In addition to the Walker’s Summer Music and Movies series (which, as it happens, featured a retrospective of director Billy Wilder’s works back in 2002), the month of August will provide Twin Cities moviegoers with a handful of Billy Wilder films screening throughout Minneapolis. Bona fide classics like Some Like it Hot and Sunset Boulevard will be playing this month at the Heights, but lesser-known standouts like The Fortune Cookie and Ace in the Hole will also be screened at the Trylon. The full schedule for Take-Up Productions’ Billy Wilder series can be found here. (Along with the Fritz Lang films that are playing at the Summer Music and Movies series, we might call August the Twin Cities’ month for German expatriate directors who electrified Hollywood’s mid-century output.)
It may seem absurd to claim that Wilder is an underrated director. After all, the legendary comedic filmmaker (who, in the 1950s at least, was second only to Alfred Hitchcock in terms of celebrity Hollywood auteurs) is now unquestionably associated with dark-edged satire, sparkling verbal pyrotechnics, a bittersweet (or, sometimes, simply bitter) cynicism, and a full-frontal grappling with (and deconstruction of) lascivious subject matter that other stateside contemporaries wouldn’t have dreamed of touching. Wilder—often abetted by co-screenwriters with a quick wit and comedic dexterity to match those of the director (Charles Brackett, I.A.L. Diamond)—was responsible for an astonishing run of classics especially between 1944’s Double Indemnity and 1960’s The Apartment, a roster of great films that, even taken on an individual, film-by-film basis, would have cemented Wilder’s place in the pantheon of film masters. The caustic, bizarre excessiveness of Sunset Boulevard, the ten-jokes-a-minute agility of Some Like it Hot—by themselves such works would be deemed classic, but taken together, as distinct but like-minded fragments of a cohesive filmography, such films attest to a funny-sad worldview and artistic temperament that was multilayered and astonishingly consistent.
But I’m still tempted to claim that Wilder is underrated—not for his classics (which are rightfully esteemed) but for his alleged flops, not for his pitch-perfect dialogue but for the tragic themes that he often explored, as well as for his stylistic precision. Especially in his late period of filmmaking (basically from 1960 onward), a collection of movies which are often dismissed as the steadily declining work of a once-great film artist, we encounter a number of small-scale but fascinating comedy-dramas that are thematically obsessed with impeded lust, torturous sex and jealousy, the delusions and lost dreams of once-legendary figures, the preponderance of visual media in everyday life, the melancholy nature of aging and facing mortality, and what it means to be human in a greedy, corrupt world. They may not be as funny as the movies typically called his masterpieces, but they’re sometimes wiser, they’re more concerned with how our actual human experience differs from what we see in the movies. And if we consider the films that Wilder scripted before becoming a studio director—especially several Hollywood movies written with Charles Brackett—we must add a few more gems to the list, such as 1939’s Midnight and Howard Hawks’ sublime Ball of Fire (1941). (We also are forced to recognize that, sometimes, an auteur’s touch is provided by somebody other than the director, since all of the personality in Midnight comes courtesy of Wilder and Brackett’s script, not from Mitchell Leisen’s lackluster direction.) In short, Wilder is not only as good as he’s commonly perceived to be—he may actually be better, and more fascinating than we might expect him to be upon revisiting his films.
In honor of these upcoming Wilder screenings, this film/video intern offers his humble and arbitrary opinions on the director’s eight finest films (some of which are screening theatrically this month, while others are always worth revisiting on DVD). Why eight, one might ask? Simply because anything less and I would have had to cut a film that simply could not have been omitted…
8. The Major and the Minor (1942)
Wilder’s Hollywood directorial debut seems like a completely absurd project, something that studio heads may not have minded tossing off to a headstrong German screenwriter who wanted to get behind the camera. In a way, The Major and the Minor’s complete ridiculousness is what makes it charming: it grabs hold of an inane concept and embraces it fully, never pausing long enough to consider how unbelievable it all is. Ginger Rogers plays a woman desperate to get out of New York; she passes herself off as a 12-year-old in order to get a reduced-fare train ticket and, trying to evade a couple of conductors, finds herself in the compartment of handsome Major Kirby (Ray Milland). That’s the whole setup. The rest of the movie concerns a fully-grown Ginger Rogers trapped on an Army base in Michigan, surrounded by sex-starved young soldiers, trying to pass herself off as a twelve-year-old. Milland is supposed to be a dashing charmer, but as we watch him ogle and flirt with this supposed preteen, all we can do is squirm uncomfortably and gape at the screen. (It’s all okay, though, because the movie ends with the two of them running off to get married—the major’s preference for extraordinarily young girls will apparently go on unchecked.) Even the trailer for the movie is packed with disturbing non-sequiturs and pedophiliac wisecracks—the movie operates on the same wavelength for 100 minutes! If Wilder would be celebrated almost twenty years later for turning cross-dressing and nonstop sexual puns into the stuff of Hollywood comedy with Some Like it Hot, here he gets away with turning the major’s Lolita complex into slapstick inanity. Here, for example, is a telling exchange:
The Minor: “You see, you are a strange gentleman…”
The Major: “Yes, but we can soon fix that.”
