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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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The Apartment

The Apartment” (1960)
One of the most enduring and beloved romantic comedies of all time, Wilder's "The Apartment" is not without its dark side and is essentially antithetical in tone to the rom-coms of today. Set in a "Mad Men"-esque milieu (the film is even referenced in season 1 by Christina Hendricks), if you thought the Don Drapers and Roger Sterlings of the worlds were callous, wait til you get a load of these jerks. C.C Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a low-level insurance man trying to get up in the world, and his bosses (played by Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, David Lewis and David White) need a place to bring their mistresses during the week. So a quid pro quo deal is struck, in which they put in a good word for a promotion and Baxter lends them his apartment on weekdays so they can casually and conveniently cheat on their wives. The arrangement is tough on Baxter, who is left to kill the evenings solo while his boudoir is used for hanky panky, but the system kinda works. That is, until Baxter himself starts falling for a pretty, unassuming elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine), only to discover she's the top exec's mistress, which puts all three of them in a pickle of jealousy, resentment and romantic entanglements. While comical and witty, with an effortlessly engaging rhythm and pace, perhaps what makes "The Apartment" a classic is that it isn't just a congenial laugh-a-minute gagfest, instead employing serious, dark undertones and even evincing a suicide attempt. Romantic comedy is a genre that's been tarnished over the past half-century, but it's never, ever been done more truthfully, heartbreakingly or better than Wilder does it here. Oh, and for our money, this film boasts the second truly hall-of-fame last line of Wilder's career. [A]

One Two Three

One Two Three” (1961)
Excuse us while we catch our breath -- we're still reeling from a recent rewatching of this "minor" Wilder picture from 1961. "One Two Three" bears the stigma of being a lesser entry in the director's back catalog, largely due to its initially poor performance. But if it flopped on release (unsurprisingly, perhaps, since the situation it treats as its gleeful playground got suddenly a lot less funny with the construction of the Berlin Wall) holy crap, is it a lot of fun viewed from this safe distance. James Cagney is a force of nature in a late period performance as the ambitious Coca-Cola executive trying to manipulate the fallout to his own advantage when his boss's airheaded daughter marries a communist (Horst Buchholz) on his watch. Cultures and world views clash, and it all gets very shouty, but with gags coming this thick and fast, it really just feels like Cagney has to up the volume to make himself heard over the laughter from the last one. The dialog is ridiculous: unnaturalistic and conspicuously "written" but so brimful of comic verve and pop cultural references (count the allusions to Cagney's prior career, for example) that we really don't care. And of course the story is ideologically unsound, with the triumph of Western capitalist ideals uber alles easily read as reactionary cultural imperialism. If it were really trying to make a sophisticated political argument that would be a major issue, but frankly, this is less satire than farce, less Karl Marx than Groucho. “One Two Three” is a comment on East/West relations in the same way that “Some Like It Hot” is a damning indictment of prohibition-era gangsterism (i.e. it isn't). It is pure, unalloyed, rapid-fire wisecrackery from beginning to dizzying end, in which the "winning" ideology is no ideology at all: everyone is corrupt or corruptible and the only fools are those with a dogma, whatever side they're on. Wilder's peculiar talent, abundantly on show here, was to be able to mine that cynical core, yet spin out from it something so brilliantly silly that it's actually joyous. [A]

Irma La Douce

"Irma La Douce" (1963)
Based on the Tony award-nominated French musical of the same name, "Irma La Douce" reunited Shirley MacLaine, Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder, three years after their super-successful turn in "The Apartment," to rather diminished effect. Irma La Douce (MacLaine) is a hooker (or as they say in France -- poule) with a heart of gold, who loves her work, but whose mean old pimp (or mec) treats her poorly (big surprises all round). A naive cop, Nestor Patou, not knowing the arrangement the mecs and the poules have with the police (flics), busts the girls, and his police captain, and gets himself fired from the force. Jobless, he returns to the scene of his undoing, and proceeds to bust the head of Irma's mec. So naturally, she takes him on as her new mec and live-in boyfriend, against Patou's better judgement (uh-oh), and chaos etc., ensues. Wilder originally conceived the film as a black-and-white musical, a truer adaptation of the original, however, apparently nervous about directing song and dance numbers, he instead extensively rewrote the script, and turned it into a non-musical color rom-com. To get this love story between a pimp and prostitute past the MPAA (who are covertly ribbed in the film) Wilder had to use sly allusions to sex and innuendo to get the film finished, the gymnastics of which sometimes show. The role of Irma was intended for Marilyn Monroe (it's hard to not imagine her shining in this part as well), but her untimely death lead to MacLaine being cast. MacLaine had such faith in both Wilder and Lemmon that she took the role before reading the script, which she later said she thought was terrible. If she did, she hides it well as the wide-eyed, scrappy Irma, and was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the role, (losing to Patricia Neal for "Hud"), and the film also managed to win Andre Previn an Academy Award for Best Score. Far from the home-run laughs of "The Apartment" and "Some Like it Hot," Irma La Douce is still a fun if G-rated tour of the seedy Parisian underbelly, but coming in overlong at close to 2 1/2 hours, would have benefited from some tighter editing. Though it was a bit of critical flop, it made over $12 million and became one of the most financially successful films of Wilder's career. [B-]

Kiss Me Stupid

Kiss Me, Stupid” (1964)
At first glance "Kiss Me, Stupid," with its cutesy title and harmless poster, gives off a "Golden Age Cinema" vibe in the worst possible way. It'd like you to believe that it's your generic romantic comedy from the American studio hey-day; a pleasant yet predictable time-waster full of motor-mouth comedy and inevitable romantic plotlines, tightly concluded with a studio-approved finale. But there were some anomalies in the genre that have stood the test of time, and many, if not all, of Wilder's comedies fall into that camp thanks to his frank acknowledgement of sex and the lengths we'll go to to get it, and other unlikable human traits. Here, Dean Martin stars as Dino, a larger-than-life version of himself who runs into amateur songwriters Barney and Orville (Ray Walston) on his way to LA. The duo see this as a great opportunity to sell one of their songs to him, and sabotage his car to keep him in town just long enough to do that. However, the uncontrollably jealous Orville worries his wife will take to the musician, so he arranges an ingenious plan: a waitress/prostitute at a local trash bar (Kim Novak, sporting a very odd accent) will act as his Mrs. for the night, fulfilling Dino's sexual needs while the pianist smooth talks him into buying one of his ditties. Compared to mainstream cinema today, the rather tasteless subject is tackled mildly, and the light-hearted handling carries the movie for a long while before any truly controversial acts occur. When they do, however, even though they're suggested rather than front-and-center, their occurrence within the narrative is still deeply disturbing. This large contrast with the already well-established, clean tone doesn't only evoke an unsettling feeling, but it also feels like real people making questionable, self-serving decisions. It's incredibly odd to see immoral behavior treated in such a way, and it could be read as honest, refreshing -- there's a tendency to make scummy conduct look especially scummy by all means necessary, but here it is done much less manipulatively and the deeds stand on their own. Deep down there also seems to be a skewer of the biz, where pure talent matters little and nobodies have to make considerable sacrifices just for one shot in the big leagues. It has the happy ending you'd expect, but it's impossible to shake the uncomfortable turns it took ten minutes prior. There's some disagreement in the Playlist ranks over this one, and indeed there has been a move towards rehabilitating this film in recent years, but overall the oddness of its narrative can't quite compensate for the sour taste it leaves. [C]

Fortune Cookie
"The Fortune Cookie" (1966)
Widely regarded as the last of Wilder's films to have any sort of claim to relevance -- from here on his movies yield greatly diminishing returns -- "The Fortune Cookie" is actually a pretty great character-based comedy for most of its running time. This is mainly because the key characters it features are played by Wilder regular Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the first of their onscreen pairings (the partnership is yet another thing for which we can thank the director), and the double act they establish here -- Matthau the conniving shyster to Lemmon's goodhearted but biddable naif -- became pretty much their template for future collaborations. Matthau in particular is just fucking funny as Gingrich, the obnoxious ambulance-chasing lawyer (the kind of guy who "starts out describing a donut and it ends up a pretzel") who spots a lucrative opportunity when his brother in law Harry Hinkle (Lemmon) is concussed following a brush with pro football player Boom Boom Jackson (Ron Rich). The two embark, for reasons of varying ignobility, on an insurance scam, in the course of which almost everyone is revealed to be working an angle on someone else. And as long as the film is dealing with detestable characters operating entirely on self-interested agendas, it’s a gleefully sour diversion. But what the arc the story fails to sell is the kind of buddy love affair that blossoms between good guys/patsies Harry and Boom Boom, who, in a rather misjudged tip of the hat to racial equality, is portrayed as utterly guileless and blameless, to the point of simply being a stooge. And it's this relationship that gives us maybe the cheapest happy ending of any Wilder film; too pat to be satisfying and too sweet to even work as a comeuppance to the nastier characters. Still, right up until the point that Harry, and the film, wimps out in favour of hurriedly Doing The Right Thing, it's as deliciously mean-spirited as you could hope for. [B+]

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


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