Odd Couple, The (1968)

“You don’t understand — I’m nothing without my wife and kids!”

Odd Couple Poster

Synopsis:
When compulsive neat freak Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon) is thrown out of his house by his wife, he goes to live with his good friend Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau), who is quickly driven batty by Felix’s incessant housekeeping.

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Review:
The characters of (neatnik) Felix Ungar and (slob) Oscar Madison have become so culturally iconic that it’s easy to forget just how clever their original big-screen incarnation was. Neil Simon’s screenplay (based upon his own play) plunges us immediately into surprisingly challenging territory, as we witness Felix wandering despondently through the streets of New York, hoping to die; his depression is palpable, and we feel for his situation. From there, we’re shown the true concern expressed by his circle of friends (nicely acted by John Fiedler, Herb Edelman, David Sheiner, and Larry Haines); while their attempts to prevent Felix from committing suicide are played for laughs, they’re consistently bolstered by a refreshing undercurrent of genuine love and concern. The increasingly tense situation that emerges once Felix and Oscar attempt to live with one another is likewise both hilarious and poignant: we can relate to Oscar’s sense that he’s slowly going crazy, yet we simultaneously feel compassion for what is clearly Felix’s (undiagnosed) obsessive-compulsive disorder (or some variation thereof) — and we certainly understand why his wife could no longer live with him!

Lemmon and Matthau are perfectly cast as the title “couple”; their comedic timing and rapport is impeccable. Interestingly, Matthau originally thought he would be better suited as Felix — either given that he was a neatnik in real life (according to a quote in TCM’s article) or because he felt he was too much like Oscar and the role wasn’t enough of a stretch (according to a piece of IMDb trivia); do any readers know the true reason? At any rate, while both performances are excellent, I find Lemmon particularly impressive, given how fearlessly and emphatically he embraces his character’s “feminine” tendencies without devolving into stereotypes of any kind (naturally, one can’t help thinking of his memorably gender-fluid performance in Some Like it Hot). Also of note are Monica Evans and Carole Shelley (who reprised their characters in the long-running T.V. series) in hilarious supporting roles as the sexy British sisters Walter’s hoping to have a good time with, but who are instead distracted by Felix’s sob story.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Lemmon as Felix Unger
    Odd Couple Lemmon
  • Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison
    Odd Couple Matthau
  • Monica Evans and Carole Shelley as Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon
    Odd Couple Sisters
  • A clever tale of friendship put to the ultimate test
    Odd Couple Friends
  • Neal Hefti’s memorable score

Must See?
Yes, as a finely written and acted comedy. This one is a “good show” you’ll look forward to revisiting!

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2 Responses to “Odd Couple, The (1968)”

  1. A no-brainer once-must, as a comedy classic – though it holds up quite well on repeat viewings.

    I have seen this film, over the years, many more times than I could count. It is among the strongest comedies in cinema history and, as such, is about as close to perfection as comedy gets – it just doesn’t stop being funny. Who could ask for anything more? The screen version of the play benefits especially from the fact that it is a very faithful adaptation of something that, no doubt, had been honed to brilliance by being performed on Broadway close to 1,000 times. (Matthau and a few others in the film appeared in that production.) ‘The Odd Couple’ could very well be the best film ever made from a Neil Simon script.

    One of the things I especially love is the snappy repartee among the poker players (which takes up the bulk of the film’s first third). It’s genuinely witty and more or less macho at the same time. Note this exchange among them when Felix has disrupted the game and pressed his overbearing influence by offering one of the players a sandwich:

    Vinnie: Gee, this is delicious. Who wants a bite?
    Murray: Is the toast warm?
    Vinnie: Perfect. Ant not too much mayonnaise. It’s really a well-made sandwich.
    Murray: Cut me off a little piece.
    Vinnie: Give me your napkin. I don’t want to drop any crumbs.
    Speed: Are you listening to this? Martha and Gertrude at the Automat. What the hell happened to our POKER game?!!

    I have rarely witnessed this kind of hilarity captured from men playing cards. Compare it, for example, with the poker game in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, during which all the players are way too serious about the game and seem to do little but grunt while playing.

    On a personal note:
    I saw this in the theater in its first release. It was released the same year that Paramount also released ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. Whereas my mom allowed me to see ‘The Odd Couple’, of course, I had been forbidden to see ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (even though I had read the book) because I was being raised Catholic and the Catholic Church had condemned the film. Both films were huge box office hits – so, soon after the initial release popularity died down, Paramount re-released the two films as a double-feature. The double-bill played where I lived. I don’t really recall how I managed it, but I must have told my mom that I was going to the movies to see ‘The Odd Couple’…and that was that and off I went. I sat through ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ first and had one of the most riveting experiences a 14-year-old could have. I knew I wanted to see it again…right away. So I sat through ‘The Odd Couple’ next, and enjoyed it as much as I had before…but I really couldn’t wait to witness ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ a second time…which, of course, I did. Now, that takes nothing away from ‘The Odd Couple’, and a second viewing of it on that day was probably a well-needed break from the mind-blowing experience that is ‘Rosemary’s Baby’.

  2. An interesting anecdote! It’s fun to think about films — especially wildly different ones — that were released at the same time, as an exercise in contrasts.

    I would agree that Simon’s script here is perfect — PERFECT. Not a line out of place; consistently hilarious and/or poignant. It’s definitely my favorite of his filmed plays.

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