Matthew Weiner, the creator of AMC’s popular Mad Men franchise, has often pointed to specific films that influenced the look and feel of that popular TV series. Among them are obvious choices like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) and Fielder Cook’s Patterns (1956), based on Rod Serling’s teleplay, and less obvious influences such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes (1960). One has to wonder though if Weiner ever saw the Jack Lemmon comedy Good Neighbor Sam (1964) because the art direction, production design and even the corporate politics on display seem to prefigure major aspects of Mad Men, albeit on a much lighter note.
Part marital comedy, part advertising satire, Good Neighbor Sam (1964) was Jack Lemmon’s last film as a contract player for Columbia Pictures where he made his official screen debut in 1954 with It Should Happen to You, opposite Judy Holliday. At the time he made Good Neighbor Sam, Lemmon had already proven himself a gifted film comic as well as an acclaimed dramatic actor and he had four Oscar nominations to prove it (he won the 1956 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Mister Roberts).
Yet, Good Neighbor Sam, along with the other three comedies (Under the Yum Yum Tree , How to Murder Your Wife  and The Great Race ) he made between Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce in 1963 and The Fortune Cookie, his first collaboration with Walter Matthau in 1966, marked a rough patch in Lemmon’s career.
While all four films have their merits, none were box office hits or helped advance Lemmon’s career though The Great Race, Blake Edward’s period comedy about an around-the-world road race, was the most ambitious and honored (it received five Oscar nominations), even though it was a box office disappointment in relation to its costs.
Good Neighbor Sam, on the other hand, featured Lemmon in one of his “average Joe” roles. He plays Sam Bissel, a lower level account executive in a San Francisco advertising firm who is becoming dissatisfied with his job after six years without a raise. Through an unexpected turn of events, he is quickly promoted as an example of a clean-living, family man when the company’s top client, Simon Nurdlinger (Edward G Robinson in a delightful cameo role as an ultra-conservative tycoon), threatens to pull his account because of the company’s sexually suggestive approach to a campaign for Nurdlinger eggs.
Nurdlinger is completely taken with Bissel’s honest, unpretentious manner and no-nonsense approach to promoting his product and agrees to stay with the firm. Bissel’s sudden rise to success, however, is soon threatened by an unforeseen development. His wife Minerva (Dorothy Provine) is visited by an old school friend, Janet Lagerlof (Romy Schneider), who decides to rent the house next door to the Bissels while she is settling her grandfather’s estate.
Janet, who recently separated from her husband Howard (Mike Connors), soon learns that she stands to inherit $15 million dollars…with the provision that she is married. In order to help Janet quickly settle the estate, Bissel pretends to be her husband, a situation that becomes increasingly complicated once Howard arrives on the screen and a private detective begins monitoring the activities in both homes.
The first half of Good Neighbor Sam provides some sharp satire of the advertising business and the screenplay was based on what would appear to be an unlikely source, a novel by Jack Finney, an author who is best known for his forays into fantasy and science fiction such as Time and Again and The Body Snatchers, a 1955 work that has been the source of four films starting with Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1957.
Not surprisingly, some of the thematic concerns of the latter novel turn up in Good Neighbor Sam with Bissel fighting conformity and rebelling against the status quo in his own way; in his spare time, he builds automated junk sculptures in the manner of some Rube Goldberg invention.
Bissel’s awareness of the soul-crushing daily grind is established in an early scene when he is stuck in traffic and says to his wife, “Do you realize I’ve been in the same traffic jam, going to the same job, every day for six years and so have they [referring to other commuters]. Every day all we husbands get up and take the same road into the same job. We even dress alike, we put on the same gray suit and the hat and the button down shirt and the…like sheep!” At which point, Bissel notices that a parallel car of commuters stuck in traffic is full of braying sheep, one of several surreal touches that were inspired by Finney’s original novel.
Another telling detail is the name of Bissel’s firm – Burke and Hare – which were the names of the famous graverobbers in 18th century Edinburgh who became the basis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher and later inspired the name of Finney’s most famous work.
The second half of Good Neighbor Sam is less successful in its attempts to poke fun at suburbia while working out the mechanics of a very convoluted mistaken identity plot. At a running time of 131 minutes, the film is too long to sustain the giddy high spirits needed to sustain the madcap proceedings on display though Romy Schneider, in her American screen debut, is gorgeous and charming as the sexy European neighbor.
There is also an amusing bit with Louis Nye as a smug private eye who is reduced to hysteria by Bissel’s wild driving in one scene. The sequence where Bissel and Janet race around town, defacing billboards which reveal the lie Bissel has been living, is also funny and prefigures the sort of anti-corporate pranks and signage transformations which would start to appear in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the late seventies led by artists like Mark Pauline, founder of the Survival Research Laboratories.
Jack Lemmon had misgivings about both Good Neighbor Sam and Under the Yum Yum Tree prior to making them and dismissed them both as disappointments after they were released. Of the two, however, Good Neighbor Sam received much better critical notices. In fact, the majority of reviews were quite favorable with Lemmon garnering the majority of the praise. He was even nominated for Best Actor by the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards) for his performance in Good Neighbor Sam and How to Murder Your Wife.
The New York Journal-American magazine called Good Neighbor Sam “A hilarious farce – the kind that Irene Dunne and Katharine Hepburn used to do with Cary Grant,” Cue magazine noted that “Lemmon is at his comic best” and The New York Times observed that “Lemmon does not let his fans down in giving a spirited performance full of proper mugging and candid delivery of a dialogue that draws laughs and sympathy.”
Some additional trivia worth noting is that Good Neighbor Sam was produced and directed by David Swift, who also helmed Under the Yum Yum Tree and is most famous for the two highly successful Hayley Mills movies he made for Walt Disney, Pollyanna (1960) and The Parent Trap (1961).
The theme song and score for Good Neighbor Sam have a bouncy, pop appeal and are typically frenetic examples of film scores by composer Frank De Vol. You’ll also catch glimpses throughout the movie of the jazz harmony quartet, The Hi-Lo’s, who appear as the musical accompaniment in a Hertz rent-a-car commercial that encounters one production snafu after another.
The San Francisco locations for Good Neighbor Sam provide a wonderful time capsule snapshot of the city circa 1964 with glimpses of the Fairmont Hotel, the Golden Gate Bridge, Union Square, the Embarcadero, Tommy’s Joynt diner (still open for business!), Alexis’ Tangiers restaurant (closed in the late 1970s) and the San Francisco International Airport.
Good Neighbor Sam has been released on DVD in various Jack Lemmon collections in the past such as Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s The Jack Lemmon Collection, which also includes Phffft!, Operation Mad Ball, The Notorious Landlady and Under the Yum Yum Tree. It has never been released on Blu-Ray but perhaps Sony will remedy that situation in the future or license it to a specialty distributor like Twilight Time or Olive Films for that purpose.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
Other weblinks of interest: