Greetings and all sundry!
Given the success of my earlier three article arc on the career of Jack Lemmon. And to steal a suggestion from Nostra. Allow me a few moments of your time to focus some attention and love towards a consummate character actor. Utilized and cozily comfortable as part of an ensemble or team. Who earned his stripes and reputation in the fledgling years of television. Gathering attention and notoriety. While honing his talents for the better part of a decade before his stars finally aligned. To that end. Allow me to introduce.
Walter Matthau: Finding What Works.
Not many actors can claim esteemed director, Nicholas Ray on their early Curriculum Vitae. Though Mr. Matthau can. Given a small but important role as Wally Gibbs. Concerned co-worker, teacher, friend and neighbor of Manic-Depressive, Bi-Polar and soon to be self medicating Cortizone addict, Ed Avery (James Mason). In a little 1950s, suburban ‘Fathers Knows Best’ from Hell masterpiece:
#1: The Fortune Cookie: (1966)
Mr. Matthau’s Wally is content early on to sit on the sidelines and watch as Mason’s Ed Avery grows ever more distant, manic and eventually dangerous to himself, his family and the “Ain’t life swell!” facade of the white picket fences, manicured lawns of the perfect suburban ‘Atomic family’.
Granted, the film is Ray’s and Mason’s to build a slowly frightening, often shadowy foundation upon. And some may argue that Matthau’s Wally responds with too little and too late. Especially with an undercurrent of an evening dinner scene with Ed, his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush) and son, Richie (Christopher Olsen) that leaves the same seen used in American Beauty forty plus years later far in the dust. The Olsen family is afraid to breathe. Lest delusional daddy, Ed goes into an Old Testament shouting, dinner and silverware throwing and smashing tirade.
But that is what makes Bigger Than Life near essential viewing in the small, yet frightening realm of ‘Suburban Horror’. All the parts mesh together. Humanly and with errors. Through confrontations, denials and lies stacked upon lies from Ed. Which makes you not believe for a second the triumphant, dried out and rehabilitated Ed’s joyous, tearful, family hugging, “Happily ever after” return to family, hearth and home before the film’s final credits!
To be given even a small part in a memorable and ground breaking film that dared to mess with the well marketed and maintained myth of opulent “perfection” of Post War America would be any actor’s dream. Especially if that film’s director had just delivered Rebel Without a Cause a year earlier. A very heady task. To be a small cog inside a much larger machine.And Mr. Matthau delivers! Quietly and with reserve. Letting his concern and emotions show through his face and gestures. Until it is almost too late.
Which may piqued director Elia Kazan to contact Mr. Matthau for another slightly larger supporting role. As Mel Miller. The quiet, smitten, unassuming assistant to roving radio radio reporter, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) in Kazan’s Magnum Opus to the power of charisma and media in culture and politics.
#2: A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Which begins back in the Ouachita hills of Arkansas. Where roving reporter and hostess, Marcia Jeffries records her human interest stories for A Face in the Crowd. And finds smooth talking, itinerant hobo and spinner of yarns, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith. Never better!) behind bars and sweating out a hangover from a night of carousing. “Lonesome” is also full of down home humor and charm. When not belting out Gospel tunes with the aid of his guitar. Which gets him out of jail and into popularity amongst the locals. And the hosting radio station. Where “Lonesome” starts to come under the scrutiny of Mel. Who knows bad news when he sees it. And tries to warn Marcia as Rhodes starts growing in popularity and starts believing his own hype. Marcia is swept away as events start controlling events and actions.
A local Senator up for re-election, Worthington Fuller needs a bump in the polls and used “Lonesome”, radio and television to fill that void on stump speeches. Where Rhodes shows a proclivity for a naive, teen aged baton twirling Majorette, Betty Lou Fleckum (Lee Remick in her first film role). Things start going bad as “Lonesome” pursues Betty Lou. Indulges in too much booze and letting his mouth rum while his brain is not engaged. Marcia catches him after a fundraising soiree. Stupid drunk and showing contempt for all the hicks, hayseeds and rednecks that make up his audience. Marcia’s tide starts to change and takes a decision to ambush her creation after an episode of “The Lonesome Rhodes Show” featuring the Senator.
Mel watches from the wings as Marcia opens a microphone and catches Larry in the middle of a particular nasty vent aimed at his unseen, but listening audience. Who are flabbergasted and angered that their media idol would think so lowly of them. Massive numbers of complaining phone calls flood both the radio and television stations as Larry and his entourage head towards a victory dinner where the Senator is supposed to announce his candidacy.
Or not. While Larry is en route. The radio and television stations start calling Senator Fuller’s campaign workers. As contributors and backers turn their backs and abandon ship on Fuller and Rhodes. Who arrives at a spectacularly decorated, nearly empty and opulent penthouse suite. Crestfallen, rambling and confused. Larry lashes out at everyone and everything. Until Marcia arrive and tells him that she opened the off stage microphone and helped Larry commit Celebrity Seppuku.
