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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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Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes

The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes” (1970)
Wilder's only real venture into what we'd now think of as the blockbuster world (the film was originally designed, like the musicals of the time, to tour in an extended roadshow format) is also one of the more heartbreaking pictures the director made -- the film was chopped up by the studio, with two whole stories cut out, and has still never been fully restored, although some scenes have resurfaced and been included on laserdisc and DVD. Perhaps because of this, and perhaps because Wilder and Diamond play it relatively straight (while not resisting poking fun at the characters every so often) it remains rather underappreciated among his works. Following Holmes (Robert Stephens, in a definitive performance) and Watson (Colin Blakeley) as the mysterious Gabrielle Valladon (Genevieve Page) asks them to find her missing husband, a case that involves the Loch Ness Monster, midgets and Holmes' brother Mycroft (a typically delicious turn from Christopher Lee), the plot might feel a little far-fetched, but it's an awful lot of fun, throwing all kinds of red herrings and twists at the detectives, and makes the recent Guy Ritchie films look like the jumped-up period Bond movies they really are. But for all the fun and games, there's also a depth to it that many Holmes adaptations miss, particularly in its refusal to whitewash the great detective's drug use, and the bittersweet ending, as *spoiler* Sherlock learns that Gabrielle was actually a German spy, and has since been executed back in the homeland. *end spoiler* The latter twist in particular, helps the film serve as almost a prequel to subsequent incarnations, and sees Holmes move from romantic to cynic, giving the film real emotional heft. If you've never seen it (as we suspect you might not have), you should seek it out immediately. [A-]

Avanti

"Avanti!" (1972)
Another late-period Wilder picture that didn't find much of an audience at the time, and was mostly dismissed by critics, "Avanti!" is, if not quite a lost classic, than certainly an overlooked gem. Jack Lemmon once again stars, as Wendell Armbruster Jr, an ulcer-suffering businessman who ventures to Italy when his father is killed in a car crash on his annual vacation, only to discover that Armbruster Sr. has been using his Italian vacation to meet up with his British mistress, who also died in the wreck. Lemmon soon comes across the mistress' daughter (Juliet Mills), and with the help of the hotel staff and assorted Italians, the two find themselves following in their parents' footsteps. The film isn't the most hilarious of the Wilder/Lemmon collaborations by any stretch of the imagination, but there's lots of farcical laughs to be had (particularly from a great performance from a Golden Globe-nominated Clive Revill as hotel manager Carlo Carlucci), and Wilder manages to have some cross-cultural fun without even becoming mean-spirited or resorting to stereotypes. But what makes the film linger after it's done is the tender, melancholy feel of the picture, as Lemmon, in a character cut firmly from the cloth of C.C. Baxter, faces up to his father's death, his own midlife crisis and a burgeoning romance. There are problems -- it's overlong at 140 minutes, and the embrace of swearing and nudity never quite clicks -- but for the most part, it's a picture that's matured nicely over the years. [B]

The Front Page

"The Front Page" (1974)
Even for a comic titan like Wilder, it took some balls to remake arguably the greatest of the screwball comedies, 1940's "His Girl Friday." But that film was itself the remake of an adaptation of Hecht and MacArthur's stage play "The Front Page," with the genders knocked around. Cashing in on the nostalgia of the previous year's "The Sting," Wilder returned to the original source and period setting, reteaming frequent collaborators Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, but despite their obvious and continuing chemistry (as well as nice supporting turns from Carol Burnett and a terrifyingly young Susan Sarandon as Lemmon's fiancee), it can't stop the whole thing from feeling redundant. It's funny, to be sure (Wilder and Diamond stick closely to the play, which was pretty airtight), but it doesn't have the zip or the energy of "His Girl Friday," and one can't help but feel that the director's heart wasn't in it. Indeed, he later confessed to his biographer Charlotte Chandler that, "I'm against remakes in general, because if a picture is good, you shouldn't remake it, and if it's lousy, why remake it? It was not one of my pictures I was particularly proud of." There are pleasures to be found, absolutely, including the lavish period settings, and the film was a rare hit in the later stages of Wilder's career, but it's a decidedly minor effort. [B]

