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?

Monthly Roundup: What I Watched in March

Well, it’s been fun folks! After about three + years of blogging… FlixChatter is closing up shop so this is the last monthly recap you’ll see on this blog. THANK YOU for being such loyal supporters of this blog… I really appreciate your readership and all the wonderful comments. I’ll be moving to Antarctica next week on a secret expedition, and that is why I haven’t mentioned about it on Twitter nor on the blog. I’d imagine it’d be tough to be online whilst I’m on the ship… so for now, I wish you all a wonderful Spring season and hope to see you all again soon!

MikeWazowkiAprilFools He..he.. did I fool you a bit there? 😀 Sorry folks, can’t help myself. Nah, I’m not giving up blogging that easily, sorry to disappoint you, ahah. I meant every word about being thankful for all your support though! MarchRecap Well, March has been relatively slow in terms of movie watching, believe it or not. I’ve been quite busy at work so I couldn’t go to too many press screenings. I actually declined the press screenings to see The Host, The Croods, and G.I. Joe, but my friend Ted and my hubby did go to see G.I. Joe, in fact, I’ll be posting Ted’s review tomorrow, so stay tuned!

Here are some posts you might’ve missed in March:

Oh and if you missed it, my blog pals Terrence, Keith and I put together a special collaborative list of 10 Redeeming Films we’d recommend. Check it out and add your own pick to the list! Now, as far as movie watching, it’s actually been a pretty good month as I saw about 20 films and TV shows. That’s quite a lot for my standards, usually I can only fit a dozen or so.

New to Me:

Holy Motors

HolyMotors

 Jack The Giant Slayer

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Lawrence of Arabia

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Olympus Has Fallen

Olympus

Oz The Great & Powerful

Oz

Red Cliff

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Stoker

Stoker

The Intouchables

Intouchables

Wreck-It-Ralph

Ralph


Rewatch:

Ben-Hur

BenHur Mrs Brown

MrsBrown

Favorite Movie seen in March:

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I finally bought the Blu-ray of Lawrence of Arabia which was practically a steal at only $10 bucks on Amazon!! It’s perhaps one of the best Blu-ray purchases ever as the transfer is so amazingly good. This is the FIRST time I saw Sir David Lean’s masterpiece and though I was a bit puzzled about the story due to my lack of history knowledge, I was floored by this film. I mean, just the visuals alone, all those spectacular long shots in the dessert — not to mention the sublime beauty of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, ehm — it made me regret not seeing this on the big screen when it was re-released last October!!

I just saw the Making Of documentary that’s included in the disc last night, it was so entertaining it made me want to see it again! Well, I’m planning to see it again relatively soon anyway, but not until I read more about the historical background of the subject matter. I think that’d make me appreciate this film even more. I will do an appreciation post at some point, I feel really inadequate to review this right now, but let’s just say, yes I was most definitely impressed. I really think this film has stood the test of time.

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Well, that’s my March Recap. What’s YOUR favorite movie seen the past month?

Classic Actor Spotlight: Walter Matthau – Showing his Chops

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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.

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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’.

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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!

Overall Consensus:

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.

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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.

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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.

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Overall Consensus:

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.

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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.

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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.

Overall Consensus:

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!

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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.

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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.

Overall Consensus:

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”.

Matthau_FailSafe1

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.

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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.

Overall Consensus:

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?

Classic Actor Spotlight: Jack Lemmon Part II… Something Old, Something New

Greetings, all and sundry! After a rather fun first look at Jack Lemmon’s early career. I’ve decided to go a bit into those films of the 1960s that defined and reenforced the actor’s standing as a solid comedic talent. And slowly opened the door into an arena where he would stun and excel. To that end, allow me to introduce you to the next stage of of an astound career.

Jack Lemmon: Something Old… Something New.

After his winning an Oscar for his performance in The Apartment, Mr Lemmon took a brief sabbatical to hone his skills on the stage before taking on the lead in a 1960 service comedy that was received well enough for NBC television to spin the film off into a series five years later.

The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960)

Under the direction of Richard Murphy from his screenplay. Mr. Lemmon find himself as Lt. Rip Crandall. Who is sent to Queensland, Australia without an assignment. In the middle of  the tide slowly turning towards the Allies in 1943. Little is known about Crandall, except that he was something of a yachtsman before the war. Which suits the Army Air Corps and later, the Navy just fine. Coast watchers are in short supply due to attrition. And a few are on hand with places to go, but no viable form of transportation to get them to their shallow, coral reefed islands and atolls.

