ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Fortune (1975) dir: Mike Nichols Blu Ray (Indicator)
Comedic con artists
This comedy set in America in the 1920s features Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson as Nicky and Oscar, a pair of con artists who are attempting to extract money from alcoholic heiress Frederica (Stockard Channing). Frederica is Nicky’s mistress but has to marry Oscar at the start of the film so as to get around the Mann Act - a ruling from US law during this period that made it a criminal offence to bring a woman across state lines for the purposes of committing immoral acts.
While the trio travels from New York to Los Angeles by train and plane, Nicky poses as Frederica’s brother. However, various comedic complications ensue due to Oscar’s wild, loose cannon behaviour constantly drawing attention to the three. Things go from bad to worse when they reach their rented home in LA as Oscar decides that in his power as her official husband he, too, wants sexual favours from her. Meanwhile, their landlady Mrs. Gould (Florence Stanley) insists on eavesdropping on their peccadilloes.
Frederica soon catches wind of the bumbling duo’s ultimate scheme to get their hands on her inheritance and proclaims that she will give it all to charity. With this in mind, the pair attempt to have her bumped off before she can alter her will.
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An unusual flop for Beatty, Nicholson and Nichols
The Fortune was a major critical and commercial flop at the time despite its pairing of two of the hottest acting talents of the era - Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson - plus acclaimed director Mike Nichols at the helm. It’s not so much that it’s a bad movie as one which seems out of step for such heavyweights to choose participate in. To appreciate it fully you have to really take it for what it is: a zany comedic escapade rather than as a consummate showcase for some of Hollywood’s finest talents.
Even when taken on this level, it’s by no means a perfect film. For one thing, the whole initial setup is rather convoluted and far-fetched, not to mention somewhat poorly-explained via a brief opening card and a few lines of dialogue. It rather awkwardly melds two concepts where just one of them would have sufficed for setting up a farcical situation: firstly, that of a man wanting to get around the Mann Act by having his mistress married off to another man and secondly, the two men attempting to get their grubby hands on her fortune. There’s no earthly reason or explanation as to why both notions need to be brought together here. It’s possible that the setup was explained more clearly in the original script by Carole Eastman (credited here as Adrien Joyce) but it seems to have gone out of the window in the final product.
Likewise, the three main stars are fine in their individual roles: Warren Beatty as the uptight and bossy “straight man” of the duo, Jack Nicholson in his usual wild man mode as his loose cannon counterpart and Stockard Channing (in her first major big-screen role) as their ditzy and hysterical mark. However, there’s nothing here to convince us (other than moviemaking contrivance) to convince us how and why these chalk-and-cheese characters got together in the first place. They are basically three heavily stereotyped, borderline cartoon characters who seem to have been born just to clash with each other.
A film redeemed by its humour
Despite these issues, however, The Fortune is surprisingly entertaining. A lot of the comedic moments are quite amusing - such as Frederica’s disastrous attempts at cooking along with the duo’s increasingly inept and ill-starred attempts to get rid of her. For instance, that cliched “dump the body off a river bridge in the middle of the night” trope gets turned into a moment of hilarity as, far from the expected result of them being able to carry out the act with no witnesses for miles around, their parked vehicle ends up causing a traffic jam and a number of angry motorists. Unfortunately, too many scenes tend to focus on shouting and bickering between the three leads. Nonetheless, there are enough scenes that are genuinely funny to make it worthwhile.
The film’s period details and visuals are also superb; the manners, costumes and vehicles of this time in American history are captured with a warm affection via the beautifully autumnal John A. Alonzo cinematography. There’s a particularly entertaining moment depicting early passenger air travel in all of its uncomfortable, bone-shaking glory. There’s also a brief but inventively opulent scene in a plush, deeply red restaurant featuring the trio dancing behind hanging strings of diamonds.
Eagle-eyed movie buffs should also look out for cameos by the likes of Dub Taylor (playing a man who specialises in capturing and selling rattlesnakes), Scatman Crothers (who later appeared alongside Nicholson in The Shining; here he plays a fisherman) and Christopher Guest (as a young man making out with his girlfriend in the back of a car).
The Fortune is more of an amusing curiosity than anything else. While it’s no unsung classic it is more enjoyable than its reputation suggests.
Runtime: 88 mins
Dir: Mike Nichols
Script: Carole Eastman
Starring: Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Stockard Channing, Florence Stanley, Richard B. Shull, Scatman Crothers, Dub Taylor, Christopher Guest
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The visuals (heavily emphasising yellows and browns) look fantastic here. Colour and contrast are levels are hard to fault. The ragtime soundtrack is also wonderfully clear. Some of the dialogue is a little difficult to make out during the earlier scenes due to the numerous competing layers of sound but that’s undoubtedly a fault with the original production.
Audio Commentary with Nick Pinkerton
The film journalist reels off an endless slew of trivia about the actors, director, writer, crew and the period in which the film is set. The amount of research he has undertaken is admirable; for instance, that amongst those that fell afoul of the Mann Act (which forms one of the film’s main plot points) included Chuck Berry and Charles Manson. He also points out that the film was a notable influence on the work of Joel and Ethan Coen as well as noting that a number of the smaller parts here were filled with actors who were part of Jack Nicholson’s circle of friends (this included Scatman Crothers).
Mike Nichols and Elaine May in Conversation
An on-stage conversation and Q & A recorded at New York’s Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center on February 2006 following a screening of Ishtar (1987). It is a curious choice of extra because it is only tenuously connected to the main feature here by way of the participation of director Nichols. At over an hour in length, it’s a bit of a ramble, albeit with the occasional moment of wit courtesy of writer-director Elaine May. When she talks about Ishtar she quips “If everyone who had hated it had seen it I would be a very rich woman!”
Professor Kyle Stevens on The Fortune
A very brief discussion of how the film fits into Nichols’ recurring themes of sexuality. He also talks about why the film failed to connect with audiences during it release - something he puts down to the fact that the farcical style of comedy presented here doesn’t feel overly cinematic. HIs viewpoints are of interest but the featurette’s five minute length doesn’t allow for a great deal of depth.
An isolated music and effects track plus an image gallery round out the disc. The extras, the excellent commentary notwithstanding, are a bit on the “meh” side here.
The Fortune is an amusing farce even if it does falter at times. The suite of extras here isn’t amongst Indicator’s best but the audio-visual presentation is well up to their usual impeccable standards.