Tag Archives: Walter Matthau

Cactus Flower (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Pretending to be married.

Julian (Walter Matthau) is a dentist who enjoys duping the women he sees into believing that he is married, so he can have the benefit of fooling around with them without the commitment (a sort of ‘friends-with-benefits’ scenario before it became in vogue). Problem is that his most recent girlfriend Toni (Goldie Hawn) wants to get married and threatens to kill herself unless he divorces his wife. Julian readily agrees, but Toni wants to meet his wife first, so he gets Stephanie (Ingrid Bergman) who works as his receptionist to pretend to be his wife. Things though don’t go smoothly as Stephanie has feelings for Julian and Toni realizes this, which makes her reluctant about pursuing her marriage plans with him.

The film is based on the hit Broadway play by Abe Burrows, which in-turn was based on a French play by Pierre Barillet. The plot may sound funny, but it’s actually rather dumb. There’s plenty of men who pretend not to be married when they are in order to have the excuse to fool-around and they’re women who pretend to be married when they really aren’t in an effort to ward off a guy who’s hitting on them, but a guy pretending he’s married to get women to go to bed with him seems pretty strange and I really didn’t get the logic. From his perspective I get it, sex without-the-strings, but what exactly is the woman getting out of it?

Had Toni been using Julian just like he was using her it would’ve made more sense by having her get into the relationship to benefit off of the money he was willing to spend on her, but Toni actually wanted commitment and marriage! Besides that why is she suddenly so concerned about the wife’s feelings now as she’d been having a relationship with Julian for a whole year before and not worried about it then?

There’s also the issue of why this swinging bachelor who’s commitment-phobic already is going to want to get tied-down by a ditzy lady who threatens suicide every time she doesn’t get what she wants. Better for him to dump her now and find some other chick to dupe.

I had problems with Bergman’s character too. For one thing I wanted to see more of a character arc. Having her portrayed as a sexually oppressed, cold, bitchy lady at the start who only softens at the very end once she finally finds ‘true love’ would’ve been more dramatic, but Bergman plays the part too nicely and the bitchy side gets underplayed. Lauren Bacall originated the part on Broadway and I was surprised she was that she wasn’t given the opportunity to reprise the role for the film because if there is one woman who can play a bitch to perfection it’s her.

Gene Saks’ lifeless direction is another detriment. The sets are dreary and unimaginative. The scene at the club is boring because the place has no pizazz. This was the late ‘60s and they should’ve attended some far-out psychedelic place with heavy rock music and people strung-out on acid. Toni could’ve felt comfortable being there while Julian and Stephanie wouldn’t be. This then would’ve given the opportunity to focus on the generational gap between the two as Julian was 25 years older than Toni, but the film really never touches on that.

Hawn’s Academy Award winning performance is excellent especially the close-up shot where her big blue eyes well up and a single tear trickles down her face. The scene at the club where Bergman comes up with ‘the dentist dance’ that everyone else imitates is funny. Otherwise the trite plot is too superficial to be either believable or interesting.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 16, 1969

Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

Rated M

Director: Gene Saks

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Buddy Buddy (1981)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Suicidal man hampers hit.

Trabucco (Walter Matthau) checks into a hotel intent on completing a hit by shooting a mob informant before he can testify at trial. He’s already killed the two other informants with relative ease, but now finds this one to be much more complicated due to having to deal with Victor (Jack Lemmon) who resides in the adjoining room. Victor is upset that his wife Celia (Paula Prentiss) has left him for a sex therapist (Klaus Kinski) and proceeds to try to hang himself by tying the noose around the water pipes in the bathroom, but all he succeeds at doing is busting the pipes and creating a flood. Trabucco decides to ‘befriend’ the man in order to keep an eye on him and prevent him from trying to kill himself again, which he feels will only lead to unwanted attention from the authorities. However, Jack causes more problems for him than the police ever could.

This was the last film directed by Billy Wilder who stated in more than a few interviews that he considers this movie to be his poorest effort and his least favorite. Matthau and Lemmon have pretty much said the same thing as well. The film was a critical flop and lost 3.5 million at the box office, which helped to prevent Wilder from ever helming another movie again.

However, I was delightfully surprised at how funny I found this movie to be. It’s not exactly laugh-out-loud hilarity, but on a low-key level it works. The part where Lemmon gets tied to a chair and his mouth gagged while he screams at an ambivalent housekeeper (Bette Raya) to free him is quite good and the part where the two men going gliding down a clothes chute is fun too.

The whole thing is a remake of the French film A Pain in the A__, but it implements changes to the plot that improves it from the original. For one thing the dialogue is funnier, the two men have more genuine conversations and they even develop a bit of a bonding. The film adds more characters too like the beleaguered Captain Hubris played by Dana Elcar who tries in vain to protect the witnesses from Trubacco, but with little success. The distinctive musical score by Lalo Shifrin is also big improvement.

Lemmon is quite funny as he plays a sort-of hyped-up version of his Felix Unger character. Matthau seems a bit stymied in a role that allows for very little expression, but he still manages to make the most of it. My favorite performance though was that of Kinski who takes a rare comic turn and utters the movies best line: “Pre-ejaculation means always having to say you’re sorry.”

Having the two actually work together to complete the hit and then make an escape from the cops is good and something that did not occur in the original. The resolution, which takes place on a tropical island, is a bit of an improvement over the first one though it’s still not perfect. In either event it’s a relatively solid comedy that offers a few good laughs and deserves more attention especially for fans of Lemmon/Matthau.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 11, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 36Minutes

Rated R

Director: Billy Wilder

Studio: MGM

Available: VHS

Il Piccolo Diavolo (1988)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Priest befriends a demon.

Father Maurice (Walter Matthau) is a tired and aging priest who is beginning to question both his faith and existence. One day he is called to exorcise a demon from an older woman and when he does so out pops a funny looking man named Giuditta (Roberto Benigni) who claims to be the demon. At first Father Maurice does not believe him, but after seeing that Giuditta’s reflection does not appear in a mirror he begins to realize that he is dealing with some spirit from another realm. His attempts at trying to get rid of him are futile and eventually he learns to enjoy the companionship that Giuditta offers and even considers him to be a strange blessing in disguise.

There have been many parodies done of The Exorcist, but this one manages to be one of the better ones because it doesn’t stick with the formula. Instead it takes the possession angle and gives it a whole new spin while avoiding the clichés and becoming more like a whimsical character study instead of a horror rip-off.

Benigni, who also directed, is in top form and his naïve, child-like character is quite engaging and helps make him a solid scene stealer throughout. He even manages to do the impossible and upstage the always reliable Matthau, although for the record Matthau is still good and it’s fun seeing these pros with extremely contrasting acting styles work together with a chemistry that is surprisingly strong.

The film features many funny and original moments. One of my favorites is when Giuditta goes into a long, detailed conversation about being ‘inside’ the old woman for days on-end much to the shock of the staid priests at the dinner table who think he is referring to sex. Giuditta’s reliving himself late at night in a park in which his pee shoots out like water from a garden hose is hilarious as well as his over-infatuation with a the alarm on a man’s wristwatch while riding on a train.

Why this charming little gem of a movie has never been released in America despite its big name stars is hard to understand. The film’s only real drawback is that it inserts a romantic angle during the second-half in which Giuditta falls in-love with Nina, which is played by Nicoletta Braschi who later married Benigni in real-life. Although Braschi is amusing and shares Benigni’s child-like, offbeat persona, the camaraderie between Matthau and Benigni is what makes the film work and that is where the focus should’ve stayed.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 3, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Roberto Benigni

Studio Yarno Cinematografica

Available: VHS (English Subtitles), DVD (Italian Language only) (Region 0)

California Suite (1978)

california suite

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Visitors at a hotel.

Based on the hit Neil Simon play, who also wrote the screenplay, the film follows five couples all staying at the same posh Beverly Hills hotel. Hannah and Bill (Jane Fonda, Alan Alda) are a divorced couple fighting over the custody of their teenage daughter (Dana Plato). Diana (Maggie Smith) is a famous British actress set to attend the Academy Awards ceremony and being escorted by Sidney (Michael Caine) a man she wants all for herself, but can’t because he is bisexual. Marvin (Walter Matthau) is in town to attend his nephew’s Bar Mitzvah and shocked to find that his brother (Herb Edelman) has sent a prostitute (Denise Galik) to his room to entertain him for the night only for her to promptly pass out drunk the next morning just as his wife (Elaine May) is about to arrive. The final segment deals with two bickering Dr’s (Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor) who can’t get along and seem to get themselves into one over-the-top calamity after another.

Many viewers have commented that they disliked the Fonda character as she came off as too cold and bitchy, but I’ve known many people who are like her who put up a very steely front in order to protect themselves emotionally, so for me her sarcasm worked and the way she delivered her acerbic lines is fun especially as she chews up the already transparent Alda character until it seems like he isn’t even there.

Smith and Caine’s segment seemed a bit trite and generic. The first part of it deals with her nervousness about attending the awards ceremony, which isn’t all that original. The second half examines her frustrations at the fact that Sidney can’t solely commit to her, but I couldn’t completely buy into this because she was playing a rich and famous, globe-trotting actress whom I’m sure could easily find another man if she wanted and didn’t have to cling to someone who didn’t fully want her like she were some lonely, small town housewife with no options.

The third segment dealing with Matthau and the unconscious prostitute is quite funny and had me laughing-out-loud while the scenes involving Cosby and Pryor’s constant arguing is incredibly dumb and even jarring as it features a lot of silly, slapstick humor that does not fit in with the more sophisticated tone of the rest of the film.

