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The Films Of Billy Wilder: A Retrospective

The Films Of Billy Wilder: A Retrospective

"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. In 1994, Fernando Trueba, accepting the Foreign Language Film Oscar for "Belle Epoque" quipped, "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."

So just what exactly was it that inspired these men to expend some of the most valuable seconds of speechifying airtime they'll ever know, to tip their hats to Wilder? And can we bottle it?

Born in a region of Austria/Hungary that is now part of Poland, Wilder's story feels like an archetype of the émigré-to-Hollywood experience that shaped so much of the early studio system, and by extension, narrative cinema as we know it. First a reporter, he cut his teeth as a screenwriter in Berlin, notably collaborating on the screenplay for famous neo-realist precursor "People on Sunday." Moving to Paris, his first directorial credit came for the 1934 French-language picture "Mauvaise Graine" ("Bad Seed"). However, even prior to its release Wilder, fearing the looming European Nazi threat that would eventually claim the lives of his mother, stepfather and grandmother, had left for Hollywood, and a shared room with Peter Lorre.

While we list only his directorial work below, Wilder considered himself a writer first and foremost and attained quite some pre-directorial success with screenplays co-written with Charles Brackett, especially those directed by fellow immigrant and mentor Ernst Lubitsch (to his dying day, Wilder's office was graced by a plaque reading "How would Lubitsch do it?"). And several pictures after his eventual split with Brackett came the second important, multi-picture writing partnership of Wilder's career, with I.A.L. Diamond.

But while Wilder always wrote in collaboration, the throughline is definitely his own. Perhaps to compensate for his initially faltering English, he developed an ear for the American vernacular that was simply unparalleled, and, boy, did he have a way with a joke. His detractors (we guess they exist, though we try to avoid them at parties) have accused his dialogue style of being too constructed, too unnaturalistic. They say, perhaps imitating Jack Lemmon imitating Tony Curtis imitating Cary Grant "Nobody talks like that" and perhaps they're right — really, nobody did. Except maybe, judging from the plethora of witty, insightful, delightful late-career interviews he gave, Wilder himself.

Naturalism be damned. When you're as funny, scathing, richly textured and whipsmart as Wilder could be at his best, who needs it? In almost every genre he put his hand to, he turned in a stone-cold classic. Or two. Need stats? He directed 4 of the AFI's 100 best films of all time, and wrote 5 of their 100 funniest. He directed 14 different actors to Oscar nominations. He was nominated for 12 writing Oscars, winning 3, and 8 directing Oscars, winning 2.

Enough with the math. Wilder gave us Marilyn Monroe's (and arguably classic Hollywood's) most iconic image. He gave us 'Nobody's perfect' in a film as close to perfection as a Hollywood comedy can get. He gave us "Mr. de Mille, I'm ready for my close up," Barbara Stanwyck's anklet, and Jack Lemmon straining spaghetti through a tennis racket. He made Garbo laugh, let dead men narrate and tempered all his jokes with cynicism, and all his cynicism with infectious, irreverent, mischievous wit.

So today, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his death, we take a long look back at the career of this remarkable, beloved, inspirational director. Because we may not be standing on a podium, but we, too, would like to thank Billy Wilder.

There are three notable omissions from this list – films none of us has seen and which we couldn't track down in time. The French-language "Mauvaise Graine" (1934) is about a playboy who falls in with a gang of car thieves in Paris. "Five Graves to Cairo" (1943) was Wilder's second US directorial effort, and starred Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter and Erich von Stroheim as Rommel. It's a desert-set WW2 spy story and apparently pretty good. And finally, we missed out on "Death Mills," Wilder's 22-minute long compilation of documentary footage filmed after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen extermination camp in 1945.

