Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Billy Wilder, one of the most influential and acclaimed movie directors in the history of the medium.
Billy Wilder 101
The films of Billy Wilder are more famous than Wilder himself. As with Howard Hawks—another director beloved by cinephiles but with little name recognition among the general public—Wilder’s work spans so many genres and styles that he becomes impossible to pin down, definable only by the skill inherent even in his weakest efforts and by a somewhat skeptical worldview.
Actually, “skeptical” is being polite. The word critics most often reach for is “cynical,” and while that absolutely fits films like Ace In The Hole, which are so caustic they’d be controversial if produced today, it’s an insufficient description. The biggest thread through Wilder’s career is his clarity when it comes to his characters’ motives, which are almost always self-centered and vain. Even his purest and most idealistic heroes are lying to someone, working their own angles, willing to compromise their beliefs. No one is selfless, which Wilder sometimes views with amusement, sometimes with contempt, but rarely without sympathy, and never with sentimentality. In the climactic moment of his POW drama Stalag 17, when every other director would be affirming the bond between this band of brothers, Wilder’s hero tells his fellow prisoners, “If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, let’s just pretend we’ve never met before.” Wilder’s most sincere picture ends with a declaration of love that is answered with an order for the declarer to shut up. The cinematic world of Billy Wilder is one where suicide attempts are a recurring theme, popping up in romances and comedies.
There may be no studio-era director whose work holds up as well, because few studio-era directors were as forthright about what really drove their characters. Wilder was never satisfied with the pleasant image institutions like the armed forces presented. His soldiers were not driven by Capra-esque idealism; they grabbed nakedly for money or sex, puncturing the idea that our boys in uniform were pure. But far from being bitter pills to swallow, Wilder’s films are wickedly entertaining: Thrillers that are hilarious and comedies that are thrilling.
His litany of accomplishments is astonishing: not only the quintessential film noir and most celebrated slapstick comedy in cinema, but arguably its greatest romance and showbiz satire. He wrote some of film’s most enduring exchanges (his actors—who include nearly every legendary Hollywood performer—were not given lines of dialogue so much as whips of it), with three or four featuring serious contenders for the best curtain line in the movies. So total is his legacy that even a lesser film contains perhaps the medium’s most famous image. He was nominated for 11 screenwriting Oscars, winning three (only Woody Allen has more nominations, with 16) and won two for directing.
He was celebrated even before he stepped behind a camera, writing the acclaimed 1930 German silent film People On Sunday. When he came to the United States—fleeing the Nazis—he began his Hollywood career writing for Ernst Lubitsch, who he admired to the point of mounting a “What Would Lubitsch Do?” sign in his office.
For Lubitsch, Wilder penned both Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and the terrific Ninotchka, where his penchant for cutting dialogue was already very much in evidence. The film is a 1939 romantic comedy that pits a capitalist man against a humorless commie (Greta Garbo, who talks). The friction is as much between two economic systems as two people, and it’s perhaps the prototypical Lubitsch film, falling midway between the commentary of To Be Or Not To Be and the way Trouble In Paradise luxuriates in glamour.
It’s a tone that Wilder would carry to his Hollywood debut in 1942, The Major And The Minor, which stars Ginger Rogers as Susan Applegate, a young woman who goes to New York City with starry eyes and immediately finds herself “stared at, glanced over, passed by, slapped around, brushed off, [and] cuddled up against.” In an acknowledgment of gender issues that’s rare even today, she’s sexually harassed twice in the first minutes of the film, leading her to abandon her big-city dreams and catch the train home. Lacking enough money for the fare, she disguises herself as an 11-year-old to procure a half-price ticket.
This deception (which the train operators investigate like a triple homicide) eventually leads her to fellow passenger Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland), and from there to a low-speed screwball comedy at a military academy where all the young cadets line up to count “Su-Su” while she pines for “Uncle Philip.”
