Ah, the Mobius Strip That Is the Moral Path
I love that The Fortune Cookie is structured like a caper film. The adventure is about two guys trying to make big money out of a small accident: will they get the money? will they give up? will they get caught? It's comparatively small-time for a caper film -- no jewels or art to be stolen, but all is set to that trademark Billy Wilder dialog, unfolding through flawed, slightly unlikable characters, and that makes it big.
Jack Lemmon plays Harry Hinkle, a sports cameraman who is injured while covering a football game by one of the players, Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson (Ron Rich). While in the hospital, Hinkle's brother-in-law, "Whiplash Wille" Gingrich (Walter Matthau), convinces Harry to sue the football team for damages, defraud the insurance companies, and cash in with a huge settlement. The prospect of paying out half a million bucks to "Shyster Gingrich" (an oft-repeated phrase that makes me giggle every time) is too much for the insurance company, so they hire crack detective Chester Purkey (Wilder stable actor Cliff Osmond) to put Hinkle under surveillance in the hopes of discovering fraud.
The more lying Hinkle has to do, however, the less comfortable he becomes with the whole scheme. He's fine with using his injury to win back the affections of his crummy ex-wife, Sandy (Judi West), a pretty if unpleasant woman who is eager to get a piece of the action. But Harry is less happy about deceiving Boom-Boom, who feels so guilty for causing the injury that he's been taking time away from the team to take care of Harry, and in the process, is getting fined and benched for missing so much practice.
Boom-Boom is also beginning to drink, plays poorly on the field, and is getting into bar fights. On the evening Gingrich sews up a $200,000 settlement, Boom-Boom is arrested on a drunk and disorderly charge. Seeing how upset Hinkle is over the plight of his football player friend -- and in one last effort to prove fraud -- Purkey decides to pay the "invalid" a visit and do a little race-baiting to get a literal rise out of Harry.
It works. But it also all works out: Sandy is shown up to be the gold-digger she is, Gingrich makes lemonade out of the lemons that are the pieces of a torn-up settlement check, and Hinkle helps his friend get back on track.
No one is better than Walter Matthau at fast-talking shysterism. During the making of this film, Matthau had a heart attack and all production stopped while he recovered. During said recovery, Matthau lost 30 pounds and had to wear a heavy coat for the remainder of the shooting for continuity's sake. The Fortune Cookie was also the first time Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were teamed up in a film, and that turned out pretty well.
I feel sorriest for Lurene Tuttle, who plays Hinkle's mother in this film, because her dialog consists mostly of screams and sobs. She's very good at it, but it's a waste of some good potential mom acting.
The Fortune Cookie is a charming movie about the problems of cheating -- on your family, your friends, and the system. It's also ahead of its time in the treatment of friendship between a white guy and black guy without it being really about that. Refreshing and subtly revolutionary for a very racially charged time. But make sure you remember where you filed the DVD or you'll have to watch it streaming with Polish subtitles on YouTube.
This post is my (late) contribution to The Billy Wilder Blogathon, hosted by Outspoken & Freckled and Once Upon a Screen.
Please check out all the other bloggers who managed to get their entries in on time!