Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie has been widely hailed as some sort of beautiful moral statement from a reformed cynic. Don't believe it. Wilder's cynicism--really his acceptance of the truth--is very much in evidence in The Fortune Cookie; it makes his moralism palatable.
One Two Three, Irma La Douce, and Kiss Me, Stupid--the man's last three pictures--were characterized not so much by cynicism as by excess. In all things. Kiss Me, Stupid, unquestionably Wilder's worst, was so overplayed, overwritten and overdirected that it seemed fair to call it his Armageddon. But with the benefit of hindsight, one can see that beneath the roughage Wilder has been brewing a new style of comedy. And the brew has come to boil with The Fortune Cookie.
This, Wilder's 20th movie, both climaxes and redeems a career that has produced such diverse films as The Lost Weekend and Some Like it Hot. It embodies all that is best in Wilder: the polish of Sabrina, the bite of Ace in the Hole, and the sentimentality of The Apartment. Plus it adds a new brick to Wilder's pile: understatement.
Because The Fortune Cookie is, (unlike just about every Wilder picture in the last fifteen years) modest, it is difficult to regard as a major work. Yet with the slick surface stripped away from Wilder, he turns from a destructive into a constructive cynic. You learn again that evil mercenary people dominate the world, and for the first time that relative goodness need not indicate a suspect I.Q. or similar character defect.
But don't worry. Wilder has the sense not to drown The Fortune Cookie in good will. If one or two of his and I.A.L. Diamond's screenplays have been funnier over-all, there has still been none in which as high a percentage of the jokes came off. This is largely due to the efforts of two veteran comics: Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.
As Wiplash Willy, the shyster lawyer specializing in negligence cases, Matthau outdoes himself--and everyone else in the movie. Midway between Mosca and Louie Nizer, Wiplash Willy is a wonderful offense to the American legal process.
Lemmon, as Harry Hinkle, is not the shlump his name suggests. He's a new brand of comic hero, tempered with a decent degree of ordinary human corruption (one of the ads for this movie divides the world into two types of people: "those who will do anything for money, and those who will do almost anything for money." Hinkle is of the latter stripe.) The understatement which pervades The Fortune Cookie is largely a consequence of Lemmon's beautifully understated performance.
Believe me, you haven't heard of another actor in the picture. Except Archie Moore, who turns up in a cameo. And it's in black and white, shot entirely on location in Cleveland, Ohio. In other words: cheap. The girl, Hinkle's ex-wife, is some chick by the name of Judi West. She's good, at least for this part. The Negro football-player who bangs into TV cameraman Hinkle and thus gives Wiplash the trumped-up lawsuit he's searching for, is written more or less like every stock Hollywood nice-guy over the last two decades. Either he's a slap at Uncle-Tomism or, more likely, at the latest While liberal stereotype of the token Negro. At any rate, he can't be serious.
The Fortune Cookie is more than Wilder's redemption; it is a tightly written, well-acted, competently filmed, funny American movie. Most of the Boston people who see it these days are refugees from the endless line in front of Georgy Girl next door. It should be the other way around.