I was also not so crazy about the film’s pacing. The first hour deals almost exclusively with the dramatic segments while the second half focuses mainly on the comical ones, which came off as imbalanced. It would’ve worked better had the stories been evenly spread out in a rotating type fashion with a few minutes spent on each one before cutting to the next one. It would also have been cool had it taken a Slacker-like approach where the characters, who never once cross paths in this movie, would have instead passed by each other at certain points and the scene would then shift to the new characters that the other ones just passed.

I was also disappointed that we never get to see much of exterior of the hotel. We do see a bird’s eye view of it during the closing credits, but I thought shots of it should’ve been shown during the beginning. I have nothing against David Hockney’s artwork that does get used, but the hotel is a part of the film’s title and therefore should have taken precedence.

Overall though I felt it was a decent dramedy worth the price of admission. It also features a terrific and distinctive jazz score by Claude Bolling that I wish had been used even more throughout.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 15, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Herbert Ross

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

The Laughing Policeman (1973)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: This policeman isn’t laughing.

8 passengers on a San Francisco bus are slaughtered to death by a mysterious gunman for no apparent reason. When Police Sargent Jake Martin (Walter Matthau) investigates he finds that his patrol partner is one of the victims. He soon learns that his partner was working on another case during his off hours dealing with a murdered prostitute that Jake had also worked on, but couldn’t crack. He begins to believe the two cases are somehow connected, but his brash department head (Anthony Zebe) doesn’t agree and thinks it is a waste of time to pursue the possible connection while also sticking him with Leo (Bruce Dern) a younger cop who doesn’t always like to play within the rules and whose manner and methods conflicts with Jake’s.

The film, which is based on the novel by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall who also did the book version for Man on the Roof, has a finely detailed gritty nature about it that looks at the methods of a police investigation in a realistic and unglamorous fashion, which significantly helps this one stand out from the usual cop dramas. I loved the way they searched for clues on the bus and the autopsies of the victims as well as pursuing leads that never pan out, which is a very common occurrence in most police investigations, but rarely is ever shown in movies. There is even a shot of a tow truck removing the disabled bus from the accident scene once the investigation is completed.

Although the novel’s setting was Stockholm the movie transplants the action to San Francisco making the Bay City almost like a third character. Director Stuart Rosenberg manages to nicely capture the eclectic vibe of the area and the disdain many people had for the police during that era. The movie also uses very little music, which is a major asset and helps accentuate the realism. Outside of the closing credits the only time there is really any other music is near the end when Jake and Leo start following a suspect, which comes off as jarring and should’ve been left out.

Matthau who’s mostly known for his comedic parts does well in an atypical role, which due to his casting and the film’s strange title may make some think it is a comedy though this is far from it. Dern is terrific in a role that takes full advantage of his edgy acting style and I liked how the two characters don’t get along at first, but eventually get past their differences and use each other’s unique strengths to their advantage. I was disappointed though that there is a side-story dealing with Jake’s tumultuous relationship with his teenage son that gets introduced early on, but then dropped and completely forgotten during the second half.

Louis Gossett Jr. gets a star making turn as a brash street cop and Zerbe is superb in support as the gruff police chief. Joanna Cassidy has a brief, but interesting bit as a witness and I liked the shot showing her and Dern sitting amidst a row of tables with table legs made to look like human ones. It’s also amusing to note that Albert Paulsen’s character who becomes the main suspect in the film never utters a single word of dialogue.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s biggest downfall though is with its ending. It is very hard to believe that a character such as Paulsen’s that is portrayed as being rich and having a lot of connections would feel the need to shoot and kill the bus passengers himself as most if not all rich people simply hire someone else to their dirty work. I also didn’t think that someone who walks down the street surrounded by lawyers would crack as quickly as this one does when Matthau comes to question him about the case. A typical well-off businessman would simply ‘lawyer-up’ and trust that the minimum evidence that the police have would not hold up in court instead of jumping into his car and racing down the city streets in a panic such as he does here. The finale becomes too conveniently Hollywood-like and seems to sell out on the film’s original concept, which left this viewer with a flat and ambivalent feeling towards it when it was over.

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End of Spoiler Alert!

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 20, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated R

Director: Stuart Rosenberg

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

The Survivors (1983)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Seeking refuge with vigilantes

Sonny (Walter Matthau) and Donald (Robin Williams) are a mismatched pair who inadvertently become involved with bad guy Jack (Jerry Reed) after witnessing him holding up a restaurant. Donald seeks protection by joining a radical militia group while Sonny chases after him in an attempt to get him out of it.

