Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Beginning of a Beautiful Partnership

Professor Winterhalter (Sig Ruman): All these newfangled machines. Fake! It proves nothing. In the old days, we used to do these things better. The man says he's paralyzed, we simply throw him in the snake pit. If he climbs out, then we know he's lying.

Specialist (Bartlett Robinson): And if he doesn't climb out?

Professor Winterhalter: Then we have lost a patient, but we have found an honest man.

I'm really fond of the Walter Matthau–Jack Lemmon movie partnership, and today is a milestone anniversary for that partnership. It began — officially — 50 years ago today when Billy Wilder's "The Fortune Cookie" premiered in New York City.

It actually began, of course, whenever the movie was being shot, but as far as the movie–going public was concerned, it began 50 years ago today.

Lemmon played a TV cameraman in Cleveland who was doing sideline work at a Cleveland Browns game on a frigid Sunday afternoon. One of the Browns (played by Ron Rich) ran out of bounds and collided with Lemmon, knocking him backwards over a rolled–up tarpaulin in full view of the folks at the game and watching on TV.

He was taken to the hospital, where his injuries were minor, but his conniving brother–in–law, an ambulance–chasing lawyer known as "Whiplash Willie" played by Matthau, cooked up a scheme to sue for big money.

Apparently Lemmon's character had suffered a compressed vertebra when he was a child, and Matthau observed that a new back injury was indistinguishable from an old one in X–rays. Matthau's plan was for Lemmon to fake paralysis to win the suit, then make a gradual recovery. Lemmon was resistant — until Matthau implied that it would be a good way to win back Lemmon's ex–wife, Sandy (Judi West) who had run out on him.

Matthau knew Lemmon was still carrying that torch. "You could carry it to Mexico City (site of the next Summer Olympics)," Matthau told him. And he was right. Lemmon's ex–wife was his Achilles' heel, and Matthau used it repeatedly to keep his brother–in–law in line and his plan from imploding.

Now, it imploded, anyway, and the discovery of how it imploded is the kind of movie experience that every viewer should have first hand. I don't want to spoil it for anyone.

But I will tell you that some of the funniest moments in the history of Matthau–Lemmon movies — and they weren't all comedies, but most of them were — occurred in "The Fortune Cookie."

Whiplash Willie must be one of the funniest characters ever to appear in one of Billy Wilder's movies — and that is certainly saying something. As one of the lawyers in the defendants' cadre of counselors described him, Willie was "so full of twists he starts to describe a doughnut, and it comes out a pretzel."

The defendants' lawyers wanted Lemmon to be examined by a team of specialists; all but one concluded the paralysis was genuine. With no medical evidence to contradict the claim, the lawyers hired a private detective (Cliff Osmond) to put Lemmon's apartment under surveillance in hopes of catching him doing something he couldn't possibly do if the paralysis story was true.

Matthau knew about this and warned Lemmon to be careful. That wasn't so hard until the ex–wife returned to look after him. Matthau told Lemmon to avoid any kind of hanky panky, which was a lot easier said than done.

Lemmon's conscience was bothering him. The player who had collided with him on the sideline was so ridden with guilt that it was ruining other aspects of his life. He performed poorly in a game and got into a fight in a bar. Lemmon battled with his inclination to give up the lawsuit and let the guy off the hook. At the very least, he wanted his brother–in–law to represent the player in court, but Matthau was too busy negotiating a settlement with the defendants in Lemmon's lawsuit.

Then Lemmon learned that the only reason his ex–wife was there was because she wanted a share of the money from the suit to put on a show at a prestigious club and give her singing career a boost.

And the jig was up.

Perhaps I have said too much already. But the ending alone was worth the price of admission.

Matthau won Best Supporting Actor for his performance. Wilder wasn't nominated for Best Director, but he shared a nomination for Best Original Screenplay with I.A.L. Diamond, a frequent collaborator.

There are all sorts of lists of movies that people should see before they die. I would put "The Fortune Cookie" on mine.