Monday, September 10, 2007
"Why the Hell isn't This on DVD yet?" -- Number 20
BUDDY BUDDY (1981 MGM) Starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Klaus Kinski, Paula Prentiss and Dana Elcar. Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond.
Billy Wilder and longtime collaborator I. A. L. Diamond worked together one last time on BUDDY BUDDY. Adapted from the solidly funny 1973 French hit, L’EMMERDEUR (a.k.a. A PAIN IN THE A--), it would be Wilder’s cinematic swan song.
Walter Matthau is an aging but resourceful and efficient hit man assigned to eliminate 3 government witnesses before a key trial. Having dispatched the first two using disguises, he makes his way to Riverside to finish the job in a hotel across the street from the courthouse. However he has the bad luck to have a room adjacent to clumsy network censor Jack Lemmon, who is a suicidal wreck after losing wife Paula Prentiss to sex guru Klaus Kinski. Afraid that Lemmon’s suicide attempts will attract the attention of the police, he tries in succession to incapacitate Lemmon, patch things up in Lemmon's marriage, and kill Lemmon himself(!). Failing at all three, he drives Lemmon to meet Prentiss face to face. With the hour fast approaching, Matthau hurries back to the hotel and diligently lines up his shot, not knowing that Lemmon is back in his room with one last suicide try in mind.
In adapting L’EMMERDEUR, Wilder and Diamond eliminated script elements making the hit man more physically imposing (Matthau just didn't look as intimidating as French lead Lino Ventura), changed the milquetoast’s profession from shirt salesman to network censor, and also revised the denouement. Sadly, there’s quite a bit of evidence that Wilder, at 74, had lost his fastball. There’s one scene satirizing hippies (in 1981?), another particularly embarrassing and unfunny scene in which the hotel’s cleaning lady doesn’t notice a bound and gagged Lemmon when she comes in to clean up (after a suicide attempt), and several lapses in logic. A few examples: Matthau’s character implausibly uses his real name when checking into the hotel (unless the target knows Matthau's alias), the police roadblock is remarkably easy for Kinski, Lemmon and Prentiss to get past, and most far-fetched of all, Lemmon suddenly becomes way more helpful than such a rigid, uptight guy possibly could at a key moment.
But just as Joe Montana had some moments of brilliance left after his trade to the Chiefs, elder Wilder still has something in the basement (as Rocky would say) despite the misfires. The new ending is arguably darker than the original’s, as Wilder and Diamond avoid the feel-good copout that closed (and marred) their otherwise great THE FORTUNE COOKIE. Casting Kinski as a deadpan sex guru is good for a few laughs, and Wilder and Diamond deliver some priceless dialogue between the laconic and profane Matthau and the garrulous, clueless Lemmon regarding Lemmon’s job and sex life.