The premise is undeniably thin—or minor, rather—but Wilder uses it to skewer gender roles with a boldly feminist eye, Applegate merely the first in a long line of crackerjack roles he wrote for women (“Su-Su” skewers the “sexy baby” troupe some 70 years before 30 Rock got to it). Wilder is very mindful of gender imbalances; all the cadets feel entitled to the new girl, and they’re frustrated to find themselves consistently outfoxed. Noting how she attracts boys as though they were moths, Kirby urges Applegate to “be a better light bulb.”
The writing (and Rogers’ performance, where she gets to dance, albeit without her famous partner) is sharp, but Wilder was too closely hewing to the advice of his office sign: This is more a Lubitsch film than a Wilder one, even with a scene where Applegate hides her body from Kirby while stuck in a train bed with him, a moment that plays like a dry run for a famous sequence in Some Like It Hot.
Wilder would soon come into his own voice. Just two films later he would deliver one of the most influential and acclaimed of all movies, 1944’s Double Indemnity.
While Indemnity was not the first example of what we think of as film noir, it may be the definitive one, establishing a number of elements that have become genre requirements. Here we have the femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck, amazing as the devious Phyllis Dietrichson), a weak man who succumbs to sin and crime (Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff), and such staples as stylized lighting coming through venetian blinds.
The story is simple, reappearing in countless imitators over the years, most notably 1981’s Body Heat. Dietrichson and Neff hatch a plan to kill Stanwyck’s husband, MacMurray’s insurance salesman knowing what investigators look for and how to theoretically avoid capture. But everything goes wrong after the deed is done, starting with the growing suspicions of Barton Keyes, an insurance investigator played by Edward G. Robinson (in his best performance).
Double Indemnity is a string of brilliant scenes, starting with the raw sexuality of the lovers’ first meeting (which The A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo covered in one of his first Scenic Routes columns), and moving onto a series of suspense master classes, moments so marvelously constructed they’re as delightful as they are thrilling. What elevates Indemnity above its imitators is the tantalizingly opaque relationship between Neff and Dietrichson, the tragically affectionate one between Neff and Keyes, and the wit Wilder and co-writer Raymond Chandler bring to the dialogue. (A sample: Neff spells his name with two Fs, “like in Philadelphia.”)
From here, Wilder moved to a film that isn’t a crime story, though it may feature more noir techniques than Indemnity. He’s never been held up as a visual master, which is both fair and unfair. While not a fan of overly complicated shots (describing them as “the phoniness of the director” in Conversations With Wilder, a wonderful collection of interviews by super-fan Cameron Crowe), he knew as well as anyone how to use the camera to get an effect. The Lost Weekend is one of the best showcases for him as a stylist.
The film revolves around Don Birnam (Ray Milland), a struggling writer and relapsing alcoholic. The film’s depiction of his addiction was startlingly candid for 1945, and for the most part holds up today. It’s as realistic as Leaving Las Vegas (Hayes Code restrictions notwithstanding) and not nearly so sentimental as Flight. Wilder’s biggest inspiration was to approach alcoholism like a villain; the music is heavily infused with noir themes (though the use of a theremin sometimes make it sound like the score to a Z-grade sci-fi film) and Wilder depicts Birnam’s mindset through extreme angles and expressionist lighting. (One shot appears to enter a glass of rye; a bottle hidden in a light fixture casts a ghastly image across a ceiling.) Not all of the film holds up—most notably, a scene where a detoxing Birnam hallucinates an attack by a transparently fake bat—but there’s scarcely a soft or phony frame to be found.
The film, which won Oscars for Wilder, Milland, and Best Picture, was his biggest triumph for about five years, when he delivered a trio of career-defining masterpieces.
Sunset Boulevard, made in 1950, is a Golden-era Hollywood movie, but one where any mention of the industry as a “dream factory” would play as bitterly ironic. Like Double Indemnity, Sunset begins at the end, with the musings of a bullet-laden body, before doubling back to occur largely in flashback. (Here and elsewhere, Wilder makes a convincing argument for the legitimacy of voice-over as a narrative tool.)
