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The Films Of Billy Wilder: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist March 27, 2012 at 4:44PM

"I want to thank three persons,” said Michel Hazanavicius, accepting the 2012 Best Picture Oscar for “The Artist.” “I want to thank Billy Wilder, I want to thank Billy Wilder and I want to thank Billy Wilder.” He wasn’t the first director to namecheck Wilder in an acceptance speech. A few years prior, Fernando Trueba, accepting the Foreign Language Film Oscar for "Belle Epoque" quipped atheistically "I would like to believe in God in order to thank him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder... so, thank you Mr. Wilder." Wilder reportedly called the next day "Fernando? It's God."
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Billy Wilder A Retrospective

"I want to thank three persons,” said Michel Hazanavicius, accepting the 2012 Best Picture Oscar for “The Artist.” “I want to thank Billy Wilder, I want to thank Billy Wilder and I want to thank Billy Wilder.” He wasn’t the first director to namecheck Wilder in an acceptance speech. In 1994, Fernando Trueba, accepting the Foreign Language Film Oscar for "Belle Epoque" quipped, "I would like to believe in God in order to thank him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder... so, thank you Mr. Wilder." Wilder reportedly called the next day "Fernando? It's God."

So just what exactly was it that inspired these men to expend some of the most valuable seconds of speechifying airtime they'll ever know, to tip their hats to Wilder? And can we bottle it?

Born in a region of Austria/Hungary that is now part of Poland, Wilder's story feels like an archetype of the émigré-to-Hollywood experience that shaped so much of the early studio system, and by extension, narrative cinema as we know it. First a reporter, he cut his teeth as a screenwriter in Berlin, notably collaborating on the screenplay for famous neo-realist precursor "People on Sunday." Moving to Paris, his first directorial credit came for the 1934 French-language picture "Mauvaise Graine" ("Bad Seed"). However, even prior to its release Wilder, fearing the looming European Nazi threat that would eventually claim the lives of his mother, stepfather and grandmother, had left for Hollywood, and a shared room with Peter Lorre.

While we list only his directorial work below, Wilder considered himself a writer first and foremost and attained quite some pre-directorial success with screenplays co-written with Charles Brackett, especially those directed by fellow immigrant and mentor Ernst Lubitsch (to his dying day, Wilder's office was graced by a plaque reading "How would Lubitsch do it?"). And several pictures after his eventual split with Brackett came the second important, multi-picture writing partnership of Wilder's career, with I.A.L. Diamond.

But while Wilder always wrote in collaboration, the throughline is definitely his own. Perhaps to compensate for his initially faltering English, he developed an ear for the American vernacular that was simply unparalleled, and, boy, did he have a way with a joke. His detractors (we guess they exist, though we try to avoid them at parties) have accused his dialogue style of being too constructed, too unnaturalistic. They say, perhaps imitating Jack Lemmon imitating Tony Curtis imitating Cary Grant "Nobody talks like that" and perhaps they're right -- really, nobody did. Except maybe, judging from the plethora of witty, insightful, delightful late-career interviews he gave, Wilder himself.

Naturalism be damned. When you're as funny, scathing, richly textured and whipsmart as Wilder could be at his best, who needs it? In almost every genre he put his hand to, he turned in a stone-cold classic. Or two. Need stats? He directed 4 of the AFI's 100 best films of all time, and wrote 5 of their 100 funniest. He directed 14 different actors to Oscar nominations. He was nominated for 12 writing Oscars, winning 3, and 8 directing Oscars, winning 2.

Enough with the math. Wilder gave us Marilyn Monroe's (and arguably classic Hollywood's) most iconic image. He gave us 'Nobody's perfect' in a film as close to perfection as a Hollywood comedy can get. He gave us "Mr. de Mille, I'm ready for my close up," Barbara Stanwyck's anklet, and Jack Lemmon straining spaghetti through a tennis racket. He made Garbo laugh, let dead men narrate and tempered all his jokes with cynicism, and all his cynicism with infectious, irreverent, mischievous wit.

So today, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his death, we take a long look back at the career of this remarkable, beloved, inspirational director. Because we may not be standing on a podium, but we, too, would like to thank Billy Wilder.

There are three notable omissions from this list - films none of us has seen and which we couldn't track down in time. The French-language "Mauvaise Graine" (1934) is about a playboy who falls in with a gang of car thieves in Paris. "Five Graves to Cairo" (1943) was Wilder's second US directorial effort, and starred Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter and Erich von Stroheim as Rommel. It's a desert-set WW2 spy story and apparently pretty good. And finally, we missed out on "Death Mills," Wilder's 22-minute long compilation of documentary footage filmed after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen extermination camp in 1945.

