Walter Matthau once said of Jack Lemmon:
"He is a clean-cut, well-scrubbed Boston choirboy with quiet hysteria seeping out of every pore."
These two guys were very old for a very long time. Jack Lemmon was 76 when he died last year. Walter Matthau was 80 when he died a year earlier. I seriously doubt if either one of the old bastards ever had any more fun in their lives than when they sat back and watched what they'd done in this 1968 movie.
Gene Saks directed it, and it was written by that predictable icon, Neil Simon. It's said that Simon wrote it after his brother, Danny, got divorced and had a bad experience trying to live with another man who'd also just gotten divorced, in order to save some money from the screwing they'd both just suffered. Saks directed Cactus Flower with the flower child, Goldie Hawn, the next year. His career kinda fizzled out after this, with a director's job for Mame in 1974 and Brighton Beach Memoirs in 1986. That's 12 years between directing jobs. How in the world this guy did such a marvelous job with The Odd Couple is pretty amazing, unless you just figure that Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau could have done it themselves, without him. That's what I figure.
The chemistry between these two guys was so palpable that Hollywood does what it always does: It put enough celluloid on the backs of the money horses that it ruined almost everyone's respect for what they could pull off when it was meaningful to them. I feel sorry for poor ol' Jack Lemmon, thinking of him sitting in that screening room for the dailies on Grumpier Old Men (1995) and then the real slap in the face, The Odd Couple II (1998). The chain-smoking, whorehopping, hard gambling Matthau probably didn't give a shit. He seems like the type to say, "Hell, it ain't no worse than any of the rest of 'em," whether he believed it or not. But I'll bet Lemmon, as much as he (too) liked to toss a few back in the middle of the day, had a hard time with it.
It would be hard to say which one of them carries The Odd Couple. It's like a tandem act, and it would be impossible to imagine the film with one of them and some other actor for the other. Think of Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. Disgusting, isn't it? That's what TV did for this concept, and that's a good example of why it's been downhill for the vast wasteland ever since.
Have you seen Monk? This was one of the best new shows on TV this season. (UPDATE: It became unwatchable after a couple of seasons.) It portrays the extreme example of a man who can't stand anything out of place. Felix isn't quite as severely into the anal regions as Monk, but he's close enough for (dis)comfort. As Ocsar (Matthau) watches Felix take over the casual apartment with this perfection predilection, it's so obvious that Oscar (and only Oscar) is watching and fully comprehending a quickframe time-lapse portrait of why Felix's wife has had enough. Being the old friends that they are, the entire movie is about Oscar biting his tongue. He tries to throw hints, like tossing all the ashtrays on the floor, but Felix cannot grasp it.
The loss of the sure thing with the English birds is what sends Oscar over the edge. This is when he flares and tells Felix the truth, as he sees it. He's a man who has been unlaid for way too long, and this is the last straw.
The bit parts are damn near perfect in this movie. The poker playing buddies are just there to show how "married folks are really happier" and they do it with the least amount of intrusion into the real drama being played out here. These poker buddies and the two English birds are the only other characters in the movie, on screen. Felix's (Lemmon's) ex-wife is an offstage character on the phone.
I watched this again the other day, for the first time in many years. And I can tell you that it's just as funny and heart-wrenching as it was straight out of the can. You can tell when folks are enjoying what they're doing, and I don't know if I've ever seen two dysfunctional bastards having more fun in my life.