William Holden stars as Joe Gillis, a washed-up screenwriter who, while fleeing from creditors, becomes entangled with Norma Desmond, a great star of the silent era who now vamps around her empty and decaying mansion, tended to by her butler Max (Erich Von Stroheim).
So much of Sunset has become Hollywood lore, from the real-life parallel—Desmond is played by Gloria Swanson, a legend who also struggled in the transition to sound; Max’s history is essentially Von Stroheim’s; there are a number of real figures seen or referenced by name—to Norma’s famous insistence that she’s still a big star. (“It’s the pictures that got small,” she remarks.) Roger Ebert wrote that Sunset is the best film ever made about the movies, “because it sees through the illusions, even if Norma doesn’t.” That overlooks how incredibly weird the film is, how suffocated in Gothic atmosphere. Swanson, who gives one of the all-time great film performances, is introduced arranging a funeral for a monkey, and she exits on a note so over-the-top it would be hilarious if it weren’t so haunting. The major characters are all clearly seen as mad, but Wilder, who frequently struggled for financing, clearly sympathizes with everyone’s inability to leave Hollywood’s gravitational pull.
Sunset was dark enough, but there may be no American studio release as brutal as 1951’s Ace In The Hole, a film that plays like celluloid arsenic. Kirk Douglas, in a performance that’s utterly without vanity, stars as disgraced newspaperman Chuck Tatum, who talks his way into a tepid New Mexico daily (“Even for Albuquerque, this is pretty Albuquerque.”), awaiting a story to catapult him back into the majors. A scoop eventually comes in the form of a man who gets trapped in a cave collapse, a spark of a human-interest story that Tatum fans into his very own bonfire. (Told by a fellow journalist that they’re in the same boat, he snarls, “I’m in the boat. You’re in the water. Now let’s see you swim.”)
No one is spared in Ace In The Hole. Not the politicians who hitch themselves to Tatum’s train (lest someone miss the point, the sheriff is never seen without his pet snake), nor the journalists who leave their scruples at home or the publishers who hang up on the truth because it won’t sell papers (“Bad news sells best ’cause good news is no news.”). But Wilder saves his most potent venom for the rubes who treat the story like a vacation, setting up a carnival and singing songs written for the occasion. In their love of pageantry, they happily excuse any exploitation—a disease any journalist will tell you still exists today. Is there any difference between the “We’re Coming, Leo!” song and the musical intro to any recurring cable news segment? Or in Tatum using a mythic curse to goose the story and CNN’s Don Lemon asking whether the missing Malaysian Airlines plane vanished into a black hole?
The film hits like a punch to the gut and must’ve felt like an explosion in 1951. Just like the spelunkers in his cast, Wilder follows his story into ever-darker territory, to a climax where he may as well just filmed himself looking into a camera and saying, “You in the audience. Fuck you.”
Not surprisingly, Ace In The Hole was one of Wilder’s biggest flops, and his next film, in 1953, represented a course-correction to more crowd-pleasing territory. Stalag 17, despite being set in a Nazi POW camp, is Wilder’s most flat-out entertaining title, pitting bumbling German officers against a motley crew of American prisoners—and the mole hidden among them.
While the film was a clear inspiration for the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes (though a judge ruled the show didn’t directly infringe upon the play the film was based on), Wilder never lets things get too soft. When one prisoner mistakes another (in drag) for a woman, it’s briefly played for a laugh, until Wilder underlines just how lonely these men are, how deprived of warmth and companionship. Wilder makes it difficult to root for his hero (Holden again, winning the Oscar he was denied for Sunset), who is first seen betting that other prisoners will die in an escape attempt, but this results in an infinitely more interesting protagonist (significantly, the one Wilder said he most related to). Under all the shenanigans, there’s a core that’s merciless.
Sunset, Ace, and Stalag would be followed by a series of films that didn’t lack Wilder’s touch but did lack his bite. That would return in 1959’s Some Like It Hot, which The American Film Institute deemed the funniest movie ever made.
The film is a masterpiece of screwball construction, so well told you could edit all the jokes out and the story would still work. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play a pair of musicians who witness a mob massacre and cross-dress to go into hiding with an all-woman’s band fronted by Marilyn Monroe (in the quintessential Monroe performance, though she gives only the fourth-best among the leads, behind Curtis, Lemmon, and Curtis’ Cary Grant impression). It remains a startlingly modern farce, with Monroe trying to become a trophy wife, Curtis faking wealth to seduce her, and Lemmon also debating becoming a trophy wife. The whole film is refreshingly nonjudgmental about sex; few are this mature about all the forms attraction can take. (Not for nothing does it prominently feature the popular 1920s song “Runnin’ Wild”.)
The film probably doesn’t deserve the AFI’s assessment; Wilder doesn’t pack in a laugh a minute, but when he has them (the maraca scene, Curtis getting out of a bubble bath), they’re huge. And of course, there’s that final line:
Lemmon became Wilder’s favorite actor to work with, making seven films with him overall, though the actor was never put to better use than their next film together: 1960’s Best Picture Oscar-winner, The Apartment. As C.C. Baxter, Lemmon plays half of one of the most fully realized would-be couples to ever hit the screen, alongside Shirley MacLaine’s heartbreaking Fran Kubelik. Far past a mere love story, The Apartment is unsparing about the moral compromises required by ambition, as well as the ones forced by corporate culture, themes that feel increasingly resonant amid income inequality and a soft jobs market. Even more than Manhattan (or Taxi Driver), The Apartment captures the difficulty of life in New York City, where there’s never enough money or space, and so many people in the rat race that the moral ones can hardly stand out. Baxter tries to get ahead by renting out his bachelor pad to philandering bosses for a career boost (he also plunders private employee files to learn about prospective dates, including their social security numbers), while Miss Kubelik accepts that she’ll have to put in time as a mistress to Baxter’s boss if she has any hope of being “promoted” to wife.
But it is a love story as well, and a deceptively complex one, with lovers who are willing to bend their morals, but only to a point. They’re flawed but good-natured people, so wounded by past heartache that they’re reluctant to admit their affection for the other. They’re also about as affecting as movie characters can be.
The film is remarkably sophisticated, both visually (Wilder’s use of forced perspective and widescreen cinematography to underline Baxter’s insignificance and loneliness) and thematically. The material isn’t explicit—we never see anyone have sex—but it is very much adult. All romantic films have some kind of contrivance keeping its lovers apart until the end, but for once, the elements feel genuine, the stakes high. The Apartment captures relationships in all their messiness, and when happiness at last seems within reach, it’s as love-affirming a moment as the movies have given us.
For as much as Wilder is associated with Hollywood, he may never have come to America without the ascension of Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s. (Wilder himself would’ve made for a great Wilder character; pre-screenwriting, he was a newspaperman in Berlin. His output evidently included such gigs as going undercover as a dancing gigolo.) Despite this, his World War II films never hit the subject too harshly.
Five Graves To Cairo, his second Hollywood film (in 1943), is a typical example, a fairly conventional yarn of a British soldier who pretends to work in a hotel where Nazi Field Marshall Rommel is staying in the hope of executing him and finding Nazi supplies hidden in Egyptian tombs (one can imagine Raiders-era Steven Spielberg salivating at that idea). In 1948’s A Foreign Affair, Congresswoman Jean Arthur travels to post-war Berlin and is shocked, shocked, to find G.I.’s canoodling with fräuleins and working the black market. Both tackle serious moral questions—a French woman in Five Graves would prefer a German victory if it removes her enlisted brother from danger; Affair raises the question of whether former Nazi party members can or should be forgiven—but at heart one’s an adventure and the other’s a romantic comedy, both entertaining but neither very deep.
The exception to this is Death Mills, a documentary short Wilder made for the U.S. Department Of War. Like Alain Resnais’ Night And Fog, the film is a blunt look at Nazi concentration camps, an unending stream of horrific imagery (the first such look most audiences had gotten). Wilder would be more accurately considered the film’s editor, as he didn’t shoot any of the footage himself, but his choices are devastating nonetheless. The ending dissolves between men carrying crosses for a mass grave, solemn post-war Germans forced to tour the camps, and cheering pre-war Nazi crowds. There are times when the film would be stronger without narration (“There was no picnic here. Death was the only one who had feasted.”), but the pain is unspeakable and personal: At the time of its making, just after the war ended in 1945, Wilder had just learned that several family members, including his mother, were murdered in the camps.
