Rating: NNNNN"It is not necessary for a director to know how to write. However, it helps if he knows how.
“It is not necessary for a director to know how to write. However, it
helps if he knows how to read.”
There’s no need to shed tears for Billy Wilder. Born at the beginning
of one century, he lived into the beginning of another. He had a film
career that spanned half a century, was honoured, feted, rich and,
when he died, he was 95.
It was a ridiculously full and long life, and no one can say that his
death deprived us of any late masterpieces. Given Wilder’s mordant
view of human nature, I suspect that he’d laugh at tears for a man
who survived almost everyone he ever worked with.
Born in Vienna in 1907, he fled Europe in the mid-1930s for America,
part of the massive emigration of Jewish talent that filled Hollywood
in the late 30s and early 40s.
Arriving in America with little money and almost no English, he
managed to become one of the great comic screenwriters of the late
30s – Hold Back The Dawn and Midnight for Mitchell Leisen, Ball Of
Fire for Howard Hawks, and, supremely, Ninotchka for Garbo and
Lubitsch. Then he followed the path of John Huston and Preston Stuges
and began directing.
“Words, words, words. You made a rope of words and strangled this business.”
– Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard
Wilder offers an extreme instance of a writer who moved into the
director’s chair without ever reconsidering his role.
From 1942’s The Major And The Minor to 1981’s Buddy, Buddy, Wilder’s
films are torrents of dialogue, brisk, angry, heavy-handed, wistful,
bristling with sarcasm. They also take voiceover narration to the
outer limits permissible in the classical studio era of Hollywood
Wilder’s Austrian background leads critics to group him with the
German-Jewish emigre community that arrived in Hollywood during the
years following Hitler’s ascension to power. Like most of his
compatriots (Lang, Siodmak, Preminger), he made a major contribution
to film noir. But it’s worth remembering that he was a tabloid
newspaper reporter in Vienna and Berlin before he began writing
scripts, which may account for his fondness for openly sensational
subject matter and his punchy, attention-grabbing openings.
As a visual stylist, Wilder is better than competent, but when some
visual element stands out in one of his films you can usually credit
a great collaborator, usually an art director: Hans Dreier on Sunset
Boulevard and Double Indemnity, Alexander Trauner on The Apartment
and The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes.
“Money changes everything”
– Cyndi Lauper
Wilder is often identified as a cynic – Andrew Sarris, in The
American Cinema, claimed Wilder “too cynical to believe his own
cynicism” – but I don’t think the label’s really accurate. Sarris
once observed that the great lie of the Hollywood romance was that
money didn’t matter. Carole Lombard would marry poor but pretty
Robert Taylor or Clark Gable over rich but not nearly as pretty
Edward Arnold every time.
By Hollywood standards, Wilder is refreshingly realistic on the
subject. Money is at the heart of almost every Wilder film, be it
romance, comedy or thriller.
Susan Applegate’s (Ginger Rogers) adventures in The Major And The
Minor begin when she can’t afford a full-fare train ticket. In Sunset
Boulevard, Joe Gillis hides out in Norma Desmond’s mansion to escape
Bud Baxter’s motivated in The Apartment by corporate ambition, and
the relationship between Dietrich’s Erika von Schluetow and Captain
Pringle (John Lund) in A Foreign Affair is one step removed from that
of a prostitute and her trick.
Then there’s Sabrina, the most peculiar romantic comedy of the 1950s,
in which Bogart’s Linus Larrabee seduces Audrey Hepburn’s bewitching
Sabrina as an act of corporate policy before falling in love with her.
The crisis of the archetypal Wilder protagonist puts him in a
situation where he’s forced to betray his own basic decency in order
to act as society expects him to.
When a not-so-hard case like Baxter or Double Indemnity’s Neff
actually goes for the main chance and damns the consequences, the
consequences come back double- and triple-strength: the elevator
girl tries to commit suicide or the object of his sexual obsession
turns out to be playing him for a fool.
The odd thing about all this is its relationship to Wilder’s
reputation as a great comedy director. There are the caustically
infamous one-liners, like
“Only three of the Unfriendly 10 had any talent. The rest were just
There’s Some Like It Hot, which the American Film Institute named the
greatest American Sound Comedy, The Seven Year Itch and The Fortune
Cookie. But it’s amazing how few of Wilder’s films are actually
The Apartment, which is often cited on the very short list of
comedies that have won the Academy Award for best picture, is as
funny as a crutch. It features a suicide attempt, a hero who’s a
spineless zero, and what may be the single most stunning scene of
sexual humiliation in the American cinema. This being a Billy Wilder
film, it involves money.
Aside from Some Like It Hot and the criminally underrated late
romance Avanti!, it can be argued that Wilder’s best films – Double
Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole, The Apartment and The
Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes – aren’t comedies at all, but dramas
of moral responsibility.
Wilder’s real genius was for casting. There are four great
performances in Fred MacMurray’s lengthy and lacklustre career, and
two of them were for Wilder, as Neff in Double Indemnity and as
sexual predator Sheldrake in The Apartment.
William Holden was just another smooth young leading man when Wilder
chose him as a last-minute replacement for Montgomery Clift in Sunset
Boulevard. Jack Lemmon was a light comedy juvenile lead until Wilder
tapped into his gift for cringing hysteria in Some Like It Hot and
The Apartment – qualities exploited to far less effect by the
directors who followed Wilder.
There are few performances in American cinema as unforgettable as
Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond, Kirk Douglas’s infinitely corrupt
reporter in Ace In The Hole, Walter Matthau’s Whiplash Willie
Gingrich in The Fortune Cookie or Marilyn Monroe’s Sugarpuss O’Shea
in Some Like It Hot, this last often overlooked in light of Lemmon’s
transvestite comedy and Tony Curtis’s demented Cary Grant impression
in the same film.
If Wilder could be heartless toward certain stars – Jean Arthur in A
Foreign Affair comes to mind, as does Kim Novak in Kiss Me, Stupid –
he could provide unexpected actors with remarkable vehicles. Has
Robert Stephens ever been as good as he was in The Private Life Of
Sherlock Holmes, or Monroe as flagrantly iconic as she was in The
Seven Year Itch?
The longer one looks at Wilder’s films, the more difficult he becomes
to define. Was he a great director hopelessly compromised by the
Hollywood system’s demands for happy endings, or were the compromises
built into his unabashedly commercial sensibility?
Either way, the movies will never see his like again. Given the
difficulty of getting things through the studio system today, someone
with Wilder’s set of talents today would probably wind up in
1970 The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes
1966 The Fortune Cookie
1964 Kiss Me, Stupid
1960 The Apartment
1959 Some Like It Hot
1957 Love In The Afternoon
1955 The Seven Year Itch
1953 Stalag 17
1951 Ace In The Hole (The Big Carnival)
1950 Sunset Boulevard
1948 A Foreign Affair
1945 The Lost Weekend
1944 Double Indemnity
1942 The Major And The Minor