"The Major and the Minor" (1942)
Reportedly fed up with how his scripts were being bastardized by lesser directors, Wilder was eventually handed the reins on “The Major and the Minor,” for his U.S. feature directorial debut. It’s a shame he wasn’t allowed to cut his teeth on his far superior script for “Ball of Fire,” which Howard Hawks was shooting simultaneously, (though Hawks did a great job with the Barbara Stanwyck/Gary Cooper starrer). Because with the best will in the world, these days it’s hard to get beyond the icky premise of the film. The story revolves around a grown woman (Ginger Rogers) falling in love with an engaged U.S. army major (Ray Milland) while passing herself off as a 12-year-old girl. Problematic to the modern eye, to say the least. At the time, however — back in the days when apparently the discovery that the female with whom a grown man has been sharing a private train berth is a pre-teen, was an occasion for relief rather than the set up for an episode of “To Catch A Predator” — this was a hit and established Wilder’s mettle as a director. Certainly, leaving the inherent skeeziness of the plot to one side, you can see it’s a remarkably assured debut. Not showy, not especially visually innovative, but certainly competent, and already here Wilder demonstrates his deft hand at coaxing game performances of impeccable comic timing. Rogers is really pretty terrific, despite the awkwardness of what she’s working with, and the simple fact that she just looks far too old to play the part of a 12-year-old convincingly (perhaps that’s all for the best viz: skeeziness), and her “hair in braids” disguise is about as convincing as Clark Kent’s glasses. Milland, too, nearly manages to charm us through some pretty murky waters, until the very end where even he seems a little embarrassed at the hasty denouement. Ultimately, while it may have launched one of the most important directorial careers that Hollywood will ever know, be warned that the film’s plot has dated beyond (suspension of dis)belief, and as such “The Major and the Minor” is a lot more minor than major. [C+]

Double Indemnity” (1944)
Hugely influential and highly involving, the director's 1944 film-noir is cinematic crack, endlessly rewatchable and heralded as one of the very best American movies ever made. The story is this: insurance salesmen Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is seduced by the sizzling Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who convinces him to secretly compose a life insurance policy for her husband and aid in his murder. Of course she's not all that she seems to be, being the femme fatale and all, and Walter ends up at the desk of his boss (a crackling, powerful Edward G. Robinson), confiding the entire murder story into his Dictaphone (giving the movie its voiceover perspective). It's difficult not to admire every element of "Double Indemnity" — from the suspenseful, tight plot to the harsh lighting and shadows borrowed from the best in German Expressionism — simply because it has everything you could possibly want in a single film. But props go to the subtler, slower-paced moments that you don't always find in the genre, a cinematic victim of endless dialogue and knotty plots. When Walter sets out to meet with Phyllis on the eve of the murder, he recounts all of the smart precautions he took before leaving, such as sticking matchbooks under his door knocker to see if anyone had stopped by while he was gone. He covers his tracks carefully and we stay with him every step of the way, Wilder stretching the suspense so thin that we're ready to snap once the bloodshed finally occurs. The slaying itself is also artfully done, taking place entirely off-camera with the frame glued right on Stanwyck's face — for the first millisecond she sports a frightened mug, but it soon fades to a more truthful, relieved stare, cold as ice. An absolute classic. [A+]

"The Lost Weekend" (1945)
Working on the script for "Double Indemnity" with Wilder proved a stressful experience for Raymond Chandler, a recovering alcoholic who was allegedly driven back to the bottle by his relationship with the director. As something between an apology and an intervention, Wilder optioned Charles R. Jackson's novel about an alcoholic, and won Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards for the first time (as well as sharing the top prize at the first Cannes Film Festival). Wilder's film follows Don Birnam (a revelatory turn from Ray Milland, a British actor previously known for slighter fare), an alcoholic writer on a four-day binge of increasing darkness. Milland's charm and Wilder's deft comic touch gives Don, and the film, a charming, scampy feel to begin with, but there's an undercurrent of sadness in the way that his brother and girlfriend treat him, and as he sinks deeper and deeper into his addiction, there's a grittiness and power that's shocking even now, and doubly so because of the opening. Wilder is already in full command of his medium, amping up the hallucinatory horror with techniques that swiftly became industry standard (the hero walking down a street as neon signs float past him? All started here), aided by Miklós Rózsa's score — one of the first to make use of the theremin, to great effect. The production code-mandated ending feels a little forced, but even so, the booze industry offered Paramount $5 million to bury the film (Wilder told Cameron Crowe, whose excellent book "Conversations With Wilder" is a must-read: "If they'd offered me the five million, I would have taken it"). Clearly, they knew that they were up against as powerful a portrait of the disease as has ever been made. [A]

