RIP, Neil Simon.
I read about the death of Neil Simon, playwright and scriptwriter (among other roles—including producer and director) on August 26th, admittedly with some level of blankness. The name sounded familiar (or was I simply mixing him up with Neil Diamond?) but I couldn’t, without help, associate Neil Simon with any film.
Of course, when I went on to reading about his career, the one film that immediately sprang out was The Odd Couple. And that certainly rang a bell. Because The Odd Couple was something I’d seen when I was very young (so young, in fact, that I had a lot of trouble understanding American accents, and had to badger my parents to help out). I remembered nothing of the film.
Time for a rewatch, then.
The Odd Couple begins with Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon) walking through the streets of New York at night and finally checking into a seedy little hotel. He is emphatic about wanting a room on a high floor, and gets one on the 9th.
The corridor is dingy; the chambermaid, a droopy cigarette sticking out of her mouth, fits right in. The room is even worse: dark, grimy, terrible. Felix looks around with distaste, sets about attending to some matters—getting out an envelope which he’s crammed with various papers, trying to pull off his wedding ring (but not succeeding) and finally going to the window, which he tries to pull up.
… and fails. Again and again. The only thing Felix ends up with is a sprained back. Disgusted, he goes out (into the corridor and down the elevator, not through the window) and to a bar to drown his sorrows in drink. There, tossing back a drink, he gets a crick in the neck.
No, this man is not a lucky man. He can’t commit suicide successfully, and he seems to be plagued with all sorts of problems.
Meanwhile, in an apartment somewhere else in the city, five of Felix’s friends have gathered to play poker. They’re at the home of Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau), and it’s an unholy mess. The books on the shelves lie just any which way; the kitchen sinks are piled high with unwashed dishes; the floor everywhere—and the tables, the windowsills, every horizontal surface—is covered with litter.
Oscar, emerging from the kitchen with a pile of sandwiches (which he carries part of the way tucked under an arm) doesn’t quite know what the sandwich fillings are: green (which might be very old meat or very fresh cheese) and brown is all he can tell.
While the men are wallowing about in this mess and wondering where Felix is, Oscar receives a phone call. It’s his ex-wife, who wants to remind him that he’s four weeks behind in his alimony payments.
Shortly after, there comes another phone call, for one of the other men in the room. It’s his wife, and in the course of the brief conversation, she informs him that Felix and his wife Frances have broken up. This gets all five men very worried: Felix is devoted to Frances; how could this have happened? They decide to phone Frances, and Oscar does so—only to discover that yes, not only has the couple broken up, Frances has even received a suicide note in the form of a telegram from Felix.
That’s just the sort of thing Felix would do. Send a suicide telegram. Who does that?! Felix. But this is serious, too. Has he actually killed himself? If not, where is he? What is he doing? How can they find him and stop him killing himself?
While all five of them are whipping themselves up into a panic, the doorbell rings. It’s got to be Felix! After all, if he won’t come to his best friend’s house at a time like this, where will he go? But they mustn’t, mustn’t let on that they know Felix has broken up with Frances and has been trying to commit suicide. They must act normal.
Felix it is, and they greet him with utter nonchalance (or so they think: their studied indifference, their very forced concentration on the game, is completely fake).
Felix wanders about, goes to the window, looks down, and asks if this is the twelfth floor.
That galvanizes Oscar into rushing over, pushing down the window and drawing down the blinds. No, no, no. The eleventh floor, not the twelfth. Not high at all.
It’s only a matter of minutes before the truth is out—Felix breaks down (Felix, as it transpires, is a highly emotional sort, and given to breaking down) and says that Frances and he are now apart. And oh, how will he live without his wife and children, what is life without them, how he wants to die… how he actually did try to die, by swallowing a bottle full of pills.
This sends Felix’s friends into another tizzy. What pills? How big a bottle? When? Oh, never mind what pills, says one; the important thing to do is to keep Felix awake while they try to get a doctor. So, to keep him from dozing off, they drag him off to the bathroom, turn on the shower, and shove Felix’s head under that—all without letting Felix get a word in edgeways.
It’s only after much gasping and gurgling that Felix is able to inform his friends that after he’d swallowed those pills, he brought them up too (evidently, better sense having prevailed).
But the problem is—and this the pals whisper furiously between themselves, out of earshot of the grieving Felix—there’s no knowing when this nut is going to pull another stunt like this. He needs someone to watch over him, prevent him from swallowing any more pills or trying to jump out any more windows.
The others are all married; Oscar is the only one here who is divorced and has this big apartment all to himself. Oscar is more than happy to have Felix stay with him. It’ll be good to have someone to talk to, it’ll be good to hang out with a dear friend (and not, though it’s implied rather than said, to not have said friend hang himself instead). And as for inconvenience (a topic which Felix brings up)—well, what with Blanche and the kids having moved out, Oscar has an eight-bedroom flat all to himself. He and Felix could spend weeks in here without running into each other.
So all’s set, and it looks like sunshine and camaraderie. Felix moves in.
Little does Oscar realize it, but he has just made a decision that’s going to wreck his life in more ways than one. Because Felix and Oscar are like chalk and cheese. Unlike the sloppy, happy-go-lucky Oscar who doesn’t even notice the dirt in his house and couldn’t care less about what he’s eating and what he’s wearing, Felix is OCD. He cleans up obsessively, he insists on making all the meals, he nags Oscar for being late home because the food will not be at its best… he is the stereotypical nagging wife, only in trousers and shirt.
The Odd Couple isn’t exactly set all in one space, but it’s close enough (naturally, since Neil Simon first wrote it as a play—it premiered in 1965—and then converted the play to a screenplay). Nearly all of the action happens within the space of Oscar’s flat, and it’s hilarious.
What I liked about this film:
Everything. Lemmon and Matthau are brilliant, and they do full justice to a story that’s very simple yet very delightful—a story which relies on a small but important detail: that character traits govern us to a great extent. Enough to drive us apart, enough to bring us together. Simon builds up the story well: Oscar’s irritation with Felix, for instance, doesn’t come out of the blue: we see it building up. Slowly, gradually, the cumulative effect of days of having to live with a nagging, cleanliness freak (and one, too, who is freaky in other ways).
And yes, the dialogue. There are so many great laugh-out-loud lines here, it’s difficult to pick just one or two examples. But here’s a sample:
Oscar: Don’t come to me with your petty problems. You get this one stinkin’ night a week. I’m cooped up here with Mary Poppins 24 hours a day.
Murray (one of Oscar and Felix’s poker-pals): What happened to the apartment?
Oscar: It’s been given the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
Plus, there are the tiny details. The small but funny little things. How, for instance, the entire gang of poker-players crowd around outside the bathroom door when Felix, newly arrived at Oscar’s, goes inside—and how, when they hear him about to emerge (after having burst out crying), they all scurry back to the poker table and sit down, pretending they never moved an inch from here… only to discover that two of them have accidentally switched places, and now have to resort to a mad scramble to switch back before Felix returns and suspects something.
What I didn’t like:
If you haven’t yet done so, go watch it.
Thank you for the laughs, Mr Simon.