Enter the ‘Echo’. An aged two masted schooner that has a crew, sort of. Who don’t know a Main Mast from a Cleat. All that’s needed is a Captain and an eager beaver Ensign as an XO. Nicely played by Rick Nelson. The guy who holds all the card is John Lund, as grandfatherly Lt. Commander Vanderwater. Who gives Crandall a week to get his ship and crew into shape. Done mostly by repetition, with the aid of always dependable Mike Kellin.

A week suddenly becomes two days with the possible substitution for Crandall in Richard Anderson’s Lt. Dennis Foster. The two do not get along to begin with and Crandall takes the Echo and his crew out of the harbor and on to Port Moresby. About three weeks before The Battle of the Bismark Sea…

Overall Consensus:

This is the film where Mr. Lemmon starts to refine and polish his trademark rapid fire delivery of lines. With changes in inflection, metering and tone. While getting used to large sets, rear projection and not a few long, on site scenes aboard the Echo while being dwarfed by larger Naval destroyers and cruisers in port. More a lesson in the bread and butter movie magic of the time. Though very well delivered by the lead actor and his crew of reliable misfits. Who would be seen in countless other service comedies and dramas and NBC’s later television re-make.

Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

Fresh off his win with Breakfast At Tiffany’s , Blake Edwards decided to collaborate with J. P. Miller and adapt his television screenplay from two years earlier for the big screen. Placing Mr. Lemmon solidly in the role of Joe Clay. A mediocre PR man in a San Francisco firm. Joe likes to have a drink and have a good time. When he does, his work suffers, but he doesn’t understand why. After one less than stellar day, Joe happens across secretary, Kirsten Armesen, magnificently played by Lee Remick. A teetotaler, she has some ambition and sparks do begin to catch. A date is agreed to and Joe introduces Kirsten to Brandy Alexanders, which she likes. More and more as time passes. They marry and have a baby girl, Debbie.

Joe tries hard to gather more clients and gets to more than like Two Martini Lunches. So much so that Joe is sent out of town more and more. While Joe is away,  Kirsten drinks. One afternoon, she passes out and their apartment catches fire. Thankfully, she and the baby survive, but Joe is fired for poor performance. Joe tries to find work, but his reputation precedes him. With nowhere left to go, Kirsten asks if she and her family can work for her father’s plant and flower nursery. The father, Charles Bickford reprising his role from earlier is cautious, but agrees. Life is good as the two dry out. Until Joe secrets a few pints of bourbon in flowerpots in the Green House. Joe and Kirsten get a buzz on during a thunderstorm and Joe goes in search of the other bottles. In a panic for not finding the buried treasure, Joe tears the Green House apart.

Joe winds up institutionalized in time for a record case of the DTs. Dries out, hits bottom and then finally goes to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Joe’s sponsor, Jim Hungerford, quietly played by Jack Klugman has been down Joe’s path and helps Joe gets his life slowly back together. Through Joe falling off the wagon, twice. Once, deliberately. To try to get Kirsten to give up drinking, but she likes it too much…

Overall Consensus:

This is the film where Mr. Lemmon taps deep into his talent for drama. Grasps the reins firmly, rides and delivers in ways never imagined. From his too quick excuses to the sadness in his face early on when passing a store window on the way home. And seeing a shabby bum looking back. To the drunken panic and rage at not being able to find the other hiding bottles in the Green House. Mr Lemmon goes places inside that few would have the ability to do today. Yet, his Joe is a oddly sympathetic character. Who has to see his own image staring back from the abyss before admitting his problem and seeking help.

Where Lee Remick’s Kirsten quickly adapts to her relationship, the marriage to Joe as a ‘Threesome’. She, Joe and booze. She likes it. Wants to keep it. And knows what buttons to push and what to say to keep Joe close by. Then lets her tongue become razor sharp, acidic and scathing as Joe pulls away to seek salvation. It’s not pretty, but it is mesmerizing to watch!

In a complete break from what everyone thinks a Blake Edwards movie should be. Certainly not lighthearted or in need of a happy ending. Sometimes raw and in your face. The B&W cinematography by Phil Lathrop is superb. Both indoors and along the steep streets of San Francisco. Art and Set Direction by Joseph Wright and George Hopkins seems to get grainier and shabbier. Aided by Henry Mancini’s bittersweet soundtrack as Joe slowly spirals downward. Hitting the bottom during the final scenes of the film.

Well worth seeking out for Mr. Lemmon’s and Ms. Remick’s Oscar nominated performances. And Henry Mancini’s win for Best Music and Original Score.

How to Murder Your Wife (1965)

This is the film that puts Mr. Lemmon at the top of the Pyramid of smartly written, adult, not quite screwball, farcical comedy. Once again under the adept touch of Richard Quine and shot for a large part in Manhattan.
Mr. Lemmon makes the absolute most of playing cartoonist, Stanley Ford. A bon vivant bachelor with an aversion to marriage. A more or less open door policy for many lovely women to his rather plush Brownstone apartment on 75th, between Lexington and Third. And a penchant to test out all of the adventurous journeys and predicaments he puts his cartoon character, super-spy, ‘Bash’ Brannigan finds himself in. All dutifully photographed by Ford’s butler, Charles. Wondrously played by Terry Thomas.

To say that Ford’s character isn’t popular in the newspapers would be anathema. His strip is responsible for a sizable chunk of his paper’s profits. So, his comic strip character can be as licentious and daring do as he wants in the swinging 60s. Until Ford attends a bachelor party for his friend, Tobey Rawlins. Has a few too many and in a very out of character moment, proposes to Virna Lisi. The stunning Italian girl who pops out of the celebratory cake clad in a very revealing bikini. A judge, also very drunk, performs an impromptu wedding ceremony and Stanley awakens the next morning, hung over, feeling miserable and… Married!

This can’t be! Stanley calls his lawyer, Harold Lamson. Stuffy and somewhat hen pecked. Played to scene stealing perfection by Eddie Mayehoff, to arrange a divorce, but legal justification is needed. And there is none. Virna Lisi’s Mrs. Ford is gorgeous, cheerful, affectionate, loving and outside of her not knowing a word of English, is as close to perfect as man can hope for. Things change and Stanley adapts. Badly. As Charles leaves to work for the jilted Tobey. Mrs. Ford starts hanging out with Harold’s near shrewish wife, Edna, who speaks Italian. Then stays up late at night to watch television and learn a new language. And Ford’s once glorious Man Cave is introduced to feminine finery and damp stockings and lingerie hanging on the bathroom’s shower curtain rod.

Something’s got to give! Stanley’s kept up by the television and the constantly churning cement mixer (The ‘Gloppitta~Glopitta Machine’) just outside and stories below his drawing room window. Some surcease is found in real life. Changing his comic strip’s tone from daring do and dames to domestic comedy, but a more solid solution must be found!

A theoretical, sub rosa one is tossed about in the steam room of an all male health club. Whose attendants are married and share to some extent, Harold’s less than Alpha male life. A doctor (Jack Albertson) with access to ‘goofballs’ describes their effect and the nugget of a plan is hatched. Sadly. Stanley lays out his scheme in his daily comic strip.  Charles returns to photograph Stanley as the host of a cocktail party after Mrs. Ford has seen it. Stanley excuses himself for a few moments. Drugs Mrs. Ford and replaces her with a department store mannequin, which he buries under an ocean of glop from the Glopitta~Glopitta Machine. As Mrs. Ford comes to and splits for parts unknown. Needless to say, the NYPD have been reading the comic strip. Put two and two together. Arrest Stanley for murder and the real fun begins!

Overall Consensus:

One of the last and possibly greatest Battle of the Sexes comedies of the 20th century. Where the buildup is exquisitely detailed and meticulous under director Quine’s less than gentle touch and George Axelrod’s deft screenplay. Where the real payoff is in the trial. Mr. Lemmon’s Stanley Ford sits patiently as witnesses testify and unwittingly paint Stanley into a corner. Until Stanley calls his lawyer, Harold to the stand and unleashes a whirlwind defense after drawing a chalk circle. A Button. On the rail of the all male witness box. Pulling every trick out of his rapid fire delivery to get Harold to “Push the button!”

An adult comedy that lays bare all the Add ons and Apps that come with marriage. Mortgages, kids, the slow cessation of power to the wife, viciously, deliciously personified in Claire Trevor’s cunning Edna. Opposite a Rogues Gallery of male character actors doing some of their best work. Especially, Alan Hewitt as the D.A. between episodes of My Favorite Martian on CBS. Eddie Mayehoff as hen peck lawyer, Harold. And Jack
Albertson’s kindly, very hip Dr.Bently. But it’s Mr. Lemmon who rules the roost, since all things circle around him. Surrounded by some superb on location photography by Harold Stradling Sr. and William Kieman’s Set Design. Most notable in the courtroom and Stanley’s lush digs. Where the only thing missing is Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ being played on a constant loop.

