The Legal Advocate

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NITA Movie Review: He’s So Full of Twists. He Starts to Describe a Donut And It Comes Out a Pretzel.

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

The Fortune Cookie

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau made ten movies together, most memorably The Odd Couple in 1968. Both of them were Oscar Winners and they were also good friends in real life. But their on-screen partnership began with the movie I picked for this month’s review: The Fortune Cookie (United Artists, 1966), a movie produced and directed (and co-written) by the brilliant Billy Wilder, whom I’ve written about before. The Fortune Cookie is most emphatically not a drama, but is instead a black comedy, featuring one of the sleaziest movie lawyers ever. Matthau plays that lawyer, “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich, the epitome of the ambulance-chasing plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer – and he played him well enough to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Lemmon stars as Harry Hinkle, a sideline cameraman for CBS who get run over and knocked out by a player for the Cleveland Browns while working on a game broadcast. Harry wakes up in the hospital and finds out that his brother-in-law, Whiplash Willie, has already filed suit against the league and the player for Harry’s injuries[1]. Harry protests, saying that he’s not hurt and that he wants to leave the hospital. Willie argues with him, urging him to pretend to be injured to rake in a big settlement. Harry is opposed, until it’s suggested that perhaps a monetary windfall would help Harry reunite with his estranged wife, Sandy. Harry agrees – and the manipulations and chicanery begin. These include Harry being injected with Novocain by a dentist on parole, the use of old x-rays of a childhood injury as evidence of Harry’s recent problems, the hiring of private detectives and examining doctors. Sandy does return to Harry, but Harry becomes more and more disturbed by what’s happening, in part because the football player, Boom-Boom Jackson, is wracked by guilt for what he thinks he did to Harry, putting the player’s career in jeopardy. It also becomes clear that Sandy is only interested in reuniting with Harry because of the money that Harry will receive when Willie settles with the insurance company and its lawyers. The movie ends with positive and just results, although not before Willie comes up with one last money-making scheme.

The Fortune Cookie does not show lawyers at their best. Willie Gingrich is an ethical nightmare, to put it mildly. His cynicism, greed and willingness to manipulate the justice system, are, unfortunately, what far too many people think lawyers are like. (The title of this review is how Harry describes Willie.) And the lawyers representing the insurance company are hardly portrayed in a better light. But with all of that, this movie is gut-bustlingly funny in places[2] and, since it’s directed by Wilder and acted by Lemmon and Matthau, artistically first-class as well.

But for all its negative portrayal of lawyers, I still wholeheartedly recommend The Fortune Cookie to you, if for no other reason than to remind you how many good, professional, ethical lawyers we interact with every day, how lucky we are to work with them – and how dedicated we should continue to be to improving the quality of trial advocacy.

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[1] Yes, I know that in real life Hinkle’s first remedy likely would be Worker’s Compensation, with a lawsuit perhaps coming after that. It may surprise you to learn that Hollywood doesn’t always follow real life legal procedure.
[2] Mark Caldwell and I have used Willie’s initial interview with Harry in the hospital in a number of our ethics presentations.

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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