Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, his fourth and arguably most well known play, started on Broadway in 1965 where it earned Tonys for its author, director Mike Nichols, scenic designer Oliver Smith, and star Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison. When Hollywood came calling, Simon and Matthau helped the transition.
Jack Lemmon replaced Art Carney in the role of Felix because he was a bigger movie star and he and Matthau had previously teamed up in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie. There were talks involving Wilder to direct the film, but the job went to Gene Saks, which would not only mark this as his second directorial effort, but also his second Simon adaptation after shooting Barefoot in the Park.
The story takes a very simple premise of two friends when opposite personality types (id and superego) try living together and mine comedy gold out of it. Oscar is a divorced slob behind on his alimony to Blanche. Felix is a neurotic neat freak who has just split up from his wife Frances as the movie starts. Simon reveals their differences as they perform the same task. When entertaining at the weekly poker party, Oscar offers up green sandwiches that are “either very new cheese or very old meat” while Felix makes “Bacon, lettuce, and tomato with mayonnaise on pumpernickel toast” with the crusts cut off and just “the soft green part of the lettuce.”
What seems like a great arrangement for both turns into a series of very funny arguments, epitomized with this great exchange near the end of the film.
Oscar Madison: Now kindly remove that spaghetti from my poker table.
[Felix laughs] What the hell is so funny?
Felix Ungar: It's not spaghetti. It's linguini.[Oscar picks up the linguini and hurls it against the kitchen wall]
Oscar Madison: Now it's garbage.
The resolution is satisfying as the two friends realize they both benefit from the other. Lemmon and Matthau make a great comedic team and went on to co-star in ten films together. Saks and Simon do a good job of expanding the play set in Oscar’s apartment and broaden the setting to make it feel more like a film. Simon’s dialogue alone, which the cast executes to perfection, makes the film worth watching.
As part of the Centennial Collection, the new release is full of Special Features. Sons Charlie Matthau and Chris Lemmon provide the commentary track. They offer reminiscences about their fathers, first and secondhand stories about the film of which they are understandably both big fans, their reactions as they watch it.
Disc 2 presents a number of Special Features that are all comprised from the same interviews with Saks, the sons, studio executive Robert Evans, Larry King and actors David Sheiner (Roy) from the film, Carole Shelly (Gwendolyn Pigeon) from both the play and the film, and Brad Garrett (Murray and Oscar in the 2005 revival). “In the Beginning…” discusses the play, “Memories from the Set” and “Inside The Odd Couple” discusses the movie, and “Matthau & Lemmon” has recollections about the actors. Film buffs will love to hear the pre-production machinations and off-set shenanigans. Unfortunately, there’s nothing from Simon who could have shed the most light on the project.
The success of the film and its formula spawned the television series which saw both stars — Jack Klugman, who took over Matthau’s role on Broadway, and Tony Randall — won Emmys over the five-year run.