Classic Actor Spotlight: Walter Matthau – Finding What Works

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Greeting once again!

Given the positive response to the early works of one of great ensemble character and lead actors of the latter part of the 20th century. I’ve decided to expound a bit upon the arena and offerings in which he is so fondly recognized, empathized with and remembered. Putting those roles and films in the forefront. Then adding the flip side of those curmudgeon, set in their own way characters in perhaps, a trio or quartet of films that emphasize range and his popularity during the 1960s and 70s.

With that preamble set aside. Allow me to continue at a comfortable saunter with.

Walter Matthau: Finding What Works

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Check out PART I of Walter Matthau Spotlight


After Mr. Matthau’s deft, often off putting, emotionless take on Dr. Groeteschele, in Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe. Then being taken under the wing of Vincente Minnelli for the role of lecherous con man, Sir Leopold Satori in the switched sex romp, Goodbye Charlie. Opposite Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds. It was Mr. Matthau’s superb fortune to be cast by Billy Wilder as fast talking, conniving ambulance chaser, Willie “Whiplash” Gingrich in.

The Fortune Cookie (1966)

Where Mr. Matthau is given every opportunity to tread on the just budding rapid fire delivery of his client and co-star, Jack Lemmon. And his slightly injured sports photographer, Harry Hinkle. Who had been knocked dramatically backward during a professional football game at Cleavland’s Municipal Stadium.

Where Harry sees a plain and simple “Dust himself off and carry on” accident. Mr. Matthau’s Gingrich, urged by his sister and Harry’s greedy ex wife, Sandi (Judi West) sees the chance of a lifetime. A lawsuit to dwarf all others as Harry is put on a gurney and sent to St. Vincent’s Hospital. Where Willie takes control of everything. A private room. Specialist surgeons. Every test and exam imaginable. As he nearly bullies Harry into faking vertigo, sporadic amnesia, itches, twitches, tics and spasms.

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The interplay between Matthau and Lemmon is wonderful to behold. As Lemmon’s Harry struggles in fits and starts to make it all go away. Harry is literally going nowhere fast as Sandi is sent in to keep the pressure on. While Willie enters “negotiations” with the stadium and team owners. Holding just a small piece of folded paper with a number on it. The number Willie is ready to settle for. Between many drawn out glances and the snapping of fingers. And haggard, disappointed “Sorry. That’s not it.”s.

The farce continues as the team’s private insurance investigator, Purkey has his minions plant bugs and sets up a camera parallel to the room and across the street. Paranoia only make Willie more manic as Harry has finally had enough!!!

I’ll leave it here. Lest I possibly spoil things.

Overall Consensus:

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This is the film. Under the guidance of a Master who created that “beautiful friendship” Bogart only hinted at in Casablanca. Planting a seed that would take root and flourish in five later films. A teaming of equally matched talents. With the torch being passed to Neil Simon two years later in.


The Odd Couple (1968)

No one should answer an unexpected knock on the door after midnight. Mr. Matthau’s Oscar Madison learns that lesson all too well after the pleadings of just divorced Felix Ungar seeking a place to stay. Conceding to only a short “trial period” as Felix shuffles in. With all of his quirks, phobias and what looks like the first stages of yet to be diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder close behind.

In a classic “Oil and Water” combination born of small confrontations. Oscar and Felix begin to slowly mesh. Despite Felix’s finicky neatness and cleanliness butting heads with Oscar’s laconic slovenliness. The mixture hits simmer quickly. As Mr. Matthau’s silently endures Felix’s noisy clearing of his sinuses at a restaurant. Every one of Oscar’s facial muscles contort, twist and flex. While his eyes roll upward seeking solace.

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Things improve only slightly as both share an interest in the Pigeon sisters who live in the same building. A date, of sorts is set. Felix prepares the dinner. The Pigeon sisters arrives. And Felix, who is still hopelessly in love with his ex. Drinks too much and begins to blubber nostalgically….

I’ll stop right here for Spoilers’ sake.

Overall Consensus:

Though the magic is in Neil Simon’s dialogue. There is still enough for Mr. Matthau to create some splendid moments. Letting his facial expressions speak more loudly and eloquently than any written words in scene after scene. Though he has plenty of those as well. With his platter thrown argument closer “Now it’s garbage!”. The perfect punctuation closing Felix’s insistence of calling pasta prepared for dinner, “Linguini”.

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One of the reasons Mr. Matthau may have been so comfortable in his own skin playing Oscar. Is that he played the character for months on stage opposite Art Carney’s Felix. Though Mr. Simon wisely latched onto Mr. Lemmon for the role when his calendar could handle it. Adds heft and weight to an iconic pairing. Giving Billy Wilder six years to watch from the balcony. And tell the original tale Howard Hawks initially had in mind with His Girl Friday.

The Front Page (1974)

With Mr. Matthau’s conniving, scheming, fast talking Chicago tabloid editor, Walter Burns. Chief ramrod for ‘The Examiner’. One of many yellow journalism’s low rent rags that covers the police beat. When not luridly bending, buckling and distorting the crux of the story to increase sales.