7. Double Indemnity (1944)
Adapted from James M. Cain’s novel and co-written with Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity is awash in crackling film noir bon mots, but the ratatat dialogue is even more subversive, more electrifying, when given the Wilder treatment. Fred MacMurray, stepping over from his usual average-family-man terrain, plays insurance salesman Walter Neff, who stumbles into a torrid affair with inimitable femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and finds himself embroiled in murder, conspiracy, and blackmail. Repressed lust may be the primary catalyst for Neff’s all-too-eager leap into moral bankruptcy (a lust immortally conveyed by MacMurray and Stanwyck’s first burning interaction), but as played by MacMurray, he also seems like a man so disgusted with life, so burnt-out and hopeless, that his dabbling with murder and crime almost seems more like an existential experiment. Double Indemnity is irresistibly nihilistic, in the best film noir sort of way—a bleakness unforgettably intoned by MacMurray’s voiceover narration, which is muttered into a Dictaphone while Neff slowly bleeds from a gunshot wound. A trace of compassionate pity is provided by cigar-chomping Edward G. Robinson, playing Neff’s friend and mentor Barton Keyes; their relationship remains one of the most sensitively drawn throughout the director’s entire career (which is saying something).
6. Some Like it Hot (1959)
No comedic subject matter was taboo for Wilder. Even the Second World War (during which Wilder’s family died at Auschwitz, and which Wilder had to escape by fleeing Berlin in 1932) practically became a sitcom in Stalag 17. But Some Like it Hot is debatably the best example in the history of American movies of laughing at sex, at ridiculing what had been deemed off-limits by the Production Code. Even if Wilder’s later movies, such as Kiss Me, Stupid and Irma la Douce, turned sex into comedy more explicitly (and, at times, shockingly), Some Like it Hot remains his most subversive comedy. It doesn’t just play with audience expectations, it upends how Hollywood comedies are supposed to end: sure, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe ride off into the sunset, but they’re being driven by Osgood Fielding and Jack Lemmon, who, it seems, will provide the second of the movie’s two romantic unions.
Proof of the movie’s comedic genius abounds, but here’s my favorite scene, which for my money features the best usage of a salami in any movie.
5. A Foreign Affair (1948)
Filmed in the bombed-out rubble of postwar Berlin, A Foreign Affair is a comedy about lecherous US Army captain John Pringle (John Lund), who strikes up a relationship with a hardened German woman named Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich), former lover of several Third Reich higher-ups. He supplies Erika with designer gowns and padded mattresses, increasingly rare commodities among the ruins of Berlin; both of them, it seems, realize that their relationship is hollow and insincere, but it’s a convenient affair, and they’ve been hardened by the world to prioritize convenience and practicality. Since this is a comedy, a prim-and-proper Congresswoman from Iowa will of course be shipped over to investigate fraternization between American soldiers and German women. And she will learn how to have fun, and he will learn that emotion and true love aren’t simply illusions. And they will fall in love.
But A Foreign Affair is and isn’t a comedy. Actual scenes, shot on location, of postwar Berlin remain staggeringly bleak, and a brief scene in which German citizens barter for necessary commodities (which is where Pringle exchanges a birthday cake for a mattress) is far more tragic than it is funny. This is a truly schizophrenic movie, and (along with The Apartment) may most fully embody Wilder’s happy-sad dichotomy. It also features one of Marlene Dietrich’s best performances; just as glamorous as her appearances in Josef von Sternberg’s early-1930s films (but with an extra decade of world-weariness), her Erika von Schluetow is an unforgettable portrait of the beleaguered German people, doing what they must to survive. Her musical performances here—like this, or this, or this—are among the most beautiful moments in any Wilder film.
4. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
It still seems incredible that both Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve were released in 1950: a one-two punch that shattered the elegant veneer of Hollywood, this pair of blistering comedies (if that’s the right word) laid bare the sordid dreams and delusions festering underneath. Depressed, destitute screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) stumbles into the life and decaying mansion of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a superstar of the silent film era who now surrounds herself with the relics (cinematic and otherwise) of her past. Like many of Wilder’s films, it’s both bleakly funny and overwhelmingly sad, but it also embraces a baroque level of absurdity reserved for the highest level of wealth, fame, and glamour—in other words, for movie stars and film directors. The funeral ceremony for a pet monkey, Desmond’s garish recreations of Chaplin routines, and of course the ingenious gimmick of the movie’s otherworldly voiceover narration: these all point to an attempt on Wilder and Bracketts’ part to take tragicomedy to new operatic heights. And for all of its criticisms of Hollywood as a shallow, emotionally lifeless swamp, what remains most surprising about Sunset Boulevard is how overwhelmingly sad it is—a portrait of a place where the dreams are indistinguishable from the nightmares.
