#26 in my Ranking of Billy Wilder movies.
This is such a sad way for the great Billy Wilder to end his career. After everything he made, he’d never made a bad film until this. He’d had less than successful ones, but never one that was actually outright bad. Until this, his final film. Some filmmakers goes out with one last great stroke, like Kurosawa making Ran or Bergman making Saraband. Billy Wilder went out with a bad film because he wanted to work with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon one last time and he hadn’t properly considered their appropriateness for the script.
There’s a tiredness to the entire film from the very beginning to the end. From the opening that sees Matthau’s Trabucco carry out a series of assassination of witnesses to Jack Lemmon’s attempted suicides to the trip to the sex clinic to the film’s resolution, the movie feels like it’s just going through the motions. Matthau seems bored. Lemmon seems unengaged. The only real bright spot is Klaus Kinski as the sex clinic’s owner and operator, Dr. Zuckerbrot. He’s bizarre, mostly because he’s played by Klaus Kinski, and it’s different from the blandness that is the rest of the film.
The story is about Matthau trying to take out three witnesses against the mob before they testify to the grand jury. The first gets murdered with a mail bomb, and the second through poisoned milk delivered to his doorstep. The third will get a traditional bullet to the head when he shows up at the courthouse, and in order to make that happen, Trabucco rents a hotel room across the street and simply waits. Next door, though, is Victor Clooney who is dealing with his wife’s abandonment of him for Dr. Zuckerbrot at his sex clinic. In retaliation for her leaving him and refusing to make up, he’s going to kill himself. His first attempt is to hang himself from a pipe in his room which floods the place, causing attention to come to the hotel in ways that Trabucco doesn’t want. So, he tries to talk Clooney out of it and even to simply go away.
Through desperation, Trabucco ends up driving Clooney to the sex clinic, hoping to kill him along the way, but he gets interrupted by some police officers who need to use his car to get a pregnant woman to the closest clinic which, coincidentally, is the sex clinic. Oh, hilarious…
Just so many of the jokes fall flat, and Wilder himself seemed to know. There’s word that about two weeks into filming he realized that Matthau was miscast as Trabucco. The character didn’t need to be funny but menacing. He envisioned Clint Eastwood in the role, but it was too late. They had to finish up. I do think that Eastwood, or someone of his ilk, would have improved the film. The contrast between Trabucco and Clooney would have been heightened which would have helped allow for more actual comedy. I could imagine Eastwood listening with that half-grimace of his as Lemmon explained why he wanted to kill himself, and it seems like it would have been funnier than Matthau looking bored.
It’s a depressing last gasp of a movie, and even the final twist, Clooney, feeling like he has nothing left to lose and wanting to save his new friend Trabucco from retaliation for not taking out his target, takes the gun himself and accidentally kills the last witness, just doesn’t land.
It’s a project Wilder should never have taken on. He had said everything he needed to say in film, and one final Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau comedy about a hit man and suicidal neighbor wasn’t going to add significantly to his oeuvre. Fedora, far from his greatest achievement, would have been a better way to go out.
Netflix Rating: 2/5
Quality Rating: 1/4