Synopsis by Hal Erickson
The British title of Billy Wilder’s classic comedy was Meet Whiplash Willie — for, despite Jack Lemmon’s star billing, the movie’s driving force is Oscar-winning Walter Matthau as gloriously underhanded lawyer “Whiplash” Willie Gingrich. CBS cameraman Harry Hinkle (Lemmon) is injured when he is accidentally bulldozed by football player Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson (Ron Rich) during a Cleveland Browns game. Willie, Harry’s brother-in-law, foresees an insurance-settlement bonanza, and he convinces Harry to pretend to be incapacitated by the accident. To insure his client’s cooperation, Willie arranges for Harry’s covetous ex-wife Sandy (Judi West) to feign a rekindling of their romance. Harry’s conscience is plagued by the solicitous behavior of Boom Boom, who is so devastated at causing Harry’s injury that he insists on waiting on the “cripple” hand and foot. Meanwhile, dishevelled private eye Purkey (Cliff Osmond) keeps Harry under constant surveillance, hoping to catch him moving around so the insurance company can avoid shelling out a fortune. Wilder and usual co-writer I.A.L. Diamond were at their most jaundiced and cynical here, even if, after a sardonic semiclimax, the last ten minutes succumb to the sentimentality that often marred Wilder’s later movies.
Notable for contriving the first — and one of the best — pairings of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, this acerbic, late-career Billy Wilder gem marries his penchant for hand-wringing morality plays with a dark, melancholy tone reminiscent of his glum masterpiece The Apartment, made six years earlier.
The Fortune Cookie actually benefits from having a villain not quite as insidious as Fred MacMurray’s J.D. Sheldrake: Matthau’s affable shyster Willie Gingrich.
Despite his unrepentant opportunism, Gingrich serves as a benevolent life force: If not for his less-than-airtight scam, Lemmon’s Harry Hinckle would never be forced to own up to the havoc that only a meek wallflower like himself could create — almost by default. The supporting cast is no less splendid, with the under-worked Judi West making a sly turn as the alternately world-weary and kittenish ex-wife who sees Hinckle as a renewed meal ticket, and the subdued Ron Rich as the impossibly selfless football star whose generosity almost does him in — financially as well as professionally. Wilder’s career was made up of films that heartbreakingly detailed the intersection of guilt and guile, and, in its own unassuming way, The Fortune Cookie is no exception. ~ Michael Hastings, All Movie Guide
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