The Major And The Minor

"The Major and the Minor" (1942)
Reportedly fed up with how his scripts were being bastardized by lesser directors, Wilder was eventually handed the reins on “The Major and the Minor,” for his U.S. feature directorial debut. It’s a shame he wasn’t allowed to cut his teeth on his far superior script for “Ball of Fire,” which Howard Hawks was shooting simultaneously, (though Hawks did a great job with the Barbara Stanwyck/Gary Cooper starrer). Because with the best will in the world, these days it’s hard to get beyond the icky premise of the film. The story revolves around a grown woman (Ginger Rogers) falling in love with an engaged U.S. army major (Ray Milland) while passing herself off as a 12-year-old girl. Problematic to the modern eye, to say the least. At the time, however -- back in the days when apparently the discovery that the female with whom a grown man has been sharing a private train berth is a pre-teen, was an occasion for relief rather than the set up for an episode of “To Catch A Predator” -- this was a hit and established Wilder’s mettle as a director. Certainly, leaving the inherent skeeziness of the plot to one side, you can see it’s a remarkably assured debut. Not showy, not especially visually innovative, but certainly competent, and already here Wilder demonstrates his deft hand at coaxing game performances of impeccable comic timing. Rogers is really pretty terrific, despite the awkwardness of what she’s working with, and the simple fact that she just looks far too old to play the part of a 12-year-old convincingly (perhaps that’s all for the best viz: skeeziness), and her “hair in braids” disguise is about as convincing as Clark Kent’s glasses. Milland, too, nearly manages to charm us through some pretty murky waters, until the very end where even he seems a little embarrassed at the hasty denouement. Ultimately, while it may have launched one of the most important directorial careers that Hollywood will ever know, be warned that the film’s plot has dated beyond (suspension of dis)belief, and as such “The Major and the Minor” is a lot more minor than major. [C+]

Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity” (1944)
Hugely influential and highly involving, the director's 1944 film-noir is cinematic crack, endlessly rewatchable and heralded as one of the very best American movies ever made. The story is this: insurance salesmen Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is seduced by the sizzling Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who convinces him to secretly compose a life insurance policy for her husband and aid in his murder. Of course she's not all that she seems to be, being the femme fatale and all, and Walter ends up at the desk of his boss (a crackling, powerful Edward G. Robinson), confiding the entire murder story into his Dictaphone (giving the movie its voiceover perspective). It's difficult not to admire every element of "Double Indemnity" -- from the suspenseful, tight plot to the harsh lighting and shadows borrowed from the best in German Expressionism -- simply because it has everything you could possibly want in a single film. But props go to the subtler, slower-paced moments that you don't always find in the genre, a cinematic victim of endless dialogue and knotty plots. When Walter sets out to meet with Phyllis on the eve of the murder, he recounts all of the smart precautions he took before leaving, such as sticking matchbooks under his door knocker to see if anyone had stopped by while he was gone. He covers his tracks carefully and we stay with him every step of the way, Wilder stretching the suspense so thin that we're ready to snap once the bloodshed finally occurs. The slaying itself is also artfully done, taking place entirely off-camera with the frame glued right on Stanwyck's face -- for the first millisecond she sports a frightened mug, but it soon fades to a more truthful, relieved stare, cold as ice. An absolute classic. [A+]

The Lost Weekend

"The Lost Weekend" (1945)
Working on the script for "Double Indemnity" with Wilder proved a stressful experience for Raymond Chandler, a recovering alcoholic who was allegedly driven back to the bottle by his relationship with the director. As something between an apology and an intervention, Wilder optioned Charles R. Jackson's novel about an alcoholic, and won Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards for the first time (as well as sharing the top prize at the first Cannes Film Festival). Wilder's film follows Don Birnam (a revelatory turn from Ray Milland, a British actor previously known for slighter fare), an alcoholic writer on a four-day binge of increasing darkness. Milland's charm and Wilder's deft comic touch gives Don, and the film, a charming, scampy feel to begin with, but there's an undercurrent of sadness in the way that his brother and girlfriend treat him, and as he sinks deeper and deeper into his addiction, there's a grittiness and power that's shocking even now, and doubly so because of the opening. Wilder is already in full command of his medium, amping up the hallucinatory horror with techniques that swiftly became industry standard (the hero walking down a street as neon signs float past him? All started here), aided by Miklós Rózsa's score -- one of the first to make use of the theremin, to great effect. The production code-mandated ending feels a little forced, but even so, the booze industry offered Paramount $5 million to bury the film (Wilder told Cameron Crowe, whose excellent book "Conversations With Wilder" is a must-read: "If they'd offered me the five million, I would have taken it"). Clearly, they knew that they were up against as powerful a portrait of the disease as has ever been made. [A]

