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July 3, 2000
Walter Matthau: A rumpled old dog in the heart of the city
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
This guy was a movie star?
Walter Matthau, who died Saturday at age 79, was that kind of screen luminary - never great-looking, never even very youthful, with a rumpled, put-upon air that gave him more in common with W.C. Fields than with his leading-man best pal, Jack Lemmon.
Matthau's genius was his uncanny ability to suddenly materialize several yards past his audience's defenses. Once he was on screen, any skepticism the audience might have harbored about the movie they were watching had disappeared.
There he was, peering out into the loges with those doggy little eyes. Indeed, he was the proverbial old dog - not one who can't learn a new trick, but one who already knows every trick in the book and long since let go of any illusions he may have had about the intelligence of humans.
His most famous and successful movies are household words: "The Odd Couple," "The Sunshine Boys," "The Fortune Cookie," "Hello, Dolly." As you might expect of such a workhorse actor with several decades worth of roles under his belt, however, at least a couple of his most memorable performances were in movies that aren't nearly as well known.
The years 1973 and 1974 were watershed years for Matthau's art, as he starred in two crime thrillers that still provide plenty of kick and in which he did some of his finest work.
In '73 he appeared In "The Laughing Policeman," an ironically titled policier (ironic because about the last thing his cop does is laugh, nor does he have anything to laugh about) in which Matthau and Bruce Dern teamed brilliantly as a San Francisco detective and his partner on the trail of a serial killer.
You can't really call it a "buddy" movie, because the Matthau and Dern characters can barely stomach each other. It's the quintessential Bruce Dern role: He’s a smart-mouth, weasely cop who never fails to say or do something obnoxious. It's a nice counterpoint to Matthau's character, who slogs through the movie mired in foreboding. Together, the two of them generate some acerbic screen chemistry of the first order.
The very next year Matthau played a beleaguered civil servant in "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," a kind of early "Die Hard"/"Speed" outing about a gang of criminals who take a New York subway car and its occupants hostage and hold them for ransom. Matthau is the transit administrator on whose watch the crime occurs; Robert Shaw is the gang leader who is cold as ice. They never meet face to face - all their dealings are via subway intercom. But the tension is crackling.
In both "The Laughing Policeman" and "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" we have some of the best and most characteristic work of a gifted actor: Walter Matthau as a rumpled old dog in the heart of the city, keeping himself sane with a deadpan joke and fierce determination.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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