Wednesday 1 April 2009

The Fortune (1975)

Director: Mike Nichols
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Stockard Channing

Back in the 1920s, the US had a law called the Mann Act, which prohibited the transportation of a woman over state lines for immoral purposes. Yeah, even wackier than prohibition. It was originally intended as a means to combat white slavery but was used against prostitution and that always insubstantial puppy, immorality. What this meant was that it could be brought to bear in many situations including, as the introductory screen tells us, anyone who wanted to have their wicked way with a woman but was unable or unwilling to marry them. Many people became victims of the Mann Act because of prejudice or lack of anything more substantial, including heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and Charlie Chaplin, who was acquitted but still ended up moving to Switzerland because of the negative fallout.

In this instance the woman is heiress Fredrika Biggard, played by Stockard Channing in her first credited screen role, and the anyone is Warren Beatty, playing Nicky Wilson. The twist comes through Wilson being married already, so to get his millionaire heiress on the train and plane to the city of Angels he has to get her drunk then get her married to Jack Nicholson. This is accomplished reasonably easy, given that Nicholson's character, Oscar Sullivan, is wanted for embezzlement. As Wilson poses it, does he want to go to jail or does he want to go to California?

Once in LA, they do whatever they can to get hold of her money, though that's generally reasonably subtle and plays a definite second fiddle to other shenanigans. Eventually Freddie has had enough though and proudly announces that she's going to donate all her money to charity, leaving Wilson and Sullivan to move on to more serious attempts, up to and including murder. As the wonderful tagline of the film suggests, they aren't particularly good at anything and murder least of all. It reads: 'Sexier than the Marx Brothers, handsomer than Laurel and Hardy but not as smart as The Three Stooges.'

To say that the two stars had fun with their parts is an understatement. Beatty is blissfully serious and Nicholson has wild hair like Sam Jaffe playing one of his mad professor roles. I don't know how many takes it took for them to nail the mouse bed scene but I'd be amazed if they didn't have each other in stitches so often that it took a long, long while. That's the greatest scene for me, even though there's almost nothing happening and it's mostly told through head movements and nuances of speech. There are many more obvious scenes full of slapstick idiocy that work too, but the quality is definitely varied. Some scenes are riotous gems, others fall utterly flat.

What's most surprising is that this is so little known. It's no great success, especially given the other films made beforehand by almost any of the people involved: Mike Nichols had directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate; Warren Beatty had made Bonnie and Clyde and was riding high after Shampoo two months earlier; and Nicholson had Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown behind him. Yet it's a fun enough film with many memorable moments, solid performances from all involved, a great introduction to Stockard Channing, and, unsurprisingly after seeing it, an insight into the Coen brothers who have claimed this as one of their biggest influences. That influence is not difficult to see.

1 comment:

The Rush Blog said...

I remember this movie. I also remember enjoying it, much to my surprise. And yet . . . I haven't seen it on TV, video or DVD in many years.