BILLY WILDER (1907-2002)

Rating: NNNNNThere's no need to shed tears for Billy Wilder. Born at the beginning of one century, he lived into.

Rating: NNNNN

There’s no need to shed tears for Billy Wilder. Born at the beginning of one century, he lived into the beginning of another, had a film career that spanned half a century and was honoured and rich.

He was 95 when he died. It was a ridiculously full and long life no one can say that his death deprived us of any late masterpieces. And given Wilder’s mordant view of human nature, I suspect he’d laugh at tears for a man who survived almost everyone he ever worked with.

Born in Austria in 1907, he fled Europe in the mid-1930s for America, part of the emigration of Jewish talent that filled Hollywood in the late 30s and early 40s.

Arriving in America with little money and less English, he became one of the great screenwriters of the late 30s: Hold Back The Dawn and Midnight for director Mitchell Leisen, Ball Of Fire for Howard Hawks and, supremely, Ninotchka with Garbo for Lubitsch. Then he followed the path of John Huston and Preston Sturges and began directing.

Wilder offers an extreme instance of the writer who moves 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 and bristling with sarcasm. They also took voice-over narration to the outer limits permissible in the classical studio era of Hollywood filmmaking.

Like most of his compatriots (Lang, Siodmak, Preminger), he made a major contribution to film noir. He’d been 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.

“I killed him for the money” confesses Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, “and I killed him for the woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”

Wilder is often identified as a cynic, but I don’t think the label’s exactly accurate. As Andrew Sarris observed, the great lie of the Hollywood romance is that money doesn’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 bill collectors. 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 to act as society expects him to. When a not-so-hard case like Neff or Baxter 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.

Oddly, Wilder’s reputation is as a great comedy director. But aside from Some Like It Hot and the criminally underrated late romance Avanti!, Wilder’s best films – Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole (aka The Big Carnival), The Apartment and The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes – aren’t comedies at all, but dramas of moral responsibility.

The longer you look 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?

These are questions for prolonged investigation, but whatever the outcome, the movies will never see his like again. Given the difficulty of getting things through the studio system these days, someone with Wilder’s set of talents today would probably wind up in television.

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