The Odd Couple - Centennial Collection Review

The Lemmon and Matthau (or, if you prefer, Matthau and Lemmon) unofficial comedy team bonanza didn't start with The Odd Couple, but it's the work that's probably become the most emblematic of the two men's professional partnership. They were actually first teamed two years earlier, for Billy Wilder's 1966 comedy The Fortune Cookie, which garnered Matthau an Academy Award and helped him break out from over a decade's worth of deep supporting roles in everything from A Face in the Crowd and Bigger Than Life to Lonely Are the Brave and Charade. It's strange, then, that the roles of Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison, despite being so closely associated with Lemmon and Matthau, were neither originated by the pair (only Matthau was a veteran of Neil Simon's play) nor perfected by it. For all Lemmon's persnickety neurosis, Tony Randall had five seasons of television to master the role of Felix. And while you can flip a coin between Matthau and Jack Klugman to determine the better Oscar, the latter's chemistry with his screen partner slightly outshines the better known twosome.

The neat and neurotic Felix meshes so perfectly with sloven slob Oscar that, in the right hands, the two wifeless men expand far beyond their limitations as mere characters to become diametrical archetypes of the male personality. When Neil Simon's play initially opened on Broadway it was an almost instant classic, earning multiple Tony awards, including wins for Matthau, Simon and director Mike Nichols. Just two years after the film version, where Lemmon replaced original Felix and former Ed Norton Art Carney, the television show emerged starring Randall and Klugman. It lasted for five seasons, and both actors were Emmy-nominated each year, with Klugman winning twice and Randall once. Multiple incarnations in almost every venue imaginable have followed, including a film sequel, a cartoon where the characters were a dog and a cat, a racial reversal television show and a gender reversal Broadway version that starred Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers.

The 1968 movie, no matter how much I try, is inevitably measured against the television show. I'm sure those lucky enough to see the Carney-Matthau pairing also had difficulty entering the film without drawing comparisons. Aside from the obvious unfairness in viewing a single movie versus five seasons of television, there's a notable difference in tone between film and series. The latter, as played out brilliantly from start to finish of its run, was a broad, laughtrack-infused delight that only occasionally touched on the pathos of two divorced men living together after being thrown out by their respective wives. It remains one of the finest and funniest half-hour programmes ever to emerge from American network television. As a mild contrast, the film, directed by Gene Saks and adapted by Simon from his play, has a slightly more serious mood. It has plenty of humourous moments to keep things lively, but there's a thread running throughout that wants to confront the psychological ramifications of approaching middle age after spousal rejection.

It even opens with Lemmon's Felix checking into a hotel intent on committing suicide. He's only sidetracked after suffering a back injury while opening the death portal/window. This mixing of the dramatic and the comedic was Lemmon's forte and his work in The Apartment remains the ultimate movie star example of how such a feat is seamlessly accomplished. His Felix is certainly less broad than Randall's. There's also an elegance that the latter achieves which Lemmon doesn't necessarily nail down. Something that is striking about this cinematic Felix is the depths of depression and frustration Lemmon mines that likely only he could've conveyed so well. Part of the actor's everyman persona was very much attuned to the America of the '60s and the bubbling alienation taking place at the time. Watching Lemmon in The Apartment or here as Felix or even lesser efforts like Good Neighbor Sam or Luv, the dissatisfaction he emits is extremely natural and probably foreshadows the later dramatic turns in films like Missing and Glengarry Glen Ross. I don't know if there's a better actor to symbolise the progression of American life in the second half of the 20th century than Jack Lemmon.

Even so, and still considering how much indelible poignancy Lemmon gives Felix, this Odd Couple is mostly Matthau's shining moment. Like his friend and co-star, Matthau could do just about anything on film, but the niche most deeply carved was the irresponsible and untidy figure that fits Oscar Madison like a well worn New York Mets hat. Matthau is so good at playing his cards close to the vest. He lets you know that Oscar really cares for Felix and appreciates him even if the two men can't sanely live with each other. Matthau's Oscar is not hardly as exaggerated as Klugman's, allowing for a more affectionate, if perhaps not as humourous, portrayal. It may be my needless comparisons at work, but the movie doesn't strike me as a straight comedy at all. Lemmon and Matthau were both such fine actors that they naturally gave the characters multiple dimensions to experience all the pain, sadness, and conflict that exists within experienced adults' dissolving relationships.

Setting aside the comedic elements for a minute, that slightly darker, more adult vision is really how I see this filmed attampt at The Odd Couple. I know it sells better as a straight laughfest, but Lemmon lets Felix be such an unhappy little character. Think about the encounter with the Pigeon sisters when Oscar is off in the kitchen making drinks. Two mostly attractive women, giggly and available, and all Felix can muster is pitiful small talk followed by a peak at photos of his family. He's completely crushed that his marriage has failed and his children are without a full-time father. It's touching, really. The dissolution of marriage is a forever timely topic that was hardly explored back then. The Odd Couple delves quite deep into the mindset of the spurned husband. Felix confides to Oscar that he hates himself, that he basically can't even be upset with his wife for calling it quits. This isn't laugh out loud material at all. Felix is presented as a somewhat self-loathing character who's more upfront with his emotions than Oscar, though he too recognises how deep his flaws run. Oscar says as much to Felix at one point when he has to confront his own shortcomings.

