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Case Number 05743

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Kotch

MGM // 1971 // 113 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // December 7th, 2004

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All Rise...

Judge Bill Treadway gives a round of applause to Jack Lemmon's only directorial effort.

The Charge

You're never too old for a fresh start.

Opening Statement

Jack Lemmon's Kotch is an insightful and uplifting look into human nature. Normally, I hate to use the word "uplifting" in a review, but with Kotch, I must make an exception. Lemmon's film touches the feelings so deeply and truly that there is no other word that can accurately describe it. It is a skillful blend of comedy and drama that never wavers or strikes a false note. Kotch also contains a performance by Walter Matthau that is nothing short of a revelation.

Facts of the Case

Joseph P. Kotcher (Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie) is a kindly old man who lives with his hapless son Harold and domineering daughter-in-law Wilma. Kotch's eccentricities and tendency to get into trouble cause him to clash with the pessimistic, fussy Wilma. After she forces Harold to put the old man in a retirement home, Kotch decides to go out on his own and see the world. After a brief return home, Kotch befriends Erica (Deborah Winters, Class of '44), an unwed expectant teenager who has become the misfit of the town. Kotch "adopts" the misfit, gaining another family and another chance at life.

Kotch is another entry in that popular genre of the mid-sixties to late seventies: the dramatic comedy. There are big, hearty laughs that complement the underlying drama of the situation, along with characters that are living and breathing people rather than caricatures occupying space. However, what makes Kotch special is that it transcends that simple category to become a truly exhilarating emotional experience. It teaches us an important lesson without becoming preachy—that being old doesn't mean that life slows down to a crawl, just that life becomes what we make it. It is a theme that would be elaborated at greater length by Paul Mazursky in his 1974 masterpiece Harry and Tonto. Kotch has incredible heart and sweetness that allows the viewer to become emotionally uplifted as the film progresses.

The ending is particularly perfect in tone and execution. All loose ends are tied up satisfactorily without feeling forced or phony. It leaves the viewer with a smile on his or her face, even as the last tear starts running down the cheek. It also features one of the biggest laughs I've had in the movies, although it may be too subtle for some viewers.

Kotch was Jack Lemmon's sole foray into directing. According to the 1997 Fox Video VHS release, producer Richard Carter approached Lemmon to star in the film. Lemmon instead wanted to direct the film and give the lead role to his good friend Walter Matthau. I am glad Lemmon was given the opportunity to direct, as he does such an assured and confident job that it looks like the work of an experienced director, not a first-timer. He must have learned plenty from his 16 years as an actor, in particular from working with Billy Wilder. Lemmon demonstrates many of the traits that made Wilder's work so compelling and superb, in particular the ability to glean comedy from seemingly simple situations and character quirks. For an actor who was often accused of going over the top in his performances, Lemmon shows aptitude and restraint in terms of working with his actors, guiding many to career best work. He also knows how to use his camera, employing it as another character rather than a fancy gimmick. Lemmon shows such a filmmaking gift that it is a shame he never directed another film.

As for the Walter Matthau performance, it is indeed a revelation. Matthau's specialty was playing the cantankerous, scheming wise guy, and indeed it was just such a role that earned him the Academy Award for The Fortune Cookie. His performance in Kotch surpasses everything he had done before. His sardonic wit is still present, but he also reveals a tenderness and warmth few realized he had. The key to the success of Matthau's performance is the ability to find the reality of the situation. By doing so, Matthau allows the performance to flow naturally from real human emotion rather than textbook motions. He should have won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1972, as this performance defines what acting should be all about.

The supporting performances help Matthau's portrayal soar. Deborah Winters is one of those actresses you wish you'd seen more of. With good work in Kotch and Class of '44, she was building a solid career, but then she dropped out of sight. I liked the reality and humanity she gave her character, portraying the pregnant teenager as a normal kid who may have made one mistake but isn't completely screwed up emotionally. Felicia Farr manages to create one of the most hateful housewives in cinematic history, but even she retains enough humanity to make her motives credible, even sympathetic, and allows her sudden change in demeanor at the end to be completely believable.

MGM presents Kotch in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen. There was an Anchor Bay edition that was quickly withdrawn in 2000, and I wonder if MGM's disc utilizes the same transfer as that short-lived edition, which was also non-anamorphic. The lack of anamorphic enhancement hurts the overall quality of the image, making it softer than normal. The image alternates between crystal clarity in day scenes and ugly fogginess in dark or low light scenes. There are also some imperfections such as scratches and specks that mar the image. I admit that MGM's transfer is vastly superior to the original VHS releases of the film, but this disc should have looked better than this.

Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. It is not the greatest sound mix, but it gets the job done quite nicely. The original 1979 video release had hollow, tinny sound. The MGM release is clean and crisp enough for the dialogue to be easily understood, which is a major plus.

