I’ll go toe-to-toe with anybody to argue that Billy Wilder is the greatest writer/director of all cinema history. Admittedly, his later comedies were not as mind-blowing as the earlier work such as Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Ace in the Hole, The Lost Weekend, The Apartment, and Double Indemnity. His earlier work was a true blend of masterful writing and directing. The later comedies are sharper for their direction than for their writing, but they are still wonderful films. In particular, his 1961 follow-up to The Apartment, the Cold War comedy One, Two, Three. What it lacks in polished dialogue, it makes up for in razor-sharp construction. Irma la Douce, his 1963 comedy, is probably better remembered for the way he choreographs scenes between a stellar Shirley MacLaine and a likable Jack Lemmon.
The Austin Film Society is hosting a screening series of these later Wilder comedies, starting with One, Two, Three on September 8 and wrapping up with Avanti! on October 6. If you live in Austin, you should take advantage of the chance to see these films in a theatrical setting with a crowded room of folks laughing along. It’s the best way to see a Billy Wilder comedy, even if the laughs come so quick that you may not hear the next joke. If you don’t live in Austin, seek out these films as well as his earlier work. There’s actually a DVD boxed set comprised of mostly these later titles, which must be available for a bargain at this point (for myself, it was a nice Christmas present).
In her preview of the series for The Austin Chronicle, Marjorie Baumgarten writes “Wilder’s comedies are recognized for their embrace of popular culture (they are dotted with references to other contemporary movies and world events) and their effortlessly colloquial language, which sounds the way people talk and is colored by pervasive double entendres (originally devised as a means of saying that which can’t be said).” This is a very smart observation, and one of the big reasons why Billy Wilder was ahead of his time. Thankfully, he found his audience back then. And, even better, he can still find a new audience today.