And Walter has a story to tell. A Death Row inmate awaiting execution has escaped! His whereabouts unknown. What Walter needs is a Newshound! To sniff about. Ask questions and find clues. And one just happens to cross his path. In the form of an equally fast talking and focused reporter, Hildy Johnson. Delightfully underplayed by Jack Lemmon. Who is on his way to marry Susan Sarandon’s Peggy Grant. Though Walter proffers an intriguing detour.

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Hildy listens and takes the bait. Goes to the Cook County Jail and the Warden’s office. Where other reporters pepper the Sheriff (Vincent Gardenia) and the Mayor (Harold Gould). Where pandemonium ensues amongst a monsoon of ridiculous questions before the rabble is pushed back out. The office empties and Death Row inmate, Earl Williams (Austin Pendleton) is revealed hiding inside the warden’s roll top desk.

Hildy sneaks back into the office. Finds Earl and does what he does best. While Walter sends some reporters to find Earl’s girlfriend. A hooker with a heart of gold wondrously brought to life by Carol Burnett. Hildy digs and discovers the Sheriff and Mayor are conspiring to make the execution their tickets to reelection. As the story shifts slightly and ‘The Examiner’ is made to do what a paper is supposed to do.

I’ll close right here. Lest I tip my hand.

Overall Consensus:

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Though Mr. Lemmon is given many opportunities to shine. It is Mr. Matthau’s Walter Burns running this rodeo from afar. And up close. Rapidly rattling off demands one moment. Only to comment on a passing secretary’s gams the next to the crowded Bull Pen. Waiting for the earlier magic to bloom as Walter dictates by lines and stories beside a rapidly typing Hildy. Listening to their mingled expositions of events is well worth the price of finding out what a fluidly meshing team are capable of. In a film that Mr. Wilder may have unwisely written off after completion.

I am going to shift gears now. And hopefully not grind the clutch. To focus some attention to Mr. Matthau’s understated talent for drama, tension and suspense on either side of the law.

Starting with a tight little caper film under the direction of Don Siegel. Working from a screenplay by Howard Rodman based on John Reese’s novel The Looters. We find Mr. Matthau playing.


Charley Varrick (1973)

His business card reads, “Last of the Independents”. Charley is a non-conformist. Set in his ways. Makes a decent enough living as a crop duster pilot for his trailer park life. In, around and sweeping far beyond Reno, Nevada. But, Charley has ambitions too. One is to make a large amount of money. Quickly. The other is to survive long enough to spend it.

This comes about with the daring daylight robbery of small bank in Tres Cruces, New Mexico. With a disguised Charley, his wife, Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) and friend, Harmon Sullivan (Andrew Robinson, still damp from Dirty Harry) taking the place down quickly with pistols, shotguns and explosives.

A guard become heroic. A shoot out occurs. Two cops are killed and Nadine is badly wounded and dies shortly thereafter. The haul is counted. And it is a lot more than expected. About $700,000 more. And most of it is to be laundered Mob Money!

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The Mob’s front man, Maynard Boyle (John Vernon. Rarely nastier!) is righteously upset and calls in collection agent, Molly (Joe Don Baker in smiling, full Good Old Boy, Psycho Mode) to get the money back. Using whatever means necessary. Charley’s friend, Harmon is the first to fall. And Charley starts connecting dots quickly as friends meet vicious beating or untimely ends.

Flying back to Reno, Charley finds the whereabouts of Boyle. And through a recently seduced secretary, Sybil Fort, (Felicia Farr. Easy sultriness, personified) sends a message for a meet. Knowing Boyle is clever and ruthless. And that Molly may be there to bird dog and tidy up loose ends. Charley slyly preps the site for the exchange. A large, middle of nowhere junk yard. Which Charley flies down to. Lands his aged, modified Stearman bi plane. And rolls the dice.

Spoilers are flashing. So, I’ll pull over right here.

Overall Consensus:

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In one of the few roles as a not so amiable bad guy. Mr. Matthau excels! Bringing out out the clever and the sly as his back is pressed against the wall by Boyle and Molly. With Don Siegel fully entrenched in his element of compact, frill free suspense. That starts out with a little bit of comfortable slack. That disappears and stretches as the story is wound tighter and tighter. Definitely one of Mr. Matthau’s best, though little known roles!

Which may have caused a script to be delivered to Mr. Matthau a few months later. An adaptation of the popular Stockholm novelist, Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Transplanted from their home turf and set in the Mission and Castro districts of early 1970s San Francisco.

The Laughing Policeman (1973)

Mr. Matthau is in full world weary, hang dog, long jowled mode as Homicide Sgt. Jake Martin. Who catches a late night, machine gun murder of twenty plus passengers aboard a Mission district bus. A sensational crime, to say the least. Which would be world wide, non stop and completely misdiagnosed by the media today.

Given the task of solving this “Whodunit?” without warning, head’s up or Task Force. Mr. Matthau’s Sgt. Martin and his new assigned partner, Inspector Leo Larsen, (Wondrously underplayed Bruce Dern at his sarcastically wise cracking best!) plow through interviews and try to come up with a common denominator. From a pool of victims that covers every race, religion, ethnicity and sexual predilection.