After Stalag 17, Wilder moved into a lighter period, starting with 1954’s Sabrina, a contemporary fairy tale where a mousy peasant girl disguises herself as a princess to romance the prince she loves. Here, the girl is chauffeur’s daughter Audrey Hepburn, who pines for William Holden’s David Larrabee, the scion of an industrial fortune. Sabrina begins the film so lovestruck that she attempts suicide—there’s that Wilder touch—after witnessing his dalliance with a plastics heiress. She sails off to Paris, an experience that transforms her into, well, Audrey Hepburn, the actress’ unparalleled elegance getting a far better showcase here than in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. David falls for her upon her return, which threatens to scuttle an impending merger between Larrabee Industries and the plastics company. Much of the plot hinges on David accidentally sitting on a pair of champagne flutes, an ass-lacerating injury that sidelines him in favor of his brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), who hopes to distract Sabrina’s attentions until the business deal is complete.
It’s difficult to imagine a better lineup than these three, though this is not one of Bogart’s best roles. (As the script repeatedly acknowledges, he’s old enough to be Sabrina’s father.) Sub in Cary Grant (who was originally slated to star) for Bogart, and you’d have transcendent fluff. As it stands, the glamour is fun, but the satire is exceedingly tame. Only one moment—when the company chairman casually suggests firing Sabrina’s father to get her out of the picture—shows any kind of ruthlessness, and the happy ending lets everyone get what they want without sacrificing anything, especially their money. The Apartment, this ain’t. The whole picture is as light as the souffle Sabrina learns to make in Paris, and like her, Wilder neglects to turn on the heat.
The Seven Year Itch, Wilder’s Sabrina follow-up in 1955, would decidedly not suffer from a lack of heat, featuring the most iconic moment of movie sexuality, and one of the most famous images of any kind: Marilyn Monroe’s up-blown dress.
Wilder had a famously fractious relationship with Monroe, who offended his workman habits by showing up hours late and needing frequent pampering. (Notoriously, she needed dozens of takes to accomplish simple lines like “It’s me, Sugar” and “Where’s the bourbon?” in Some Like It Hot; a drunk secretary based on her in The Apartment is Wilder’s revenge.) Still, he cast her because when she got it right, she was dynamite. The Seven Year Itch is by no means a great film, largely forgotten outside the dress, but it’s a great showcase for Monroe’s warmth and probably the most underrated title in the Wilder canon, if only out of default.
The premise is still intriguing today, the title a reference to the year when married men supposedly grow frustrated with monogamy. Richard Sherman (played by Tom Ewell) is in his seventh year of marriage, and his wandering eye kicks into high gear with the arrival of Monroe as his upstairs neighbor. Unusual for a Wilder film, the story frequently dips into fantasy and dream sequences as Sherman imagines various ways of seducing her. Like The Major And The Minor, the film plays close attention to the way men treat and view women, and it isn’t shy about Sherman coming off like a dick (modern attitudes may be amplifying this reaction). It’s looser than most Wilder films, but its examination of the strain of long-term relationships is genuine. There’s more here than just the subway grate.
Lighter still was 1957’s The Spirit Of St. Louis, a depiction of Charles Lindbergh’s famed transatlantic flight that’s uncharacteristically by-the-book. Wilder was hamstrung by Lindbergh’s insistence that the film only depict the flight, which meant the aviator’s more salacious elements (his alleged anti-Semitism and acceptance of a Nazi medal, the kidnapping of his son) went unmentioned. “I could not get in a little deeper, into Lindbergh’s character,” Wilder admitted to Crowe. “There was a wall there.” He wanted to include a scene of Lindbergh losing his virginity the night before the flight—apparently a true story—and then not recognizing the girl at his celebratory ticker-tape parade. “This alone would be enough to make the picture,” Wilder said, but Lindbergh was so protective of his image, it couldn’t even be suggested.