Marcia leaves and Mel lays into Larry most prophetically. Giving him a heads up to his immediate future with an appropriate cool down period and anonymity. A change of name and venue. And the long lingering aftermath of fallen, faded glory.
In another role of quiet fortitude, Mr. Matthau wisely saves his best lines (And he has many quickly, dryly delivered lines in this film!) until the final reel. And the moment “Lonesome” Rhodes realizes that the curtain is quickly, finally raining down on his present career. Mr. Matthau delivers the soliloquy matter of factly. Yet devastatingly. Without well deserved malice. Just a prediction on how the media system works, Often fails. And quickly repairs and re-imagines itself for continued contented consumer consumption.
Under the masterful, sometimes creepy touch of Elia Kazan. In a far ahead of its time film that prophetically, scathingly screams to the rafters about the dangers of charisma, charm, celebrity and mass, instant exposure. A roughly sketched and filled in canvas portraying sweetly played out seduction and love between “Lonesome” and Marcia (Essential for it all to work). Egos, power, back room deals for more of the same. And the foretelling of insidious mass marketed “Info-Tainment” as news we all either enjoy. Or tolerate and endure today!
Giving Mr. Matthau a few years’ respite to hone his skills in television and lesser known films. Before signing on to what many (myself included) believe is the favorite, most personal film of Kirk Douglas.
#3: Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
With a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo. From the novel “The Brave Cowboy” by Edward Abbey. Directed by veteran, David Miller and set in the rough country and mountains outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. Mr. Matthau finds himself as Sheriff Morey Johnson. The over seer and protector of many, many miles of sun bleached desert, scrub and terrain better left avoided. And slowly drawn into the manhunt for John W. “Jack” Burns. One of the last great non conformists Cowboys (Who doesn’t even have a Drivers License!) rebelling against the onset of changing times. Flawlessly brought to life by Kirk Douglas.
It seems that Burns got himself arrested in a bar fight. So he could be put in the Duke City lock up to help his long time friend, Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) break out before being shipped to the penitentiary. The break out worked well enough. For Burns. With the aid of two hacksaw blades hidden inside his boots. After getting some payback for abuses delivered by Deputy Sheriff Guitierrez (George Kennedy) and discovering Bondi wants to just do his time. Burns slips through the weakened and pulled apart bars. Mounts his horse, “Whiskey” and starts riding towards the mountains and the Mexican border.
Sheriff Johnson is called to intervene. In a Jeep and with the help of his annoying, repetitive radio operator, Harry (William Schallert). A course is plotted. As far away, a semi tractor trailer full of toilets is driven by ‘Hinton” (Carroll O’Connor in full Archie Bunker mode) for an oblique date with destiny.
Burns uses every trick he knows to stay ahead of the law as he rides and walks Whiskey through soft soil, slick rocks and an ever increasing incline. To be glimpsed through binoculars by Sheriff Johnson. Who has Harry call the nearby Air Base (Kirkland, AFB) and ask to have a helicopter help out. Morey and Harry argument about everything and nothing as the glass bubble canopied Bell helicopter arrives on station, piloted by an uncredited, debuting Bill Bixby (‘My Favorite Martian’, ‘The Courtship of Eddie’s Father’). Who is too anxious by half. Flies too close and hovers too long dropping a rope ladder. And allows Burns to shoot at the helicopter’s tail rotor with his lever action Winchester rifle. Sending it screaming off to crash in the boonies.
The sun starts to meet the rugged horizon as Burns crests one range and walks Whiskey down towards the wide and imposing super highway. Knowing that freedom lay just a short distance beyond. He mounts Whiskey for the hesitant trip across. As Hinton and his semi full of toilets makes up for lost time and Morey and Harry and many unseen police units head towards the same location.
I’ll end it here. Lest I venture too far into Spoiler Territory.
Mr. Matthau is given more free rein and lines to expound upon his character. A career law man, who kind of empathizes with his quarry, Burns. Half understanding what motivates him. And using that knowledge to help track and estimate Burns’ responses and actions. Slowly getting used to his hang dog, long jawed visage. And letting it become part of his persona.
Again, not a large, singular role. More a part of an ensemble. In a film that would a lot of future talent if not on the map. Then certainly under some serious scrutiny.
More than enough to be considered for a kind of out of line of sight referee for the many juggling balls and plot twists under Stanley Donen’s whimsical touch in a splashy, location filled Parisian romantic variant of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
#4: Charade (1963)
An elegant, sophisticated and very cleverly written Cary Grant romance with Audrey Hepbuen filling in for Eva Marie Saint in and around The City of Lights. Where no one beside Ms. Hepburn’s recently widowed Reggie Lampert is who or what they proclaim to be. In a game of multiple easily forgettable names, low level treachery. And one goal in common. $250,000 in gold that had been bagged, tagged and slated to be delivered courtesy of the O.S.S.to the French Resistance in WWII. And never arrived!
The surviving members of the O.S.S. team (James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass) whose leader was the recently murdered Charles Lampert show up at the funeral and go through ways fair and foul to verify the death. And smart guys that they are, determine Reggie must know where the swag is stashed!