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An off duty detective and former partner of Martin’s. Dave Evans ranks high on the slowly pared down list. Having worked with Martin on a case where shady, possibly mob connected Henry Camarero (Albert Paulsen, ego-driven slime in expensive tailoring) murdered his wife, Teresa two years earlier. Deeper investigation reveals that Evans was gathering fresh evidence and testimony from business associate, Gus Niles. Who provided Camarero with an alibi and is also a victim of the massacre.

The journey from Point A to B is a driving and walking tour of San Francisco. From corporate steel and chrome. To low income, just above the jammed together, urban poverty line. Well known and often revered landmarks trade places with neon lit Discotheques and shadowy Castro rough trade. As Martin and Larsen close the noose around Camarero.

Overall Consensus:

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Mr. Matthau is finally getting comfortable finding his element. As a man given a monumental task while doggedly whittling it down. Relieving the weight on his shoulders as retirement seductively beckons. With and sometimes without the aid of Mr. Dern’s Larsen. Who’s stuck in the middle. Wants nothing more than to work the case without getting hurt. And catch the next one. The interplay between the two. In a car, on foot, following leads or questioning suspects and snitches is well worth the price of discovery and admission.

Aided greatly by a “Who’s Who” of solid character actors (Anthony Zerbe, Louis Gossett Jr., Joanna Cassidy, Gregory Sierra). And Stuart Rosenberg’s post Cool Hand Luke deft touch for capturing less than polished to a high luster parts of San Francisco in daylight. And making them seamy and downright scary at night.

Which may have raised the eyebrow of director, Joseph Sargent. To proffer the role of New York Police Lieutenant, Zack Garber to Mr. Matthau for his superb on-location hijack epic.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Which takes on a crime never contemplated or attempted before. The hijack and ransom of a subway car with 17 passengers under the streets of Manhattan. Something so off the wall, that it is first met with skeptical derision by the Transit Authority’s Lt. Garber. Who ditches his present tour of Japanese Public Transit officials as Robert Shaw (Never so properly calm, sociopath, and dryly British) lays down the ground rules. One million (Around 6.5 million, today) dollars to be delivered in one hour just beyond the 28th Street terminal. Or one hostage will be killed each minute past the time limit.

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Together with Police Lieutenant, Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller. Surprisingly good in a dramatic role!). Scant leads are followed as the demand goes to the Mayor (Lee Wallace), sick in bed with the flu. Trains are rerouted or delayed as Garber tries his hand at negotiation, stalling and discreet interrogation.

It seems that Shaw (Mr, Blue) may be a British mercenary with a muddy past. Who put together this “Get rich quick!” scheme with the aid of two gun thugs ( Slimy Hector Elizondo, Mr. Gray. Earl Hindman, Mr. Brown) and slowly deduced, retired Transit worker, Mr. Green. (Martin Balsam, rock solid despite a cold).

The ransom is gathered, but the police car delivering it crashes as the moments tick down. Garber goes into full stall mode as a motorcycle cop passes on the heavy gym bag full of cash. The money is distributed amongst as bad guys as the “McGuffin” kicks in. A shiny, stainless steel device that over rides the train’s Dead Man Switch. The train starts moving with its hostages still aboard. A plainclothes, undercover undercover cop jumps out and a gun fight ensues as Blue and his team disperse to various exits.

I’ll leave it here. Lest I ruin some of the most suspenseful, well edited and scored minutes in film!

Overall Consensus:

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This is the film and character that most clearly defines Mr. Matthau at his curmudgeonly. Seen it all. “Been there. Done that.” best! Seasoned and cynical as his rumpled, shapeless trench coat as he moves from the Transit Control Center to blocked off intersections and subway entrances. Trying his best to stay a step or two ahead during a city wide media blackout. As dots are connected during and after. And Garber starts to think like the emotionless Mr. Blue.

Offset by a sterling group of villains. Wonderfully defined on location cinematography by Owen Roizman under the guidance of television and film veteran, Joseph Sargent. Working from and staying notably faithful to John Godey’s superior novel and screenplay by Peter Stone.

Very high marks for David Shire’s rather simplistic, though moving soundtrack. And editing by Gerald B. Greenberg and Robert Lovett. Who cut so smoothly, you don’t notice the tension building and exploding until the final reel!.

Aided greatly by a “Who’s Who” of solid character actors (Anthony Zerbe, Louis Gossett Jr., Joanna Cassidy, Gregory Sierra). And Stuart Rosenberg’s post Cool Hand Luke deft touch for capturing less than polished to a high luster parts of San Francisco in daylight. And making them seamy and downright scary at night.

Which may have raised the eyebrow of director, Joseph Sargent. To proffer the role of New York Police Lieutenant, Zack Garber to Mr. Matthau for his superb on-location hijack epic.


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Well, that concludes Part II of Mr. Matthau’s spotlight. Thoughts on any of his roles mentioned above?