NEIL SIMON OFTEN HAD THE TOUCH
Neil Simon, the famous playwright, died on Aug. 25, age 91. The day before, I stumbled onto a YouTube video that noted that 40 of the most famous current working screenwriters were asked in 2017 to name the 100 best screenwriters of all time. They selected Billy Wilder (1906-2002) as No. 1. Wilder wrote and directed films in all genres, including Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity and The Apartment.
Wilder, the video explained, sought to bring the “Lubitsch touch” to all his films, a reference to director/writer Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947). Like Wilder, Lubitsch worked in all genres. The touch was defined as wringing from the material as much as possible — a multi-layered approach where a comedy had true-to-life drama in it and vice-versa.
In his best work, Simon did not overlook the opportunity to bring “true-to-the characters” comedy into a dramatic scene or have a realistic dramatic moment in an otherwise comedic scene. That’s why, for example, The Odd Couple still stands up 53 years after its stage premiere.
There is a scene in The Odd Couple in which Oscar lists all the things that his roommate, Felix Unger, does to drive him crazy. This includes leaving “to-do” notes on Oscar’s pillow signed “F.U.” It is a largely dramatic scene but ends in a big laugh when Oscar says: “It took me three hours to figure out that ‘F.U.’ was Felix Unger!”
Several times, Simon explained that he didn’t give Felix Unger that name anticipating the joke line he later wrote. Rather, it occurred to him as he wrote the scene it appeared in. Simon had “the touch” to add that something extra.
Operation Finale, which opened on Aug. 29, is a dramatization of the capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 by Israeli Mossad agents. Eichmann, of course, was the SS officer who headed up the round-up of European Jews during the Holocaust. There is a lot of talent involved in this film and I hoped that it would turn out to BE extraordinary because the subject matter deserves a great movie. However, early Finale reviews by leading outlets, like Variety and the Guardian, were not very good. The acting was praised, especially Ben Kingsley as Eichmann and Oscar Isaac as Peter Malkin (1927-2005). Malkin was a leading member of the team that captured Eichmann. As depicted in the film, he heavily interrogated Eichmann before Eichmann was smuggled out of Argentina and flown to Israel for trial. Also praised: how the film establishes the “Nazi-welcoming” atmosphere of Argentina — and its exciting re-creation of Eichmann’s last hours in Argentina (he was drugged and put on an El Al plane under the nose of Argentine officials).
This line from the Variety review seems to sum up most reviews: “[Y]et taken on its own ‘here’s how it really happened’ terms, the movie is at once plausible and sketchy, intriguing and not fully satisfying.” Most of the criticism seems to be directed toward the interrogation scenes. But also getting the thumbs-down are some invented details, like an Israeli nurse character, who is supposed to be Malkin’s old flame, who wasn’t really in Argentina (she’s played by French actress Melanie Laurent, 35). The film is directed by Chris Weitz, 48, (who had three Jewish grandparents). The Jewish members of the cast include Nick Kroll (embracing drama), 40, Peter Strauss, 71, and Allan Corduner, 68.
If you get the Amazon Prime streaming service, do check out The Eichmann Show, a 2005 BBC TV movie that dramatizes the hurdles that American director Leo Hurwitz (1909-1991) and an Israeli TV producer had to overcome to get permission to film the trial and, later, to get the worldwide news media to show their daily trial footage. It’s a very interesting story that I was unaware of before. The BBC film received mostly very good reviews. Hurwitz won a 1961 Emmy for an American TV special (Verdict for Tomorrow) that was mostly made up of his footage of the most important moments of the trial.