The Fortune Cookie (Wilder, 1966)

If you’re interested in reading about Source Code or Murmur of the Heart I’ve reviewed both of them here: soundonsight.org.

Is there anything more exciting than watching a Billy Wilder film that you’ve never seen before?  It’s like watching an unseen Hitchcock.  One of my favorite Billy Wilder quotes, which really puts him the old guard of directors is “why would you put the camera in the fireplace with the flames in the foreground?  Is it the POV of Santa Claus?”  Clearly, he was bemoaning the tendency of directors to use inflected and meaningless angles.  Good thing he didn’t have to see a Zack Snyder film.

While Wilder may have been unfair to a breed of director’s who were, in the 60s and 70s, challenging a classic aesthetic, his own visual flair is still relevant today.  The Fortune Cookie, while certainly not even close to one of his best, benefits immensely from his kinetic staging and his veteran eye.

If there’s one theme that runs consistently throughout Wilder’s films it’s greed.  Ace in the Hole, Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Witness for the Prosecution – it’s in all of them.  The Fortune Cookie maybe has its closest relative in Ace in the Hole where Kirk Douglas’ greedy newspaper man is echoed in Walter Matthau’s greedy lawyer, Whiplash Willie.  Where The Fortune Cookie fails is its comedy.  It really loses laughs about halfway through and the pace slows tremendously.

Here’s the plot: sideline camera-operator Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) suffers minor injuries during a game when he is bulldozed by star Cleveland Browns punt returner Boom Boom Jackson (Ron Rich).  Before Harry can walk himself out of the hospital, his brother-in-law Whiplash Willie is turning the wheels on a million dollar lawsuit.  Harry finds himself in a neck brace and a wheelchair, dodging private investigators, and confusedly navigating the advances (and motivations) of his ex-wife Sandy (Judi West).

The widescreen, 2.35:1 aspect ration really shines in here and Wilder makes great use of his long frame, staging hospital scenes where all involved frequently come in and out of the room, making for excellent foreground and background play.  One of the highlights of the film has the doctor reading Harry’s X-Rays.  Wilder masterfully looms Willie in the back of almost every shot, breathing down necks, looking over shoulders and generally conniving.  Keeping him in the frame constantly not only reminds us of the motivation, but foreshadows the doggedness which will he will pursue the case.

Wilder separates this film out into chapters, giving each its own heading (my personal favorite: “The Gemini Plan”).  Strangely enough, much of the comedy in the film comes from these titles – each is intentionally ambiguously and comically worded and the fun comes in discovering what the phrase means, and how it fits into the overall.

Aside from a slow second-act, the film features great turns from its supporting cast, including the opposing attorneys O’Brien, Thompson and Kincaid (Harry Holcombe, Les Tremayne and Lauren Gilbert).  There’s something very “Fortune Cookie” about the Coen Brothers’ Hudsucker Proxy – the absurd characters, the corporate atmosphere, the 20s fast-talk.  I’m sure this, and Wilder in general, has been a reference for them throughout their career.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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