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The Films Of Billy Wilder: A Retrospective

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
March 27, 2012 4:44 PM
12 Comments
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Sunset Boulevard

"Sunset Boulevard" (1950)
After straying into more comedic waters for a while, Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett, in their last collaboration, went back to the darker side of life to tackle Hollywood itself, and "bite the hand that feeds him," in the words of MGM executive Louis B. Mayer (to which Wilder responded, eloquently, "Why don't you go fuck yourself?"). Movies about movies are historically difficult to pull off without feeling too inside baseball, but "Sunset Boulevard" certainly marks the apex of the genre, in part thanks to Wilder laying on a film noir feel to a world he'd been working in for over a decade. Narrated by screenwriter Joe Gillis (an excellent William Holden) as he floats dead in a swimming pool, it's the story of his patronage by faded silent star Norma Desmond (a titanic performance from Gloria Swanson), who is driven to jealousy and murder by his burgeoning relationship with another screenwriter. Wilder skillfully blends truth and fiction, weaving in cameos by the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton, and uses footage from "Queen Kelly," Erich von Stroheim's compromised (and at the time still-unreleased) silent epic that starred Swanson (and in a wonderfully meta bit of casting, the helmer also plays Max, Desmond's ex-husband, former director and current butler). But for all of the in-jokes, it never feels indulgent: Wilder is talking about the transience and fakery of the Hollywood world, rather than celebrating his pals. The icicle-sharp, endlessly quotable script is one of the greatest ever written, and the film remains relentlessly entertaining. If it's not the director's finest, it's a testament to how much competition there is for that position. [A+]

Ace In The Hole

"Ace In The Hole" (1951)
Wilder's first film as the triple threat of writer, producer and director, "Ace In The Hole" was also his first project after his split from writing partner Charles Brackett, coming off the back of the critical and commercial success of “Sunset Boulevard.” The working title of the film was “The Human Interest Story," but while it was changed by Paramount to the it's-fun-we-promise “Big Carnival,” it has long since reverted back to Wilder's favored, and far superior, title. The film is a scathing examination of how news is made, inspired by the real-life story of Floyd Collins, who in 1925 was trapped inside Sand Cave in Kentucky after a landslide, with a local journalist turning the accident into a national tragedy and winning a Pulitzer for his efforts, despite the death of the stricken Collins. A shade darker than even “Double Indemnity," the amoral antihero Chuck Tatum (played by Kirk Douglas), is a status-hungry journalist with a chip on his shoulder, who happens upon a man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), trapped by a cave-in. Teaming up with crooked local sheriff, and Minosa's unfeeling and equally unscrupulous wife Lorraine, he creates a media frenzy. Thousands of people arrive, songs are written, a ferris wheel is erected, and local business thrives, as long as the man stays trapped in the cave. At the center of it all is Tatum whose unquenchable ambition to climb to the top of the journalism ladder in New York drives the story, scruples be damned. Though the film was a critical smash in Europe, the reaction in the U.S. was uneven at best, and the film was a financial failure. Fortunately, critics and academics have subsequently caught on, and it's now rightfully considered to be one of Wilder's top-tier pictures. [A]

Stalag 17

"Stalag 17" (1953)
If the poor critical and commercial reception of “Ace in the Hole” gave Wilder even a momentary desire to curb his more cynical impulses, it doesn’t show in his follow-up “Stalag 17.” Ostensibly a war movie, the film takes place almost entirely in the barracks of a German POW camp where a motley assortment of U.S. army sargeants are being held, and thus the actual war feels strangely distant. Tonally too, it’s in a category of its own, a curious hybrid of high-stakes wartime drama and knockabout comedy. And yes, some of the broader jokes now feel a little labored, but it is to the film’s credit that even the worst of the German characters are made to appear ridiculous too, saving them from cipher-dom. Witness the incidental character detail of the commandant, played by fellow émigré director Otto Preminger, laboriously putting on his shiny boots, in a two-man maneuver, just to make a telephone call to Berlin. But the Germans aren’t the focus of attention here, it’s the Americans, and the divisions, rivalries and loyalties that spring up amongst them as they realize they’ve a traitor in their midst and decide -- without proof except a general dislike for the man and his ability to prosper (relatively speaking) in these straitened times -- that Sefton (William Holden) is the rat. It’s hard to imagine any other director not caving to pressure to make his lead more likable, but Wilder insisted, over Holden’s own objections, that Sefton stay the misanthropic, unheroic, self-interested pragmatist to the last, in the process guiding the actor to an Oscar. And it’s a characterization that truly doesn’t compromise, with a script at pains to stress that even his ultimate act of bravery is non-redemptive: it’s really just a calculated long-term financial investment. No, Sefton remains a blackhearted bastard to the end, his self interest, which borders on war profiteering, becoming oddly noble because it is pursued without the slightest ounce of self-pity. A war movie without the war, about a traitor who turns out not to be a traitor, but instead the least heroic hero you can imagine -- Mr Wilder, how did you pull it off? [B+]

