Arts

Cult Movie: Neil Simon's classic comedy The Odd Couple

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in 1968 comedy classic The Odd Couple
Ralph McLean

The Odd Couple

THE passing of playwright Neil Simon last Sunday at the ripe old age of 91 robbed us of one of America's greatest ever comic writers.

A Pulitzer prize winner, he was Oscar-nominated four times and clocked up an incredible 17 Tony award nominations in a career that saw him mount 30 plays on Broadway.

From Barefoot In The Park to Biloxi Blues and his highly personal Brighton Beach Memoirs, there is much to admire in his pretty much peerless CV – but for me, nothing embodies his genius quite like The Odd Couple.

I can't comment on the original stage version that lit up Broadway for two years – I wasn't even born when that was wowing critics and punters alike in 1965 – and indeed I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't seen the more recent live revival either.

But I have watched the 1968 film adaptation more times than is probably healthy, and I still find myself almost weeping with wonder at the sheer comic class visible in just about every frame.

Directed by Gene Saks and starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as comically mismatched flat sharers Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison, it might just be the most note-perfect buddy movie ever to grace the silver screen.

Much of the movies magic comes courtesy of the cosmically aligned interplay between the always marvellous Matthau and Lemon. They shared the screen in nine movies down the years, but never did their natural chemistry lift off to quite the same level as it does here.

The plot is simplicity personified. The fussy and neurotic Felix is chucked out of his home by his wife and, after a handful of half hearted suicide attempts, winds up at the apartment of the slobbish Oscar seeking a roof over his head.

Lemmon is teeth-itchingly irritating as 'neat freak' Felix, while Matthau is masterful as sardonic, laid-back couch potato, Oscar.

Simon's words are key to their chemistry and the men's brisk, flab-free bickering is a pure joy throughout.

"You're the only man in the world with clenched hair!" snaps the exasperated Oscar at the constantly jittery Felix.

"If I don't get to touch something soft in the next two weeks, I'm in big trouble," says Felix the perpetual worrier to the permanently peeved Oscar.

The two men swop Simon's acidic lines like prize fighters would punches.

Ultimately, Simon's ear for dialogue and natural understanding for what makes male relationships tick gives us big laughs while underscoring everything with a genuine sense of pathos along the way.

Male identity issues and proper gags live side by side. Pretty impressive stuff in 1968 and still pin-prick sharp today.

Add a great and groovy score from Batman theme master Neal Hefti and the recipe for an unadulterated comic masterpiece is just about perfect.

Neil Simon may be gone, but with timeless work like The Odd Couple left behind, he'll never be forgotten.

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