Although he didn’t like to be labelled a comedic actor, comedy is inevitably what springs to mind when you think of Walter Matthau. Whether in the 10 movies he made with Jack Lemmon or his run of films written by Neil Simon, the typical Matthau role is a lovable grump who’s hilariously at odds with the world around him.
Matthau did make plenty of comedies, and brought humour to even his more serious roles, but over his half century in Hollywood he established himself as an equally adept dramatic actor. He had a villainous phase, an antihero phase, a stint playing cops. He made an unusual, yet utterly charming, romantic lead. Something about his hangdog face and the weary twinkle in his eye means that in any role, tragic or comic, he is always believable.
If there’s a connective tissue between the different parts Matthau played, it’s the street smarts he brought to every film. His curmudgeons were curmudgeons because they’d seen too much to be otherwise. His cops had been round the block a few too many times, and were surprised by nothing. Despite his rumpled exterior, you underestimate a Matthau character at your peril, as you can see in these 10 examples…
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Director: Elia Kazan
‘Lonesome’ Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is a small-time singer elevated to the national stage after meeting astute radio producer Marcia (Patricia Neal). The bigger his fame gets, however, the more of a monster he becomes.
Matthau has a small – he’s barely in the first half – but important role as Mel Miller, the voice of reason TV producer who’s been watching Lonesome’s rise and is disgusted by everything he’s seen. While Griffith’s bombastic lead performance tends to leave little air for the other actors, Matthau ably delivers the film’s coup de grâce in the form of a blazing condemnatory speech at the grand finale.
King Creole (1958)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Considered by many – including Elvis himself – to be the best of Elvis Presley’s Hollywood run, King Creole sees the legend play Danny Fisher, a singer (of course) who becomes entangled with the girlfriend/moll of Matthau’s evil nightclub owner Maxie Fields.
Before he settled into his comedic groove, Matthau played a succession of villains, and Maxie Fields is one of the most memorable. There’s a genuine menace to the way he holds himself and faux-amiably invades the space of those around him. His climactic, very physical fight with Presley is far less cartoonish than the usual violence in Elvis movies.
Director: Stanley Donen
Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant run glamorously around Paris. They’re trying to discover who killed her husband, and trying not to become the killer’s next victims.
Charade is a whodunnit where identities are always shifting – Grant gets through 4 over the course of the movie. Nobody is who they seem… and that includes Matthau, who presents himself as a CIA agent out to help Hepburn, before his real identity is unmasked. Matthau’s slovenliness – a memorable scene sees him eating a liverwurst sandwich with messy aplomb – contrasts interestingly with Hepburn and Grant’s gloss, and the denouement is another example of the intelligent deployment of Matthau’s sinister side.
Director: Sidney Lumet
Fail-Safe is a nightmarish film about nuclear catastrophe, often referred to as ‘Dr Strangelove without the jokes’. Fittingly, it features Matthau’s most malevolent character: he is Dr Groeteschele, a hawkish academic determined to press the president and his allies into war, under the warped mentality that “those who can survive are the only ones worth surviving”.
Dr Groeteschele is the crowning jewel of Matthau’s villainous phase. The cruelty and humourlessness in his performance are jolting to watch – the complete antithesis of his endearing schlub persona. It’s fascinating to imagine the path his career could have taken if he’d leaned further into this dark side.
The Odd Couple (1968)
Director: Gene Saks
Oscar (Matthau) is laid-back and messy. Felix (Jack Lemmon) is a neurotic neat-freak. When the two men move in together, sparks fly. That’s The Odd Couple, a film that relies solely on the ineffable chemistry between Matthau and Lemmon, and Neil Simon’s riotous dialogue.
This was the second of 10 movies with the Matthau-Lemmon pairing, and it’s by far the most successful. Matthau reprised his role from Neil Simon’s hit Broadway play (Lemmon replaced Art Carney), and it’s a natural fit for him; so much so, in fact, that he reportedly asked Simon if he could play Felix, as it would be more of a challenge. Thankfully for us, and for cinematic history, Simon denied his request.
Cactus Flower (1969)
Director: Gene Saks
A supremely 60s farce, Cactus Flower sees rakish dentist Matthau embroiled in a love triangle with Goldie Hawn (playing his much younger lover) and Ingrid Bergman (as his nurse, then more age-appropriate love interest).
Matthau is his usual reliable self: irascible and craggy, yet charming enough that it isn’t inconceivable that both Hawn and Bergman would fall for him. Still, Cactus Flower is stolen by his female co-stars. Hawn won an Oscar for her sparkling performance, and Bergman, in a rare comedic foray, is luminescent.
A New Leaf (1971)
Director: Elaine May
Henry Graham, the misanthropic millionaire who must marry a wealthy woman in order to keep himself in the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed, is one of Matthau’s most lovable curmudgeons. Whereas on paper he’s a loathsome character, in Matthau’s skilled hands he becomes someone to root for.
While at first Henry’s disgusted by the helplessness of his target, Henrietta (Elaine May, who also wrote and directed), her lack of guile slowly eats away at his crusty façade. His very grudging acceptance of the inevitable romance makes it all the funnier.
Charley Varrick (1973)
Director: Don Siegel
Charley Varrick is the first in a trilogy (the other two are The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and The Laughing Policeman) of gritty crime films that Matthau headlined in the early 1970s. His Varrick is a small-time bank robber who accidentally steals from the mafia.
Don Siegel’s movie was originally intended as a Donald Sutherland vehicle, and perhaps because of this, Charley doesn’t feel as suited to Matthau as most of his famous characters do. Nevertheless, he is still magnetic in the role, gifting Charley earthy smarts and a formidable determination.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Director: Joseph Sargent
The griminess of Joseph Sargent’s movie is the perfect fit for Matthau, the least glossy of leading men. He plays transit police agent Lt Walter Garber, charged with saving the day after a group of criminals, led by Mr Blue (Robert Shaw), hijack a subway train and hold 17 passengers to ransom.
The stakes are high and the action is tense, yet there’s plenty of comedy in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the colourful characters who find themselves embroiled in the hostage situation – Lee Wallace’s cowardly mayor is a particular highlight. Matthau leads the operation with wry professionalism, developing a fascinating relationship with Shaw’s chief villain.
Director: Ronald Neame
Though Matthau continued to make entertaining movies up until the new millennium, Hopscotch would be his last masterpiece. There are notes of Charade in the film’s madcap spy plot, which sees Matthau’s ex-CIA agent criss-cross the world while sending out damning pages of his memoir, daring his old boss (a gleefully officious Ned Beatty) to catch him. His reteaming with Glenda Jackson, with whom he shared a wonderful chemistry in the underrated House Calls (1978), is pure delight.
There’s a real joy to be found in watching Matthau run circles around Beatty, and the evident pleasure he takes in doing so. It takes a lifetime’s worth of experience to deliver a performance of such relaxed, enchanting fun.
Originally published: 1 October 2020