Sabrina

"Sabrina" (1954)
Sometimes froth is enough. “Sabrina” may lack the acerbity of Wilder at his most incisive, but it has pleasures aplenty that make up for it. And though it may be uncharacteristically soft-centered, it features lots of Wilder touches that help us know who’s behind the camera, like first-person voiceover narration, observational comedic asides, class consciousness and a huge disparity in age between the romantic leads. Ok, maybe that last one isn’t a recommendation, but bear in mind the May in this particular May/December romance is the beguiling Audrey Hepburn, who often played against love interests who seem, to the modern eye, age-inappropriate. Hepburn plays the titular Sabrina, the tomboy daughter of the chauffeur to a wealthy industrialist family, the Larrabees. Sabrina has a teenage crush on the debonair playboy David Larrabee (William Holden), but after a spell growing up and learning some womanly wiles in Paris, she returns home to entrance him, only to fall gently in love herself with his much older, more serious brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart). Bogart’s casting is eternally the divisive factor here, and how you respond to the film does depend on how willing you are to see your favorite tough guy gangster/PI play “society." Wilder famously courted Cary Grant for the role, but call us crazy, seeing Bogie do something different here is one of the film’s chief pleasures, so we’re kind of glad Grant turned him down (as he reportedly did several times: perhaps that’s why Wilder featured characters doing Grant impressions for comic effect on more than one occasion?) This may be Wilder in rather anodyne form, but the charm of the players, especially the radiant Hepburn, teamed for the first time here with her signature designer Givenchy, whips it all together into the cinematic equivalent of candy floss. And if you think that’s all down to the source material and the Cinderella-esque story, just watch Sydney Pollack’s Julia Ormonde/Harrison Ford-starring remake. It’s not bad, exactly, just resolutely unmagical and it makes you appreciate the effortless charm that Wilder and co. bring to the original all the more. [B]

Seven Year Itch

The Seven Year Itch” (1955)
There's little doubt that "The Seven Year Itch" is a minor entry in the Wilder canon. The director himself was dismissive of the film, describing it as "just a play." And it's undoubtedly dated and problematic. It's a comedy about adultery that's unable to show adultery thanks to censorship by the Hays board, never feeling more than half-achieved as a result. Meanwhile, Tom Ewell -- who played the same part of a publishing executive trying to resist infidelity on Broadway -- never feels particularly comfortable in the lead (Wilder had wanted to cast a then-unknown Walter Matthau, who tested opposite Gena Rowlands, and watching that screen test, found on the DVD, it's hard not to imagine what might have been). But there's one great trump card up the film's sleeve, and that's Marilyn Monroe. Playing a part so archetypal that she's known simply as The Girl (although it's suggested, in one ill-advised piece of in-jokery, that the character might be Marilyn herself), it's the lighter flipside of her part in "Niagara," and she's marvelous at it. There's an inherent comic grace to her turn that's impossibly winning, and it's hard to watch anything else when she's on screen. And that's without even mentioning Monroe's dress being blown up by an air vent -- an image which, despite being one of the most iconic in cinema, doesn't actually feature in the film (Wilder and Fox had to use it only for publicity due to censorship rules). Wilder swore afterward that he'd never work with Monroe again, but fortunately for all of us, he came to change his mind, later observing: "My Aunt Minnie would always be punctual and never hold up production, but who would pay to see my Aunt Minnie?" [C]