The Emperor Waltz

"The Emperor Waltz" (1948)
In marked counterpoint to the bitter alcoholism drama that preceded it, and the cynical wit of “A Foreign Affair” to follow, Wilder’s sole foray into pure musical comedy territory is a toothless affair. Like a subplot extended to requisite feature length by means of a little crooning from lead Bing Crosby, including an interminable-feeling yodeling number, the film details the romantic entanglements of a brash American salesman and his dog (cruelly uncredited, despite turning in an Uggie-worthy performance) on a visit to the royal court of turn-of-the-century Austria. There they meet snooty aristocrat Joan Fontaine who gradually falls for Crosby’s golden pipes and unrefined charms, just as her purebred poodle disgraces herself with his mutt. While of course the pedigree/mongrel love affair(s) can be read as allusions to the cruel idiocy of the eugenicist policies pursued by Nazi Germany, and while some mild satire can be read into our hero’s dogged pursuit of a sale (a quality deemed extremely “American”), really the plot is pablum, the targets way too easy and the jokes, well, there aren’t enough good ones and Fontaine doesn’t get to deliver any of them. Which is possibly a good thing -- she was never the funniest of actresses. Strangely, despite the portrayal of the old guard of Austrian royalty as a decrepit bunch of pompous snobs who’ll stop at nothing to protect their ossified way of life (not even -- wait for it -- the drowning of puppies), and America, by contrast being the gosh-darndest land of opportunity and equality, we emerge here with less of a feel for Wilder’s heartfelt love for his adopted homeland than we do from those films in which he is more critical of it. Despite some Lubitsch-ian moments (the aging monarch, banished to an ante-room because of a bomb scare, walks round and round on a spiral mosaic on the floor, like a bored child), the film lacks the shrewdness and storytelling efficiency we expect from Wilder. Indeed, the story goes that he had 4,000 daisies painted blue because he disliked them when white, in a most un-Wilder like moment of directorial excess. “The Emperor Waltz” may mean that the jack-of-all-genres director could tick yet another type of picture off the list, but it’s also proof that he couldn’t master quite all of them. [D]

A Foreign Affair

"A Foreign Affair" (1948)
Returning to European subject matter surely couldn't help but feel personal for Wilder, a Polish-born Jew, considering his escape from the Nazis, and the personal loss he suffered (the director had actually done wartime service for his adopted country, editing U.S. Army Service Corps documentary footage after wrapping "The Lost Weekend"), but however wounded he was, you wouldn't know if from "A Foreign Affair." The film is one of Wilder's best satires, aimed squarely at the corruption endemic in occupied Germany. The story follows conservative Iowa congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) on a fact-finding mission to Berlin. She meets Army Captain John Pringle (John Lund), who is secretly sleeping with Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich), a German cabaret singer, who has cut her former ties with the Nazi party. Congresswoman Frost, hearing talk of an officer consorting with a former Nazi supporter, is determined to get to the bottom of it, and enlists Pringle's help, not realizing he is the officer in question. There was open hostility both on and off the camera between Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur; the latter, for whom "A Foreign Affair" broke a four-year absence from acting, was racked by insecurities, and felt Wilder was favoring Dietrich unfairly. The German actress' cabaret performances are indeed some of the highlights of the film, particularly "The Ruins of Berlin," (composer Friedrich Holleander, Dietrich's frequent collaborator, was rightfully nominated for an Oscar), and the director's affection for the star shines through, so maybe Arthur had a point. An ever-cynical Wilder has created characters that each walk a gray area of political and social assumption and duality, lambasting both Congress and the military, in one fell entertaining swoop. But films like this are judged not only on their merits but their message, and it received mixed reviews, with some critics horrified by Wilder's somewhat light-hearted take on American post-war duplicity -- the filmmaker was not only denounced by Congress, but the film was also banned in Germany. 65 years in, it's less controversial, but just as good. [A-]

This article is related to: Billy Wilder, Features, The Essentials


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