The Odd Couple, 1968.
Directed by Gene Saks.
Starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Fiedler, Herb Edelman, David Sheiner and Larry Haines.
One untidy, unorganised divorcee moves in with a tidy, organised divorcee.
“307,” the hotel clerk tells Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon) as he passes him the room key. “Have you got anything a little higher?” replies Felix. The hotel clerk shares a bemused look with the other person on the front desk. Felix cuts a pretty dejected figure, his face hanging like a wet, sagging towel on a washing line. “914?” the hotel clerk suggests. Felix takes the key and wonders to the elevator. It’s out of service.
Felix’s wife has just broken up with him. His children, apartment and her were his entire life. A photo of each is kept in his wallet. Know anyone else who has a photo of their front room in his wallet? That’s the sort of guy Felix is – unbearably house proud.
A jaunty musical score accompanies Felix’s climb to room 914. It brings humour to what is a very sad situation, climaxing when Felix attempts to jump to the street below, but finds the window jammed shut. A few pathetic attempts to dislodge it gives him a terrible back spasm. That’s the other thing about Felix – his body is incredibly fragile.
He’s allergic to almost everything, even women’s perfume. Francis, his wife, had to wear his men’s aftershave for the twelve years they were together. She hated that.
And so unable to commit suicide, because of a sealed window and a weak stomach for pills, he ventures to his weekly Friday night poker game over at Oscar’s (Walter Matthau) apartment.
Oscar is the opposite. “I got brown sandwiches and green sandwiches. Which one do you want?” presents Oscar, the ever-thoughtful host, to his guests. “What’s the green?” “It’s either very new cheese or very old meat.” His fridge has been broken for the last two weeks. He’s terrible with money, recently divorced and four weeks behind on his alimony payments. The flat is disgustingly messy, smoky and hot. The five friends around the poker table are profusely sweating from their visibly damp armpits and foreheads. The place only has a single window.
There is great care taken in showing precisely how hot and messy the apartment is. Oscar’s guests constantly complain about not having another window. The majority of the film takes place in this flat, so setting it up is as important as establishing the characters. The apartment’s state undergoes its own character development as the film progresses.
The film occasionally ventures out of the flat, but never for anything important. Outside by the lift, maybe, or at a diner down the road to get some fresh air. Having the action leave the apartment is more to give the viewer a break rather than any narrative need.
It’s obvious that The Odd Couple is adapted from a play. The way the action is limited to a singular room, the streamlined precision in the dialogue and how the relationship dynamics between characters is constantly shifting all strongly echo the theatre. As the five men complain of the room’s heat, it’s hard not to be reminded of the opening awkwardness of 12 Angry Men – it too adapted from the stage.
The poker players hear about Felix’s suicidal intentions after a phone call from his ex-wife (he had sent a telegram instead of a note – “Can you imagine a thing like that? She even had to tip the kid a quarter”). When he arrives for the game, and despite the heat, they quickly shut the only window in that 12th story apartment.
Oscar demands Felix move in with him. The rest is the plot for almost every sitcom you attempted to write when you were a twenty-something: Messy, unorganised, but fun and easy-going person shares a flat with uptight, clean-freak hypochondriac. They disagree and they make-up. They try and get girls, and help each other out in life. At one point, their arguments get so bad that Oscar opens that only window in the apartment wide open, hoping that Felix will fling himself from it.
Although it’s an exhausted formula these days, The Odd Couple comes across as effortlessly fresh. The comic timing is perfect, in both the actors and the direction. Pauses are held for exactly the right length before replying to express frustration or disbelief. The close-ups, too, are used sparingly and to great comic effect. Theatre can’t do that.
“Funny, I haven’t thought of women in weeks,” Felix remarks at a bowling alley on the pair’s first attempt to pick up girls. “I fail to see the humour,” replies Oscar, staring straight ahead down their lane, in the drollest of deadpan retorts.
Exchanges like those will store themselves in a special place in your brain, alongside all the Groucho Marx and Woody Allen jokes you ever heard, in the hope that one day, when the planets align and you’re in the Gods’ favour, a perfect situation will arise to use them. And use them you shall. And you’ll be the coolest person ever for a minute or two.
365 Days, 100 Films
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