Spirit Of St. Louis

"The Spirit of St Louis" (1957)
Exhibit A in support of the thesis that Wilder not only excelled at creating rounded, flawed lead characters, he floundered when he wasn’t able to, is “The Spirit of St Louis.” Ostensibly the story of Charles Lindbergh’s famous pioneering transatlantic solo flight, the film suffers from a most un-Wilderian 2-D gosh-darn all-round great guy hero in Lindbergh (James Stewart), something made all the more craw-sticky because of what we know of the real-life Lindbergh now (and even then too -- his alleged prewar Nazi sympathies and anti-semitism were already a matter of public record, even if his wartime contributions had proven some sort of redemption). The film, though, set before any of the more notorious events of his later life, is not without merit; the desaturated color photography is really quite beautiful, and the aviation scenes are adeptly filmed. But interest flags periodically over the too-long running time due to a story that, despite some clever use of flashback, ultimately just cries out for more human drama than the aviator's sleepiness and the threat of instrument failure really provides. It’s the one film of Wilder’s that we really can’t see his heart in -- it is as anonymously written and directed as any other biopic of derring-do and against-odds triumph, albeit with certain narrative skills a lesser director might not have brought. Even in his “get off my lawn” period, Wilder movies were, for better or worse, recognizably authorial, but this is one we’d be hard pushed to pick out of a line up. As such it’s rather gratifying that the film flopped on release -- it seemed precisely calibrated (heroic protagonist, huge star, inspirational story) to be the kind of flattened-out, feelgood movie that studios assumed the undiscerning masses would flock to. Instead it represents a caesura in an otherwise remarkable run of films for Wilder, both in terms of quality and reception. Had it been a massive success, perhaps there would have been pressure on Wilder to keep his auteurist impulses similarly in check in future. Instead, audiences, bless their hearts, voted with their feet and we got “Witness for the Prosecution,” “Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment” and “One Two Three.” [C+]

Love In The Afternoon

"Love In The Afternoon" (1957)
Based on the Claude Anet novel "Ariane, Russian Girl" (previously adapted as "Scampolo, ein Kind der Strasse" with a script co-written by Wilder), "Love in the Afternoon" marked the rather inauspicious beginning of a fruitful long-term collaboration between Wilder and screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond, and on paper must have seemed like an ideal first project -- they just moved it from Germany to France and made everyone speak English, voila! The story centers on a widowed French detective and his daughter Ariane, a cello student. Fascinated by her father's work, Ariane overhears a plot to off ageing playboy, Frank Flannagan, by an angry husband whose wife is Flannagan's latest conquest. Ariane surprises Flannagan with a warning, and he is duly intrigued by her mysterious entrance into his life, and the lack of further details she'll provide. And also, let's face it, by the fact she's played by the adorable Audrey Hepburn. Ariane, suddenly finding herself in love, decides to hide her innocence beneath a veneer of worldliness and countless affairs, in order to play the player into falling in love with her too (nope it doesn't make a lot of sense here, and it doesn't in the film either). Again, Wilder wanted Cary Grant for the romantic lead, and again, Grant turned him down (as he would all of Wilder's subsequent offers too) and it instead went to Gary Cooper. Hepburn was Wilder's only choice for Ariane, the wide-eyed innocent, and Maurice Chevalier leapt at the role of her father. Though the film flopped commercially in the U.S., it was a financial success in Europe under the title "Ariane." It's hard to watch this film without thinking of the influence of Ernst Lubitsch, whom Wilder worked with on "Ninotchka," especially with the casting of Lubitsch regulars Cooper and Chevallier, and the gypsy musicians that seem to follow Cooper everywhere in the film. But in contrast to the works it sometimes evokes, everything about this film falls a little flat, from the romance to the jokes, and at 130 minutes, well, seriously, how long should it take a pushing-60 playboy to fall in love with Audrey Hepburn? This film is no one's best, but no one's worst either. Still, we'd hope for a lot more from Wilder. [C]

Witness For The Prosecution

"Witness For The Prosecution" (1957)
On the one hand, "Witness For The Prosecution," Wilder's adaptation of mystery expert Agatha Christie's 1953 play, is one of the director's dustier, creakier works -- it's undeniably theatrical (as, let's face it, most courtroom dramas tend to be), with a screenplay that has a tendency to lapse into histrionics. The director confessed that his film was his attempt at "a Hitchcock movie," but it never quite feels as suspenseful as good old Alfred's work. On the other hand, however, the film hosts a trio of outstanding performances that more than make it worth the watch. Former swashbuckler Tyrone Power, in his last role (he died of a heart attack the following year, on the set of King Vidor's "Solomon and Sheba") is enjoyably slippery as Leonard Vole, the defendant in a murder trial, accused of murdering an elderly woman who made him the beneficiary of her will, while Marlene Dietrich, such an obvious fit for Wilder's sensibilities that it's surprising he didn't cast her in everything he made, walks away with entire scenes as Vole's wife, an icy femme fatale. But it's Charles Laughton, as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Vole's ailing lawyer, who dominates, as the hefty British acting legend tended to do. Winning an Oscar nomination for his trouble, he's witty, powerful, scenery-chewing, and quietly aware of his own mortality -- Robarts knows that this may be his final chance to wow in the courtroom. Indeed, Laughton would only appear in three more films, but should have rested happy knowing that, with Wilder, he'd delivered arguably his most seminal turn. [B-]

