eyes practically turn into spinning slot-machine reels. The scam is on.

6. The Angels and the Devils

Wilder and Diamond stack the opposition to make it easy to sympathize with Harry. The white-shoe lawyers representing Consolidated Insurance (the same company that C.C. Baxter worked for in The Apartment) are as crooked as Willie, but with more power. They hire sleazy private eye Chester Purkey (Cliff Osmond) and his assistant Max (Noam Pitlik) to dig through Harry’s past, bug his apartment, and film him through a telephoto lens. All they can come up with is that Harry once filed an insurance claim for a lost raincoat. The only doctor who’s skeptical of Harry’s injuries is an uber-Teutonic creep, played by Wilder repertory veteran Sig Ruman.

What’s a little insurance fraud against this murderer’s row of pompous grotesques? At best, Whiplash Willie is striking a blow for the little guy. At worst, it’s a victimless crime.

But there is a victim: Boom Boom. In most ways, he’s the most conventionally strong character in the story: a wealthy football star with a girlfriend in every NFL city, who can tote Harry and his wheelchair up a flight of stairs without breaking a sweat. But he’s also the only Black character in the movie and hence an outsider (even if racial stereotypes help reinforce his “strength”). Most of all, he’s vulnerable through his fundamental goodness. If he just didn’t care about the injury he caused, he’d be fine.

But Boom Boom is so distraught with guilt, he neglects everything else in his life to take care of Harry. After the action shifts from the hospital to Harry’s apartment, a cramped, fusty Midwestern cousin to C.C. Baxter’s antique-filled bachelor pad, Boom Boom spends his days there cooking, cleaning, coaching Harry through physical therapy—even, as the surveilling Max puts it, “carrying him to the toilet.” 

Some reviewers have found the character just too nice to ring true, or too bland to be interesting. They have a point. What is an NFL star doing waiting hand and foot on a guy he accidentally bumped into? He even misses practices and gets fined by Browns management. Isn’t this level of guilt out of all proportion to what was, after all, a pretty routine sideline mishap?

Boom Boom gets a chance to explain while he’s making Harry’s bed. It seems Boom Boom’s father was a boxer of some renown until he accidentally killed an opponent. The guilt ruined his boxing career and turned him into an alcoholic. He’s OK now, Boom Boom assures Harry; they own a bowling alley together. It’s a tidy bit of screenwriting business, this naturalistic revelation tucked into an extended sequence of the two men hanging out and becoming friends.

It’s also not quite enough to explain how guilt-riddled Boom Boom is. This is no doubt the weakest point in the script (well, along with Harry’s sexist complaints about Sandy’s cooking and intelligence). It’s a little too obvious that Wilder and Diamond needed a sunny yin to Willie and Sandy’s yang, a purely altruistic angel over Harry’s shoulder to balance the purely mercenary devils over the other. 

(Boom Boom gets an assist from another angel, that archetype of all-American rectitude, Abraham Lincoln. Right after Harry decides to go along with the scheme, Lincoln pops up on the hospital TV in an old biopic. Harry squirms as the TV Abe intones that “you can’t fool all the people all the time.” A few minutes later, that maxim pops up again inside the fortune cookie that gives the movie its title. Willie’s verdict: “Great president. Lousy lawyer.”) 

But Boom Boom’s naivety stretches your suspension of disbelief.  When he picks Sandy up at the airport, he agonizes on the drive about knocking Harry over “for a lousy extra 5 yards.” She answers in classic cold-blooded Wilder style: “I wouldn’t brood about it. I mean, everybody tries for that extra 5 yards, and, well, sometimes people get in our way.” He squirms in the driver’s seat, disturbed.

It gets worse when Boom Boom brightly tells Sandy how Harry doesn’t care about the money from the lawsuit, only about seeing her again. Her response: “That’s just like him, sweet, impractical Harry. If he had his way, nobody would get anything out of this.” Again, he’s shocked at such a cold calculation, even though he’s a professional athlete who might be expected to have run into a few gold-diggers and hangers-on. Granted, sports stars didn’t make as much money back then, but come on. 

The longer the movie’s lone Black character seems like a simple, good-hearted servant of its white protagonist, the more you wonder if this guy is just a swinging 1966 update of an old racial stereotype.

But it turns out Boom Boom, the son of a failed alcoholic, is no fool. He knows there’s darkness out there. His niceness is a choice, as we finally see when he shows he’s also capable of choosing not to be nice.  

Disturbed by the sense that Sandy and Willie are playing Harry, he sits stewing at the bar in the aforementioned father-son bowling alley. His dad, who knows too well where this will lead, refuses him another round. The frustrated Boom Boom makes some cutting remarks at a couple of barflies who are getting on his nerves. It gets physical when the guy insults his manhood: “Real tough cat, ain’t he? Except on that football field. Didn’t look so tough against the Giants last Sunday.” The ensuing brawl is a cramped, desperate affair, all sweat and screams; Wilder wisely resists turning it into an uproarious romp. 