Fedora

Fedora” (1978)
Part of the genius of “Sunset Boulevard” was in paying homage to the bygone grandeur of the silents in a film that was definitively of its own moment too. In “Fedora” Wilder tries, and fails, to pull off that trick a second time, making an ultimately hamfisted stab at lovingly referencing the era of “Sunset Boulevard”-style classical Hollywood from the vantage point of the late '70s. The campy melodrama evokes many similar themes, right down to casting an aging William Holden, but it lacks its Gloria Swanson, and most tragically, it lacks its director’s once-sharp eye, and so never rises too far above the level of kitsch curiosity. It’s said Wilder approached Marlene Dietrich, who he namechecks late in the film, for the central role of the aging, elusive movie star, with the inspired hope of casting Faye Dunaway as her daughter. But Dietrich turned him down and so we get Hildegard Knef and Marthe Keller instead, thus losing a layer of metatextuality that could have added some lustre. But we do get the Dad from “7th Heaven” playing a young Holden, so there’s that. Trite, tortuous and occasionally ‘Baby Jane’ hysterical, “Fedora” is marked further by truly odd touches like Michael York’s casting as "himself," and an unintentionally hilarious and talky extended denouement that ends the film about seventeen times over, piling unnecessary twist on expository flashback ad nauseam. Ironically for a film that boasts the moral that you simply can’t outrun time, it is the director’s work here that most cruelly illustrates that. So hey, maybe we can reclaim it as some kind of meta-meta-super-hyper-po-mo masterpiece? Hm, no. In all honesty the overwrought but underdeveloped “Fedora” may be embraced by apologists for its willfully old-fashioned approach, but we find it less affectionately old-fashioned than simply outdated. Ignored on (spotty) release, and not having improved with age, it’s now as close to obscure as a Wilder movie gets. It's perhaps best to leave it that way.  [C-]

Buddy Buddy

Buddy Buddy” (1981)
While there were a few misfires along the course of his career, none were ever quite as painful "Buddy Buddy," the 1981 comedy that would prove to be Wilder's last film. In theory, it was a home run: Wilder had a script, a remake of a French hit, with longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, who worked on many of the director's best pictures, and it reunited with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, with whom he'd had much success. But it's a shadow of their finer work by all involved, unfortunately. Matthau plays a hitman, whose latest job is impaired by a suicidal TV inventor, whose wife has fallen in love with a sexual therapist (Klaus Kinski, who would later deny being in the film at all). But the darker tone feels uncomfortable: Wilder would later tell Cameron Crowe that the film "was not the kind of comedy I had an affection for... Here is the problem. The audience laughs, and then they sort of resent it. Because it's negativity. Dead bodies and such. If you hold up a mirror too closely to this kind of behavior, they don't like it.") Of course, Wilder was behind plenty of very black comedies that worked like gangbusters, but there's something sour and charmless about "Buddy Buddy" and, more importantly, it's rarely funny, bar a few good lines (Kinski's "Premature ejaculations means always having to say you're sorry" being a stand-out). The film's critical and commercial failure clearly hit Wilder hard: he flirted with other projects, including "Schindler's List," but never made another picture. Having said that, it is still better than "The Emperor Waltz"... [D+]

One the worst aspects of “Buddy Buddy” being Wilder’s last film, aside from actually having to watch the damn thing, is ending a retrospective like this on such a downer. It just doesn’t seem a fitting way to conclude a tribute to one of our very favourite directors. So instead we want to leave you with what we like to consider Wilder’s real late-career legacy: some words of wit and wisdom he shared so readily throughout his “anecdotage”.

Here he is talking about his favorite director, Lubitsch, and illustrating what “the Lubitsch Touch” meant to him:

And here's a 3-part 1986 AFI interview:




YouTube has plenty more clips like that if you do a little searching. And if you still want more, and you should, Cameron Crowe’s book “Conversations with Wilder” is a terrific read, chock full of Golden Age gossip and glorious photography. We’ll leave you with an excerpt from that book, a list that more than one Playlist member may have taped above his desk/engraved on her heart:

Billy Wilder on screenwriting:
1.    The audience is fickle.
2.    Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go.
3.    Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
4.    Know where you're going.
5.    The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
6.    If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
7.    A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever.
8.    In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they're seeing.
9.    The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
10.    The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that's it. Don’t hang around.

-- Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton, RP, Christopher Bell, Sam Chater

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


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