Some Like It Hot

"Some Like It Hot" (1959)
It's a little odd that the director's most beloved film, and the one most associated with him, was, in the context of his earlier films at least, the most atypical. The director was always funny, even with a prisoner-of-war drama like "Stalag 17," but he'd rarely tackled a comedy so outrageous and high-concept as "Some Like It Hot." It's fortunate, then, that Wilder, and his "Love In The Afternoon" collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, wrote a film that still stands today as one of the funniest and most joyous ever made. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play Joe and Jerry, two musicians who accidentally witness the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929. Pursued by mobster Spats Columbo (gangster movie veteran George Raft), they don dresses and assume the identities of Josephine and Daphne to run away to Florida with an all-female jazz band. Which, as it happens, includes the alluring 'Sugar' Kane (Marilyn Monroe, in her greatest role), who Joe swiftly falls for, donning a second disguise of oil heir Junior in an uproarious Cary Grant impression, to woo her. The farcical plotting is gloriously convoluted, and thanks to the threat from Raft, has real stakes involved, without ever letting up on the gags, which come thick and fast, right up to the unforgettable last line. Wilder keeps the film zipping along, and has three absolute comic hurricanes in his leads -- Curtis cool as anything as he darts between identities, Lemmon gloriously funny in his interaction with smitten millionaire Joe E. Brown, and Monroe endlessly endearing and dunder-headed (no matter how many takes it legendarily took Wilder to get the performance out of her). Wilder might have made a more substantial picture, but never one as perfectly formed. [A+]

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12 Comments

  • Nancy Dennis | November 3, 2013 8:48 PMReply

    It's hard to single out a favorite BW film. There are so many. It's easier to cite the ones I dislike: The Emperor Waltz, Kiss Me, Stupid, and Buddy, Buddy. Only four! I think both Avanti! and Fedora are underrated, especially Avanti! He was a master, a genius. I especially love his and William Wyler's remarks after Lubitsch's funeral: "No more Lubitsch," Wilder said . . . "Worse than that," Wyler replied, "no more Lubitsch films." Wilder's tribute to Lubitsch was "Love in the Afternoon," a delightful romantic comedy with many "Lubitsch touches."

  • star jonestown | April 5, 2012 7:58 PMReply

    Wilder was the best, the g.o.a.t... I don't think there's anyone that has matched his catalogue. Even LOST WEEKEND is a blistering, powerful, courageous film. And that's like a throwaway on his resume to many people. Just amazing to look back on his run. It's still a joy to watch pretty much every one of his films.

  • Sasha | March 31, 2012 10:55 AMReply

    Thanks for Posting this IndieWire. For those who are interested in reading more about this director, I suggest picking up a copy of Cameron Crowe's "Conversations with Wilder"

  • Karl Matuschka | March 30, 2012 5:24 PMReply

    Nice work! You can find Billy Wilder's 22-minute short "Death Mills" on the DVD release of A FILM UNFINISHED: http://www.oscilloscope.net/films/film/25/A-Film-Unfinished

  • Gatsby | March 28, 2012 10:03 PMReply

    I love these retrospectives you do, and also how you don't overdo them, proving I imagine that real time has gone into the research. Saying that, please keep them coming, particularly with directors with such large outputs; the Woody Allen two parter has become a go to bible for me and my friends. Thankyou! X

  • Nik Grape | March 28, 2012 1:02 PMReply

    I've compiled a list of Wilder films that I'm ashamed to say I've never seen (Double Indemnity being the first one, I know, terrible terrible). So thank you for this piece it was really inspiring. He was such a great filmmaker. Sunset Boulevard will always be one of my favorite Hollywood films.

  • TheoC | March 28, 2012 12:08 AMReply

    A few little page splits are absolutely fine when the feature is this good. Great work all involved, it appears to be a labour of love.

  • Lucy | March 27, 2012 11:46 PMReply

    Thank you for doing this. :) I now want to have a marathon of his films, well my favorites of his!

  • Bryan | March 27, 2012 6:29 PMReply

    Thanks so much for this. One of the true greats.

  • please remove the page split/ | March 27, 2012 5:54 PMReply

    please

  • Helg | March 27, 2012 5:37 PMReply

    Thank you, thank you thank you.

  • sp | March 27, 2012 5:33 PMReply

    Wow! Thank you, Playlist, for writing a wonder piece on one of the most brilliant & versatile filmmakers . Modern day directors & screenwriters are constantly borrowing his directing style and his writing style. Playlist, keep up the good work !

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