What a relief to see some signs of life in this holy bore of a character. It was probably a relief for Ron Rich, too, to finally get to do something other than furrow his brow and wash Harry’s dishes. But as with Harry’s misguided attempts to “be a man” in this movie, the fight is a dead end. Boom Boom lands in jail, and gets suspended from the team.

7. The Sock in the Jaw

Harry’s sensitive manhood is always the pressure point that the grasping thumbs of Willie and Sandy push on whenever he wavers. “You want to know why you lost your wife?” Willie barks at one point. “Because you’ve got no character, no guts. I’m surprised it didn’t show up in the X-rays.” It works, right up until the end.

When Harry finally does follow his better angels, it takes the form of that timeless symbol of forthright assertion: a sock in the jaw. On the eve of a triumphant settlement with the insurance company, the private eye Purkey shows up to collect his bugs. He makes some racist remarks about Boom Boom and Harry takes the bait. He jumps out of his wheelchair and punches Purkey, all while Max films from across the street, proving that Harry’s not really injured after all. The whole thing was a set-up.

Willie and Sandy both immediately turn on Harry for asserting himself, especially in defense of someone else. “I should’ve tipped off the insurance company,” Sandy snarls. “They would’ve given me $20,000!”

But wait. Max didn’t get the evidence. The film’s too dark. Willie and Sandy hustle Harry back into the wheelchair, but it’s too late. Harry’s seen them for what they are. He asks Purkey if he wants another take, shouts some lighting tips to Max across the way, and re-enacts the punch, throwing in some curtain-rod calisthenics for good measure.

The film’s last scene is a negative of the first. Instead of a high-stakes collision between two strangers before a roaring crowd, two friends struggle with a small, personal conflict in an empty stadium. Now Harry is the guilty one seeking absolution.

Harry finds Boom Boom brooding on the darkened field, his bags packed for nowhere in particular. Harry admits he’s a phony and asks for his medicine: “go ahead, belt me.” Boom Boom shrugs and muses about becoming a wrestler named the “Dark Angel” before slouching off to find a drink.

But just as he’s about to walk out of the stadium and the game, Harry punts a football to Boom Boom (punt returns, after all, were his specialty). Boom Boom plays along, running downfield toward Harry, and once again knocking him over and apparently unconscious. That familiar agony wrenches Boom Boom’s face before Harry reveals that this time, it’s a joke. Harry replays the big scam as a few seconds of deception played for laughs between friends. The film ends with the two men tossing the ball around like boys.

That this qualifies as a happy ending says something about Wilder’s moral universe. Harry’s left without the money or his wife. He’s just wasted weeks of his life on a dubious scheme that’s come to nothing. Boom Boom’s future is also uncertain. Wilder and Diamond ultimately don’t disagree with Willie and Sandy. Niceness better be its own reward, because it won’t get you anything else. Harry Hinkle has discovered the strength to be satisfied with that. 

8. The Lowdown

So is The Fortune Cookie as profound, as elegantly built, as good as Some Like It Hot and The Apartment? Well, no.

Sandy and Boom Boom are too one-dimensional, too easy to take sides against or for. Also, aficionados of Wilder’s exquisitely composed shots will feel a little undernourished here. Wilder does his best to liven up the long sequences in the hospital room and the apartment, including lots of deft wheelchair moves by Lemmon, but it can feel a touch claustrophobic. The first time I saw it, I assumed it must have been adapted from a stage play. 

Worse, too many of Harry’s complaints about Sandy are pure male-chauvinist-piggery, attacking her housekeeping, her vanity, and her intelligence. And his final kiss-off to her is pretty hard to take today: while she crawls around looking for a contact lens, he puts his foot on her rump and gives her a shove, sending her sprawling across the carpet. There’s definitely some of-its-time sexist stuff to squirm through, maybe enough to spoil the fun for some people.

But if this movie isn’t as powerful as those two earlier masterpieces, it’s not as far off as its relative obscurity would imply. The whole running time is packed to the frame with choice bits of Wilder funny business. The verbal jousting between Lemmon and Matthau is sharper and funnier than in any of their other films with or without Wilder, The Odd Couple included. The development of the relationship between Harry and Boom Boom has a relaxed warmth rare in Wilder’s work, and in cinematic examinations of male friendship at the time.

The Fortune Cookie meditates on the nature of strength and weakness in a more focused way than either of those films, and comes close to matching their laughs. And in a time when the nakedly corrupt rule the commanding heights, it might have more to say about preserving your humanity in the face of temptation. 

I’ve never lost that sense that life in late-capitalist America belongs to the cut-throats and the con-men: the Mafia killers of Some Like It Hot; the smarmy, soulless, entitled executives of The Apartment; the crooked lawyers of The Fortune Cookie. But Wilder, Lemmon, and Diamond suggest that in going along with the swindle, you only end up swindling yourself. True or not, that kind of belief helped pull me out of the grim trap that I’d seen as my only viable future. It might be what pulls us out of the trap we’re in now.