Lindbergh is an enormously fascinating figure, but the Lindbergh of the film is Wilder’s least-complex protagonist, driven only by a love of flying. Granted, in Jimmy Stewart he had an actor who could make such single-minded goodness compelling (note the trace of fear that enters his voice before take-off), but a cockpit is just inherently uncinematic. Not only is the main character alone for much of the film, battling realistic but undramatic obstacles like fatigue, he can’t even leave his chair. Stewart explains things by talking to himself (“I have to switch tanks! I must do this every hour!”) or through incessant voice-over. It’s an awkward way of handling things, especially for a writer who once said to “let the audience add up two plus two” in his rules for screenwriters. Elsewhere Wilder would gleefully deconstruct icons of purity (A G.I. in A Foreign Affair receives a birthday cake from his Stateside sweetie; he immediately sells it to buy his mistress a mattress), but here, even the flight’s financiers stress that the last thing they want is to make money. It’s not a bad picture, and there are moments of beauty in the aerial cinematography, but a story like this needs a Capra or Spielberg (who cites it as a favorite) to burnish the Americana.
Witness For The Prosecution (also 1957) is similarly devoid of deeper themes, but it’s well made and the story is terrific. What starts as a simple courtroom drama, with Charles Laughton defending a man charged with murder, soon reveals twist after twist, to the point that ending-credits narration asks the audience to not reveal the secrets. It’s mid-tier for sure, not as transcendentally entertaining as Stalag 17, but Laughton brings a fun giddiness to the proceedings. It’s the kind of film you’d be thrilled to find just starting on TCM.
A curious element of Wilder’s career is that several of his later films tackle premises or themes similar to earlier ones—all to diminished results. Love In The Afternoon stars Audrey Hepburn as a waif who falls for an older man (Gary Cooper) while keeping her identity secret from him, all like Sabrina. Her secret here is that she’s the daughter of a private eye who is investigating Cooper, and all the resultant complications are more than the film’s frothiness can bear.
It’s mostly notable for being Wilder’s first collaboration with I.A.L. Diamond, who he worked with almost exclusively for the rest of his career. (Wilder’s work with Charles Brackett, which lasted from The Major And The Minor to Sunset Boulevard, is the other big era.)
Wilder and “Izzy” produced a lot of great work together, including The Apartment and Some Like It Hot, but their partnership also spans Wilder’s weakest era, and Love In The Afternoon is a tepid first at-bat for the two. As this was the third film he released in 1957 (along with Witness and St. Louis), perhaps he was just spreading himself too thin.
Similarly disappointing is 1966’s The Fortune Cookie, which gives Wilder two giant targets—ambulance-chasing lawyers and insurance companies—that could be hit much harder than happens here. (Perhaps insurance companies had a better reputation in 1966.) Lemmon, again, plays a Baxter-esque working stiff who injures himself slightly, but is talked into filing a much bigger insurance claim thanks to a childhood injury he passes off as new. He spends most of the film in an (unnecessary) neck brace, ceding the story’s energy to Walter Matthau’s slimy lawyer. Matthau is fun—he won an Oscar for the performance—but more could have been done with this premise.
The same goes for One, Two, Three, another film with big targets (the Cold War, globalization) and big personalities (James Cagney, electric as ever at the age of 62) that never comes to much of a boil. It has its defenders (most Wilder films do), but mostly it plays like Wilder had the idea to make a film about the head Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin, who has to keep his boss’ daughter from marrying a communist, and he deemed that subversive enough. The last third in particular feels too frenetic, the sound and fury muffling the satire. Unlike with Ninotchka, whose screenplay had clear ideas about how communists would react to a Western economy, Wilder isn’t quite sure here what he wants to say about capitalism in the USSR, despite making the film in 1961, the thick of the Cold War.
