The Odd Couple (1968)
There is an old saying the opposites attract and to some extent it is true. People often find happiness with a mate whose personality compliments each other rather than being a duplicate. One thing is certain though, polar opposite personalities make for a great premise for a story. This concept can be deeply philosophical such as in Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘No Exit’ or the basis for laughter as in Neil Simon’s ‘The Odd Couple’. When it comes to conflicting personalities this is consider the gold standard. The play opened on Broadway in 1965 to rave reviews and was made into the film under consideration here in 1968. It would also go on to becoming one of the most popular television sit-coms ever starting in 1970. The premise was extremely simple; two divorced men share an apartment but although they are best friends the extreme differences in their personalities is a constant source of conflict. While many consider the television series to be superior to the film there is little doubt that the movie remains one of the best comedies ever made coming in a number 17 on the AFI’s best comedies list. Now it is receiving another well deserved honor; inclusion in Paramount’s Centennial Edition DVD releases. This on going series of DVD represents the best films that have come through the much lauded Paramount studios. Technically their 100th anniversary is in 2012 but they are getting the jump on things with seven releases so far in the series. Paramount has one of the best catalogues of films spanning every conceivable genre so this series is sure to have something for every taste.
In the case of this film ‘The Odd Couple’ the humor is timeless. Conflict is necessary for both drama and humor and in this movie both are touched on but it is the funny moments that make this film immortal. In fact the title ‘Odd Couple’ has become synonymous with a mismatched pair. Many movies and television series have tried to couple this formula for success but to date none have achieved what was done here. A lot of popular plays have been made into movies but few were able to reach the standards of the original. In this case the transition was virtually seamless. There is magic in this story that worked through the play, movie and original television series. There have been several DVD releases of the movie over the years but this one is newly restored to look and sound better than ever. Even if you have an older copy it is time to move up and revisit this classic comedy.
One of the major ingredients for the success of this film is the writing. It never hurts to have the original playwright responsible for the script. Neil Simon is a master class wordsmith. He dialogue is able to come across as witty and sharp yet never loses that natural feel that makes the audience believe that they are listening to people they know. By now the story is known to most of the planet. Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) has just been thrown out by his wife. In desperation he turns to his friend Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau) who is divorced and living in a nice upper west side apartment. Felix is compulsively neat. Everything has a place and there is a way to do each task. For Oscar neatness is just not part of his vocabulary. He is a slob, to put it lightly. They have no common ground except for their failed marriage and a strange friendship. One question that always arises when people discuss this story line is why they men would stay together if they are constantly getting on each other’s nerves? The answer has been often debated but it comes down to they each saw a need for the other. Felix was so uptight that he envied his friend. Oscar seems to understand that there were repercussions to the lack of structure in his life. This is the heart of this story and what makes it understandable to the audience on a fundamentally human level. Even the fashion that the men argue displays an innate understanding of the human condition on the part of Simon. Oscar is direct. When he is angry he lashes out at the source of his feelings. Felix, on the other hand, is the epitome of passive aggression. Anger is a messy emotion, a lack of the control that he requires and it has to be pushed down at all costs. This is a perfect example of using extremes to reflect the norm.
With such a fantastic script it takes a well seasoned and brilliant director to bring the story to life. Fortunately for all of us fans of cinema in this instance we got Gene Saks. While many members of the audience may not be familiar with the name he was one of the best directors to transfer a story from the Broadway stage to the screen. This film was his sophomore work as a director with ‘Barefoot in the Park’ as his opening opus. Afterwards he went on to bringing such Broadway hits as ‘Mame’ and ‘Bye-Bye Birdie’ to the screen. It takes a special set of skills to broaden the vista of a film on the screen while retaining the intimate feel of the stage and Saks had it down to a science. He did keep most of the activity centered in the Manhattan apartment shared by Oscar and Felix. It was a luxurious eight room place that should normally offer than enough space for two men but in the context explored here it was transformed into a battle ground. Both men were set in their ways and unwilling to change.
These were pivotal, defining roles for both Matthau and Lemmon. Both men were already well established in their careers but this is the kind of role that lives on in the history of film. Matthau had a slight advantage having created the role of Oscar on the stage. Here he kept the brilliant comic timing alive with every quip arriving at the exact right moment. Lemmon had already proven that he had a magical chemistry with Matthau in ‘The Fortune Cookie’ and was a veteran of many urbane, banter filled comedies. He also had received the Academy Award nomination eight times with two wins. If is not often that an audience gets the opportunity to see two actors of this caliber on the same screen and this film will live on forever because of this pairing.
As is the case with all installments of Paramount’s ‘Centennial’ series the film was completely re-mastered. It looks sharper and has better audio than I remembered when I first saw it in the theater. Paramount has been responsible for more than their share of classics films and even if you already own a copy of this one on DVD this is worth getting again. Also typical of the series there are insightful extras that will entertain and inform.