Add to this mix suave, smooth, debonair Cary Grant in full Irresistible mode and a delightful full court press is on! As Reggie flightily accompanies Cary to one new hotel and another. Names and characters change at the drop of a hat. More and more of Mr. Matthau’s master puppeteer, CIA station chief, Hamilton Bartholomew is more than a Federal Super Grade looking for ancient loose change to bring back to its rightful Treasury coffers. Suspense is heightened as threats overt and covert are made and Cary Grant gets to play the knight in shining armor between shard flirtations with Reggie. While distrust and impatience seems to boil up within the survivors of the O.S.S. Jedburgh team as its members start showing up dead. Suspects and clues are winnowed down as romance fills the air. The topic of stamps is broached. Rare stamps that may be hiding in plain sight. Purchased by Charles and the $250,000 before being shot and dumped from a train leaving Paris.
With the final piece of the puzzle in place (Or is it?). Reggie calls Bartholomew for a meeting on the Paris subway. I’ll leave it here, so as to not reveal and last minute spoilers.
Director Donen may have out clevered and outdone himself in an attempt to tops Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Coming very close with sublimely romantic locations. A light, often moody Henry Mancini soundtrack. And Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn at the tops of their games. In a story that may become a bit convoluted if not not paid attention to early on. A little too egg crated with a few too many names to keep track of. Though Mr. Mathau delivers quite well as the man in the shadows. Never really fully fleshed out until well into the tale. In a pivotal role that moves him as far away from his previous “Nice Guy” category as possible.
A trait master director, Sidney Lumet may have noticed when giving Mr. Matthau the chance to expand on break a bit. As Presidential Adviser Groeteschele. An eerie, close to emotionless mix of Henry Kissinger and Professor Edmund Teller, the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb. In the 1964 Nuclear Doomsday thriller.
#5: Fail Safe (1964)
Where Mr. Matthau’s Groeteschele holds court at Washington, DC cocktail parties that run into the morning. Tossing around “Throw Weights” and the destructive power of Soviet warheads that can destroy a major city in a millionth of a second. As easily as the young, monied socialites in attendance ask for their drinks to be freshened. A man who has the President’s ear and is completely attuned and comfortable with the inside the Beltway idea of “Power as an Aphrodisiac”.
While over at SAC (Strategic Air Command) Headquarters at Offutt AFB in Omaha Nebraska. A group of VIPs are visiting as a wing of B-58 supersonic bombers at put on alert. It seems that radar stations have picked up a UFO entering American airspace and the “Hustler” bombers are on their way to their “Fail Safe” points to orbit and waiting until the orders come to obliterate Moscow.
The UFO is revealed to be a non air breathing, reciprocating engine, propeller airliner strayed off course. The Recall Order is sent to the waiting bombers, but signal is scramble by either solar flares or something. And the bombers starts proceeding north towards Alaska. With every intent of turning west and doing what they’ve been trained to do.
The extended “Oops! Form” is sent to the Pentagon. The President (Henry Fonda) is called down to the Bunker. Three and four star generals start pondering the imponderable as fighters are dispatched to intercept. Communications are opened between the President and the errant wing commander. Even though SAC training and tenets demand radio silence once the bombers go beyond their “Fail Safe” points. Groeteschele shows up. Takes everything in. Starts discussing the numerical advantages of a First Strike and states the obvious. “Let the bombers to proceed their targets. And let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Which goes over as well as a lead balloon. Since US Nuclear Doctrine dictates that our weapons are only to be used defensively (Which is Iffy at best.) As a line of communication is established between the White House and the Kremlin. Where a young State Department translator named “Buck” (Larry Hagman) is on hand. While the intercepting US fighters are ordered to Afterburner. Only to fall from the sky and nowhere near missile range as their fuel expires.
The Soviet Chairman is wary at first as The President explains to the Kremlin’s translator. SAM batteries pick up the encroaching B-58s and MiGs are sent to intercept, but as always. Some bombers get through. And Moscow is the target.
I’ll leave it right here. So as to not unsettle one of the great Freeze Frame endings in film.
Mr. Matthau excels in playing a cold blooded, inhumane SOB. So enthralled with his expertise, numbers and statistics that he does not see beyond his own massive ego. While Henry Fonda’s President is much more like Solomon when dealing the horrors and ramifications of Mutual Assured Destruction. In a much more dramatic and humane way that Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb only gives a humorous wink and a nod to. Courtesy of George C. Scott and his General “Buck” Turgidson.
Kudos to director Lumet in staying faithful to Eugene Burdick’s novel and staying in the realms of suspense and drama. Which his film seethes with. Even if the B-58 “Hustler” bomber was incredibly fast. It had short range and could not have hit its targets without at least one more mid air refueling. The fact is glossed over nicely by lighting, shadow and a taut sound score. High marks also to Mr. Matthau for his character’s ramrod straight posture. Slow gestures, measured speech patterns and inflection that heighten the tension. Holds the camera and gives Groeteschelle a less than human aura.
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Well, do add your thoughts on Mr. Matthau. And what’s your favorite film from his illustrious career?