The Fortune: A lost classic

Last night I continued my movie marathon at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) with The Fortune (1975), a lost comedy classic from the legendary Mike Nichols. Nichols is one of those truly rare auteurs who have managed to produce consistently brilliant films throughout their career. With a body of work that includes The Graduate (1967), Catch 22 (1970), Primary Colors (1998) and Closer (2004), my expectations of this one were very high. Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed.

The Fortune follows two hustlers during the 1920s (Jack Nicholson & Warren Beatty) as they fight over the affections and fortune of a woman (Stockard Channing) that has become embroiled in their endless schemes. Giving away any more than this would spoil the fun – it’s the increasingly outrageous behaviour of these three characters that really makes the film – but it’s the pitch perfect tone that elevates it to truly classic status.

Nichols knowingly invokes the comedic genius of the silent comedy greats. Structurally, it takes the form of a series of vignettes, most based largely on physical comedy akin to that found in the work of Charlie Chaplin. As the narrative becomes increasingly dark, and the characters begin to make decisions that would have been thought unthinkable at the beginning of the film, it is this bubbly physical element that enables the film to maintain a light comedic tone. It’s impossible to take the movie TOO seriously when it features moments like the one in which Nicholson happily elects to climb on to the wing of a flying plane in order to impress the woman inside.

Channing delivers a fine performance as the woman at the centre of the chaos, but the movie definitely belongs to the predictably brilliant Nicholson and Beatty. Beatty’s babbling alpha-male is unforgettable, as is Nicholson’s unusual turn as his weak and feeble-minded companion.

Definitely worth searching for a copy of this one… if you can find it. A disastrous box-office result sealed its fate as a rarely seen gem.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

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