Kotch is one of MGM's barebones catalog discs, which means not even the theatrical trailer is offered. Just having the film on home video again is good enough in this case, though.

Facts of the Case

Joseph P. Kotcher (Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie) is a kindly old man who lives with his hapless son Harold and domineering daughter-in-law Wilma. Kotch's eccentricities and tendency to get into trouble cause him to clash with the pessimistic, fussy Wilma. After she forces Harold to put the old man in a retirement home, Kotch decides to go out on his own and see the world. After a brief return home, Kotch befriends Erica (Deborah Winters, Class of '44), an unwed expectant teenager who has become the misfit of the town. Kotch "adopts" the misfit, gaining another family and another chance at life.

Kotch is another entry in that popular genre of the mid-sixties to late seventies: the dramatic comedy. There are big, hearty laughs that complement the underlying drama of the situation, along with characters that are living and breathing people rather than caricatures occupying space. However, what makes Kotch special is that it transcends that simple category to become a truly exhilarating emotional experience. It teaches us an important lesson without becoming preachy—that being old doesn't mean that life slows down to a crawl, just that life becomes what we make it. It is a theme that would be elaborated at greater length by Paul Mazursky in his 1974 masterpiece Harry and Tonto. Kotch has incredible heart and sweetness that allows the viewer to become emotionally uplifted as the film progresses.

The ending is particularly perfect in tone and execution. All loose ends are tied up satisfactorily without feeling forced or phony. It leaves the viewer with a smile on his or her face, even as the last tear starts running down the cheek. It also features one of the biggest laughs I've had in the movies, although it may be too subtle for some viewers.

Kotch was Jack Lemmon's sole foray into directing. According to the 1997 Fox Video VHS release, producer Richard Carter approached Lemmon to star in the film. Lemmon instead wanted to direct the film and give the lead role to his good friend Walter Matthau. I am glad Lemmon was given the opportunity to direct, as he does such an assured and confident job that it looks like the work of an experienced director, not a first-timer. He must have learned plenty from his 16 years as an actor, in particular from working with Billy Wilder. Lemmon demonstrates many of the traits that made Wilder's work so compelling and superb, in particular the ability to glean comedy from seemingly simple situations and character quirks. For an actor who was often accused of going over the top in his performances, Lemmon shows aptitude and restraint in terms of working with his actors, guiding many to career best work. He also knows how to use his camera, employing it as another character rather than a fancy gimmick. Lemmon shows such a filmmaking gift that it is a shame he never directed another film.

As for the Walter Matthau performance, it is indeed a revelation. Matthau's specialty was playing the cantankerous, scheming wise guy, and indeed it was just such a role that earned him the Academy Award for The Fortune Cookie. His performance in Kotch surpasses everything he had done before. His sardonic wit is still present, but he also reveals a tenderness and warmth few realized he had. The key to the success of Matthau's performance is the ability to find the reality of the situation. By doing so, Matthau allows the performance to flow naturally from real human emotion rather than textbook motions. He should have won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1972, as this performance defines what acting should be all about.

The supporting performances help Matthau's portrayal soar. Deborah Winters is one of those actresses you wish you'd seen more of. With good work in Kotch and Class of '44, she was building a solid career, but then she dropped out of sight. I liked the reality and humanity she gave her character, portraying the pregnant teenager as a normal kid who may have made one mistake but isn't completely screwed up emotionally. Felicia Farr manages to create one of the most hateful housewives in cinematic history, but even she retains enough humanity to make her motives credible, even sympathetic, and allows her sudden change in demeanor at the end to be completely believable.

MGM presents Kotch in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen. There was an Anchor Bay edition that was quickly withdrawn in 2000, and I wonder if MGM's disc utilizes the same transfer as that short-lived edition, which was also non-anamorphic. The lack of anamorphic enhancement hurts the overall quality of the image, making it softer than normal. The image alternates between crystal clarity in day scenes and ugly fogginess in dark or low light scenes. There are also some imperfections such as scratches and specks that mar the image. I admit that MGM's transfer is vastly superior to the original VHS releases of the film, but this disc should have looked better than this.

Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. It is not the greatest sound mix, but it gets the job done quite nicely. The original 1979 video release had hollow, tinny sound. The MGM release is clean and crisp enough for the dialogue to be easily understood, which is a major plus.

Kotch is one of MGM's barebones catalog discs, which means not even the theatrical trailer is offered. Just having the film on home video again is good enough in this case, though.

Closing Statement

Rent or purchase Kotch today and discover how the movies can reach out and touch your inner self. It has been out of circulation for far too long and now awaits rediscovery. MGM's transfer is not the best, but it is certainly satisfactory enough for the time being.

The Verdict

Case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 83
Audio: 80
Extras: 0
Acting: 100
Story: 100
Judgment: 93

Perp Profile

Studio: MGM
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Genres:
• Comedy
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• None

Accomplices

• IMDb








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