Wilder couldn’t quite figure out what he wanted to say with Avanti! either, though there are moments when it works and is very affecting. Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills meet after their parents—who were secretly lovers on the island of Ischia—perish in a car crash. While they wait for funeral arrangements to be finalized, they begin to fall in love.
At times, the 1972 film finds a balance between their sudden grief and burgeoning affection, but more often its too broad and meandering (it’s Wilder’s longest film; a half-hour could easily have been cut), and with a judgmental streak that’s fairly ugly (especially coming from the director of Some Like It Hot). One sequence features Mills skinny-dipping in celebration of her mother, and Lemmon freaks out, jumping in after her to cover her breasts with his socks. It’s not funny, and Lemmon comes off as too much of an asshole to seem worth her trouble. (Meanwhile, Mills seems too blase about her mother’s recent death.)
1964’s Kiss Me, Stupid also has some retro gender issues, but the story is so audacious (and about sexism, rather than itself being sexist), it can’t help but be admired some. Ray Walston plays an aspiring songwriter who hires bartender Kim Novak to play his wife on the assumption that he’ll have to sacrifice her honor to Dean Martin (essentially playing himself) in order to advance his career. This plan, obviously, has some hitches.
The story is too all-over-the-place to really work (Wilder himself called it “a very bad picture”), but it’s not without its moments. As a take on the male gaze it isn’t up to the standard of The Major And The Minor (or even The Seven Year Itch), but aficionados will want to check it out.
Wilder’s focus on story construction means that even his weaker films clip along. Outside of Avanti!, they tend to not have much bloat, which means they’re rarely a slog to get through. That said, there are some that are easily skippable.
Irma La Douce (1963), which reunites Wilder with his Apartment co-stars, wants to be a farce of sex and mistaken identities (this is his reworking of Some Like It Hot ingredients to much-worse results), but the problems start with the premise. Lemmon falls in love with with a prostitute played by Shirley MacLaine, but because he can’t come to terms with her profession, disguises himself (poorly) as “Lord X,” a sexless baron whose attentions leave her unavailable to be hired by other men. While the film is critical of Lemmon, who eventually becomes jealous of his own alter-ego, it has a judgmental streak that’s hard to get past, especially since MacLaine’s character isn’t nearly so well developed as Fran Kubelik. More practically, “Lord X” is such a blatant costume that its impossible to imagine anyone not seeing right through it.
Irma began as a musical, which makes sense. It’s easier to imagine the story working when viewed through the prism of musical theater, which never puts a premium on realism.
Several Wilder films were turned into musicals, actually, with Andrew Lloyd Webber adapting Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot becoming Sugar, and The Apartment becoming the Tony-winning Promises, Promises (with a book by Neil Simon and Burt Bacharach music). Wilder’s sole attempt at a movie musical, though, was a failure.
The Emperor Waltz (1948), which stars Bing Crosby as a gramophone salesman attempting to hawk his wares to the emperor of Austria, is an outlier in Wilder’s filmography, and not simply because of its genre. It’s the lightest film in his oeuvre, lacking the drama of even The Spirit Of St. Louis, as well as that film’s scope. All of which would be fine, except the story lacks bite and the musical numbers aren’t terribly exciting. It’s the least Billy Wilder-ish of his films.
1970’s The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes feels similarly anonymous (though it was re-edited from Wilder’s original vision; key footage is now missing). While it has some fierce champions, who will find its placement here as proof of its being misunderstood, the story is a fairly typical Sherlock Holmes mystery, with none of the subversiveness promised by the title. And unlike Witness For The Prosecution, the mystery itself isn’t terribly enjoyable.
Were one to pick a completely superfluous Wilder film, it would have to be 1974’s The Front Page, an adaptation of the famous play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It isn’t bad, just unnecessary. As film buffs no doubt know, The Front Page had been previously adapted into Howard Hawks’ insanely great His Girl Friday (a film that would’ve been a better choice to top AFI’s comedy list).
