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Buddy Buddy (1981), the final film by the great American writer/director Billy Wilder, is based on a French play by the prolific Francis Veber. Veber specialized in farces about odd-couple pairings, usually a straight-laced professional thrown together with a chaotic, idiotic, or oblivious buffoon unaware of his own ridiculousness. This play was no different: a hitman checks in to a hotel as part of his assignment to silence a mob witness, only to be distracted by a sad sack who tries to commit suicide in the suite next door. That, naturally, brings unwanted attention his way, until he placates the staff by promising to babysit this guy. This, of course, leads to a whole new set of problems.
The original play has been turned into a French film called L'Emmerdeur (1973), retitled A Pain in the A-- for American release (an accurate translation would have been unprintable in family newspapers at the time), with Lino Ventura as the no-nonsense contract killer and Jacques Brel as the suicidal schlub.
MGM thought it was prime material for a remake and offered it to Billy Wilder. The director tended to develop his own projects but agreed nonetheless, seeing possibilities in the set-up and roles tailor-made for his favorite buddy team. Jack Lemmon made six films for Wilder before Buddy Buddy and Wilder was the first director to pair him up with Walter Matthau. The Fortune Cookie (1966) launched one of the most resilient comic duos -- and friendships -- in Hollywood. They signed on before Wilder even had a script and the production was immediately put on the MGM slate.
Wilder and his writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond, changed the hitman from a meticulous, hard-edged professional into a more sardonic, shaggy eccentric for Matthau. He's a man who seems to really enjoy his work as the insidious assassinations in the opening scenes attest. Lemmon's neurotic bumbler is like a pathetic Felix Unger, come to woo back his runaway wife (Paula Prentiss) and failing miserably. He clings to Matthau's mercenary loner like a puppy who has found his first and only friend. Klaus Kinski plays the European sex therapist of dubious reputation who has "liberated" Prentiss. Wilder originally wanted Jack Webb to play the police chief charged with protecting the witness under threat but settled on character actor Dana Elcar.
Wilder confessed that he and Diamond didn't have enough time to develop the black comedy into their brand of satire. "Sometimes scenes that play beautifully in the typewriter don't work on film," he later remarked. The atmosphere on the set was congenial, with Matthau needling Wilder, Lemmon cracking jokes and Wilder enjoying the collaboration with his favorite comedy team. But they were also feeling their age. Lemmon struggled with the physical comedy, most of it revolving around his failed attempts to kill himself, and Matthau injured his neck in a minor stunt involving a laundry chute and was out for a week to recover. Also, in the middle of the shoot, Wilder's good friend William Holden died in a fall. It was a devastating blow for Wilder.
A veteran of old Hollywood, Wilder was under pressure to prove to the new Hollywood regime that he could still, at over eighty years of age, make a commercial comedy. He struggled to appear contemporary with jokes about drugs and sex and he sprinkled foul language through Matthau's dialogue. It only served to make Wilder seem more out of touch. Buddy Buddy was a rare critical and commercial failure for Wilder, and it became his final film as a director, but it also anticipated a genre that was to become popular years later: the hitman comedy.
Producer: Jay Weston
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, Francis Veber (story and play)
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Jr.
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Film Editing: Argyle Nelson
Cast: Jack Lemmon (Victor Clooney), Walter Matthau (Trabucco), Paula Prentiss (Celia Clooney), Klaus Kinski (Dr. Hugo Zuckerbrot), Dana Elcar (Capt. Hubris), Miles Chapin (Eddie, the Bellhop), Michael Ensign (Assistant Manager), Joan Shawlee (Receptionist), Fil Formicola (Rudy 'Disco' Gambola), C.J. Hunt (Kowalski).
by Sean Axmaker
Billy Wilder Interviews, edited by Robert Horton. 2001, University Press of Mississippi.
Conversations With Wilder, Cameron Crowe. 1999, Knopf.
Jack Lemmon, Michael Freedland. 1985, St. Martin's Press.
Nobody's Perfect, Charlotte Chandler. 2002, Simon and Schuster
On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, Ed Sikov. 1998, Hyperion.