3. Ace in the Hole (1951)
After the success of Sunset Boulevard in 1950, Wilder apparently was emboldened: rarely had Hollywood created such a vitriolic portrait of itself, but the movie was received enthusiastically nonetheless, even winning three Oscars and garnering eight more nominations. Wilder responded in 1951 by making arguably the bleakest, most cynical, most hopeless movie of his career: Ace in the Hole, a portrait of an American populace so hungry for sensationalism and spectacle that they exploit the impending death of a trapped miner in order to make a buck (or simply to gawk at the tragedy). Wilder even ditched his co-screenwriter, Charles Brackett (Sunset Boulevard was the last film they would write together), for two darker-edged writers: Lesser Samuels (No Way Out) and Walter Newman (The Man with the Golden Arm). There’s no denying the misanthropy that runs throughout Ace in the Hole, but what’s stunning about the movie is that it still demonstrates Wilder’s steely brand of humanism: humanity may indeed be this repugnant, but we don’t have to be. Presaging a post-modernity of relentless mediation, grim spectacle, tawdry celebrity culture, and all-American hucksterism, Ace in the Hole still seems ahead of its time in its horrified condemnation of modern American sensationalism. (You could trace a direct genealogical path from the heartless exploiters in Ace in the Hole to the producers of most reality shows on TV today.)
The result of Wilder’s uninhibited bleakness was poor box office receipts and mediocre reviews; in fact, Ace in the Hole effectively ended Wilder’s nine-year-long stretch of commercial and critical successes. Viewed today, though, Ace in the Hole emerges as one of the director’s most brilliantly prescient commentaries, as well as the work of an unmistakable satirist who so ardently wants to live in a world that’s better than our own.
2. The Apartment (1960)
The Apartment set a precedent for all comedy-dramas that would follow, meaning, I guess, that Wilder’s effortlessly bittersweet film was indirectly responsible for both The Royal Tenenbaums and Little Miss Sunshine. We’ll call it a draw on that one. But aside from influencing indie comedies that happen to feature attempted suicides, The Apartment is notable for being at once one of the director’s saddest and funniest films. Of course there had been sad comedies and comedic dramas before, but few of them had imbued their laughs with such soul-crushing loneliness before, and few of them made their sadness so cosmically absurd that all you can do is laugh. Jack Lemmon would never give a better performance as C.C. Baxter, aka “Buddy Boy,” the lovable schlemiel who rents out his apartment to corporate higher-ups for their illicit sexual trysts; Fred MacMurray is his boss, Sheldrake, a despicable portrait of an executive who’s come to believe that he’s entitled to everything around him, people included. (Sheldrake is a horrifying vision of what Baxter might become decades down the road, if he continues on his path of meekly kowtowing to men who are wealthier and more powerful than him.) The turbulent relationship between Baxter and depressed elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) is overwhelming every time—they’re two sad people who suddenly find a version of happiness and are unsure what to do with it. Always an astute pacer and self-referencer, Wilder makes sure we’re bowled over by the emotional climax of The Apartment by playing off of earlier scenes—like these, for example.
Not only an emotional firestorm, The Apartment is also Wilder’s most compositionally rich film: some of the director’s critics have accused him of using a bland, non-cinematic visual style in order to foreground his dialogue, but such criticisms completely disregard the subtle precision of this film’s widescreen images. Wilder utilizes the unique perspectival effects of the rectangular frame to, for example, distort Baxter’s workplace into an endless eyesore, or to synthesize multiple visual planes in one shot for scenes in Baxter’s apartment. The Apartment ultimately reveals Wilder to be as sensitive stylistically as emotionally.
1. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Maybe it’s the stubborn auteurist in me that prefers Wilder’s late-era, melancholy revision of the Holmes legacy to his “masterpieces”—The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is unabashedly a self-referential work, about fading celebrity, about aging, about the gap between our public personae and our personal selves. It’s also unimaginably melancholy, bittersweetly romantic, and incredibly complex—Wilder and co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond tackle a new idea in practically every scene. In addition to the aforementioned themes, the movie ambiguously comments upon Holmes’ drug addiction and his possible homosexuality, revealing the hero as a depressed, insecure man who cannot bring himself to believe that mental fortitude and methodical practicality do not trump all in the modern world. Even more impressive, especially given Wilder’s slate of sexually frank causes célèbres in the 1960s: these potentially scandalous themes are hinted at respectfully and sensitively, as though Wilder respects his main character enough to give the man his own troubled private life, free from our prying eyes. In other words, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes could not be further from the Holmes and Watson we see now in Guy Ritchie movies: really, Wilder is using the Doyle stories as a metaphysical (and metacinematic) springboard to question a plethora of eclectic concepts, some of which he’s never shown an interest in, in his earlier works.
Maybe it’s too convenient to believe that, with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the 64-year-old director was evaluating his life, redressing mistakes, facing criticisms—this is a truism of auteur studies that cinephiles sometimes embrace all too eagerly. What’s unmistakably true, though, is that with Sherlock Holmes, Wilder made his most plaintive film and his most endlessly fascinating—a movie that still pulsates with the director’s wit and seamless style, at once encapsulating Wilder’s previous filmmaking sensibility and broadening it in wildly unexpected directions.