Turning up on Amazon Prime’s streaming service like a lost sock, Mike Nichols’ forgotten comedy is a star-powered throwback to the screwball comedy era, top-lined by Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. Comedy and period revivals were a big deal in the 70’s, from What’s Up Doc? To The Sting, but The Fortune, despite an illustrious pedigree, sank like a stone. A good print provides reason to look again; while there are no real winners here, The Fortune does have some values.
Sporting a one-and-done, never-to-be-repeated curly hairstyle, Nicholson plays Dix, a con-man wanted for embezzlement back in the 1920’s USA. Dix teams up with fellow charlatan Nicky Wilson (Beatty), who regards the rest of his profession as dumb, but isn’t quite capable of making the grade himself. The case in point is the pair’s latest get-rich-quick scene which is getting them nowhere fast; a heiress named Freddie Biggard (Stockard Channing). Defying the Mann act, which prohibits the trafficking of women across state lines for illegal purposes, the men take Freddie to LA, but when her status as a cash cow doesn’t materialise, Dix and Nicky come up with a more deadly set of plans involving poisonous snakes and picnic hampers.
Shot by John A Alonzo (Chinatown, Scarface) and from the writer of Five Easy Pieces, The Fortune has an expansive, airy look, and there’s all kinds of minor attractions; Scatman Crothers has a funny fisherman cameo that compares amusingly with his more sinister work with Nicholson in The Shining, while Christopher Guest turns up as a smooching lothario. Both Nicholson and Beatty give uncharacteristically light comic performances, perhaps not what their fans wanted, but both holding their own, and Channing makes Freddie a tricky character to pin down. A screwball film should reflect the foibles of the main characters, and Nichols manages to force his over-qualified cast through some tricky narrative pirouettes. And Florence Stanley steals the show as a nosey neighbour who can’t quite figure out the ménage a trois on her doorstep.
The black comedy of trying to dispose of a body has attracted many cinematic talents, usually with poor results, but the last half hour of The Fortune has some impressively complex jokes, notably when Dix and Nicky try to confess a murder to the police that both the authorities and the audience know they didn’t commit. With little slapstick and few sight gags, this is a character comedy in shades of black, caviar to the general, perhaps, but worth a look as one of the last gasps of the now-unfashionable screwball genre.