So while there are plenty of sharp laughs to be had, even over forty years after it was made, I think The Odd Couple retains its interest now because of the deeper meaning behind that facade. It examines the quite real aftermath of adult relationship problems without becoming morose or too heavy. Sure it's a bit dated, and I still think it pales a little next to the enduring comedy of the television version, but there's a charm to be had in how the era is portrayed. Likewise, Lemmon and Matthau are effective at keeping us interested in men who are deeply flawed, perhaps unlikable characters. The magic of Felix and Oscar is greatly contained in being able to identify with their exploits, whether it's in the realm of broken relationships or the struggle to keep things neat or just tolerating those we care about who annoy the heck out of us. This film version does indeed capture much of the appeal of these characters Simon created. It presents very humanised portrayals of both Felix and Oscar, probably more so than the small screen version, and asks us to both care and laugh along.

The Discs

The Odd Couple gets spine number 7 in Paramount's continuing Centennial Collection series. Packaging on all these two-disc sets is quite consistent, with an attractive slipcover that houses a regular size keepcase. A small booklet can be found inside the case. A brief complaint, but the sleeve art for this release looks somewhat off to me.

Dual-layered disc one contains an excellent and progressive transfer of the film. It had been previously released on R1 DVD back in 2000. This anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is surely improved, however, as it's clean, sharp and really top-notch overall. No compression issues or artifacts were detected, likely the result of a strong bitrate. Colours seem vibrant and accurate, though Lemmon does look awfully red at times. He might've just been sporting a nice tan I suppose. There isn't any damage or inconsistencies. Start to finish, the film sparkles.

However, some goodwill is lost by Paramount in the audio department. There's no English mono track. This exclusion is silly for a number of reasons. For one, purists tend to prefer the original presentation of films to be recreated as closely as possible. I believe the original English mono was included with the earlier DVD release so it's highly disappointing and downright strange to see it missing here. There's also the question as to whether The Odd Couple really needs a DD 5.1 bump considering its theatrical roots and how much dialogue dominates the audio. This stereo track is notable mostly for calling our attention to Neal Hefti's memorable score, especially the bass portions. It sounds good, if typically unnatural, but the mono should also be here as an option. French and Spanish mono dubs are offered. There are subtitles available in English, French and Spanish, yellow in colour and quite a large font.

All the bonus material in this set, with the exception of the trailer, is newly created. The first disc's sole extra is an audio commentary by Charlie Matthau and Chris Lemmon, sons of the film's stars. Both seem likable enough, but this is mainly an anecdote-filled track that still overlaps quite a bit with their interviews on the second disc. The most interesting news to me was that Paramount originally wanted Frank Sinatra to play Felix and Jackie Gleason as Oscar in the film version. What a different path the Lemmon and Matthau partnership would've taken had that happened.

Disc two is single-layered and has just over an hour of supplements. The idea of the two-disc set seems to be used here purely as a marketing tool, and this is definitely a lightweight array of extra features. A single half hour featurette on the film, neatly edited and included on the first disc, would've sufficed. The material that is here doesn't feature a single interview with Neil Simon and ignores the later incarnations like the television show and the sequel. Looking closer:

"In the Beginning..." (17:01) - These little featurette titles are mostly meaningless since the same people are interviewed in all of them and there's very little distinction of subject matter. We're introduced here to Larry King, Brad Garrett, director Gene Saks, Robert Evans, David Sheiner (who plays Roy in the film), Carole Shelley (Gwendolyn Pigeon), Chris Lemmon and Charlie Matthau. Some of the discussion concerns the material's origins, and there's a pretty funny digression about Walter Matthau's penchant for gambling.

"Inside The Odd Couple" (19:06) - Seemingly random aspects of the film are talked about, from the expensive casting of Lemmon and subsequent inability to afford Billy Wilder to the Pigeon sisters, the poker buddies and the interviewees' favourite scenes. If you're wondering, Larry King's favourite scene in The Odd Couple is the entire first act.

"Memories from the Set" (10:24) - Mostly just director Gene Saks on this one, reminiscing about scenes. We do learn that Walter Matthau broke his arm prior to the shoot and nonetheless still soldiered on.

"Matthau & Lemmon" (10:35) - This turns the focus more on the two men's close friendship with each other. Their sons, Chris Lemmon and Charlie Matthau, also speak about how important their famous fathers were to them. One little strange thing, to me anyway, is a quick shot of an autographed photo Jack Lemmon gave his son. It's the two of them together and the elder Lemmon signed it "To Chris Lemmon," wrote good luck with everything or something to that effect, and then signed the photo.

"The Odd Couple: A Classic" (3:01) - The various interview participants explain briefly why they think the film is a classic. These supplements, while nicely matching from one to the next, are by far the least organised of the Centennial Collection releases so far.

Galleries - 27 black and white stills from Production and another 29 from The Movie

Theatrical Trailer (2:47)

Booklet - Eight pages, with two having text and the others mostly using photographs

Final Thoughts

"You leave me little notes on my pillow. I've told you 158 times I can't stand little notes on my pillow. 'We're all out of cornflakes. F.U.' Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar!"

This is a worthy upgrade for DVD buyers from the previous release. The main nag is a lack of the original English mono audio track while the disc two special features aren't very organised or plentiful. Still, the last R1 release was over eight years ago and this is surely better. Blu-ray editions of all these Paramount catalog titles the studio is re-releasing under the Centennial Collection banner would be nice, and I'm sure the idea of high definition versions is turning off many potential buyers, but right now this is the best there is and it's a pretty fair holding pattern.

8 out of 10
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out of 10

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