Billy Wilder’s “The Fortune Cookie” (1966)

Academy Award wins: Best Supporting Actor

In 1966, the venerated director Billy Wilder celebrated his 60th birthday.  He had already accomplished so much in his six decades of life, yet he showed no signs of slipping quietly into retirement anytime soon.  The pace of his output was beginning to slow, of course, but his dance card was as full as it had ever been.  The clout afforded him by the success of his landmark classics was enough to weather the occasional box office bomb unscathed, but the distasteful reception of 1964’s KISS ME, STUPID seemed to suggest that maybe Wilder’s grasp on the cultural zeitgeist was finally starting to slip.  His next effort, THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1966) would provide a brief respite from his sagging decline, but more importantly, would establish the foundations for one of the most wildly successful comedic partnerships in all of cinema– Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.  

Whereas Wilder typically drew inspiration from plays or books, THE FORTUNE COOKIE was inspired by a real-life event Wilder directly observed.  During a football game, one of the players accidentally collided with a cameraman, sending him tumbling head over foot.  This was enough to get Wilder thinking about the comic potential of such an event if it were the inciting event of a film, and so he enlisted the help of his late-career writing partner I.A.L. Diamond to flesh out the idea into a full-fledged feature.  Unlike other Wilder narratives, which set the action in glamorous locales like LA, New York, Berlin, or Paris, THE FORTUNE COOKIE is set in rust-belt Cleveland, Ohio.  A series of intertitles divide the action into several separate chapters, the first of which finds CBS cameraman Harry Hinkle (frequent Wilder leading man Jack Lemmon) getting caught in the path of football player Boom Boom Jackson’s (Ron Rich) full-speed charge and earning himself some unexpected sick leave.  Hinkle belongs firmly to that particular archetype that Lemmon made a career out of playing: the virtuous everyman whose honesty and decency makes him something of a pushover.  He’s a figure to be pitied, not admired; his “live and let live” attitude has cost him his marriage and multiple opportunities to better his station.  

This injury finally offers a chance to cash in with a hefty lawsuit, and Harry’s brother-in-law, Willie Gingrich, (Walter Matthau) won’t let this particular ship sail by.  Gingrich is a lawyer by trade, and a particularly conniving one at that– almost immediately, he concocts a scheme to sue the insurance company into oblivion.  Naturally, the successful execution of this scheme requires Harry to do the one thing he cannot do: pretend that the extent of his injuries are far worse than they actually are.  Wilder had wanted to work with Matthau since 1955’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (where he had been the director’s first choice), and his longstanding desire to collaborate with the curmudgeonly actor pays off with an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor, in addition to establishing a comedic partnership between Matthau and Lemmon that would be reprised eleven other times– a handful of which were under Wilder’s stewardship.  Lemmon and Matthau’s complementary comic chemistry here is supported by cast members Judi West, Cliff Osmond, and Ron Rich.  West plays Sandy, Harry’s ex-wife and an opportunistic narcissist who only wants back in this life because he might become rich.  Osmond, who also appeared in KISS ME, STUPID, plays the mustached Purkey, a private investigator who’s spying on Harry’s recovery for the opposing law firm.  Rich plays Boom Boom Jackson, the football player responsible for Harry’s injury and his subsequent volunteer caretaker.

THE FORTUNE COOKIE’s cinematography, captured by returning director of photography Joseph LaShelle, is consistent with Wilder’s established aesthetic.  While color film was well on the road to ubiquity in the mid-60’s, Wilder seems to prefer the CinemaScope canvas of black-and-white 35mm film.  The polished lighting and classical camerawork is indicative of Wilder’s artistic forging during the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking– an era that was quickly falling out of fashion in the 60’s, challenged by a new generation of directors who were eager to upend long-held traditions about cinematic grammar, technique, and style.  However, THE FORTUNE COOKIE finds Wilder somewhat conceding to this new era by covering the opening football footage in the handheld documentary style.  His predilection for minimal coverage continues, using deep focus and wide compositions to pack the most possible action and story into each setup.  The visual consistency of THE FORTUNE COOKIE is reinforced by returning technical collaborators like associate producer Doane Harrison, editor Daniel Mandell, and composer Andre Previn, whose jazzy orchestral score is complemented by jaunty stadium band marches and a wispy rendition of the jazz standard “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”.

THE FORTUNE COOKIE is an archetypical work in Wilder’s canon, providing further examples of his creative hallmarks as an artist.  His signature acid-tipped wit is wielded with reckless abandon, making for several clever and misanthropic turns-of-phrase that keep the jokes coming like bursts of machine gun fire.  He’s clearly making use of his newfound freedom as a director of provocative subject matter during an increasingly-permissive era.  While THE FORTUNE COOKIE isn’t as overtly sexual as KISS ME, STUPID, Wilder still heavily implies a night of passion between Lemmon and his ex-wife, as well as subverts the camera’s traditionally-male gaze during one scene in particular by placing a surprisingly-revealing silhouette of a nude man showering in the background.  While many other films made during the height of segregation tended to stay strictly within the mainstream white / Anglo-Saxon perspective, Wilder boldly includes a scene with Boom Boom Jackson visiting a blacks-only bowling alley.  It’s a jarring scene to watch now, especially since there aren’t many other examples of similar scenes in films from the era.  By including a perspective that was mostly ignored by mainstream American cinema of the time, Wilder reinforces his artistic bonafides as a socially-progressive chronicler of the wider human experience.

The film also boasts Wilder’s key thematic fascinations– the iconography of uniform, personal identity as shaped by one’s profession, and class conflict.  For most of the characters in the film, their wardrobe is a function of their profession; the various nurses, doctors, and football players required by the story are easily identified via their individual uniforms.  Even the old-money lawyers from the opposing legal team dress alike in dark, expensive suits while they gather in a mahogany-paneled office with vaulted ceilings and paintings of old men in white wigs on the wall.  This stuffy, elite image stands in sharp contrast to Matthau’s office, the haphazard disorganization of which implies a scruffier, scrappier operation.  His conniving crookedness is a defining character trait, and echoes how mass entertainment frequently depicts lawyers: bent, shameless, litigious, and self-advantageous.  His intimate familiarity with the letter of the law (and thereby the loopholes implied within) informs his moral value set.  Meanwhile, Lemmon’s work injury leaves him unable to even do his job, which causes his own moral anchor to cast adrift and leave him vulnerable to the temptation that drives the plot.

Despite some production trouble (Matthau suffered a heart attack that shut down the shoot for several weeks), THE FORTUNE COOKIE was received with a modest success more befitting of a director of Wilder’s stature.  Most of the praise centered around the crackerjack chemistry between Lemmon and Matthau, which made for an endlessly entertaining comic partnership.  An objectively better film than KISS ME, STUPID in virtually every respect, THE FORTUNE COOKIE scored Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Writing alongside Matthau’s aforementioned-win for in the Support Actor category. While it can’t match the sheer brilliance of Wilder’s earlier Work, THE FORTUNE COOKIE nevertheless stands as a perfectly enjoyable caper that proves his directing days were far from over.


THE FORTUNE COOKIE is currently available on standard definition DVD from MGM.


Written by: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond

Produced by: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, Doane Harrison

Director of Photography: Joseph LaShelle

Production Designer: Robert Luthardt

Edited by: Daniel Mandell

Music by: Andre Previn