"The Emperor Waltz" (1948)
In marked counterpoint to the bitter alcoholism drama that preceded it, and the cynical wit of “A Foreign Affair” to follow, Wilder’s sole foray into pure musical comedy territory is a toothless affair. Like a subplot extended to requisite feature length by means of a little crooning from lead Bing Crosby, including an interminable-feeling yodeling number, the film details the romantic entanglements of a brash American salesman and his dog (cruelly uncredited, despite turning in an Uggie-worthy performance) on a visit to the royal court of turn-of-the-century Austria. There they meet snooty aristocrat Joan Fontaine who gradually falls for Crosby’s golden pipes and unrefined charms, just as her purebred poodle disgraces herself with his mutt. While of course the pedigree/mongrel love affair(s) can be read as allusions to the cruel idiocy of the eugenicist policies pursued by Nazi Germany, and while some mild satire can be read into our hero’s dogged pursuit of a sale (a quality deemed extremely “American”), really the plot is pablum, the targets way too easy and the jokes, well, there aren’t enough good ones and Fontaine doesn’t get to deliver any of them. Which is possibly a good thing — she was never the funniest of actresses. Strangely, despite the portrayal of the old guard of Austrian royalty as a decrepit bunch of pompous snobs who’ll stop at nothing to protect their ossified way of life (not even — wait for it — the drowning of puppies), and America, by contrast being the gosh-darndest land of opportunity and equality, we emerge here with less of a feel for Wilder’s heartfelt love for his adopted homeland than we do from those films in which he is more critical of it. Despite some Lubitsch-ian moments (the aging monarch, banished to an ante-room because of a bomb scare, walks round and round on a spiral mosaic on the floor, like a bored child), the film lacks the shrewdness and storytelling efficiency we expect from Wilder. Indeed, the story goes that he had 4,000 daisies painted blue because he disliked them when white, in a most un-Wilder like moment of directorial excess. “The Emperor Waltz” may mean that the jack-of-all-genres director could tick yet another type of picture off the list, but it’s also proof that he couldn’t master quite all of them. [D]

"A Foreign Affair" (1948)
Returning to European subject matter surely couldn't help but feel personal for Wilder, a Polish-born Jew, considering his escape from the Nazis, and the personal loss he suffered (the director had actually done wartime service for his adopted country, editing U.S. Army Service Corps documentary footage after wrapping "The Lost Weekend"), but however wounded he was, you wouldn't know if from "A Foreign Affair." The film is one of Wilder's best satires, aimed squarely at the corruption endemic in occupied Germany. The story follows conservative Iowa congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) on a fact-finding mission to Berlin. She meets Army Captain John Pringle (John Lund), who is secretly sleeping with Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich), a German cabaret singer, who has cut her former ties with the Nazi party. Congresswoman Frost, hearing talk of an officer consorting with a former Nazi supporter, is determined to get to the bottom of it, and enlists Pringle's help, not realizing he is the officer in question. There was open hostility both on and off the camera between Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur; the latter, for whom "A Foreign Affair" broke a four-year absence from acting, was racked by insecurities, and felt Wilder was favoring Dietrich unfairly. The German actress' cabaret performances are indeed some of the highlights of the film, particularly "The Ruins of Berlin," (composer Friedrich Holleander, Dietrich's frequent collaborator, was rightfully nominated for an Oscar), and the director's affection for the star shines through, so maybe Arthur had a point. An ever-cynical Wilder has created characters that each walk a gray area of political and social assumption and duality, lambasting both Congress and the military, in one fell entertaining swoop. But films like this are judged not only on their merits but their message, and it received mixed reviews, with some critics horrified by Wilder's somewhat light-hearted take on American post-war duplicity — the filmmaker was not only denounced by Congress, but the film was also banned in Germany. 65 years in, it's less controversial, but just as good. [A-]

"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" (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" (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" (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]

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]

"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" (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" (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" (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+]

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” (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" (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” (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]

"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+]

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!" (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" (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” (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” (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

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Comments

Teresa johnson

So few people that can entertain for many generations

Nancy Dennis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryan

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

please remove the page split/

please

Helg

Thank you, thank you thank you.

sp

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 !

ARTEMIS

All films are rated to help us distinguish the better ones from the others.”Love in the afternoon” isn’t a C film! If only Gary Cooper was 5-6 years younger?…”Front Page” is very different from “His girl Friday”,more cynical and critical… For the fans I must add some great Billy Wilder’s works directed by others. You mentioned “Ninotchka” and “Ball of Fire” and these are with Mitchell Liesen’s “Midnight” to be considered equals among his classics. There are also Lubitsch’s “Bluebeard’s eighth wife” and Leisen’s “Hold back the dawn” very good indeed. Tarantino marked “Five graves to Cairo” among his favorites so keep searching for it! I have almost his entire filmography in my DVD collection and I did this only for one other great director: Alfred Hitchcock! That means cynism and good sense of humor can save your work from time fading. But only if you have their talent!

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