The Fortune

The Fortune.
Columbia Pictures 1975.

Before watching the movie:

This is a lot of big names for a movie I’ve never heard of. Though I’m probably not familiar with most of Beatty and Channing’s work, I am surprised that it hasn’t come up as a Jack Nicholson movie.

I’m surprised just how often the Mann Act comes up in movie plots. While it does have exceptionally broad language thanks to 1910s euphemisms (“immoral purposes”), the number of times I’ve seen movies from before the 80s invoke it about men who take their girlfriends on a trip and run afoul of the law is starting to make me think that Hollywood writers were as ticked off about it as the Hays Code and anti-communist blacklisting.

The comedy arising from a pair of con artists trying badly to con a mark reminds me a bit of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but there’s no bet or competition, from what I can tell. They’re not sabotaging each other, they’re just honestly bad at this.

After watching the movie:

Nicky conspires to elope with wealthy Freddie Bigard, despite her father’s disapproval meaning she’d be cut off. The problem is that Nicky is still waiting for his divorce to go through, so he can’t marry Freddie. But as they’re moving from New York to Los Angeles, Nicky can’t just transport her unwed because it’s the 1920s and the Mann Act means he could go to prison for such a move. In order to cheat his way around this, Nicky has enlisted Oscar, a not very bright guy who needs to get out of New York in a hurry over embezzlement charges, to legally marry Freddie so they can present themselves as Oscar and Freddie Dix and Freddie’s brother Nicky, and Freddie is therefore a married woman and Nicky isn’t subject to federal prosecution. However, Oscar quickly loses contentment with being the third wheel to sour, dismissive Nicky and gorgeous girl Freddie who is after all, technically his wife. In the fight that ensues after Oscar seduces Freddie, it comes out that Nicky’s real intention was not love, as he claimed, but to swindle Freddie out of the other fortune she’s the heiress to, her mother’s, which she is due to gain control of after her next birthday, and once Oscar figured that out, he made sure to consummate his sham marriage so as to secure his place in line for it. Having learned that both of the men she’s living with were only interested in her for her money, Freddie declares that she’ll give it away before letting either of them have it, and soon, Nicky and Oscar realize that their only shot at a payoff for this whole scheme would have to involve Freddie’s untimely death. But they can’t even pull off a con job, let alone a murder.

Beatty and Nicholson are an odd mix. In the first half of the movie, Beatty is constantly annoyed by everything, but mostly by Oscar, far to the excess of what’s deserved, while Nicholson is alternatingly naive and creepy. I don’t see why Freddie would want to be around either of them. Not showing how Nicky got Freddie to fall in love with him is for the best, because while he’s clever, he’s not at all likeable, and only an amateur schemer, who falls to pieces when things don’t go to plan. Freddie occasionally manages to be a character instead of a plot device, but she’s just as soon being carried around unconscious.

The first half of the movie is very uncomfortable, with some comedy muted by the whole creepy, uneven vibe the trio have. It’s only a little past the halfway point that all the cards are on the table and they’re falling all over themselves failing to improvise, which is what I came for. Their failure at conning her was painted as being as farcical as the turn to murder, but it’s really just tense and awkward and not that much fun.

This turns from subtle to wacky on a dime, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. I would’ve preferred some more consistency between the two halves. Ramping up is natural, taking a flying leap is not. Yet somehow it still managed to make me root for three unlikeable characters to get everything they don’t deserve.

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