The Fortune Cookie (1966)

The first and one of the best team ups with Mr. Lemmon opposite Walter Matthau. Under the assured eye and guidance of Billy Wilder in and around Municipal Stadium in Cleavland, Ohio. In glorious, washed out B&W during the fading, glory days when the city was still hog butcher to the world.

Mr. Lemmon finds himself as sports camera man, Harry Hinkle. Divorced in a marriage that hit rocky shoals. Harry covers a football game between the Browns and the Vikings. Harry is on the sidelines getting some film of Luther ‘Boom Boom’ Jackson as he closes on another player. Harry is hit and is knocked to tumble on his back. The game is stopped as medics put a cervical collar around Harry’s neck and take him off the field on a stretcher. Between the time Harry leaves the stadium in an ambulance and arrives at what is to be St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital, sleazy ambulance chaser and personal damages lawyer par excellence, Willie ‘Whiplash’ Gingrich is called. Ready to make whatever injuries Harry has suffered magnify ten fold. To apply pressure in his search of the mother of all out of court settlements.

Harry has some bruises, but that’s nowhere good enough. Harry soon finds himself in a neck brace and feigning paralysis as Willie prepares to do battle with the stadium, and perhaps later, NFL lawyers. And just as slimy insurance investigator, Chester Purkey. Deftly played by Cliff Osmond. Who sets up camera surveillance across from Harry’s room and wants desperately to plant some microphones. Harry goes along with all this. In hopes of getting his less than congenial wife, Sandi back. The gauntlet is thrown down and a game of wits ensues as Willie more or less scripts Harry’s life. How to behave. What to say. Between bouts for settlement figures and making Purkey look silly.

In the interim, Luther shows up and looks after Harry. As the monetary sword rattling continues and looks to pull Luther into its vortex. The situations become more and more silly as Harry learns that Sandi’s new and sudden affections are based on greed, not genuine. Which gently coaxes Harry over the edge to do the right thing.

Overall Consensus:

An unabashed, though comical look at the lengths some will go to seek a financial boon.Told in terse scenes that average 17 seconds. With the sublime aid of Wilder’s and I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay. Allowing just enough time for Mr.s Lemmon and Matthau to trade quips and have Matthau come out on top. Even more so for Matthau’s gamesmanship with the stadium’s and higher lawyers. Well worth the effort of seeking out and savoring. For the teaming of two masters. And Matthau’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar winning performance and Joseph LaShelle’s subdued, shabby, Oscar nominated cinematography.

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The Odd Couple (1968)

The second teaming of Mr.s Lemmon and Matthau is far more subtle and somewhat bittersweet. With Mr. Lemmon’s divorced  fastidious, hypochondriac Felix Ungar moving into the with fellow divorcee, uber slob and sports writer, Oscar Madison. What could possibly go wrong: Under the direction of Gene Saks and a screenplay by Neil Simon and his Broadway play…. Everything!

Felix is a neat freak with what would later be called Obsessive Compulsive Behavior. Who worries far too much and to the distraction of Oscar. Who’s fun loving, easy going and lives for sports. Particularly the Mets. And football. The two do not get along, but Felix has plenty to do in upgrading Oscar’s apartment from ‘Pig Sty’ to ‘Livable’. Arguments crop up over Oscar’s cigar smoking to the difference between ‘Spaghetti’, ‘Linguine’ and ‘Garbage’. To whatever indoor sports like pool or bowling, Oscar can best Felix at. Though they oddly call a truce when it comes to their new English neighbors, the Pigeon Sisters. Monica Evans as widower Cecily and Carole Shelley as divorcee, Gwendolyn.

Overall Consensus:

A well rounded, written execution of Simon’s famous, long running Broadway play. That could have had Walter Matthau playing Felix after so many months of playing Oscar. Even though Simon’s sights were set on Mr. Lemmon for the role. With Mr. Lemmon reacting more than acting to Oscar’s harangues and Felix rarely having the last word. It’s fun to watch during the second half of the film as some of Felix’s less annoying attributes seem to rub off on Oscar. And Felix dares to open up around the Pigeon Sisters. Before thinking of his ex wife and bursting into tears.

Progress, of sorts is made. And would be more deeply explored two years later. When ABC would make a long running series of the play and film two years later. With Tony Randall playing Felix and Jack Klugman fitting snugly into the role of Oscar. With occasional visits from the original Pigeon Sisters.


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