Friday makes a fundamental tweak to The Front Page’s story of reporter Hildy Johnson trying to get out from under the thumb of editor Walter Burns, turning the character into not just a woman, but Burns’ ex-wife. In that film, Burns is not only trying to win back his best journalist, who is looking to leave the business and get married, he’s trying to win back his love. Lose that element (even though Johnson and Burns are played by Lemmon and Matthau in Wilder’s film, co-stars of legendary antagonistic chemistry), and you lose the heart of the story. Burns’ interfering into Johnson’s life in The Front Page feels like overkill, and his sabotaging of Johnson’s relationship with his fiancée (Susan Sarandon!) is just cruel. If you want to see the amazing banter between Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson, there’s only one option.
Still, The Front Page doesn’t exactly qualify as a bad film. The only Wilder film that really deserves that title is, unfortunately, his last, 1981’s Buddy Buddy. Once again pitting his frequent co-stars against each other, Buddy Buddy is an unfunny comedy about a hitman (Matthau) who can’t complete his assignment due to the suicidal man next door (Lemmon). It’s a depressing note for one of the greats to go out on, and Wilder knew it. “If I met all my old pictures in a crowd, personified, there are some that would make me happy and proud,” he’s quoted as saying in Nobody’s Perfect, a biography by Charlotte Chandler. “Buddy Buddy I’d try to ignore.”
Far more interesting, but hardly successful, is his penultimate film, Fedora, an examination of waning fame that feels as much a parting statement as Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion was. Explicitly referencing Sunset Boulevard, Fedora casts William Holden (again) as a man who (again) recounts a story of becoming involved with a famous screen star who no longer acts, but who (again) is assured of her continued beauty and relevance by the help. There’s a painful secret at the heart of Fedora that’s revealed midway through the picture, one that speaks to the need of the famous and beautiful for others to see them that way, to the point where being considered famous and beautiful becomes more important than actually being those things. Fedora also makes a statement about the regard everyone has for stars; they can be forgiven for anything, because of what their movies meant to us.
As a film, Fedora spends too much time meandering with Holden’s attempts to sign the titular star (based in part on Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo) to an adaptation of Anna Karenina, a plot point that’s mostly there to add some meta-textual texture to the opening scene, where she hurls herself under a speeding train. As Fedora—the name a nod to the quintessential prop of the noir genre Wilder helped establish—Marthe Keller gives a performance that’s as big as Swanson’s Norma Desmond, but not nearly as disciplined. Indeed, the whole cast seems unsure of the tone they’re supposed to strike, and the characters are all dumber than the average Wilder lot.
Those who don’t know the context of Wilder’s career will doubtless find it a meaningless mess; nonetheless, fans will find some resonance given that Wilder’s own career was drawing to a close. Finding it ever-harder to get projects financed, he’s not without sympathy for the cruel motives behind his film’s central twist, or to the desire to prolong fame and cinematic success. Sunset Boulevard, made when he was 44, clearly saw through Hollywood’s illusions. Here, at the age of 72, he’d become fond of them.
1. The Apartment (1960)
The Oscar winner for Best Picture Of 1960 is also Wilder’s best, a romantic comedy that is not just romantic and funny, but also profoundly moving and surprisingly tough about the compromises required by the corporate rat race. C.C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik remain characters for the ages.
2. Double Indemnity (1944)
Film noir comes into its own here, with this legendary murder story that’s one of the most satisfying thrillers ever made. Stylish and impossibly cool, it builds to an ending that finds the beating heart amongst all the sin. An essential part of any film education.
3. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Wilder turned a mirror back on his industry and found it grotesque and heartless. Is this, as Roger Ebert claimed, the best movie ever made about the movies? Does it matter when the results are so unforgettable?
4. Ace In The Hole (1951)
When critics talk about Wilder being a cynic, this is what they mean: an unsparing and brutal look at the media’s insatiable appetite for spectacle over the truth. A flop upon its release, it now stands among the classics of its era.
5. Stalag 17 (1953)
For as much as Wilder’s films probed societal issues, they were also a helluva lot of fun, and this crafty look at loyalty in a POW camp is his most flat-out entertaining. The final scene serves as a perfect encapsulation of his career: triumphant, but bitter.