The story certainly has the foundation for good potent satire. It hits on the serious issue of average citizen vigilantes who become more fanatical and dangerous than the criminals themselves. It peaks with a scene in a gun shop were a little old lady packs herself with some really big guns. Unfortunately it becomes soft and aimless after that and the result is a clumsy comedy with too much nonsense thrown in for cheap laughs.

There is also too many shifts in allegiances here, which makes it all implausible. First Donald is on the run from Jack and even tells him off in a funny moment over the telephone. Then before you know it they are working together and going against the fanatical militia group that at one time Donald was really into. The final denouncement involving the true allegiance of the militia group’s leader is also absurd.

There are some good laughs, but they are scattered haphazardly throughout. The best stuff comes from Williams. He seems a little out of place at first playing the part of the henpecked businessman, but he quickly comes into his own. His shootout with Reed is the real topper and Matthau is as always consistently amusing.

The female cast is also interesting. Kristen Vigard is a nice addition as Matthau’s teen daughter. She is pretty and smart, but still quite sweet. Her relaxed and casual responses to things are a nice contrast to the frantic behaving adults. Annie McEnroe as Williams’ wife is also good only because of her facial expressions which never allow you to know what she is really thinking or feeling.

The best line comes from hit-man Reed: “I was raised a strict Southern Baptist and I place a high value on human life… at least $20,000.”

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 22, 1983

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Ritchie

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Lonely Are the Brave (1962)

lonely are the brave

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: A modern day cowboy.

Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) is a loner cowboy still trying to live the lifestyle of the old west in the modern day world and who must elude the police and all of their modern technologies when he escapes from jail.

Kirk is excellent. He really connects with the character and allows the viewer to do the same. The cinematography is first rate with spectacular shots of the western landscape. The cowboy’s escape through the rugged terrain as well as the police pursuit is exciting most to the way and there is a terrific well-choreographed barroom brawl between Douglas and actor Bill Raisch who later went on to star as the one-armed man in ‘The Fugitive’ TV-series. This is also a great chance to see some young actors just starting out including Carroll O’Connor and Bill Bixby.

On the negative end I wasn’t too crazy about Walter Matthau and William Schallert as the two policemen who are played too much for laughs. Some of their goofy exchanges are amusing, but it hurts the tension. I also disliked the ending. It does indeed leave an impression and was obviously done to make a statement, but it is not completely effective and is a real downer. It also leaves too many issues open including whether the Douglas character was able to survive.

The high production values help immensely and the story structure keeps things interesting and offbeat as well as exciting. The film though cannot overcome its ending, which isn’t very original and no more profound than hundreds of other stories and movies dealing with the same subject.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: May 24, 1962

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Not Rated

Director: David Miller

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

House Calls (1978)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Playboy tries mending ways.

Walter Matthau is by all means an incredibly talented performer and a joy to watch. However, in the looks department he rates pretty low and may be one of the ugliest leading men this side of Don Knotts. Yet this film practically shoots itself in the foot from the very beginning by portraying, with a straight face, Matthau as a doctor who has become a super hunk/chick magnet. All the hot young women are chasing after him! His locker is filled with their love letters and he actually beds a different one each night!!! Problems ensue though when he falls for Ann (Glenda Jackson) who is one of his patients. She is a middle- aged woman who is a bit ‘rough around the edges’. She wants him to drop his playboy ways and commit solely to her, yet he is not sure he can.

This is an overly smug, ‘sophisticated’ comedy that is too light and easy going and in desperate need for a fuller story and little more conflict. The comedy should have been broader instead of just being a long precession of glib one-liners. There’s a few comic set ups that are never even followed through on. However, Art Carney’s eulogy to a dead baseball owner and their subsequent burial of him underneath home plate is good.

The casting of Jackson is one of the few inspired things about this film. Her sharp British wit is a perfect foil to Matthau’s laid-back style, but it doesn’t play it up enough. Their one true ‘confrontation’ doesn’t come until the very end and although the spat is definitely contrived it does at least offer the lively fun you expected of this from the very beginning.

Another problem with this film is that it tries to mix the old fashioned romantic comedy with modern day sensibilities. The silly ‘goof ups’ at the hospital really don’t seem so funny when only a few years earlier these same problems were shown in the excellent film The Hospital with much more serious ramifications. It also looks awkward to have such ‘old school’ middle-agers suddenly jumping into the trendy ‘70’s lifestyle of casual sex and one-night-stands.

There is also the stilted habit of referring to sex as ‘humping’. This seems like a very dated, antiquated term even for back then. Let’s face it this is a slow moving comedy made specifically for adults and kids really wouldn’t want to see it anyways, so striving for the ‘PG’ rating was futile. They should’ve sucked it up, accepted the ‘R’ rating and called sex ‘fucking’ like everybody else.

Jackson and Matthau were later reunited in the 1980 film Hopscotch.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: March 15, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Howard Zieff

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD