MAUVAISE GRAINE (1934)
The name Billy Wilder looms large over the American cinematic landscape. Rightfully regarded as one of the finest filmmakers to ever grace the medium, he’s responsible for the creation of some of the most memorable films of Hollywood’s Golden Age- ineffable classics like SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), and THE APARTMENT (1960).
It’s only fitting that the 20th century’s dominant art form would be sculpted in part by a man whose life story played out against a backdrop of the era’s most significant events. Unlike some of his flashier contemporaries, Wilder’s understated approach to narrative belies his reputation as a fundamental innovator in the comedy and noir genres.
He also pioneered of the idea of the filmmaker as “writer/director”– an idea that helped to usher in the auteur ere that would birth so many of our best contemporary directors. The World War II years and the 1950’s saw Wilder operating at his prime, and while he would lose some of his artistic potency in later years, he managed to establish a legacy beyond reproach as one of cinema’s greatest masters.
Born Sam Wilder on June 22nd, 1906 in Sucha Beskidzka, Austria-Hungary, the future director enjoyed a comfortable middle class childhood in a Jewish household. His father, Max Wilder, and mother Eugenia, owned a small cake shop inside the town’s train station before uprooting the whole family and relocating to Vienna in the late 1910’s.
When he decided that he didn’t want to go into the family business, he dropped out of school in favor of moving to Berlin to pursue a career as a journalist. By this time, The Great War had already been fought and won, and Germany’s economy was starting to stabilize after years of hyperinflation. He spent the first half of his twenties making ends meet by working as a paid dancing partner at dance halls and picking up the sports and crime beats for local newspapers.
It was also around this time that Wilder began developing an interest in film, spurred on by the work of German directors like Ernst Lubitsch. When Adolf Hitler was able to parlay German society’s disenchantment with its government into thrusting his Nazi party into power, Wilder saw the writing on the wall (as far as his future as a German Jew was concerned) and fled to Paris in March of 1933.
Upon his arrival, Wilder settled in at the Hotel Ansonia, which was a notorious house of refuge for other members of the German creative class who escaped fascism– people like actor Peter Lorre, writer H.G. Lustig and composer Franz Waxman. This motley crew of expats helped Wilder develop his own literary interests, one of which was a script for a feature film about the underground world of Parisian car thieves he called MAUVAISE GRAINE (1934).
Writing with Lustig and Max Kolpe, Wilder managed to hook up with producer Georges Bernier in an attempt to get the film made. For whatever reason, it was deemed necessary to find someone with previous directing experience to helm the picture alongside Wilder, and Alexander Esway was enlisted as MAUVAISE GRAINE’s co-director.
Despite his credit, it’s dubious as to whether Esway actually did any work on the film– female lead Danielle Darrieux is reported to have mentioned that she never saw him on set. Wilder would become one of the most prominent mainstream studio filmmakers of his day, but his first picture (and the first of several he’d set in Paris) was made firmly within the independent realm. The film’s low budget meant that Wilder had to make do with the limited locations and resources available to him, all while multitasking under various hats.
Translating to “bad seed”, MAUVAISE GRAINE is set in then-present day Paris, an eternal city of light enraptured by the glittering baubles of the Jazz Age. Henri Pasquier (Pierre Mingand) is a rich playboy who putters around the city in a luxury car bought for him by his wealthy doctor father. One day, however, the father decides his son should learn the value of a dollar and a hard day’s work, so he sells off Henri’s beloved cruiser and tells the spoiled young man he’ll have to earn the privilege of joyriding around the city.
Instead of getting a job, Henri decides to simply steal a car, and in the process he inadvertently falls in with a ragtag gang of low-class car thieves. Henri seems to enjoy his new life as an outlaw, and even finds love in the form of the gang’s glamorous moll, Jeannette (Danielle Darrieux), but it’s not long until he finds out the hard way that crime really DOESN’T pay.
Befitting its status as a low budget indie, MAUVAISE GRAINE’s 35mm black and white presentation is scrappy and decidedly lo-fi. However, the presence of three credited cinematographers (Paul Cotteret, Maurice Delattre and Fred Mandl) makes for a surprisingly polished lighting approach– hinting at Wilder’s big-budget studio ambitions.
This is especially evident in the low-key lighting of the climactic Avignon car chase, the murky shadows of which foreshadow future Wilder’s innovations within the burgeoning noir genre. His square 1.37:1 frame frequently showcases 2-shot masters with little supplementary coverage, strategically saving his close-ups for maximum dramatic impact.
While there are a few moments of subtle dolly work, for the most part Wilder chooses to employ a stationary camera in a bid to emphasize the performances. Part of the overall rough-hewn image is a result of the deteriorated state of the film negative, but the real world locales also lend a hefty degree of narrative grit.
Wilder naturally had to make do with several lo-fi techniques to tell his story– because his budget didn’t necessarily allow for expensive process plates or rear projection, he would simply mount his camera on the hood of the car and instruct his actors to careen around the city for real.
While this technique might seem like simple common sense today, the dearth of poorly-funded independent films during the Golden Age of cinema meant that the practice was pretty much unheard of. Wilder’s fellow Hotel Ansonia expat Franz Waxman collaborates with Allan Gray on the brassy, orchestral score, which unfurls without a break from start to finish.
Despite being made nearly a decade before Wilder’s true maturation as a director, MAUVAISE GRAINE hints at several thematic conceits that would come to comprise his signature. At 70-odd minutes, MAUVAISE GRAINE is an exceedingly brisk little caper, and its tight plotting can be credited to Wilder’s writerly discipline and disdain for indulgence.
Wilder built his career on exploring the particular characteristics of the middle class, contrasting their experience with both those higher up on the ladder and those below. However, MAUVAISE GRAINE isn’t particularly concerned with the middle class, as it was still a relatively foreign concept in the days prior to World War II.
Wilder instead compares and contrasts the privileged and working classes, showing a refined man of leisure “slumming it” with hardscrabble blue collar types who have to resort to criminality to eke out their living. This situation is exotic and exciting to the young man, who has never had to work a day in his life. Because the film is told from his perspective, the audience perceives this lifestyle as romanticized as well.
Even the film’s somewhat downer ending, where our hero and his girl have to skip town to avoid imprisonment, is slathered with a heavy of layer of idealized glamor– they’re off to exotic Casablanca, where even more adventures await. There isn’t a trace of cynicism in Wilder’s vision here, perhaps reflective of the world’s innocence and obliviousness to the world-shattering horrors of the war waiting just around the corner– horrors that would touch him on a much more personal level than most of his filmmaking contemporaries.
The French production of MAUVAISE GRAINE afforded Wilder several narrative opportunities that he would later be denied upon his immigration to America, thanks to the strict content regulations of the Hays Code established only four years prior. For instance, MAUVAISE GRAINE doesn’t shy away from letting its characters curse; indeed, it’s somewhat shocking to see the words “shit” and “bastards’ in the subtitles of an old black and white film.
Wilder wouldn’t be able to use these words in his work again until the Hays Code’s abolishment in 1968. Another example is the aforementioned ending that sees its criminal protagonist happily riding off into the sunset. This wouldn’t fly under the Hays Code, where criminal enterprise was always punished, and those who strayed from the letter of the law left themselves with only two possible fates: a jail cell or a tombstone.
MAUVAISE GRAINE wouldn’t bring Wilder much success as a working director; it would be almost a decade before he got behind the camera again. By the time of the film’s release, Wilder had already left Paris for America, where he would carve out a respectable career for himself as a screenwriter.
MAUVAISE GRAINE’s legacy within Wilder’s filmography could be positioned as a rough practice run for the stylish crime noirs that would make his name, and a safe training ground for techniques that would give us one of the most esteemed filmographies of the twentieth century.
THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942)
The production of 1934’s MAUVAISE GRAINE provided a decent training ground for fledgling filmmaker Billy Wilder to hone his directorial skills, but dramatic events on both the world and personal stages would preclude him from making his next film for nearly ten years. Sensing that the writing was on the wall when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime swept into power, Wilder fled Paris for the sunnier climes of Los Angeles.
He soon carved out a successful niche for himself as a Hollywood screenwriter, collaborating on many scripts with his new writing partner, Charles Brackett. During this time, he also married Judith Coppicus and fathered two children, Victoria and Vincent (who unfortunately died shortly thereafter). By the time he felt ready to direct his second feature film, Wilder’s life had changed quite drastically.
When we think of somebody making their “Hollywood debut” film, we tend to think of a young, hungry director without a ton of experience. At 36 years old, Wilder was certainly young, but he already had three Oscar nominations for writing under his belt when he convinced producer Arthur Hornblow Jr to let him back behind the camera. In order to guarantee himself a career as a successful Hollywood director, Wilder decided to adapt the most commercial story he could find, eventually settling on a play called “Connie Goes Home” by Edward Childs Carpenter.
Wilder and Brackett took Carpenter’s source material and turned it into THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942), a lighthearted romantic comedy of the sort that Wilder would later turn into his calling card. The film is set in 1941, presenting a more-innocent America that’s yet to be scarred by Pearl Harbor and the ravages of World War II, but can still see the dark clouds gathering on the horizon.
Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) is a New York working girl who makes a meager living giving scalp massages to lecherous old rich men. After one unwanted advance too many, Susan quits on the spot and heads to Grand Central Station to catch a one-way train back to Iowa. She’s squirrelled away $27 in emergency cash for this very situation, but when she arrives to buy a ticket, she finds she hasn’t accounted for inflation.
Unable to afford a full-price ticket, she poses as a twelve-year old girl for the half-fare. Once on the train, she comes under the suspicions of a pair of overzealous ticket takers and hides out in the cabin of a stranger named Major Kirby (Ray Milland). Kirby is fooled by her charade, but he also takes it upon himself to act as the girl’s interim guardian, insisting she accompany him to his destination while they try to contact her mother.
Susan unwittingly finds herself at Kirby’s military base and under siege from the affections of a horde of prepubescent cadets and the side-eyed scrutiny of Kirby’s fiancee, all while falling for the dashing young Major herself.
THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR’s cast is comprised of iconic Golden-era Hollywood faces. Female lead Ginger Rogers was instrumental in Wilder securing the job of director, having used her newfound clout after winning the Best Actress Oscar for 1940’s KITTY FOYLE to push the untested filmmaker into consideration. As the spunky, street-smart city girl Susan Applegate, Rogers brilliantly maneuvers a complex comedic performance that requires her to swing between a 12 year-old child and a full-grown woman at the drop of a hat.
Co-star Ray Milland more than holds his own against Rogers’ boundless energy, playing the character of Major Kirby as a decent and honorable gentleman with a bum eye that leaves him rather gullible to Susan’s fraud. His inability to correctly gauge her real age may not be the most believable aspect of Milland’s character, but his commitment to the performance helps to sell the zany nature of the plot.
If anything, the anecdote about how Milland came to be cast is more interesting than the performance itself– Wilder reportedly offered Milland the role by shouting the offer over to him in his car while the two were stopped at a traffic light.
THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR’s visual presentation represents a huge leap in quality from the scrappy, lo-fi look of MAUVAISE GRAINE. The sizable budget afforded by studio backing and the highly-controlled nature of soundstage shooting allows Wilder to pursue the glossy, polished aesthetic that was typical of Hollywood pictures of the day.
Shot in 35mm black-and-white in the then-industry standard 1.37:1 square aspect ratio, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR sees Wilder collaborate with cinematographer Leo Tover in the creation of slick lighting setups and polished camerawork that favors static set-ups over flashy moves. Wilder mostly tends to shoot THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR in 2-shot masters to best capture the story’s physical comedy, like one would record a live stage play.
He supplements this style with an economical and minimal attitude towards coverage, employing subtle dolly work and strategic close-ups only where the story demands it. Wilder learned this approach from his editor Doane Harrison, who coached the young director on his craft throughout production. Harrison instilled in Wilder the usefulness of “in-camera editing”– the practice of pre-cutting the film in your head and shooting ONLY what you know you will need (as a way to keep outside voices from meddling too much with your vision).
Most productions shoot a lot of coverage so as to give themselves several options in the cutting room, but the technique of in-camera editing leaves the editor with only one option– the director’s vision. Due to Wilder’s success with this technique in THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, he’d go on to adopt it in later works and develop a reputation as an extremely economic filmmaker.
Like MAUVAISE GRAINE before it, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR is surprisingly risque considering the pearl-clutching times in which it was made, skirting around the censors by painting decidedly-mature issues like adultery and fraud in the color of family-friendly slapstick comedy.
The film is an early instance of some of Wilder’s most high-profile hallmarks as a director: tight plotting, and the presentation of complex human flaws like gullibility and willful ignorance in the context of a comedy of manners. One of the film’s key dichotomies– that of the low-class hero contending with the high-class snobbery of ignorant and out-of-touch elites– would go on to serve as a recurring thematic exploration in Wilder’s later work.
Bolstered by composer Robert Emmett Dolan’s brassy, big-band score, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR thrilled audiences and critics alike with its bouncy effervescence upon its release in 1942. The success of the film elevated Wilder’s profile as a growing voice in cinema, opening the doors to more directorial work within the studio system and providing a pathway towards his first major work, 1944’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY.
While THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR is a lesser-known work within Wilder’s extensive filmography, the ensuing decades have seen little (if any) erosion of its original charm and wit. THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR’s artistic legacy to the medium and Wilder’s career may be… well, minor, but it does serve to reinforce Wilder’s stature to modern audiences as a first-class director of timeless, endlessly charming Hollywood entertainment.
FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943)
The success of director Billy Wilder’s American debut THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942) endowed the rising auteur and his writing partner Charles Brackett with enough clout to begin producing their own films with Paramount.
In the process of scouring the studio’s collection of narrative properties, Wilder and Brackett came across Lajos Biro’s play “Hotel Imperial”, and decided they would fashion it into a rousing wartime adventure picture called FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943). Being the first of only two war films in his entire filmography, FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO would establish Wilder’s skills in the dramatic arena and raise his flag even higher over the mainstream cinematic landscape.
Set during the North African campaign of World War 2, FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO tells the story of Corporal John Bramble (Franchot Tone), the last surviving member of his British tank infantry, who has just emerged from the desert and been rescued by the kindly staff of the Hotel Empress Britain. Not long after Bramble arrives and recovers, the Nazis roll into town and quickly commandeer the hotel as a home base of their own.
In an effort to hide his Allied affiliations, Bramble takes on the persona of Davos, a hotel servant who was killed during a recent air raid. The plot thickens when it’s revealed that Davos was a German spy, and Bramble embraces this aspect of the dead man’s identity as an opportunity to gather valuable counter-intelligence on the Axis campaign in Egypt.
While he flits about the shadows and manipulates the German officers into revealing information, he must also disarm their growing suspicions against his true identity. Peter Van Eyck, as Nazi Lt. Schwegler, becomes the primary avatar for these suspicions, parlaying his concerns to his commanding officer, Erwin Rommel (played gloriously by one of Wilder’s personal filmmaking heroes, Erich Von Stroheim).
Bramble’s allies amidst the hotel staff include Farid (Akim Tamiroff)– the hotel owner and a constant source of comedic relief– and an elegantly pragmatic chambermaid named Mouche (Anne Baxter) who makes the ultimate sacrifice in service to the British Crown.
FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO could very well be a major influence on Steven Spielberg’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), but the film itself is undoubtedly influenced by the previous year’s smash hit, CASABLANCA. The arid deserts of Indio, California stand in for the fictional Egyptian sand-scapes in which FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO takes place.
When the film was made, the events depicted in the story were still unfolding on the world stage. Audiences of the time no doubt found the story to be very timely, but seventy-plus years after the fact, the heroic, rah-rah tone might besiege modern viewers with the stench of propaganda. Thankfully, Wilder recognizes some of the inherent absurdities of warfare, and takes the opportunity to milk every last ounce of comedic potential from his narrative.
Perhaps the area that sees the greatest growth of Wilder as a director is the film’s visual presentation. The first of four collaborations with cinematographer John Seitz, FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO sees Wilder expand the scope of his storytelling with dramatic compositions and confident camerawork. Shot on black and white 35mm film in the standard 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the film allows Wilder ample opportunity to experiment with the usage of shadow and light.
His delicately-sculpted chiaroscuro, like the stark overhead light from a bare lightbulb or the geometric illumination of complex window patterns, foreshadow Wilder’s coming innovations within the film noir genre while reinforcing his artistic convictions about light as a crucial storytelling tool. Wilder and Seitz employ considered dolly moves and zooms to a much more elaborate degree thanTHE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, but always in deference to character and story over flash.
One of the most notable tracking shots in FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO is also one of the most subtle– a lateral descent along the y-axis that keeps Mouche’s face centered in close-up as she walks down a flight of stairs. The shot keeps the emotional momentum of the scene going while allowing the audience to register the roiling, complex emotions Mouche is feeling as she descends the staircase to certain doom.
Editor Doane Harrison’s minimalist influence on Wilder continues to be felt in FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, where the application of an in-camera approach to editing results in an effective and disciplined use of coverage. There are no frivolous shots that might detract from the focus. For instance, there are only 2 cutaways to airplanes flying overhead during the climactic air raid sequence.
Instead, Wilder keeps the perspective squarely on the ground, his camera following Bramble and his allies as they scurry for shelter amid the chaos. Other collaborators of note include famed costumer Edith Head (best known for her work on Alfred Hitchcock’s films), and composer Mikols Rozsa, who crafts a swashbuckling and brassy score appropriate for the film’s adventurous tone.
Despite FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO’s affectations as a somewhat-disposable adventure film, Wilder can’t help but use the story as an opportunity to further explore the idea of class conflict– a theme that Wilder would spend his career mining for material both dramatic and comic. This film meditates on the struggles between two uniformed classes: the military and hotel servants.
Both groups typically operate in service to a higher entity (hotel employees to their guests and the military to their government), but the military quickly takes on the role of pampered aristocrat as soon as they arrive. Wilder’s sympathies typically lie with the put-upon class, and FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO doesn’t break from the formula– positioning the plucky, outnumbered chambermaids and waiters of the Hotel Empress Britain as the heroes of the story.
The production’s immediate connection to the then-current event of World War 2 (which still had several years of conflict yet) can’t help but imbue the film with the manipulative air of propaganda, especially at the film’s conclusion when Bramble heroically runs off to join the British advance to victory. In a way, it’s fairly naive in its ignorance of some of the darker revelations that would come out of the conflict only a few years later.
For instance, the Nazis are depicted as civilized– if misguided patriots– of their homeland; there’s a memorable line where Rummel announces that they will conduct Mouche’s criminal trial under the Napoleonic code, just to prove that they aren’t barbarians.
Although Wilder had fled the Nazis himself and bore witness to some of their earlier atrocities, the larger horrors of the Holocaust had yet to be revealed– and his mother had yet to fall victim to them. If FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO had been made after World War 2, it isn’t hard to imagine that Wilder might’ve have painted his villains in a much more damning light.
FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO premiered in 1943 to mixed reviews, unable to achieve the same success that was bestowed uponTHE MAJOR AND THE MINOR. The bulk of the film’s critical merits went to its technical accomplishments, culminating in three Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography (Black And White), Best Art Direction, and Best Film Editing.
While FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO would quickly become overshadowed by Wilder’s bigger hits still to come, it stands on its own merits as a competently-made war film and a window into the fledgling auteur’s maturation into a confident, accomplished director.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
Of all the genres cinema has to offer, it’s hard to think of one more influential or compelling than noir. Unlike evergreen genres like comedy or science fiction, noir’s popularity is seasonal– it ebbs and flows very similar to how westerns periodically rise and fall into fashion. In a way, film noir could be seen as the anti-western; countering the latter’s sunkissed open landscapes and virtuous heroes with cramped urban environments, pervasive shadow, and compromised morals.
Noir has become so ubiquitous in both cinema and larger pop culture that we easily recognize it’s tropes and hallmarks, to the point where we feel like the idea of femme fatales and fedora-brimmed private investigators is as old as modern society itself. For a genre that trades heavily in dramatic irony, it’s perhaps fitting that director Billy Wilder – one of cinema’s most-respected comedic voices– would serve as the chief architect.
It’s interesting to watch Wilder’s third American feature DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) now because, on first glance, the film seems so steeped in noir cliches that it’s almost laughable. It’s easy to forget that, in the context of over seventy years of noir cinema, DOUBLE INDEMNITY was actually a pioneering work in the genre– the first to use and establish these all-too-familiar stylistic conceits and imagery.
The film is regarded as one of the earliest instances of a mainstream Hollywood film exploring the opportunity and motive for committing cold-blooded murder, and Wilder and company’s unflinching embrace of the material arguably popularized the idea of a film using its controversy as a major selling point.
Based on the James M. Cain novel of the same name, DOUBLE INDEMNITY had long languished in development purgatory, placed there by the restrictive Hays Code and generally regarded as “unfilmable” due to its salacious, amoral storyline. Wilder, however, saw the property as his opportunity to break out from conventionally-anonymous mainstream filmmaking and make a name for himself.
There was just one problem: his writing partner, Charles Brackett, refused to help him writeDOUBLE INDEMNITY out of his utter distaste for the material. Wilder decided to press ahead anyway, securing the services of a new writing partner in the form of legendary crime novelist Raymond Chandler.
Their collaboration was infamously contentious, with the mischievous Wilder’s various antagonisms reportedly driving the ex-alcoholic Chandler back to the bottle. Despite this backroom drama, Wilder and Chandler emerged with a devilishly well-written script and a firm foundation upon which Wilder would build his first directorial masterpiece.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY, set in Los Angeles in 1938, tells the story of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray)– a slick, successful insurance salesman who knows the ins and outs of his business better than anybody. We first meet him as he sneaks into his office late one night, bleeding profusely from a bullet wound as he records a confession into his boss’ dictaphone.
We then flash back a few days earlier to the cause of the trouble: Neff’s house call to the Dietrichson residence up in the hills of Los Feliz. He’s there to convince Mr. Dietrichson to renew his auto insurance policy, but instead he’s received by his client’s wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). After their first, dangerously flirtatious encounter, Neff finds himself drawn back to the house and ultimately into Phyllis’ arms.
Phyllis gradually divulges her unhappiness with her current marital situation and her attraction towards him, expressing a forbidden interest in doing away with her husband once and for all. Neff – not really of virtuous intent himself– eagerly proposes an elaborate murder scenario that would not only allow them to finally be together, but to also net a hefty payday for their trouble in the form of an insurance payout under the auspices of an “accidental death”.
As Neff and Phyllis put their nefarious plan into action, they find that the act of killing is easy enough, but the act of getting away with it is an altogether different challenge, fraught with peril, paranoia, and betrayal.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see DOUBLE INDEMNITY as it truly is: a masterfully riveting crime drama that profoundly influenced mainstream filmmaking and opened the floodgates to wave after wave of morally-ambiguous antiheroes and deceptive femme fatales. Foresight, however, is much less certain by nature, and as such, DOUBLE INDEMNITY’s pulpy story and corrupt characters provided quite the challenge when it came to Wilder attracting highly-respected talent to his cast.
After a long search for the right person to play the duplicitously debonaire insurance hack Walter Neff, Wilder found his man in Fred MacMurray. One of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors at the time, MacMurray was primarily known for broad comedies, and his appearance in DOUBLE INDEMNITY marked a rare dramatic turn that would profoundly influence the direction of his career.
His inoffensive, milquetoast handsomeness provides the perfect facade for the corruption lurking underneath– made all the more disturbing with its implication that even the most civilized, upstanding member of society carries with him the capacity for unspeakable evil.
His co-star, Barbara Stanwyck, was also one of the highest-paid actresses in the business, and her arresting performance as the seductive and conniving housewife Phyllis Dietrichson would ultimately earn her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress as well as an enviable distinction as the first true “femme fatale”. Edward G. Robinson, a well-known star of Depression-era gangster pictures, plays the supporting role of Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes.
Keyes is a fast-talking, cigar-chomping wiseguy excessively educated in the various methods one could use to kill themselves (and the accompanying success rate). Though he may be short, Robinson stands tall as a shining beacon of morality and principled decency amidst a sea of corrupt, indulgent narcissists. Finally DOUBLE INDEMNITY boasts the only appearance of notoriously-reclusive writer Raymond Chandler ever committed to film, in the form of a small cameo.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY isn’t just a showcase for Wilder’s stylistic growth– it’s the gold standard to which all subsequent noir films would aspire. Shot on black and white 35mm film in the square 1.37:1 aspect ratio by Wilder’s frequent cinematographer John Seitz, DOUBLE INDEMNITY’s striking compositions and low-key lighting setups would establish the style guide for this new genre while simultaneously harkening back to the older visual styles of Wilder’s youth, like German Expressionism.
One of the film’s innovations is the recurring motif of light streaming in through venetian blinds, casting shadows that resemble prison bars onto the characters. This technique has been widely copied through the decades, with its contemporary use by style-minded directors like Ridley or Tony Scott proving its enduring appeal.
Wilder’s actor-centric approach to directing had– to this point– resulted in fairly unremarkable wide compositions and 2-shots with spare coverage and movement. FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943) saw Wilder’s first experiments with stylized cinematography, and DOUBLE INDEMNITY provides him with the opportunity to further explore his abilities in the arena.
Editor Doane Harrison’s influence on Wilder is still palpable in a minimalistic, in-camera coverage approach that supplements wide masters with strategic closeups. However, Wilder puts a lurid twist on an otherwise-pedestrian coverage by letting his closeups go on just a little too long, giving the impression that the characters are leering rather than gazing.
We also are beginning to see Wilder using his wider master shots as an opportunity to play with depth, consciously making artistic juxtapositions between elements in the foreground and the background (and often placing them both in focus).
Wilder’s reserved approach to camera movement gives the film a great deal of energy and momentum, albeit in a counterintuitive way– whereas many directors like to show off their stylistic flair by enlisting virtuoso camera movement, Wilder simply matches the motion of his camera with the motion of his subjects. His emphasis on function over flash makes for a muscularly minimalistic presentation that pulls us deeper into his story by removing extraneous technical distractions.
Wilder proves that even the absence of crucial information can be just as effective as its inclusion, as evidenced by the central murder sequence being made all the more affecting by Wilder choosing to dwell on a closeup of Stanwyck’s smiling face instead of actually showing us the murder in progress.
The film’s shadowy chiaroscuro is complemented by returning composer Miklos Rozsa’s brassy and intrigue-laden score– itself a source of controversy during the film’s making. The music may sound to us now as inoffensive and quaint in an “old-fashioned Hollywood noir” sort of way, but it apparently ruffled enough feathers to be considered bold and transgressive by the studio establishment upon first hearing it.
An unflinching meditation on vanity, adultery, and murder, DOUBLE INDEMNITY’s vice-laden narrative certainly had its work cut out for it in regards to evading complete and total evisceration by the censors. A light, winking touch was required to make the material palatable and morally acceptable to the MPAA’s professional pearl clutchers.
Wilder was in a prime position to walk that line, having cultivated over his previous works a playful approach to off-color content designed to cleverly fly under the censors’ radar. The opportunity to break new dramatic ground while seeing how much depravity he could get away with wasn’t the only appeal that DOUBLE INDEMNITY’s story held for Wilder– it also allowed him to indulge in his fascination with class systems.
Whereas THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR found comedy and romance in the divide between the rich and the poor, or FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO threw two very different service cultures into conflict,DOUBLE INDEMNITY aims squarely down the center in its exploration of the modern American middle class that was just beginning to emerge from post-war economic prosperity.
His convictions about this ascendant social group are reflected here in images that he’d later employ to much more direct effect in 1960’s THE APARTMENT– the idea of a suit as an identity-depriving uniform, endless rows of desks manned by faceless white-collar worker bees, the cramped luxury of a well-appointed bachelor pad, or even the canned domesticity of a grocery store….it’s rows and rows of identical products implying the neutered complacency of abundance.
Wilder’s insightful perception of the American middle class, seen in its earliest incarnation here, aided him throughout his career in creating some of the most effectively artful and enduring reflections of mid-century society ever committed to celluloid.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY was an immediate hit both with critics and audiences alike, boosting Wilder’s profile into the stratosphere. While Wilder was no stranger to a Best Screenplay nomination at the Oscars, the film marked the first time he’d also be honored for his direction (the film would go on to score seven nominations overall, including Best Picture).
In classic Academy fashion, DOUBLE INDEMNITY ultimately didn’t win in any category– bested at every turn by Leo McCary’sGOING MY WAY. Ever the mischievous imp, Wilder reportedly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by sticking out his leg into the aisle and tripping the Best Director-winning McCarey as he made his way to the stage for his acceptance speech.
If it’s any consolation, time has proven DOUBLE INDEMNITY the better (and more-enduring) film, satisfying audiences hungry for complex, realistic plots where the good guys don’t necessarily always win. It legitimized noir as a genre, popularizing basic conceits like a voiceover delivered as a confessional monologue, a criminalistic point of view, and snappy dialogue.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY is the first truly great work in Wilder’s filmography, and its success would usher in a new phase of his career– one that would last over fifteen years and secure his place in the pantheon of great directors by producing several of cinema’s most beloved treasures
THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)
The year 1944 saw director Billy Wilder’s biggest success up to that point– the hardboiled noir thriller DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Of all the film’s Oscar nominations, none was perhaps as hard-fought as his collaboration with popular crime novelist Raymond Chandler on the screenplay. It’s a minor miracle that they were even able to finish the script at all, given their reportedly antagonistic working relationship.
Chandler was a recovering alcoholic, and the stress of writing DOUBLE INDEMNITY with Wilder was enough to drive him back to the bottle. This apparently hit a nerve with Wilder, who was reminded of the episode while reading Charles L. Jackson’s novel “The Lost Weekend” during a cross-country train trip later that same year.
In the book’s story of a crazed alcoholic hitting rock bottom with his addiction, Wilder saw an opportunity to explore his own experience with Chandler’s relapse– or, in his words, a chance to “explain Chandler to himself”. After he convinced Paramount head Buddy de Sylvia to secure the film rights for him, Wilder and his longtime writing partner Charles Brackett set to work adapting Jackson’s book to screen.
Wilder’s first whack at a straight-faced drama, THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) would eventually prove to be an eventful work in the director’s career, and would finally bring him the critical acclaim and awards recognition that had thus far eluded him.
THE LOST WEEKEND recounts a nightmarish, booze-soaked weekend in the life of Don Birnam (Ray Milland), a man who would be America’s next great novelist if only he could manage to stop himself from getting blackout drunk every time he sat down to write. His addiction is growing increasingly apparent to those around him, including his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman).
When Wick arranges for a weekend writing retreat for the both of them outside of town, Don manages to give him the slip and subsequently spends the entire weekend plunging deeper and deeper towards the bottom of a rye bottle. Don knows he’s helpless against his addiction, but will he allow others to help him before it’s too late?
Thanks to the restrictive Hays Code, the film’s attempts at authentically depicting the horrors of alcoholism are undermined by an earnestly hamfisted, old-fashioned Hollywood approach– complete with the unrealistic “Happy Ending” in which Don finally cures himself of his addiction once and for all by sheer power of will. That being said, THE LOST WEEKEND is nonetheless a powerful portrait of addiction, and served to open many audience members’ eyes to the true nature of the disease when it was released.
Ray Milland– who previously headlined for Wilder in 1942’s THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR– plays the character of Don Birnam as something of a Jekyll and Hyde type, alternating between a clean-cut, cultured, and respectable man when sober, and a tempestuously volatile drunk with a crazed glint in his eyes.
Previously known for his roles in romantic comedies and adventure films, Milland’s somewhat over-the-top performance here is a drastic departure for him. He throws himself headlong into the role, his risk rewarded with an Oscar for Best Actor. As Don’s girlfriend Helen St. James, Jane Wyman can’t help but be pigeonholed into the “glamorous, feminine saving-grace” archetype that pervades films from this era.
That being said, she turns in an admirable performance that hits all the right notes. Phillip Terry is affecting as Wick Birnam, Don’s bookish, put-together brother who is quickly becoming fed-up with Don’s unwillingness to seek help. Howard Da Silva plays a stern and vindictive bartender named Nat who somehow becomes one of Don’s confidantes.
Doris Dowling, who at the time was reportedly Wilder’s mistress, gives the minor character of Gloria a darkly seductive femme fatale flair that’s reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck’s icy flirtations in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Out of all the members of THE LOST WEEKEND’s cast, however, the most notable in regards to Wilder’s own personal life doesn’t even appear onscreen.
A young woman named Audrey Young was cast as a nonspeaking coat check girl, but she nevertheless managed to catch Wilder’s eye during the shoot. Young would go on to become Wilder’s second wife only a few years after his divorce from his first, Judith Coppicus, in 1946.
THE LOST WEEKEND marks Wilder’s fourth tour of duty with his regular cinematographer John Seitz, who by now has become well-versed in the director’s particularly utilitarian and minimalist aesthetic. Shot in the era’s standard 1.37:1 square aspect ratio, the 35mm black-and-white film frame boasts a glamorous, polished touch indicative of the “Silver Screen” era while alluding to the expressionist chiaroscuro that marked DOUBLE INDEMNITY (most apparent in the hospital sequence).
In fact, these dramatic shadows seem to be creeping up from the edges of the frame, reflecting the time’s growing sense of moral ambiguity and collective loss of innocence following the close of World War 2.
THE LOST WEEKEND sees Wilder further build on other stylistic conceits he’d been exploring in DOUBLE INDEMNITY and FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943), like dramatic deep-focus foreground/background juxtapositions (seen most notably during a phone booth scene set in a hotel lobby), or virtuoso camera movements that aren’t always motivated by character blocking (like the Hitchcock-ian opening shot that pans across the Manhattan skyline before swooping into Don’s apartment, or the dramatic push-in to an extreme close-up of a glass of rye).
While these little moments of visual flair are indicative of Wilder becoming more secure in his technical proficiency, they are few and far between. One the whole, Wilder defers to his tried-and-true 2 shots masters, complementing them with calculating close-ups strategically placed by his editor Doane Harrison.
Miklos Rozsa, who scored Wilder’s previous two films, returns to compose the music for THE LOST WEEKEND. Typical of scores from the time, Rozsa employs a bombastic, sweeping orchestral sound with several romantic overtures that hammer home the high drama on display. This wouldn’t seem to suggest that THE LOST WEEKEND’s score was anything particularly exciting or groundbreaking– but that’s exactly what it was, thanks to Rozsa’s pioneering use of the theremin, one of the earliest instruments of the electronic variety.
The creepy, undulating sound of the theremin was used to score the nightmarish bender sequences, and its otherworldly sound would later become the aural signature of midcentury sci-fi B-films and cheesy Halloween decorations. Interestingly enough, THE LOST WEEKEND was initially released to audiences without a musical score, a version which failed to generate a positive response.
It was only after Rozsa’s score was added that the film found success (1), a testament to the transcendent quality that music can have on an image. Rosza’s work here would be nominated for Best Score at the Oscars, and while it ultimately didn’t win, Rosza could hardly have been disappointed considering he lost to himself for his work on Alfred Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND.
THE LOST WEEKEND continues Wilder’s fascination with risque or otherwise-inappropriate content, further solidifying his artistic legacy as a filmmaker who challenged the pearl-clutching status quo and widened the range of stories that could be told in American mass media. This aspect of his career is arguably attributable to his focus on social issues directly pertaining to the middle class (aka cinema’s largest consumer group).
While alcoholism of course affects people from all walks of life, THE LOST WEEKEND’s exploration of the disease as it affects an upwardly-mobile white-collar worker helped to frame the conversation as an “everyman” issue that could happen to anybody. The film’s study of alcoholism hit a particular chord with American servicemen, who were just returning home from combat overseas and had turned to the comforts of alcohol to battle their undiagnosed PTSD.
Understandably, there were interest groups that didn’t want THE LOST WEEKEND to ever see the light of day. Paramount received enormous pressure on both sides from alcohol industry and temperance lobbyists, so the studio hedged its bets by initially putting out the film as a limited release. However, the reviews were so positive that they were compelled to ignore external pressures in favor of a wide release.
This proved to be a smart move, as THE LOST WEEKEND went on to be a great commercial success– propelled in large part by the aforementioned military audience who rewarded the film’s recognition of their plight by turning out in droves. Having endured the bitter sting of Oscar defeat with DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Wilder rode a veritable tsunami of praise all the way back to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre only a year later, sweeping up gold statues for Best Direction, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture in the ensuing riptide.
Normally, this would be the career highlight of any working director… but fate had far greater plans in store for Wilder. The crucial, artistically-validating wins for THE LOST WEEKEND would establish a firm footing for such a strong body of iconic works that his wins here look like a mere footnote by comparison.
Whereas his previous works up to this point had cultivated a reputation for Wilder as an actor’s director who emphasized writing and dialogue over visual spectacle, THE LOST WEEKEND shows Wilder comfortably settling into the height of his powers as an acknowledged master of the form.
THE DEATH MILLS (1945)
The Holocaust is easily the most horrific crime that man has ever perpetrated upon his fellow man. A genocide on the largest scale, it’s hard to comprehend or even convey the full scope of its evil. Fortunately, motion pictures have proven quite capable as a medium to appropriately hammer home the horror of these atrocities to people in faraway lands and times, in the hope that they are never again repeated.
Cinema is rife with examples both narrative and documentary–SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and SHOAH (1985), to name a few– but perhaps one of the most horrific displays of this genocide is also its earliest: DEATH MILLS (1945), a documentary made by renowned mainstream Hollywood director Billy Wilder.
As World War 2 came to a close and the world was beginning to find out about The Holocaust, the US Department of War was compelled to educate the German public on the monstrous actions of their former government. Towards that end, they enlisted Wilder and a co-director named Hanus Burger to create both English and German-language versions of a 20-minute short documentary.
DEATH MILLS is comprised of black-and-white film footage from the concentration camps, as filmed by those came upon them while liberating Europe from the Nazi regime. Wilder and Burger fashion these selects together into a nightmarish montage of inhumanity, unflinchingly lingering on closeup shots of mangled bodies and skeletal survivors while a somber militaristic score courses underneath.
One key aspect of Wilder’s legacy has been widening the type of subjects and stories that mainstream Hollywood deems acceptable for audiences. His previous features had pushed the envelope in decidedly adult subjects like sex and crime, andDEATH MILLS continues the tradition by forcing us to look into the cold, glassy eyes of the dead.
Despite the somewhat detached, newsreel-style narration, a quiet outrage seethes through the frame– a product of Wilder’s own personal connection to the Holocaust as a Polish Jew who fled the Nazis a decade before. These mountains of bodies are unrecognizable in death, but they were once people; HIS people. These were his town elders, his schoolmates… one was even his own mother.
Interestingly enough, the voiceover makes no mention of Jews specifically– rather, it makes the case that The Holocaust claimed people from all walks of life. This aspect of the film is consistent with Wilder’s career-long exploration of the archetypal “everyman”, the avatar through which the audience can insert themselves into the narrative and experience an intimate emotional connection.
As the first and only documentary that Wilder directed, DEATH MILLS marks a distinct step back from the glamorous Old Hollywood aesthetic that he traded in. Granted, he may not have had a choice in the matter, seeing as he almost certainly wasn’t actually present to capture these horrific images in real time. His voice instead comes through in how the film is assembled as a portrait of mankind’s unimaginable capacity for evil– far more worse and far more real than any villain on the silver screen.
THE EMPEROR WALTZ (1948)
Director Billy Wilder’s Oscar wins for Best Picture and Best Director for THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) positioned him as not just an important dramatic director, but one of the most valuable filmmakers in Paramount’s stable. Like many other directors who’ve been bestowed with The Golden Statue, the occasion marked a profound transition in both Wilder’s artistic and personal life.
At age 40, he was just entering middle age and grappling with all the malaise and neurosis that comes with it– including a divorce from his first wife, Judith Coppicus. Wanting to capitalize on his creative hot streak, Wilder immediately went back to work with his writing/producing partner Charles Brackett on a script about American troops stationed in Europe following World War II, but his research trips to German concentration camps left him so disheartened that he abandoned the project altogether in favor of pursuing something light and carefree (1).
He felt himself longing for the Austria of his youth– long before war and depression had ravaged it to ruins– and he subsequently set his sights on a light-hearted musical comedy he called VIENNESE STORY, but would come to be later known as THE EMPEROR WALTZ (1948) (1). When Wilder and Brackett managed to secure legendary crooner Bing Crosby (who was at the time considered Paramount’s top star), the film was able to come together fairly quickly.
THE EMPEROR WALTZ represents several firsts in Wilder’s body of work– his first color film, his first film set abroad since 1934’s MAUVAISE GRAINE, and his first musical– but it’s also his first stumble after a string of increasingly solid works.
Wilder’s vision of THE EMPEROR WALTZ depicts turn-of-the-century Vienna as an idyllic, mountainous land populated by innocents untainted by the devastation of world war. Crosby is Virgil Smith, a fast-talking American salesman who’s come to town to sell a new musical playback device called The Gramophone to Emperor Franz Josef (Richard Haydn under what must be a pound of heavy makeup and prosthetics).
Virgil’s efforts are derailed when the beloved dog he’s brought along with him gets entangled in a nasty spat with a purebred poodle belonging to the glamorous socialite Johanna Franziska (Joane Fontaine). They initially don’t get along very well, but this decadent world proves as irresistible to Virgil as his soothing singing is to Johanna.
What follows is a confectionary comedy about class and old-fashioned European notions on breeding. THE EMPEROR WALTZ is technically a musical, but not so much in the traditional sense in that there are very few song and dance numbers. Instead of bombastic and expansive set pieces, Wilder takes a quieter, playful approach (like in a scene where Crosby is joined in song by a supporting chorus of his own yodels echoing off the mountainside).
To shoot his first film in color, Wilder turns not to his longtime cinematographer John Seitz, but to Oscar winner George Barnes, who had previously lensed Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (1940) and SPELLBOUND (1945). THE EMPEROR WALTZ certainly resembles that old-school Hollywood soundstage aesthetic: bright lights, soft/gauzy focus, and a copious amount of rear projection process shots for “exterior” sequences.
While Wilder’s visual aesthetic is relatively anonymous by design, there are a few touches that bear his mark– such as the noir-esque light cast by venetian blinds (which looks somewhat garish when rendered in candy-coated Technicolor). There’s a distinct emphasis on lavish production values at play here, with Wilder’s camera more active than usual– he employs swooping crane shots, smooth dollies, and even high-velocity whip-pans of the type that Martin Scorsese would later incorporate into his own aesthetic.
Wilder’s minimalistic approach to coverage, as informed by longtime editor Doane Harrison, alternates between wide masters that show off the ornately stuffy production design by Hans Dreier and Franz Bachelin and sustained closeups that allow us to fixate on the tiny details of the Oscar-nominated costumes by the legendary Edith Head.
Just as he traded in his longtime cinematographer for a new collaboration, so to does he forego a musical score by frequent collaborator Miklos Rosza in favor of a regal suite of cues of Victor Young. Young’s lavishly-gilded original orchestrations mix in as effortlessly with well-known classical waltzes as they do with Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”, employed during a comic chase sequence.
THE EMPEROR WALTZ places one of Wilder’s most prominent thematic fascinations front and center: the eternal clash between the haves and the have-nots. Whereas his previous two films tackled the American middle class (a social grouping one could describe as the “have-enoughs”), this film finds Wilder flipping MAUVAISE GRAINE’s dynamic of a rich boy slumming it with some street hoods- portraying Crosby’s Virgil as the muckety-muck everyman trying to gain a toehold in an arrogant European aristocracy.
The subplot with Virgil and Johanna’s dogs hinges on the contrasting dynamics of “the mutt” and “the purebred”, becoming a conduit for a larger exploration of Victorian social hierarchy. Crosby’s huckster character is positioned as the hero, which paints the members of the Viennese aristocracy as villains by default. The rich are also portrayed as depraved in regards to their virtues, with the money-minded, shameless social-climbing character of Baron Holenia (Roland Culver) being a particularly strong example.
Additionally, THE EMPEROR WALTZ provides ample opportunity for Wilder to indulge in the iconography of uniform– the male members of the aristocracy all seem to wear extravagant military garb while Crosby dresses himself up in a stereotypical lederhosen get-up to fit in amongst the common men from the nearby village.
For a film so admittedly inoffensive and conventional, the production of THE EMPEROR WALTZ was surprisingly turbulent. Wilder and company shot in Canada, where any cost advantages it offered over other locales were soon negated by budget and schedule overruns (1). For instance, pine trees were reportedly flown in from California and planted on-location at great expense.
Crosby was reportedly difficult during the shoot, refusing to take direction from Wilder or cues from his costar Fontaine (1). Though THE EMPEROR WALTZ was shot in 1946, immediately following THE LOST WEEKEND, the film would not be released for two more years. Wilder kept having major problems during the post-production process, one being that he apparently didn’t like how certain colors looked when they were rendered in Technicolor (1).
Though he was ultimately dissatisfied with the final product, THE EMPEROR WALTZ was received quite warmly by the critics, and would even accumulate Oscar nominations for Head’s costume design and Young’s score. Time hasn’t been as kind to the film, relegating it to the bargain bin of Wilder’s forgotten minor works.
Indeed, it’s the cinematic equivalent of candy– bright, colorful, sweet, and completely devoid of nutritious value– but perhaps that’s the point. After the shadowy gloom of both his last few films and real events on the world stage, THE EMPEROR WALTZ serves as something of a palate cleanser for Wilder and his audience. Above all, the film is a pure escapist fantasy– one that mercifully allows Wilder to return, however briefly, to a world he once loved that no longer exists.
A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948)
The destruction caused by World War II left a profound gash in the psyche of citizens belonging to both the Axis and Allied nations. Director Billy Wilder’s personal and professional life was deeply entwined with the global conflict– not only did he hail from the regions hit hardest within the European theatre, his heritage as an Austrian Jew meant that many of his direct family members–including his own mother– fell victim to Hitler’s concentration camps.
This no doubt propelled Wilder to be particularly forceful and unflinching in his detailing of Nazi atrocities in his short documentary DEATH MILLS (1945), but it would also influence his feature work. Having been promised financial assistance from the government if he made a picture about Allied-occupied Germany, Wilder decided to expand on his research experience in talking with Berlin citizens who had been left to pick up the pieces of their ruined city (1).
He was struck by one anecdote in particular, about a woman who was thankful for the return of gas service to the city….but not so she should cook again, but because she could finally commit suicide (1).
Understandably, developing a story set in this hopeless world can be quite a miserable process, so in 1946 Wilder took some time off to shoot the romantic musical THE EMPEROR WALTZ instead. During that film’s interminable editing process, Wilder returned to developing his Berlin film with writing and producing partner Charles Brackett as well as a third screenwriter Richard L. Breen, basing their efforts around a story by David Shaw.
The resulting film, 1948’s A FOREIGN AFFAIR, would find Wilder and company actually shooting amidst the ruins of Berlin– a move that brings a stark sense of bitter reality and gravitas to an otherwise-romantic wartime comedy and reflects the collective loss of innocence that World War II sustained upon the world.
The story begins when a planeload of American diplomats arrives in Allied-occupied Berlin to inspect conditions for the soldiers posted there. Among this predominantly-male group of envoys is Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), a prim and proper congresswoman from Iowa who’s quick to clutch her pearls at even the slightest display of moral bankruptcy.
She crosses paths with Captain John Pringle (John Lund), a duplicitous serviceman engaged in a secret affair with Ericka Von Schluetow (Hollywood Golden Age icon Marlene Dietrich), a German showgirl with ties to prominent ex-Nazis still lurking around the city. Frost knows Schluetow is sleeping with an American serviceman but she doesn’t know the man’s identity, so she unwittingly partners with Captain Pringle– the very man she’s looking for– to bring Schluetow’s American lover to justice.
This being a romantic comedy, Frost’s close proximity to Pringle naturally causes her to fall head over heels in love with him, creating a messy love triangle that somehow manages to neutralize an insurgent threat from the Nazi party’s lingering remnants.
A FOREIGN AFFAIR is a complicated film, taking on a decidedly cynical tone that explores how people might continue finding comedy when the world has been destroyed around them. Occupied Berlin resembles something of a large-scale prison, with citizens having forsaken paper currency in favor of a barter system.
They trade their goods and services (and, as the film implies, their bodies) for small, fleeting pleasures like cigarettes and candy. The societal depravity seems to have also given way to moral depravity, which Wilder frequently alludes to with a deft, comedic touch.
We see frequent images of American servicemen riding through the city on tandem bikes, catcalling German women out on their own, or those very same German women confidently striding through town with babies in strollers garnished with little American flags– all winking references to the widespread climate of fornication and adultery that has flourished in the absence of governmental order.
The relationship dynamic between Lund and Dietrich also contains slight hints towards BDSM proclivities, creating a sense of sexual delinquency that underscores an otherwise-demure romantic comedy. A FOREIGN AFFAIR’s subject matter is indeed quite risque relative to the time in which it was made, but serves as yet another instance of Wilder pushing the envelope of what mainstream Hollywood films could depict on-screen.
A FOREIGN AFFAIR’s plot hinges upon the dynamic of the eccentric love triangle between Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, and John Lund. Arthur’s naive and prudish congresswoman Phoebe Frost is the chief protagonist– a bold choice given the unfortunate fact that mainstream Hollywood traditionally doesn’t make films detailing the romantic aspirations of older women.
Wilder reportedly lured Arthur out of retirement to play the role, but her experience on set just might have caused her to regret it; Wilder’s sincere admiration for her co-star Marlene Dietrich caused Arthur to become the envious second fiddle by default (1). Dietrich, to her credit, is perfectly cast as the German enchantress Ericka Von Schluetow.
In the classic femme fatale fashion (which Wilder helped to create), Dietrich exudes an icy glamor and a weaponized sex appeal in her portrayal of a nightclub singer whose allegiance to her new American conquerors is suspect.
Having spent a great deal of World War II touring the European front and entertaining Allied troops, Dietrich was understandably reticent about taking on the role of a lusty woman with Nazi sympathies, but Wilder was able to coax her aboard with the promise of a big payday as well as the company of her old friend Friedrich Hollaender as the film’s composer and her on-screen accompaniment during singing numbers like “Black Market” (1). John Lund’s Captain John Pringle is a two-faced American soldier– he projects a somewhat dopey demeanor in public, only to switch over into a womanizing cynic behind closed doors.
Lund was a Paramount contract player whose career never really took off, and his serviceable yet ultimately forgettable performance inA FOREIGN AFFAIR would arguably become his best-known appearance (1).
A FOREIGN AFFAIR marks Wilder’s first collaboration with cinematographer Charles Lang, who would go on to helm some of Wilder’s later works like ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) and SABRINA (1954). Lang was nominated for an Oscar for his his work on this film, which sees Wilder revert back to black and white photography after his first experiment with color in THE EMPEROR WALTZ.
The 1.37:1 square 35mm film frame is awash in moody chiaroscuro, incorporating the deep shadows and expressive lighting techniques that Wilder previously used in DOUBLE INDEMNITY while translating them into the language of comedy. Wilder’s belief in the primacy of writing is reflected in his mostly-minimalistic approach to coverage (using closeups sparingly as a strategic complement to his wide masters), but A FOREIGN AFFAIR can’t help being visually striking– using the real bombed-out ruins of a major city as your backlot tends to have that effect.
Wilder mounts his camera onto cranes, dollies, and even airplanes in a bid to capture the smoking cityscape in an evocative manner. There’s also a significant attention placed on depth here, as well as a running visual motif of reflections (characters are often seen in mirrors in lieu of a coverage cutaways or reverse shots). The aforementioned Hollaender provides a bouncy, marching score that’s perfectly in-line with the militaristic iconography and moody visuals.
After the lavish musical overtures of THE EMPEROR WALTZ, A FOREIGN AFFAIR finds Wilder returning to his comfort zone of hybrid comedy/dramas. Like FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943) before it, Wilder is telling a story that concerns German citizens and Nazi sympathizers. Whereas FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO painted the Nazis as intelligent, somewhat-civilized foes, A FOREIGN AFFAIR gives the director ample opportunity to extract artistic revenge on the regime that was able to justify wiping out his family and fellow countrymen.
A deep-seated rage towards Germany drives Wilder’s vision of the film, as evidenced by an anecdote where an editorial assistant expressed pity for the people of Berlin upon seeing the dailies from the rubble-strewn streets, only to send Wilder off on a screaming fit about how he hoped all Germans would burn in hell for what they did to his family (1). Naturally, then, the German citizens in A FOREIGN AFFAIR are frequently depicted as barbaric, penniless buffoons, bearing little similarity to their refined, wealthy Allied conquerors. These fundamental differences in class are consistent with Wilder’s previous examinations of the subject, as is the usage of uniform (often military in nature) to make quick, theatrical distinctions between the various castes.
Thanks to his minimalist aesthetic and usage of in-camera cutting techniques, Wilder and his editing partner Doane Harrison reportedly completed a cut of the film only a week after principal photography had wrapped (1). This no doubt was a fortuitous development for Wilder, who was otherwise mired in a post production process for THE EMPEROR WALTZthat would last a total of two years.
As timing would have it, A FOREIGN AFFAIR debuted almost immediately after the premiere for THE EMPEROR WALTZ, giving filmgoers a double dose of Wilder within the space of a single year. The film was well-regarded in critical circles, but ultimately unsuccessful come awards season.
Wilder and Brackett were nominated once more for their screenplay, but if it’s any consolation to them, the film they eventually lost out to– John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE– would become a monumental classic in its own right.
A FOREIGN AFFAIR was no doubt a cathartic experience for Wilder, allowing him the opportunity to exorcise his inner torment over the Holocaust by bringing the Nazis to justice in the cinematic forum. While A FOREIGN AFFAIR is remembered today as a minor work in Wilder’s canon, it’s still an important work if only for its evidence of Wilder consolidating his directorial strengths into a unified approach– an approach that, when he would next apply it, would result in one of the most classic films in all of cinema.
SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
When we talk about “the cornerstones of American cinema”, only a select few films lay true claim to the title– films like Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941), Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (1958), or Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD(1950). These are some of the greatest films of all time, made with an impeccable craftsmanship that has endured through the decades and survived countless filmmaking trends.
Wilder in particular was hailed for his strengths as a screenwriter, and as such, SUNSET BOULEVARD arguably boasts the best writing of any film of this caliber. Lines like “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small”, or “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille” have become ingrained into our cultural subconscious, becoming synonymous with the medium of film itself.
Despite being made nearly seventy years ago, SUNSET BOULEVARDhas lost none of its macabre, biting edge. The same underhanded promise of glamor, luxury, and fame still brings in a fresh busload of wide-eyed transplants to Hollywood each and every day.
That shimmering apparatus we call “The Dream Factory” was built by a rogue’s gallery of egotistical hucksters, craven hedonists and byzantine grotesques, and Wilder’s lifelong fascination with these shadowy figures lurking between LA’s sun-soaked avenues culminates with SUNSET BOULEVARD– a legacy-defining masterpiece that will haunt the cinema for ages to come.
As the tumultuous 1940’s drew to a close, Wilder found himself on top of the world. Not only was he an Oscar winner, he was also regarded as Paramount’s most valuable filmmaker. On top of that, he was once more a newlywed, having just married singer Audrey Young following a courtship that began on the set of 1945’s THE LOST WEEKEND.
His status as a member of the Hollywood elite meant that he spent a great deal of time in the parlors of LA’s grand mansions, some of which belonged to retired, reclusive stars of the silent era. He found himself inspired by this strange, somewhat-sad scene, and began working on a new script with his longtime writing and producing partner Charles Brackett.
They were careful to tread lightly, as such an inside look at Hollywood’s seamy underbelly hadn’t really been attempted in this intimate a fashion before. Towards this end, they enlisted the help of a third writer, D.M. Marshman, who had written a critique for THE EMPEROR WALTZ (1948) that Wilder and Brackett strongly responded to.
Despite SUNSET BOULEVARD’s nature as an insider’s industry expose, Wilder and Brackett met with very little resistance from Paramount Pictures, who even went as far as far as encouraging them to use Paramount’s real name and facilities instead of a fictional substitute within the narrative.
SUNSET BOULEVARD begins at the end, with an image of a dead man floating in the pool of a grand estate located just off the eponymous drag. The dead man is Joe Gillis (William Holden), a fact revealed to us by Gillis himself via posthumous voiceover. After setting up his current… “predicament”, he then takes us back to the beginning of his story, which finds him in the midst of flaming out of his screenwriting career.
He hasn’t booked a new gig in quite a while, and the repo men are circling like vultures around the car he’s been unable to make payments on. They finally catch up to him one day while out on a drive, resulting in Gillis blowing a tire during the ensuing chase. He escapes by rolling the car into the garage of a huge, decrepit mansion that looks like it hasn’t been inhabited for many years.
To his surprise, he finds the house is occupied by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an old star from the silent era, and her ghoulish butler Max Von Mayerling (Erich Von Stroheim). When she discovers he’s a screenwriter, she offers to forgive his intrusion if he’ll give her notes on a screenplay she’s been developing on her own to serve as her grand return to the cinema.
As Gillis expects, the script is objectively terrible, but he offers to take on the task in exchange for a hefty payday and a short-term residency at Norma’s opulent estate. Growing quickly dependent on Norma for shelter, clothing and money, Gillis eventually realizes he’s a kept man— a sexual prisoner beholden to Norma’s suffocating vanity and wealth.
In a bid to reclaim his agency (and his sanity), he starts sneaking out in the middle of the night to collaborate on a romance script with a beautiful young studio reader (Nancy Olson) who he also happens to be falling in love with. When Norma catches on to Gillis’ deception, she embraces her delusion and jealousy by taking action that will bring the story back full circle to its murderous introduction.
SUNSET BOULEVARD is a brilliant portrait of Hollywood’s natural megalomania and self-deceit– traits that aren’t surprising given the fact that the entire enterprise of filmmaking could be cynically boiled down to grown men and women playing make-believe for absurd amounts of money. It’s a particularly meta example of art imitating life, but the film gains another degree of resonance in that it’s also an example of life imitating art.
Wilder’s cast is essentially comprised of burnouts, most of whom were then engaged in a drawn-out period of decline following once-lustrous careers. All four of his main cast members are playing somewhat exaggerated versions of themselves (and to their credit, each of the four were rewarded with Oscar nominations).
William Holden had been regarded nearly a decade prior as a major new talent to watch, only for his buzz to fizzle out rather anticlimactically. In that way, that experience made Holden the ideal candidate to play the talented, yet hungry, screenwriter Joe Gillis. Holden wasn’t Wilder’s first choice (Montgomery Clift went back on his original commitment to star only two weeks before production, and Wilder’s appeals to DOUBLE INDEMNITY’s Fred MacMurray were turned down outright), but his refined grit and dry gallows humor made him a natural fit for the part.
Holden’s naturalistic, low-key performance is contrasted against Gloria Swanson’s grandiose, kabuki-style theatrics. She turns in one of the most unforgettable performances in the history of the medium, channelling no less than Count Dracula in her attempt to communicate Norma’s delusions of grandeur and vainglorious imperiousness.
She slinks and slithers through the film, a vampire sucking on the lifeblood of those in her orbit to feed her own narcissism. As a former silent film star herself, Norma Desmond’s overarching attempt to mount her big comeback is a plot device that hits close to home for Swanson. She was ultimately unable to make much of a comeback herself, and would retire from the cinema altogether in 1974, citing that the only offers she received were to play lesser variations on her character here.
Newcomer Nancy Olson’s natural wholesomeness draws a nice contrast to the dusty theatrics of Norma Desmond and makes her convincing as Holden’s optimistic young love interest, Betty Schaeffer, while Erich Von Stroheim’s stern ex-husband-turned-butler Max Von Mayerling mirrors his own career trajectory as a disgraced silent-era director whose films actually featured a younger Gloria Swanson.
Finally, Wilder mischievously stunt-casts real Hollywood icons like Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton to play themselves, grounding the macabre theatrics of the plot in a realistic world the audience can recognize.
SUNSET BOULEVARD is often characterized as a noir, building on the aesthetic innovations Wilder established in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. On closer look, however, it actually starts to resemble something more akin to the classic Universal horror films. The exaggerated chiaroscuro and gothic haunted-house iconography of those films are given a distinctly Californian twist, which makes the monsters residing within all the scarier because they actually exist.
After sitting out Wilder’s previous two features, John Seitz returns as cinematographer, ably capturing the director’s shadowy, monochromatic vision onto the 1.37:1 35mm film frame. SUNSET BOULEVARD sees continued instances of Wilder exploring his understated visual aesthetic, with many of his compositions emphasizing depth of focus as well as employing subtle framing devices like mirrors and reflections as a way to add intrigue while minimizing the need to cut.
Wilder’s camera is always motivated by the movement of the subject or actor, but the moves themselves exhibit a growing comfort on his part with grandeur and kinetic energy. He uses the formalistic signatures of Golden Age moviemaking (dollies, cranes, and soundstage process shots), but he also incorporates newer, less formal techniques like whip-pans during action sequences.
Seitz’s moody cinematography is given weight and authenticity by the darkly ornate production designer by Hans Dreier and John Meehan. The cavernous interiors of Norma’s mansion are depicted like Dracula’s castle, with the numerous candelabras, heavy drapes, and stone tiles choking out any natural sunlight.
This idea is further reinforced by Edith Head’s garishly glamorous costumes, which call to mind a vampire’s draping cloak just as much as they do the byzantine indulgence of the silent era. Interestingly enough, the decrepit mansion itself (of which only the exteriors were used) was not located on the titular street of Sunset Boulevard– it was instead located to the south in Hancock Park, along Wilshire.
While this fact is understably attributable to practical and aesthetic production reasons, it also points to cinema’s ability to join distant geographical points together into a convincing temporal continuity via the magic of montage.
Towards this end, editor Arthur P. Schmidt proves a capable substitute for Wilder’s longtime editing partner Doane Harrison, intuitively placing strategic close-ups within Wilder’s otherwise-minimal coverage to maximum effect. SUNSET BOULEVARD’s last shot is easily the most skin-crawlingly sublime of these close-ups, which sees the Norma Desmond character– completely surrendered to her fantasy– break the fourth wall to acknowledge our presence directly as “those wonderful people out there in the dark”.
Finally, Franz Waxman, one of Wilder’s oldest and best friends from Europe and the composer for his first feature MAUVAISE GRAINE (1934), returns with a tense score that subverts the brassy orchestral sound of Hollywood convention with a frenetic dissonance.
SUNSET BOULEVARD’s story feels just as relevant today as it did back in 1950, its timelessness owing to Wilder’s fascination with resonant thematic material. Wilder’s general approach to filmmaking reflects his belief in the primacy of the screenplay, an observation that’s supported by the fact that his protagonists are often writers themselves.
Just like THE LOST WEEKEND before it, SUNSET BOULEVARD concerns itself with the trials of a struggling young writer– a narrative device that makes for a smooth pivot to explorations of class conflict, another Wilder signature. Wilder takes every opportunity to juxtapose Gillis’ ragged poverty against Desmond’s vainglorious decadence– like his tiny, cramped apartment versus her sprawling mansion, or his car getting repossessed because he can’t make the payments while she owns an expensive antique she barely even drives.
This dynamic creates a mutually dependent, symbiotic relationship– she needs his companionship in order to perpetuate her own delusions, and he needs her material fortune in order to stave off the complete collapse of his screenwriting dreams. This burgeoning “kept boy’ aspect of Gillis’ identity becomes a major source of internal conflict for him.
Their unconventional relationship is made all the more bizarre by the Hays Code’s disapproval of onscreen sexuality, but Wilder had built up a reputation for walking that fine moral line in increasingly-creative ways. SUNSET BOULEVARD is one of the rare instances where imposed censorship actually works in the film’s favor, wherein the simple implication (rather than a literal depiction) of a deviant sexual relationship actually enhances the unnerving tone Wilder was worked so hard to create.
SUNSET BOULEVARD marks the end of an era for Wilder, who decided to call it quits with his writing partner Charles Brackett after collaborating on seventeen screenplays together. Considering the strength and duration of their partnership, Wilder’s reasoning for separation arguably comes off as quite petty– the two had allegedly sparred over how to execute the montage sequence where Norma undergoes several extreme makeover procedures to prepare for what she expects will be her grand return to the silver screen. For what it’s worth, Wilder and Brackett’s final partnership would end on a high note, both critically and financially.
While the film had a healthy (if not groundbreaking) run at the box office, critics coalesced around a consensus that still holds firm today: that SUNSET BOULEVARD is a stone cold masterpiece. Despite being a damning self-portrait of Hollywood and “The Dream Factory”, SUNSET BOULEVARD was widely embraced by industry tastemakers, going on to several Academy Award nominations in key categories like Best Original Screenplay, Music Art Direction, Cinematography, Supporting & Lead Actor and Actress, Direction, and Picture.
Wilder and Brackett’s last joint screenplay would go on to win the Oscar, as would Waxman’s score and Dreier’s production design. While SUNSET BOULEVARD would ultimately lose out to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) for the top prize, Wilder’s effort was recognized with a far greater reward when it was among the first group of films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1989.
Wilder’s filmography consists of numerous iconic classics, but SUNSET BOULEVARD towers over all of them as his defining work. To put it another way, it is the cornerstone of his legacy as a filmmaker. Whereas many films from this era are regarded today as relics, SUNSET BOULEVARD stands instead as a monument to the twentieth century’s dominant art form, beckoning a whole new generation to come try their luck at living the dream in the City of Angels.
ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)
Since his Hollywood debut with 1942’s THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, director Billy Wilder had steadily built of a filmography of ever-increasing excellence, culminating in 1950 with what’s come to be regarded as his supreme achievement, SUNSET BOULEVARD. However, no director– not even one of Wilder’s stature– is immune to the fickle nature of both the audience and the critics.
The year 1951 saw Wilder release his follow-up to SUNSET BOULEVARD, a misanthropic portrait of journalism’s inherent ugliness laid bare: ACE IN THE HOLE. Perhaps the film’s subject matter cut a little too close to comfort for critics, as they widely panned Wilder’s bracing vision and advanced their own self-interest by using their public platform to scare off any sort of sizable audience (thus validating Wilder’s cynical thesis).
Efforts to rebrand the film with a title change also proved unsuccessful, and for a long time, ACE IN THE HOLE languished in obscurity until a new generation of cinephiles uncovered the treasures contained within.
The script for ACE IN THE HOLE – written by Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman– was inspired by two real-life events in which someone’s entrapment caused a media sensation, but it’s also informed by Wilder’s own direct experience as a journalist in Berlin during the 1920’s. The story concerns Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a tough-as-nails journalist with an abrasive working style that’s garnered him a lot of unfavor with the big papers back East.
He’s washed out into the arid desert town of Alburquerque, New Mexico, where he’s managed to talk his way into a gig with the local newspaper at a fraction of the price he used to command. After nearly a year spent languishing in limbo, Tatum’s big break finally arrives in the form of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a local miner who’s managed to trap himself deep under a mountain.
Bad luck for Leo, but divine intervention for Tatum– this type of story usually generates a media frenzy, and he’s got the exclusive scoop. A huge crowd immediately descends upon the site, drawn in by Tatum’s calculated reporting. The longer this story runs, and the more suspense that builds, the more valuable Tatum’s stock becomes.
Because nothing– not even basic human empathy– will stop him from exploiting this story for all its worth, Tatum sabotages all rescue efforts so as to delay Leo’s extrication from the mine for as long as possible (risking Leo’s death in the process). Meanwhile, he also finds himself grappling with other townspeople looking out for their own self-interest: Leo’s jaded wife (Jan Sterling), who sees Leo’s entrapment as a clean exit from her unhappy marriage, and the town sheriff (Ray Teal), a corrupt lawman up for re-election.
ACE IN THE HOLE would be the boldest film in any director’s career, putting human misery and suffering up on display and charging you a quarter a pop for the privilege. In Wilder’s hands, however, the film becomes truly arresting– a prescient prediction of the wolfish, spectacle-obsessed and screaming-headline 24-hour news cycle that dominates our current landscape. ACE IN THE HOLE remains just as relevant today as the day it was released.
Kirk Douglas brings his typical barnstorming, scenery-chewing style of performance to ACE IN THE HOLE, subverting his reputation as a lantern-jawed and virtuous leading man with an undercurrent of arrogance and contempt. Douglas’ bravery here is commendable, as he commits wholeheartedly to his character’s serpentine brutalism.
The DNA of modern antiheroes like Don Draper, Frank Underwood and Walter White is vested within Tatum, the grandfather of irresistibly-unlikeable protagonists. As it stands, Tatum is far from the only despicable character within ACE IN THE HOLE– he’s complemented by a veritable rogue’s gallery of self-centered opportunists, weak pushovers and oblivious rubberneckers.
Jan Sterling plays Lorraine Minosa, Leo’s bleach-blonde wife, as a delicate creature made tough and cynical by the unforgiving landscape around her. She may not be all too sophisticated or glamorous, but she’s every inch the femme fatale type that Wilder has featured in his previous work. Robert Arthur plays Herbie Cook, a fresh-faced photographer who’s easily seduced by Tatum’s hustling, take-no-prisoners approach to journalism.
Ray Teal’s Sheriff Gus Kreitzer is hopelessly corrupt, willing to shamelessly leverage the media circus for his own political gain. Porter Hall plays Jacob Boot, the Albuquerque newspaper editor whose small-town, teetotaler values are entirely ineffectual against Tatum. Frank Cady represents a disdainful reflection of the audience itself as the Okie tourist Al Federber, who jostles for the best viewpoint from which to uselessly gawk at the commotion.
Really, the only decent person in the entire film is the one at the center of it all– the trapped Leo Minosa, played by Richard Benedict. However, even he is not spared Wilder’s contemptuous wrath. His decency and innocence makes him a fool; painfully oblivious to his wife’s contempt for him as well as Tatum’s empty promises of salvation. He’s the only character in the film that actually trusts anybody, yet this is a character flaw for which he pays the ultimate price.
Wilder’s belief in the primacy of the script over the visuals often translates to non-showy, utilitarian cinematography, butACE IN THE HOLE’s visual presentation is highly expressive indeed. The film pursues something of an epic scale, matched only by his previous war films FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943) and A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948).
Towards this end, Wilder recruits the latter’s cinematographer, Charles Lang, to artfully constrain New Mexico’s sprawling desert vistas and colors within the 1.37:1 35mm black-and-white film frame. Deprived of both a wide canvas and color photography (both of which existed then but had yet to become ubiquitous or cost-friendly), Lang had only light at his disposal– but like any cinematographer worth his salt, light was the only tool he needed.
ACE IN THE HOLE enjoys a dubious distinction as a film noir set in a place where the blinding sun and open expanse chokes out any shadows that might gather. Wilder and Lang render the dusty, arid environs in blinding, almost-overexposed highlights, emphasizing just how little shelter there is to be found. What little shelter there is– Tatum’s dingy quarters, the ramshackle general store, the labyrinthine mine– allows for the shadowy, low-key lighting scheme typically found in the noir genre.
Wilder uses these interiors to add texture to the light itself, filtering it through various architectural details and shapes instead of letting it simply fall upon the action unrestricted. With the cavern mine sequences, light pools into concentrated shafts surrounded by inky, impenetrable darkness– forming something of an expressionistic dreamscape that reflects Tatum’s own twisted interior state the further he descends (2). The allegory is clear: his quest to scoop the story of a lifetime is digging him into a hole he won’t be able to climb out of.
As far as Wilder’s technical craftsmanship as a director goes, ACE IN THE HOLE exhibits a noticeable degree of growth and willingness to step outside his comfort zone. As an artist whose own personal zeitgeist coincided with the golden age of glossy studio filmmaking, Wilder preferred the control of a soundstage over the chaotic realism of location shooting.
The mostly-exteriors action of ACE IN THE HOLE necessitates Wilder’s venturing out into the field and the embrace of environmental factors he can’t control. In return, he is able to capture a vibrant and dynamic sense of immersion that simply can’t be replicated on a studio set. The scale is almost epic, especially during the crowded carnival scenes where Wilder shows us just how out of control Tatum’s grip on the situation is.
His camera moves appropriately to his scope, utilizing sweeping dollies and cranes to match his endless vistas, yet is still motivated primarily by character. Wilder’s highly-disciplined style of filmmaking dictates that he sets up his shots to cover as much movement and story as possible. In Annie Tresgot’s 1980 documentary PORTRAIT OF A “60% PERFECT MAN”, Wilder sums up his reasoning for this approach thusly: “anytime you move the camera, it’s a loss of time”.
This no-nonsense philosophy might seem old-fashioned to some (especially in our current climate of cinematic excess), but Wilder’s natural talent as a director infuses his simplistic setups with a profound power and resonance that’s sorely lacking in modern Hollywood’s sensory-overload style. To achieve this, Wilder covers most of his scenes in wide masters, emphasizing depth via careful composition and deep focus.
More so than his previous features to date, he uses close-ups more frequently here, and thus underscores the sense of entrapment inherent in both the narrative plot as well as Tatum’s tunnel vision. ACE IN THE HOLE serves as a sterling example of Wilder’s legacy as one of our greatest economical storytellers, a prominent practitioner of what I like to call “muscular minimalism”.
ACE IN THE HOLE sees Wilder fully in command of his crew’s service to his desired tone. Every artistic choice and opportunity– from Edith Head’s rough-hewn costumes to Hugo Friedhofer’s brassy score– is dialed into Wilder’s vision with a laser-like degree of precision. The cynical, misanthropic bent of his approach is consistent from end to end of the production.
It’s already present in the screenplay (see Sterling’s bullseye-on-tone line, “I don’t go to church, kneeling bags my nylons”), and sustains all the way through to the little finishing touches (like the trivializing of Leo’s plight in the form of an insipid radio-friendly country ballad about him and performed mere steps away from where he’s fighting to survive).
Wilder’s history with pushing the boundaries of what was considered “in good taste” for American cinematic narrative informs a world seemingly populated entirely by adulterers, liars, cheats, and self-interested opportunists. Perhaps Wilder is able to get away with it because he takes great care to show the consequences of his protagonists’ wicked actions.
Following the ill-fated antiheroes of DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and SUNSET BOULEVARD, Douglas’ Chuck Tatum is the third Wilder leading man whose pursuit of redemption is ultimately thwarted by his own self-destruction (2). Also like Wilder’s previous male protagonists, Tatum is a man whose identity is synonymous with his line of work.
He’s firmly middle-class, caught in a limbo state between the small, low-rent Albuquerque newspaper and the bigtime Gotham outfits. He may be on the downslope of his career, but the beauty of his transient state is that he can turn his luck right around and become a free agent, selling his exclusive services to the highest bidder.
This story aspect reflects that uniquely American narrative of governing your own destiny and breaking out of your social class by the force of sheer will and determination– an admittedly-idealistic perspective, to be sure, but one that was informed by Wilder’s own personal experience as an immigrant himself.
ACE IN THE HOLE doesn’t pull any punches in regards to its less-than-sunny disposition towards human nature. Wilder’s previous narrative risks had paid off fairly consistently, but here the general consensus at the time was that the well-respected director might have overstepped his bounds.
Despite earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and doing brisk business in Europe, the film opened with a reverberating thud in America– giving Wilder his first true taste of financial AND critical failure. In a bid to salvage the sinking ship, studio executives took the film away from Wilder and re-released it under a new title – “THE BIG CARNIVAL”– without his consent (and in the process, ironically proving that they missed the whole point of his message).
ACE IN THE HOLE languished for decades under its new, bastardized title, and it would take a cultural reappraisal spurred on by frequent broadcasts on the Turner Classic Movies channel for the film to reclaim its original title. The ultimate irony of art is that, while it is a trade that prizes spontaneity and the ability to capture the essence of the present moment, a given work’s true quality can only be assessed in hindsight, removed from the context of its time. In this case, it took audiences more than a generation to catch on to what Wilder already knew– that ACE IN THE HOLE was one of his best works.
STALAG 17 (1953)
There’s a case to be made that director Billy Wilder is the pre-eminent filmmaker of the twentieth century (albeit an assertion that can be challenged by any number of other, equally-superlative directors). The cornerstone of this claim is that the content and subject matter of Wilder’s work is fundamentally informed by the key social and historical movements of the American Century, the most influential of which being the human drama of World War II’s European Theater.
While he didn’t serve in combat operations, his heritage as an Austrian Jew placed him in the unenviable position of having to flee his homeland during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, and subsequently losing members of his family to the dictator’s horrific concentration camps. Most of his films– even the crowd-pleasing comedies– bear the psychological scars of this era.
When he chose to tackle the conflict head on, in films like FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943) or A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948), his sharply-honed wit was at its most incisive.
By 1953, America had already moved on from the conflict and prospered in peacetime, only to entangle itself in another conflict– The Korean War. But back home, our collective consciousness was still grappling with the psychological fallout, still fighting long-concluded battles in the forum of pop culture.
Having just come off the sobering disappointment of his 1951 film ACE IN THE HOLE, Wilder found himself in New York City, taking in a play called “Stalag 17”. Written by real-life POWs Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, the play chose to depict the conditions of Nazi prison camps from a humorous perspective– a decision that struck a chord with Wilder.
Realizing that the story would make for a great film, Wilder acquired the rights and set about adapting the play for the screen with Edwin Blum. The resulting film, STALAG 17, would produce yet another hit for the perennial awards-favorite director while restoring the luster he lost amidst ACE IN THE HOLE’s unfavorable reception.
Like the play upon which it’s based, STALAG 17 takes place in the titular Nazi POW camp located deep in the Austrian countryside. American soldiers that have been captured alive are gathered here, languishing in wait for war’s end. Wilder establishes the conditions via a particularly meta voiceover from a minor character named Cookie (Gil Stratton).
Cookie knows he’s narrating a film, beginning by bemoaning how tired he is of seeing movies about combat operations and expressing his desire to see more stories about prisoners of war. The titular Stalag 17 has divided the prison population into individual barracks according to rank– a curious move that destroys the disciplined hierarchy of the military establishment, making it so that no man can pull rank over another another.
In the bunkhouse assigned to American sergeants, the prisoners deduce that there’s a spy in their midst after two of their own are ambushed and shot dead during an escape attempt gone awry. The unity these men should be feeling as brothers-in-arms is suddenly compromised by their open suspicion and hostility of each other.
The bulk of the suspicion falls squarely on Sgt. JJ Sefton (William Holden), a loner who isn’t well-liked by the others on account that he’s chosen to cooperate with the Nazis for his own self-gain. At the same time, an Air Force pilot named Lt. James Dunbar (Don Taylor) has been brought into the camp under charges of sabotage. Dunbar faces certain death if the men don’t help him escape, but in order to do so successfully, they’ll need to find the snitch.
If he’s going to uphold his commitment to the Allied cause, Sgt Sefton realizes he must actively help his fellow prisoners figure out the true identity of the barracks spy in order to save Dunbar’s life.
STALAG 17 re-teams Wilder with his SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) star William Holden, who would go on to win the Academy Award he felt he deserved from the last time they worked together. Holden’s Sgt. JJ Sefton is clearly meant to be the everyman protagonist, but his characterization operates slightly askance, standing firm by his own individualistic code even when he’s disliked for it.
The character is quietly arrogant and stubborn, interested only in his own self-advancement. His disregard for his fellow prisoners is callous and unsympathetic, but it’s ultimately what makes his final transformation towards helping Lt. Dunbar so affecting. Wilder knew the emotional payoff of his story depended on this dynamic, so he repeatedly rebuffed Holden’s attempts to make the character more likable.
This intention to fly in the face of studio convention is further signified in Don Taylor’s casting as the captured Air Force officer, Lt. James Dunbar. Taylor effortlessly embodies the part of a virile, masculine hero with movie-star looks– indeed, if STALAG 17 were made by anyone else, Taylor’s Dunbar might very well be the central protagonist rather than a supporting co-star.
While the crux of STALAG 17’s denouement may revolve around him, Taylor’s character is ultimately a narrative device that enables the fulfillment of Holden’s own emotional trajectory.
In keeping with his tradition of casting other Austrian film directors in minor roles (see Erich Von Stroheim’s appearance in SUNSET BOULEVARD and FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO), Wilder casts director Otto Preminger as the commander of Stalag 17, Oberst Von Scherbach. Von Sherbach is a cheery tyrant who delights in the misery of his charges, all the while taunting them with patronizingly optimistic platitudes.
Preminger (who was already well-known for playing Nazis in other films) excels in the role– an ironic notion considering how uneasy he, a fellow Austrian Jew like Wilder, was with the whole idea. Von Sherbach’s most valuable ally in the camp is the man who is eventually revealed to be the barracks spy, played by Peter Graves.
An undercover Nazi who easily passes for the blonde, All-American type, Graves goes by the assumed name Sgt. Frank Price, aggressively leading the witch hunt for the snitch in a bid to cover his own tracks. His deception is brilliant and disciplined, and he’s only revealed to be a spy when he lets slip a crucial inconsistency about the timing of Pearl Harbor.
A motley crew of character actors fill out Wilder’s supporting cast, with Robert Strauss’ boar-ish performance as Animal– a prisoner possessed of a debilitating obsession with Betty Grable– given a nod by the Academy in the Best Supporting Actor race. Harvey Lembeck plays Sgt. Harry Shapiro, a fast-talking wiseguy who forms the other half of the barrack’s jester court along with Animal. Finally, Richard Erdman and Neville Brand put in notable performances as Hoffy the barracks chief and a greasy hothead named Duke, respectively.
STALAG 17 marks Wilder’s first and only collaboration with Oscar-winning cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, who slings some palpable grit and grime onto Wilder’s otherwise unadorned 1.37:1 35mm film image. While Wilder’s films aren’t necessarily noted for their visual style, they’re usually of impeccable craftsmanship and quality.
STALAG 17 is no different, with Wilder’s expressive noir-inspired lighting setup maximizing the black-and-white format’s potential for stark, monochromatic beauty. His visual approach is always in service to the performers, and his compositions reflect this in their muscular economy. In STALAG 17, Wilder covers the action primarily with masters that rely on strategic ensemble staging, deep focus, and motivated camera movement instead of simply cutting to close-ups and other types of coverage.
Notably, Wilder made the unconventional choice to shoot the film in sequence– a decision that, together with withholding the last few pages of script from the cast, maintained the secrecy of the plot twist throughout production and allowed for more-realistic expressions of surprise when it came time to shoot the big scene.
Wilder’s scheduling of the shoot in this manner is indicative of the priority he placed on writing and performance, but the decision is also reinforced by his preference for the controlled conditions of a studio set. Towards this end, STALAG 17 was filmed on Paramount soundstages, while a ranch in Calabasas stood in for the rural Austrian exteriors.
Production designers Hal Pereira and Franz Bachelin were able to replicate the grimy, muddy conditions of POW camps on the soundstages, reportedly to such a degree of detail that executives became extremely uneasy about how it might impact the film’s financial prospects.
A few familiar faces round out the rest of Wilder’s key department heads, including mentor Doane Harrison supervising an edit by George Tomasini, and composer Franz Waxman, who turns in an appropriately militaristic score comprised of horns, snare drums, and frequent reprisals of the folk hymn “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”.
Whereas many directors of the era were considered pioneers for their innovations in visual style, Wilder chose instead to blaze trails with the content of his narratives. Just as he established the conventions of film noir with 1944’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY, so too did STALAG 17 formalize the tropes of the midcentury POW film– a subgenre that would later claim such iconic films as THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963).
Despite his relatively straightforward visual aesthetic, Wilder’s barbed wit distinguished him from his peers, affording him the courage to transcend genre by mixing various styles into something new. Before STALAG 17 came along, the idea of a comedy about prisoners of war was almost unthinkable, and it is precisely the story’s sense of humor that gives it humanity and emotional resonance.
The coping mechanisms we use to endure hardship on the level of the day-to-day ultimately speaks volumes more about the human experience than simply putting on a pageant of misery and despair. STALAG 17 also speaks to Wilder’s personal artistic preoccupations, continuing his career-long exploration of men as defined by their professions.
This conceit naturally lends itself to surface fascinations with uniforms– particularly, the utilitarian designs employed by militaries. Even within the homogeneity of army uniforms, there’s class systems at play: grunts on the ground are issued unglamorous fatigues fit for fighting and manual labor, while officers appear comparatively regal in starched suits often festooned with medals and ribbons.
Wilder’s work is always tangling with class conflict– when he isn’t detailing the plight of the middle-class common man in films like DOUBLE INDEMNITY or THE APARTMENT (1960), he’s pitting the rich and the poor against each other. STALAG 17 is a prime example of the latter conceit, drawing a stark contrast against the grimy, starving prisoners and their well-fed, warmly-dressed captors.
Finally, Wilder’s depiction of these Nazi overlords alludes to his own victimhood under their reign– like the bumbling, buffoonish Germans found in A FOREIGN AFFAIR, the antagonists of STALAG 17 are painted as misguided fools ripe for mockery. This could be read as an understandable indulgence on Wilder’s part, using his film work as an outlet to work out his aggressions in the absence of an ability to physically confront those who devastated his family and his homeland.
STALAG 17, like many of Wilder’s previous films, was an immediate financial and critical success, netting the venerated director yet another round of Oscar nominations for his producing and directing. Even today, the film is remembered as one of the greats within his filmography; an entry that finds Wilder operating at the top of his form.
In this respect, STALAG 17doesn’t actually offer much in the way of Wilder’s artistic growth: he’s re-treading familiar narrative and thematic ground without coming to any new discoveries. STALAG 17’s legacy within Wilder’s canon is akin to treading water– but in the best possible meaning of the phrase.
That being said, STALAG 17 does mark the beginning of the end for a distinct era in Wilder’s career: his partnership with Paramount, which extended all the way back to his first American feature THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR in 1942. Via a series of missteps and errors in judgment, the studio inadvertently and repeatedly bungled their relationship with him during production.
For starters, they held STALAG 17 back from release for over a year, intimidated by the thought that audiences would find the film’s setting unfavorable. When they did finally release the film, it was as an exploitation picture– denied the “prestige film” treatment that had been accorded to his previous films (1).
Combine that with some executives’ insensitivity to Wilder’s familial losses during World War 2, and their forcing him to give up his personal share of STALAG 17’s profits to help recoup the financial losses from ACE IN THE HOLE, and it’s no wonder that Wilder’s taste for the business relationship was beginning to sour (1).
He’d hang on for another year, making one last feature (1954’s SABRINA) for the studio while he ran out the remainder of his contract. In the long run, Wilder’s dramatic exit from his longtime base of operations would amount to a mere bump in the road– his momentum was simply too fast to be derailed. Indeed, his sights were set to the horizon ahead, where many more iconic works were still waiting to be made.
As a director, Billy Wilder was instinctively drawn to stories that subscribed to that distinctly American conceit: that whatever class you’re born into, you always have the innate power to better your station in life. Wilder himself was living proof, working his way up from a lowly European refugee to one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the United States.
His best works concern the aspirations of the middle class, be it the starving Hollywood screenwriter of SUNSET BOULEVARD(1950), the calculating insurance salesman of DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), or the put-upon office drone of THE APARTMENT (1960). Shortly after the reinvigorating success of 1953’s STALAG 17– a film that found Wilder taking a break from his study of contemporary American life to further grapple with the lingering specter of World War 2– he was back in theatres with an altogether different comedy of class distinction.
This film was SABRINA (1954), notable for its bewitching performance by fledgling starlet Audrey Hepburn, as well as its look at a bygone social era at the start of its decline.
Adapted by Wilder and Samuel Taylor from Taylor’s play of the same name (and further refined by writer Ernest Lehman when Wilder’s rigorously collaborative nature burned Taylor out), SABRINA is an old-fashioned romantic comedy about misplaced infatuation and rigid social constructs. A fairytale-style voiceover by Hepburn as the titular Sabrina Fairchild introduces us to Glen Cove, a small hamlet located along the Old Money haven of Long Island’s Gold Coast.
The daughter of a prim and proper chauffeur, Sabrina has spent her life on the sprawling estate of the Larrabee family, a veritable dynasty of high-powered industrial tycoons. She’s grown up watching their lavish parties and glamorous balls from afar, pining for the rakish scion David Larrabbee (William Holden) and dreaming of the day he’ll realize that she exists.
Her father (John Williams) takes pity on the poor girl and sends her away to cooking school in Paris, where she subsequently blossoms into a confident and cultured young woman. Upon her return home to Glen Cove after two years abroad, she finds her transformation has the intended effect on David, who suddenly can’t seem to get enough of her despite his engagement to the heiress of a plastics empire.
Unbeknownst to Sabrina, David’s impending marriage was engineered by older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) as part of a massive business deal that would inflate their fortunes ever higher. Sensing that David’s romance with Sabrina could derail the whole operation, he takes advantage of a happenstance injury that sidelines David and inserts himself into the equation with Sabrina by taking her out on David’s behalf.
During their time together, Linus attempts to sabotage the relationship and manipulate Sabrina into moving back to Paris– but what he doesn’t count on is falling in love with Sabrina himself. Before he even realizes it, Linus becomes caught up in a passionate love triangle that will force him to choose between his affections for Sabrina or his commitment to the Larrabbee corporation’s bottom line.
SABRINA arguably boasts one of the finest casts ever assembled for a Wilder film, headlined by Hepburn in a role that would boost her celebrity considerably. Her ethereal, almost-alien physicality is effortlessly beguiling, convincingly reflecting her character’s artistic sensitivity and dreamy lovesickness. The role of Sabrina would turn Hepburn into an international fashion icon, thanks in large part to costumes designed by French couture icon Hubert de Givenchy and legendary film costumer Edith Head (who won an Oscar for her work here).
However, to focus solely on Hepburn’s sartorial contributions to SABRINA does a disservice to her larger efforts in redefining the rags-to-riches/Cinderella archetype for the twentieth century Hepburn’s petit, waifish charms stood in stark contrast to the buxom blondes of Hollywood’s golden era, providing an alternative role model for young women around the world while broadening the conversation about modern femininity in pop culture.
Silver screen icon Humphrey Bogart delivers one of his final performances as Linus Larrabee, the heir to the Larrabbee industrial fortune. Known primarily for gangster pictures and hard-edged noir types, SABRINA marks a distinct deviation from the norm for old Bogie– requiring him to play it straight as a humorless businessman married to his career.
While his performance is remembered fondly by audiences, he was reportedly unhappy throughout production– he thought he was utterly wrong for the part, he couldn’t stand his co-stars, and he resented the thought of being Wilder’s backup choice to the director’s initial pick, Cary Grant. For what it’s worth, Bogie’s simmering acrimony for Holden in particular makes for a convincingly tense sibling rivalry.
In his third of several performances for Wilder, Holden went blonde to play the mischievous playboy and object of Sabrina’s infatuation, David Larrabbee. A three-time divorcee about to embark on his fourth marriage, David lives a fast-paced life of leisure– slowing only to lust over the beautiful women like Sabrina who cross his path. Interestingly enough, Holden and Hepburn’s natural chemistry gave way to a real-life, albeit short-lived, romance during the film’s making.
Holden’s creative chemistry with Wilder is also palpable, having worked frequently with the director throughout the early 1950’s. SABRINAwould be the last collaboration between the two for thirty four years, until 1978 would find them back together again on the director’s late-career feature, FEDORA.
Of SABRINA’s supporting cast, veteran character actors John Williams and Walter Hampden stand out– the former as the aforementioned Larrabee family chauffeur and Sabrina’s father, and the latter as the perpetually-sauced Larrabee patriarch. Both men frown upon the union of Sabrina to either Larrabee boy, but alas they are nothing but the stubborn old guard refusing to give way to the new.
SABRINA’s cinematography and visual presentation is fairly consistent with Wilder’s established utilitarian aesthetic, thanks to the director’s third collaboration with Charles Lang (who previously shot ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) and FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948).). By shooting on 35mm black and white film in the 1.75:1 aspect ratio, Wilder demonstrates a firm grasp in widescreen compositions for the first time.
SABRINA is a sterling example of the high-gloss, soft-focus American studio film of the romantic Golden Era, with a polished, high-contrast lighting scheme dialed to precision thanks to the control afforded by Wilder’s preference for shooting on soundstages. Wilder makes full use of his frame’s expanded real estate, building upon his unadorned, workman-like aesthetic with a much livelier technical approach that incorporates sweeping dolly and crane movements as well as static compositions that emphasize depth of focus.
While Wilder’s philosophy towards camera movement is conventionally identified by his restraint, he acquiesces somewhat to SABRINA’s demand for regal treatment– infusing the narrative with a sweeping romanticism at odds with the observational misanthropy of his previous work. For the most part, Wilder continues his employment of the in-camera cutting techniques impressed on him by mentor Doane Harrison, but his approach for SABRINA deviates in that Wilder supplied himself with more coverage than usual.
As such, Wilder and editing partner Arthur P. Schmidt cut between setups more frequently than they have before, infusing the film with a brisk pace. SABRINA’s lighter-than-air tone is complemented by composer Frederick Hollander’s romantic score, which adapts Edith Piaf’s seminal song “La Vie En Rose” in orchestral, anthemic fashion.
Wilder’s character as a writer was shaped by his barbed sense of humor, and SABRINA is full of little moments that highlight this aspect of his artistic identity. Take, for instance, the sequence at the beginning of the film where the lovesick Sabrina’s suicide attempts are foiled in increasingly humorous ways. It takes a true rapier wit to effortlessly stick the landing on such a complex, loaded joke.
His adoption of English as a second language gave Wilder an appreciation for the nuances and peculiarities of the tongue that us Americans take for granted, affecting his writing with an earthy theatricality and idiosyncratic cadence. Just as Wilder delighted in picking apart the absurdities of the English language, so too did he expend lavish attention on the absurdities of daily American life.
The typical Wilder protagonist is a cog in the wheel of industrial modernity, usually caught up in a moment of enlightenment that allows him or her to stand apart as an individual. A common trajectory emerges, charting the protagonist’s self-identification as he grows from defining himself by his occupation to a new definition that imbues him with value as a principled individual.
This is certainly the case withSABRINA’s three leads: Linus’ cold pragmatism reinforces his status as a titan of industry, Sabrina’s artistic sensitivities are manifest in her career as a gourmet cook educated in France, and David’s inability to commit on an emotional level is signified by his total disdain for work of any kind.
Wilder visually reinforces this idea in his films with the use of uniforms, evidenced in SABRINA with the plain frocks worn by the help, Thomas Fairchild’s starched chauffeur suits, and even the elegant white dinner jackets donned by the Gold Coast’s aristocratic leisure class.
The iconography of uniforms is an effective shorthand for the most central of Wilder’s artistic conceits: class distinctions and conflict. SABRINA’s gilded setting naturally opens the door for Wilder to indulge in further explorations of the subject from the perspective of a poor outsider looking in.
This degree of remove allows Wilder to make astute observations about the nature of class and privilege via the avatar of his characters, a notable instance being when the chauffeur describes the invisible constructs of class interaction to Sabrina: “there’s a front seat and a back seat… and a window in between”. Wilder then proceeds to position Sabrina as the very reflection of midcentury American ideals: someone gifted with the ability to pass through that window with ease; someone able to transcend the trappings of the caste she was born into and reinvent herself in any number of ways.
SABRINA finds Wilder working in top form once again, having built himself back up after the disappointment of ACE IN THE HOLE and the modest success of STALAG 17. The release of the film marked the end of his longstanding contract with Paramount– after the personal slights he endured at the hands of the studio during the making of STALAG 17, he elected not to renew their partnership.
Despite the bad blood, Wilder certainly left Paramount with a hell of a parting gift: one last financial and critical hit, not to mention to the prestigious windfall from a slew of Oscar nominations for Wilder’s screenplay and direction, Hepburn’s performance, Lang’s cinematography, Walter H. Tyler and Hal Pereira’s production design, and Head’s costumes.
It would be further honored in 2002, when it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. A seminal work in Wilder’s filmography, SABRINA offers us yet another glimpse of the legendary director in his wheelhouse, commanding iconic performances from his stellar cast while effortlessly conjuring up some of the most unforgettable moments in cinematic history. Simply put, SABRINA is pure movie magic of the highest order– an effervescent piece of pop entertainment executed with class, wit, and vision.
THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955)
The 1950’s and 60’s in American history are generally regarded as a time that saw a great loosening of sexual mores. While the era of free love and casual sex wouldn’t be ushered in until the very late 60’s, anyone who participated in pop culture during the post-war era would have definitely noticed that the conversation about the sex lives of modern Americans was becoming increasingly louder.
Indeed, some of the most iconic images from the 20th century were inherently sexual; the kiss between a sailor and a woman in Times Square on V-J Day. John Lennon’s nude embrace of Yoko Ono. Marilyn Monroe’s skirt flying up while she stands over a subway grate. Each one a firm rebuke to American society’s puritanical hangups about intimacy and sexual desire.
In the years and centuries prior, entire institutions had been erected to protect ourselves from… well, ourselves– using their bully pulpits to impose narrow-minded values in the name of civic stability. One such institution was the Motion Picture Production Code, better known as “The Hays Code” and established in 1930 to police American studio pictures and ensure the promotion of good Christian ideals.
While the Code wouldn’t officially end until 1968, the image of Monroe’s porcelain legs peeking out from underneath a billowing white dress effectively dealt a killing blow to the Code when it was captured in 1955. It’s appropriate, then, that the man behind this image was someone who had spent the better part of his career laying siege to the Hays Code’s ramparts, blasting his way through with increasingly-risque storylines carefully engineered for mass pop appeal.
This image, arguably the most iconic photograph of the most iconic screen actress to ever live, is taken from a centerpiece scene in Billy Wilder’s feature film, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955). Based on George Axelrod’s Broadway play of the same name, Wilder’s follow-up to his successful 1954 effort, SABRINA, sees Monroe in peak form delivering one of her most famous performances as an unwitting seductress.
A title that refers to the supposed yearning of middle-aged men to stray from the confines of monogamy, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH had initially been set up at Paramount, but when Wilder dumped his contract with the studio, he and co-producer Charles K. Feldman found a new home for the project with Twentieth Century Fox.
The film is set in New York City in the summer– a season so humid and sweltering that many husbands send their wives and children out into the country to escape the misery. They paint themselves as martyrs who must stay home and endure the heat so as to continue providing for their families, conveniently neglecting to mention the fact that it also frees them up to indulge in extramarital affairs with reckless abandon.
Mild-mannered publisher Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) is most certainly not one of these jackals, or so he tells himself as he settles in for a quiet summer of clean living and productivity. That plan goes out the window (quite literally) when he inadvertently meets the beautiful blonde (Monroe) subletting the upstairs apartment for the summer.
Sherman can’t help but invite her down to his apartment for an innocent drink– a move that will cause him to spend the next few days lusting feverishly after her, manipulating their interactions to optimize his seduction efforts while trying to quell his conscience by convincing himself that his wife might be sneaking around on him.
Sherman may think he’s a smooth operator when it comes to women, but this girl has him worked up into a paranoid frenzy that he can barely control. Will he stay true to his wife, or will he succumb to the Seven-Year Itch? And if he does, will he be able to keep anyone from finding out?
Having originated the role on Broadway, Tom Ewell is a natural fit as the nebbish, paranoid protagonist, Richard Sherman. A self-professed “family man”, Sherman’s the very picture of the American male’s midlife crisis– his masculinity and virility is constantly challenged on both the outside (by his wife (Evelyn Keyes) and her emasculating taunts), and the inside (heartburn and indigestion fits giving rise to nervous breakdowns).
Despite his possession of an awkward charm that reads as endearing and sweet, Sherman comes from a long line of narcissistic Wilder protagonists, exploiting their natural talents for not-always virtuous gains. He may not have much in the way of moral scruples, but at least he has a name– Monroe’s character is credited only as The Girl, a move that establishes her firmly within the realm of archetype.
She exists not as a singular individual, but as a blank slate upon which to project the ultimate midcentury male’s fantasy– blonde, buxom, bubbly, consistently agreeable, and completely oblivious to her own sexual power. Viewing the film in modern times, it’s hard not to see Monroe’s characterization as one-dimensional and indicative of the era’s institutional misogyny.
The role doesn’t require much of her, and would look exceedingly generic on paper– so why, then, is it one of her most memorable performances? Billowing skirts and naked legs aside, perhaps it’s precisely because of that “blank slate” nature of the character; an empty canvas upon which Monroe’s enigmatic essence can imprint itself.
Monroe’s performance is simply effortless, a result made all the more impressive considering personal problems like her worsening substance abuse and crumbling marriage to Joe DiMaggio were overshadowing her ability to remember her lines. THE SEVEN YEAR ITCHlargely revolves around the seduction tango of these two leads, but the film also includes a memorable appearance bySTALAG 17’s Robert Strauss as Mr. Kruhulik, a boarish janitor with impeccably awful timing.
THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH’s cinematography immediately differentiates itself from Wilder’s previous work in several key ways. The 35mm film is presented in vibrant Technicolor and Cinemascope, which provides an ultra-wide 2.55:1 canvas. Only Wilder’s second film shot in color (1948’s THE EMPEROR WALTZ being the first), he would have shot it in the black-and-white format that he preferred, but in casting Monroe he had to comply with a mandate in her contract with Twentieth Century Fox that decreed all her films be shot in color.
Wilder’s previous film, SABRINA, was his first brush with widescreen photography, and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH further pushes the boundaries of the frame with its anamorphic Cinemascope presentation, necessitating a substantial adjustment in how he composes the frame. As a director who values the primacy of writing above all else, Wilder’s work doesn’t exactly lend itself to eye candy, but THE SEVEN YEAR ITCHlabors to orient itself as exactly that.
Working with a new cinematographer in the form of Milton R. Krasner, Wilder foregoes the shadowy chiaroscuro of his monochromatic work in favor of candy-coated pastels and bright, even lighting of the kind one would see employed for a live stage show. Indeed, the film comes across as very theatrical, taking place mostly on the Sherman apartment set designed by art directors Lyle R. Wheeler and George W. Davis.
THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH further distances itself from Wilder’s utilitarian aesthetic by incorporating double exposures and various other abstractions within the frame to signify the onset of Sherman’s paranoia episodes. Wilder’s approach infuses the film with a great deal of manic energy, the intensity of which is ably matched by Saul Bass’ inventive and artful title designs and a jaunty modern score by Alfred Newman featuring jazzy horns and xylophones.
The audiovisual presentation is so dramatically different from Wilder’s established aesthetic that one of the only technical signifiers of his authorship is the use of classical, motivated camera work to instead of hard cuts.
That being said, there’s no shortage of thematic and narrative cues to highlight Wilder’s presence here. His sharply self-aware sense of humor runs throughout the film, whether it’s a crack about Sherman daydreaming in the same aspect ratio that he’s currently framed within, or Sherman suggesting to his nosy neighbor that the blonde in his kitchen might as well be Marilyn Monroe, or even the staging of a fantasized confrontation between Sherman and his jilted wife like it were a scene from DOUBLE INDEMNITY.
This sense of playfulness generates a remarkable degree of levity in his depiction of decidedly hot-button topics like marital infidelity or feverish lust, an approach that had up until this point allowed him to skirt by the Hays Code censors relatively unscathed.
However, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH sees Wilder’s luck finally running out; Sherman and the Girl ultimately have sex in the original stage play, but the Hays Office representatives that Wilder was forced to install on his set mandated the watering-down of their consummation to a relatively-chaste peck on the lips.
Despite the severe neutering of Wilder’s vision by the domineering Hays Code, Wilder is nonetheless able to convey the new world that Americans found themselves as they entered the back-half of the twentieth century: a world where sex could be casual and carefree. Society’s collective “letting down of their hair” is reflected in the lack of uniforms in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, notable because their ubiquity in earlier Wilder films was one of his calling cards.
Gone are the stuffy monochromatic suits for the men, replaced by casual, colorful duds that reflect the individuality of their wearer. Monroe is the only character whose wardrobe suggests a uniform, and even then her all-white evening dresses and bathrobes reinforce her character’s blank, archetypical qualities rather than signify her class status or profession.
Wilder’s career-long exploration of man’s identification with his chosen occupation is visible within THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, albeit at an oblique angle. A great deal of screen time is allocated to Sherman’s career as a publishing executive, but unlike previous Wilder protagonists, his work is not the cause of his troubles.
Instead, Wilder’s interest lies in Sherman’s identification of himself as a man via his sex drive, and how it conflicts with the expectations of the chauvinistic institutions that support him. While this approach may not be a direct reflection of how Sherman’s career as a publishing executive shapes him as a man, it does adhere to another common through line in Wilder’s work: the trials and tribulations of the American middle class, of which the fading of traditional masculine ideals was (and still is) a topic of fervent interest.
Given Wilder’s penchant for effortlessly churning out crowd-pleasing hits and Monroe’s stratospheric celebrity, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH’s warm reception should have surprised approximately no one. Despite the film’s success, Wilder would later regret having made the film under the overbearing supervision of the Hays Code, citing that he wasn’t able to realize his vision to its fullest extent.
The film would go on to become one of Wilder’s most iconic works nonetheless, having endured through the decades not just because of the perpetual intrigue around Monroe as an essential icon of the twentieth century, but also because of the timeless appeal of Wilder’s craft.
His first film away from the studio he’d called home since 1942,THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH finds Wilder applying his razor-ship wit to a wider, more colorful worldview, and all the while valiantly breaking down cultural barriers so that other filmmakers could tell their stories without compromise.
THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS (1957)
Out of the countless world-changing innovations brought about in the last hundred years, the most transformative have been new technologies that serve to connect the disparate corners of the earth closer together. The internet springs to mind as the most immediate example, but despite its widespread availability in the 1990’s, it will play a much larger role in shaping our current century than it did the last.
For all its advances in the fields of medicine, warfare, technology, and culture, the course of the twentieth century was perhaps most fundamentally shaped by the advent of aviation. We often talk about the “miracle of flight”, expressing astonishment at the idea of lifting a multi-ton metal behemoth into the air and crossing vast distances in a matter of hours– not days.
This was a watershed moment in our understanding of the limits of mankind’s abilities, and it emboldened us to parlay this understanding into further innovations– reaching greater and greater heights until we had escaped the terrestrial bounds of the planet altogether. But before all this could happen, we needed a small group of daredevils and dreamers to (quite literally) launch themselves into the unknown.
In 1927, pilot Charles Lindbergh instantly became an iconic figure of the twentieth century by daring to make the first-ever solo transatlantic flight, navigating a nonstop route from New York to Paris. He detailed his harrowing, landmark experience in his 1953 autobiography, the film rights of which were inevitably snatched up by Warner Brothers.
The task of adapting Lindbergh’s account into a screenplay fell to Wendell Mayes and acclaimed film director Billy Wilder, hot off the success of 1955’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. While shot mostly during that same year, a series of production woes delayed the resulting film from wide release until 1957.
That year in particular was something of a monstrous one for the seasoned filmmaker– he had just hit a personal milestone in reaching 50 years of age, and would achieve a professional milestone in releasing three features in a single year. Wilder’s adaptation of Lindbergh’s historic flight, THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS, would be the first out of the gate, and while it climbed to soaring new heights in terms of the director’s artistic development, a poor showing at the box office would bring the whole thing crashing back to Earth.
THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS is almost exclusively focused on Lindbergh’s historic flight in 1927, save for a string of narrative detours that flash back to critical developments in his backstory. Wilder’s story fascinations lie singularly with the minutiae of his historic achievement, tracking how he navigated across the Atlantic with only a fold-out map, a pack of sandwiches, and the stars guiding him onwards to Europe.
This minimalistic approach– detailing the Herculean effort to overcome a singular challenge– generates a high degree of suspense (especially since we already know the outcome), and sets a narrative template that later streamlined thrillers like Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY (2013) would follow. Venerated screen icon James Stewart bleached his hair for the role of the courageously ambitious Charles “Slim” Lindbergh, a move that illustrates the exterior nature of his performance as required by the narrative.
Indeed, most of Stewart’s acting is entirely external– reacting to events outside his cramped tin can of a cabin while his inner monologue unfolds in the form of a near-constant voiceover. Wilder’s story clearly aims to paint Linderberg as the classical everyman hero, so the plucky, can-do nature of Stewart’s physicality seems to suggest a perfect fit.
While he’s ultimately effective in the role, one can’t escape the feeling that Stewart might be woefully miscast here– the least of reasons being that he’s a 50 year old man playing someone half his age. As such, Stewart reportedly had a difficult time shooting the film, and his performance ultimately took something of a beating from discerning critics (one of whom was apparently Lindbergh himself).
THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS continues the notable growth in cinematographic skills that Wilder established in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, delivering his second consecutive Cinemascope presentation in glorious 35mm Technicolor. THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH saw Wilder familiarizing himself with the new territory on either side of the frame, and the compositional lessons he learned there pay off here in spades.
Depth is still a compositional priority for Wilder, but THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS allows him to use the Cinemascope format’s advantages to their fullest, capturing gorgeous vistas and sprawling landscapes with a scope that’s nearly epic in proportion. Dual cinematographers Robert Bunks and J. Peverell Marley help Wilder achieve an earthy, industrial vibe, employing evocatively textured, high-contrast lighting setups that stand in stark opposition to the bright and even lighting seen previously in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH.
In its approach to montage and movement, THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS is a drastic departure from the minimalistic in-camera cutting techniques that Wilder had built his career on. He cedes significant territory to his editor Arthur P. Schmidt, who is able to generate a great deal of excitement and suspense with his quick pacing.
Whereas Wilder previously relied primarily on his master setups, supplementing them with motivated camera moves or strategically-placed coverage, THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS is comprised of flashy, almost-expressionistic edits. Take the New York takeoff sequence, for instance– one of the film’s big set pieces. As Lindbergh bombs down the runway, unsure if his plane will lift off before he runs out of muddy tarmac, Wilder and Schmidt evoke breathless suspense by intermixing quick cuts, dynamic camera motion, and extreme closeups.
Indeed, this 1957 film plays like one made in 1997 or 2007, making substantial use of the day’s cutting-edge special effects techniques to tell its story. The needs of the film’s story necessitate Wilder diving deep into the world of visual trickery for the first time, utilizing a mix of process shots, aerial photography, action stunts, and even archival footage showing Lindbergh’s homecoming parade in New York City.
His adoption of modern visual techniques also applies to his treatment of music, as evidenced in the scene where he abruptly cuts out longtime collaborator Franz Waxman’s brassy, heroic score to bring our attention to the fact that Lindbergh’s engine has suddenly stopped working. To reflect the times, Wilder peppers in a few era-appropriate swing tracks, while Waxman references the Parisian endgame of Lindbergh’s quest by layering the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”, over his original suite of cues.
The inclusion of Paris– a recurring city within Wilder’s work– isn’t the only directorial signature to be found in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS. His infamous barbed wit can be found throughout the film, as well as his tendency to define his characters via their occupations. Just as the story is single-mindedly devoted to Lindbergh’s historic flight, so too does Wilder’s Lindbergh identify himself first and foremost as a pilot– every waking thought is dedicated to flight, the challenges of which serve as the ultimate test of mettle and manhood.
Wilder uses the visual shorthand of uniform to communicate this idea, whether it’s in the collective sense (seen in the suited finance bankers or the soldiers of Brooks Field), or on the scale of the individual (like the coveralls and utilitarian flight suits that Lindbergh wears). These conceits factor into the larger thematic exploration that’s definitive of Wilder’s artistic character: class divisions and conflict.
Although in real life the famed pilot hailed from a fairly privileged background (his father was a Congressman), Wilder paints Lindbergh as a blue collar, middle-class Everyman. We see him in simple clothes, battling against cigar-chomping financiers and snooty airplane vendors in expensive suits– many of whom are initially reluctant to help his grandiose ambition because he doesn’t fit into their preconceived notion of what a “pilot” should be.
As it happens, the ones who are actually able to assist in realizing Lindbergh’s dream aren’t the executives in the high tower, but the craftsmen and the laborers in the trenches. They are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, and in the end are rewarded with a tangible result for their efforts.
While it may seem like an effortlessly assembled film, THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS’ making was anything but. The considerable technical demands of the story caused numerous unanticipated troubles, with the resulting delays nearly doubling the number of planned shooting days while inflating production expenses to dizzying highs.
To add insult to injury, the film opened to mixed reviews from critics, and flopped with a resounding thud at the box office. Wilder, the perennial Oscar nominee (and sometimes winner) in previous years, would have to console himself with a sole nomination for the film’s visual effects. He had weathered rough air in his career before, and there was little doubt that he wouldn’t pull through again– after all, he still had two more features in the pipeline for 1957 alone.
Nevertheless, it still must’ve stung to have been brought so low after the high career watermark he enjoyed with THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH’s success. Today, THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS is barely remembered within Wilder’s filmography– a forgotten minor work, at best. However, I’d argue that the film is ripe for a reappraisal, if only for the fact that it’s the rare maximalist spectacle film amongst a body of work known for its muscular minimalism and non-genre aesthetic.
THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS certainly hasn’t aged as well as Wilder’s better-known work, but it does retain a strong degree of modernity in its presentation, which anticipates the four-quadrant populist styles of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg or JJ Abrams. The film forced Wilder to address his skillset in the special effects arena, and in the process made him a more well-rounded director than ever before.
All told,THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS isn’t just effective entertainment– it’s a riveting account of one of the twentieth century’s most important achievements, executed with style and integrity by a celebrated director working at the top of his game.
LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (1957)
When someone enters the back half of his or her years on Earth, it’s only natural to look back and relive the past. Especially for those who are in the grips of a decline of some sort– health, stamina, status, or any other other signifier of a life well-lived– the idea of revisiting past battles or rekindling old flames as a way to restore one’s self to former glory is nearly impossible to resist.
Artists are particularly susceptible to the foibles of vanity in the face of waning influence, even more so if they’ve languished on the outskirts of relevancy for a time. In 1957, esteemed film director Billy Wilder was just beginning his long grapple with this particularly rocky period. With a body of masterworks under his belt that anyone else would kill for, his legacy was secure, and with three features released in 1957 alone, he was more productive and relevant than ever.
Nevertheless, the disappointing reception of his ambitious previous film, THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS (1957), threw an unexpected rock in front of Wilder’s stride. The film’s heavy emphasis on special effects and style undoubtedly left Wilder a little breathless, so it’s understandable that he’d go back to basics for his next project.
He found inspiration by revisiting the earliest stages of his career, back when he was working in the European film industry under his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch. This new project would be a throwback to his early work– a romantic comedy set in Paris, mostly adapted from a novel by Claude Anet called “Ariane, Jeune Fille Risse” (translated to Ariane, Young Russian Girl), but also drawing from an older film that Wilder had co-written for Lubitsch in the 1930’s.
After experiencing a strong personal response to a Screen Writers Guild article by I.A.L Diamond, Wilder recruited the author to co-write the screenplay with him, thus beginning a long collaboration that would last for the rest of his career. The resulting film, 1957’s LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, is unmistakably vintage Wilder, and also serves as something of a tribute to Lubitsch’s influence.
For all its old-fashioned charms, however, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON fails to recapture that particular brand of Wilder magic. The world was changing fast– peace and prosperity was giving way to conflict and chaos, and long-held social beliefs were being challenged at the institutional level– and films like LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON were suddenly feeling very outdated.
Like its obliviously-creaky male lead, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON is a relic from a bygone era– an impeccably-crafted piece of work left adrift in a new world with little use for it.
LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON takes place in Paris, a setting seen throughout Wilder’s work from MAUVAISE GRAINE (1934) to SABRINA (1954). A narrator begins the story by introducing himself as Claude Chavasse (Maurice Chevalier) a kind and affectionate private investigator who is tracking the activities of a wealthy Parisian housewife to determine if she’s being unfaithful to her husband, Monsieur X (played gamely by John McGiver in a perpetual state of heartburn).
Claude works out of his apartment, which he shares with his young daughter Ariane (Audrey Hepburn in her second collaboration with Wilder). Ariane is an aspiring celloist, but she also takes a great deal of interest in her father’s work, often sneaking peeks at his files while he’s away. Hepburn plays very much into her classical type here as an inquisitive romantic, an innocent dreamer who can’t help but fall for Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper), the handsome American oil tycoon seen canoodling with Monsieur X’s wife in her father’s surveillance photos.
When she overhears Monsieur X’s plot to catch his wife in the act and shoot them both dead, she sneaks away to Flannagan’s suite at the Hotel Ritz to warn the secret lovers about their impending demise. She successfully foils Monsieur X’s plot, only to wind up the target of Flannagan’s amorous advances herself.
On paper, Cooper might seem a good fit for the sophisticated, worldly millionaire bachelor with lovers all around the world, but his performance in LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON leaves a lot to be desired. His performance lacks charisma, and is hampered by his readily apparent age– indeed, a great deal of disbelief must be suspended in order to believe the glamorous and virginal Hepburn would have romantic feelings for him.
Cooper’s insistent advances on Hepburn read as creepy and predatory, not romantic as Wilder probably intended. Nevertheless, the story must continue, and Ariane continues to visit Flannagan at his suite in the ensuing afternoons, letting him woo her while keeping him at arm’s length. When he asks her about her former lovers, Ariane’s anxiety about his carnal experience causes her to compile an imaginary list of suitors drawn from her father’s various dossiers.
In a fine illustration of the era’s double standards, Flannagan is tormented at the thought of Ariane matching his number of sexual partners, so he decides to hire the best private investigator in town to look into her history. Of course, that PI is Ariane’s father, who quickly figures out that he’s been tasked with investigating his own daughter and must navigate the needs of his client without breaking her heart.
The old-school narrative approach also applies to LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON’s cinematography, executed faithfully by first-time Wilder DP William C. Mellor. The film echoes SABRINA’s aesthetic by shooting on 35mm monochromatic film stock in the widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio, adopting a high contrast lighting setup that combines the hard edges of the noir genre with the soft glamor of romantic comedy.
Curiously, Wilder shoots the scenes of Flannagan seducing Ariane in his hotel suite in near-silhouette. Considering that most polished studio pictures of this era and genre would opt for the clarity of broad lighting, Wilder’s choice to throw his two stars in heavy shadow reads very much as intentional– a reflection of the murky morality of their rendezvous.
LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON also sees a return to Wilder’s trademark technical minimalism after the comparatively frenetic approach to THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS. While his compositions aren’t exactly visceral, they are extremely precise– each shot is lined up to tell the maximum amount of story with a minimal expenditure of time and energy.
Take for instance, a scene where Ariane talks with Flannagan on the balcony of his hotel suite: it’s a fairly standard dialogue scene that most filmmakers would choose to cover with alternating over-the-shoulder setups. However, Wilder places the camera’s focus firmly on Ariane, while Flannagan appears in a glass reflection behind her (and in the position he’d be oriented in for the expected reverse shot, no less).
Because both subjects appear clearly within a single shot, Wilder eliminates the need for coverage while losing nothing in the translation. For the most part, Wilder cuts to additional coverage only when necessary, preferring instead to reframe his compositions in-shot via fluid camera moves or punchy whip-pans– the motivation for which come only from the needs of character and story, and not from the desire to showcase technical ability.
If LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON’s cinematography harkens back to SABRINA, its production design draws its influence from even deeper within Wilder’s filmography: his first film, MAUVAISE GRAINE. Once he’d attained the status of a major Hollywood director, Wilder consistently opted for the control and luxuries afforded by shooting on a soundstage– but like the generation of directors he’d later influence, Wilder got his start shooting guerrilla-style in the streets.
LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON finds Wilder back out on the blocks of Paris once more, this time with considerably more resources at his disposal. While he didn’t abandon soundstage shooting entirely in this instance, Wilder nevertheless establishes a palpable sense of place with the footage he procured on location. His embrace of the immediacy and unpredictability of urban life is also reflected in the film’s soundtrack as a clash of varying sounds and tastes.
Longtime musical collaborator Franz Waxman provides a traditional, romantic score, but Wilder also incorporates a heavy mishmash of pre-existing tracks consisting of classical orchestral suites, European pop ballads and rambunctious Gypsy folk songs.
LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON is the latest entry in Wilder’s long tradition of using his pointed wit to dance around censorship. His films might seem quaint and tame by today’s standards, but his stories were truly transgressive in their day. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON bills itself as a romantic comedy, but it’s really about selfish, delusional lust instead of wholesome love– at least on Flannagan’s part, as Ariane can’t help but be swept up in the empty grandeur of it all.
The kind of love that’s explored here is inherently cynical, hidden away in discrete hotel rooms and declaring itself in hushed, furtive tones. It is the realm of adulterers and fornicators, not lovers. As evidenced by a prologue of couples publicly making out all over Paris, Wilder depicts these affairs as an institutional given– a commonly accepted practice that evokes the old French platitude that a man has three women in his life: his wife, his girlfriend, and his mistress.
While Wilder had previously managed to skirt around the prudish demands of the censors, he was ultimately compelled to oblige the Catholic Legion of Decency’s objections to his original ending, which would have seen Ariane and Flannagan ride off into the sunset to begin a proper courtship. He doesn’t technically change anything, save for a tacked-on voiceover narration that explains that the couple are now married and living happily in New York– an unnecessary addition that undermines and trivializes Wilder’s original message.
Wilder’s core thematic signatures are well represented in LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON. His characters tend to identify themselves primarily by their line of work, and it’s typically their jobs that inform their moral anchor (or lack thereof). Claude’s career as a private eye and Ariane’s study of the cello establish something of a baseline for their worldview, with the former being pragmatic and insightful while the latter is sensitive and idealistic.
By contrast, Cooper’s Frank Flannagan’s wealth from his oil empire removes the need to work, so we don’t ever actually see him working. Instead, we only see him wooing a parade of women in his hotel suite. His dissociation from his profession leaves him without a set of central principles to adhere to, casting him morally adrift.
This divide between the Chavasses and Flannagan also illustrates Wilder’s interest in class distinction. The cramped apartment that Claude and Ariane share might as well be a shoebox compared to Flannagan’s palatial hotel suite. As in the best love stories, the two paramours come from entirely different worlds– Ariane’s ascent into the upper class is reflective of Wilder’s earnest belief in the American ideal that, with a lot of work and a little luck, even the lowliest person can hoist themselves up the socioeconomic ladder.
Because film is primarily a visual medium, Wilder uses the shorthand of uniform to further convey these ideas about class and profession. He serves up several examples throughout the film: the starched elegance of the suited Hotel Ritz staff, the sartorial decorum of police officers, or even the matching tuxedos of the gypsy band. Even Flannagan, a man with no need for a specialized uniform, adopts a white dinner jacket as a recurring signifier of his status.
LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON finds Wilder returning to his roots in a bid to reconnect with his audience, but that audience (and the world) had changed dramatically in the intervening years. The film was a commercial and critical disaster in America, with critics singling Cooper out as woefully miscast for the part. They spilled so much ink on his visibly-ailing health that Cooper subsequently underwent a full facelift.
The film fared much better in Europe, where it was released under the title ARIANE. Unlike some of Wilder’s other minor works, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON has not grown in esteem in the years since. By all accounts, Wilder is working firmly in his directorial wheelhouse and playing every aspect of the story to his strengths– but something about the whole endeavor seems off the mark.
It lacks the simple timelessness of his best work. The artistic flabbiness that would mar the twilight of his career is readily apparent here in its earliest stages. IfLOVE IN THE AFTERNOON is notable for anything within his filmography, it’s that the house that Wilder built is starting to show its age. Wilder still had some great films left in him, but the black mold of decline was already seeping through to the surface– a sign of the slow decay happening underneath.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957)
1957 was arguably the busiest year yet for seasoned director Billy Wilder. A prolific filmmaker releasing two films in one year is rare but not unheard of (The Big Stevens- Spielberg and Soderbergh– have both done it in several instances), but Wilder released three that particular year. The first two, THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, were ambitious works that fell far short of expectations, but he was just able to eke out a last-minute win with the third, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION.
Based on iconic mystery novelist Agatha Christie’s 1925 short story of the same name (originally published as “Traitor’s Hands), Wilder’s English courtroom drama netted Wilder his first Best Director nomination at the Oscars since SABRINA (1954). While not as classic as other films like SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) or THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is strong enough to signify the first salvo in one last rally of great works by the master filmmaker.
Working with producer Arthur Hornblow Jr for the first time since 1942’s THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (in addition to Edward Small), the story of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION as adapted by Wilder and Harry Kurnitz takes place in contemporary-era London. Celebrated actor and director Charles Laughton plays Sir Wilfrid Roberts, an accomplished and well-respected court barrister who’s just returned back to work, having been discharged from the hospital following a serious heart attack.
Affecting a grumpy and stubborn personality reminiscent of Winston Churchill, he’s constantly swatting away the fussy commands of his prim and uptight nurse, Miss Plimsell (played by Laughton’s actual wife, Elsa Lanchester). On the day of his return, a man appears at his office in need of a lawyer— he’s just learned that he’s the prime suspect in the murder of a wealthy old widow.
This man is Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), an urbane wannabe inventor currently cashing unemployment checks. Power ably fills a role that Wilder initially intended for his frequent leading man William Holden, projecting a false facade of friendliness and dopey innocence in his last complete film performance before his untimely death via heart attack only a year later. Roberts can’t help but be intrigued by Vole’s case, and agrees to represent him.
As the trial plays out in court (almost in real-time), a highly-unconventional witness is called to testify against him: his own wife, Christine Vole. Played by silver screen icon Marlene Dietrich in her second collaboration with Wilder after 1948’s A FOREIGN AFFAIR, Vole is a German immigrant and an ex-nightclub entertainer. She’s statuesque, cold, and calculating, checking all the boxes of the femme fatale archetype– but appearances aren’t quite what they appear to be.
Something in the details of her damning testimony doesn’t quite fit with the whole picture, and Roberts feels compelled to delve even deeper into their knotty, murky relationship. Wilder deftly navigates the plot’s twist and turns, culminating in a big surprise ending that was considered so shocking at the time that Wilder included a voiceover narration over the end credits urging the audience not to spoil the film for others.
Like LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON before it, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is a textbook example of Wilder’s technical aesthetic. The 35mm black and white film is presented in the widescreen 1.66:1 aspect ratio and shot by cinematographer Russell Harlan. Appropriate to its British setting, there’s a distinctly regal, stiff-upper-lip aura about WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION’s mise-en-scene.
Like many of his Classical Age contemporaries, Wilder preferred the control afforded by shooting on soundstages instead of actual locations. As such, his films boasted impeccable production values like polished theatrical lighting and precise dolly and crane movements. In particular, Wilder liked the high contrast chiarascuro typical of the noir genre he helped to invent– a style reproduced with ease throughout WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. He reinforced this approach with a focus on composition and performance, oftentimes staging his scenes in 2-shot masters to capture as much as he could.
This is certainly true of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, which aims to document every inch of production designer Alexandre Trauner’s sets and every seam of Edith Head’s costumes. Even close-ups of particular characters are composed in such a way that the background is effectively a wide shot, emphasizing the greater depth and space around his subject.
Editor Daniel Mandell was nominated for an Oscar for his work here, an edit that employs Wilder’s typically disciplined and minimalistic approach to coverage. However, the film does boast a few expressive flourishes, such as a shot that assumes Laughton’s POV zeroing in on a closeup of a cigar hiding in his colleague’s shirt pocket while he himself is elevating away from it.
The courtroom dramatics of the narrative are a prime opportunity for Wilder to further explore the themes of occupational identity and class conflict. The crux of the tension revolves around the suspicious, unlikely friendship between Leonard Vole– an unemployed member of the middle class– and the rich old widow he’s suspected of murdering.
His relative poverty in relation to her wealth drives the story, further reinforcing Wilder’s fascination with social status and inequality as a plot device. Occupational identity also plays a large role in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, as it does for nearly all of Wilder’s work. Because the film is set essentially inside of the courtroom and Roberts’ office, we can only glean insight into the characters through the prism of their professions– aside from the complicated marriage between the Voles, very little is divulged about the ensemble’s personal lives.
The film’s baseline of morality is established by the lawyers and judges of the court, while the stakes of the story are laid upon the one character who has no occupation to anchor his ethics and worldview. The visual shorthand of uniform further reinforces this dynamic, with the image of lawyers clad in identical robes and wigs prosecuting a lone man in a shabby suit highlighting Wilder’s examination of institutional order versus the individual.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION isn’t as fresh or as bracing as Wilder’s other works, with the director re-treading familiar ground to diminishing returns. The misanthropic, double-crossing nature of the Voles, who have no qualms about betraying each other to get ahead, is a lukewarm reheating of the deliciously devilish dynamic between Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944).
There’s also a flashback sequence that could be ripped straight out of A FOREIGN AFFAIR, where Leonard Vole first meets Christine performing in a nightclub while he’s stationed in the bombed-out ruins of Berlin. It’s easy to see why the story appealed to Wilder– the courtroom theatrics and nonstop procedural dialogue provide ample opportunity for writerly indulgence– but it makes for a somewhat monotonous viewing experience in a contemporary context, especially for those with low attention spans.
To his credit, however, Wilder’s rapier wit and a surprise twist ending go a long way towards spicing up what would otherwise be a stuffy English law procedural in the hands of another filmmaker. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION was well-received by critics upon its release, scoring a slew of Oscar nominations like Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Supporting Actress, Best Sound, and Best Editing.
My own opinions of the film aside, it’s remembered by the larger cinematic community today as a solid entry in Wilder’s canon– the capper to his most prolific year yet. After stumbling with THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, the success of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION would give Wilder the momentum and energy he needed to make a renewed push for greatness.
SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
An artist’s primary responsibility to the public is to use his or her chosen medium to hold up a mirror to society, to challenge systemic and institutional complacency. Long-established social and moral codes must be questioned and criticized for the greater cultural good. From this mission, a system of checks and balances has emerged, with artists shining a spotlight on the corrosion inherent in our social structures while said social structures respond in kind with regulation and censorship.
In the commercial medium of studio cinema, this struggle is particularly acute– in handling a project that costs many millions of dollars and will be seen by many millions of people, filmmakers must walk a fine line between fulfilling their artistic responsibilities while giving their audience and financiers accessible entertainment.
Through much of the twentieth century, studio films were regulated by The Motion Picture Code (informally known as the Hays Code), an organization tasked with ensuring that the average American moviegoer wasn’t exposed to indecent or improper material at the cinema. Many Hollywood directors spent the better part of their careers fighting the overbearing Hays Code, some more successfully than others.
With his razor sharp wit and disarming mischievousness, director Billy Wilder was particularly well-suited to navigate the tricky contours of the era’s censorship standards– his efforts resulting in some of the most bracing and refreshingly honest films that mid-century audiences had ever seen. His work may seem harmlessly quaint and audience-friendly by modern standards, but in practice his direct challenging of moral complacency bears more in common with the confrontational style of dark mavericks like David Fincher or Stanley Kubrick.
The Hays Code would stand until 1968, but its killing blow was struck 9 years earlier when Wilder’s sixteenth feature, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), found widespread commercial despite being made without the Code’s approval, rendering the once-tyrannical institution unnecessary and irrelevant.
Wilder was on a career upswing when he made SOME LIKE IT HOT, buoyed by the modest success of 1957’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION following the twin disappointments of THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON. Drawing inspiration from a 1936 French film called FANFARES OF LOVE, Wilder wrote the film in collaboration with his LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON co-scribe I.A.L. Diamond– a move that would that cement their working relationship for the rest of both men’s careers.
SOME LIKE IT HOT begins in 1929 Chicago: the height of Prohibition and the epicenter of bootleg liquor operations and organized crime. Jerry and Joe (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, respectively) are two struggling musicians who scrounge together a meager living playing in illegal speakeasies.
Their friendship dynamic is the stuff of classic buddy comedies: Curtis’ Joe is the handsome straight guy with vision, while Lemmon’s Oscar-nominated performance as Jerry is all manic energy. After witnessing a brutal gangland slaying, Jerry and Joe hastily decide to skip town, catching a one way-ticket down to Miami with a touring jazz band. There’s just one slight problem– the band is girls-only, which means Joe and Jerry have to pose as women if they’re going to escape Chicago with their lives.
Once they arrive in Miami, they’re forced to continue the charade, and not just because the gangsters they’re fleeing have coincidentally arrived in town for their annual Mafia conference. Joe has fallen for one of the girls from the band, a bubbly blonde party girl known as Sugar, but his wooing of her is somewhat complicated by the fact that she only knows him as “Josephine”.
Sugar is played by Marilyn Monroe, who in her second and last collaboration with Wilder, provides perhaps the closest glimpse we’ll ever get of the immortal screen icon as she actually was. Sugar, like Monroe, is a porcelain beauty and sexual time bomb, yes– but she’s also wearily disillusioned and regretful of her life choices.
Her cheery eagerness to please is an affectation, a mask she wears to hide a profound melancholy and resentment over her image as a sex object and nothing more. Wilder and Monroe had an infamously contentious working relationship during shooting, with Monroe’s pregnancy and pill addiction problems causing her to repeatedly forget even simple lines of dialogue.
The Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego was chosen to stand in for Miami in part because it allowed Monroe to reside there during filming, where Wilder could keep an eye on her when cameras weren’t rolling. He was reportedly so fed up with her constant lateness and costly unprofessional behavior that he refused to invite her to the film’s wrap party at his own house.
They would eventually make up (even after publicly disparaging each other in publicity interviews), but the damage was irreparable– Wilder and Monroe would never work with each other again. In three years, Monroe would be dead, killed by the very pills that caused her so much trouble on Wilder’s set.
Wilder’s frequent cinematographer Charles Lang returns for their first pairing since SABRINA five years prior, earning an Oscar nomination for his efforts here. The 35mm film was shot in black and white, a notable choice considering that color was just starting to eclipse the monochromatic format in popularity.
Monroe’s contract famously mandated that all her films be shot in color, but Wilder was able to overrule her when he demonstrated that the makeup worn by Curtis and Lemmon looked positively nightmarish in Technicolor (1). SOME LIKE IT HOT’s 1.66:1 visual presentation is indicative of Wilder’s utilitarian, minimalist aesthetic.
Wide compositions, deep focus, high contrast lighting, and classical camerawork work in tandem to tell the most amount of story in the least amount of individual setups. Wilder uses lighting in particular as a device to differentiate the film’s dual locales– like his earlier entries in the noir genre, Wilder depicts the cold urban landscape of Chicago as a dark, smoky labyrinth of sin and vice.
Meanwhile, he depicts Miami as a sun-dappled paradise: sprawling white beaches and elegant palm trees reaching up to clear blue skies. Adolph Deutsch’s jazzy big-band score and Arthur P. Schmidt’s breathless editing tie these disparate locales into a cohesive, manic whole.
Wilder’s films were already well-known for their provocativeness in an-otherwise chaste moral climate, but SOME LIKE IT HOT courts controversy more aggressively and openly than anything he’s ever done. The film drips with sexual innuendo, finding no shortage of laughs in the various kinks, perversions and delinquencies on display.
Joe and Jerry’s cross-dressing is the most visible aspect of the story’s risque nature, enabling veiled allusions to then-taboo subjects like homosexual relationships and singular male infiltration of the female domain (a.k.a “foxes in the henhouse”). Much like he does in his previous films, Wilder orchestrates the plot of SOME LIKE IT HOT as an exploration of characters defined by their class and profession.
Joe and Jerry are fish out of water: a pair of starving musicians transported to a world of wealth and leisure. They must wear disguises in order to assimilate into the rarefied air of the wealthy elite– Lemmon doubles down on his female impersonation to manipulate Joe E. Brown’s lovestruck millionaire character to his and Curtis’ advantage, while Curtis himself feels the need to pose as a foppish oil tycoon in order to win Monroe’s affections.
The theme of disguise dovetails nicely with Wilder’s recurring use of uniform to define a given character via the prism of his or her occupation. Lemmon and Curtis’ drag wear is highly theatrical– indicative of a what a man thinks a woman dresses like– and because they identify as such to their female colleagues, their costumes become a uniform out of necessity.
In the larger sense, Wilder’s approach to uniform doesn’t just stop at the standard-issues duds of cops or hotel bellhops– he abstracts the concept to apply to characters like the mafiosos chasing our heroes. They aren’t all dressed the same, but their wardrobes are similar enough in color, shape, and function as to allow the audience to quickly and easily identify their allegiance.
SOME LIKE IT HOT finds Wilder working at the top of his game, reliably delivering the narrative in the polished form factor we’ve come to expect from him. Yet, it also shows that the old dog is capable of learning new tricks: for instance, the film opens with a riveting cops-and-robbers shootout and chase sequence that reveals Wilder is just as adept at shooting a breathless action sequence as he is a slapstick comedy gag.
While some directors tend to grow softer as they slide into their golden years, SOME LIKE IT HOT proves that Wilder’s misanthropic bite is getting even sharper. The film vaulted over a series of obstacles that would a lesser work dead in its tracks: the Catholic Legion of Decency gave it a “Condemned” rating, and the entire state of Kansas found the crossdressing so disturbing that it imposed an outright ban.
Seemingly, no regulatory institution– the Hays Code included– could stop SOME LIKE IT HOT’s runaway success. Adored by audiences and critics alike, the film went on to score several Oscar nominations (including two for Wilder’s writing and direction), and is considered by organizations as influential as the American Film Institute to be one of the best comedies ever made.
In 1989, Wilder’s comic masterpiece was one of the first films to be inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, enshrining his legacy as the filmmaker who dealt the killing blow to a Draconian moral regime and cleared the path for the cinematic provocateurs who would follow in his footsteps.
THE APARTMENT (1960)
The 1960’s was a decade of great upheaval in American social mores, especially when it came to the subject of sex and its depiction in mass media. The rigid respectability and chastity that marked the Eisenhower years was falling out of fashion, replaced by the JFK generation’s embrace of evolving attitudes and new ideas.
This decade in particular saw youth culture beginning to assert itself in the national conversation, constantly challenging institutional authority and long-held taboos. Nowhere was this cultural transformation more apparent than it was in the cinema, where a new generation of easy riders and raging bulls were usurping the Golden Age maestros and their classical, formalist styles.
Some of these maestros even used their prestige to help usher in this new age of expression and give it an air of artistic legitimacy. Director Billy Wilder had started chipping away at the wall of cinematic chastity with the success of his 1959 film, SOME LIKE IT HOT, which featured cross-dressing characters and thinly-veiled allusions to homosexuality.
However, it would be his next film, THE APARTMENT (1960), that rose up to directly combat the Hays Motion Picture Production Code and lay the groundwork for a new generation of mainstream movies that would reflect how people really lived.
Wilder had wanted to film the story detailed in THE APARTMENT at least since the mid 1940’s, when a viewing of David Lean’s A BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945) caused his mind to wander from the couple engaged in an extramarital affair on-screen to the unseen character who rented out his apartment out to the protagonists for their illicit meetings (1).
He wondered what kind of a person would willingly do this, and began dreaming up a comedy from this unseen person’s perspective. For a long time, the Hays Code barred Wilder from making a film that openly featured adultery and marital infidelity, but now that he had drawn blood from the once-impervious watchdog, he had an artistic imperative to follow up with another strike.
He rounded up his closest collaborators– writing partner I.A.L. Diamond and longtime mentor/confidant Doane Harrison– and brought them aboard as consulting associate producers to help him finally realize his long-gestating idea.
THE APARTMENT begins like so many of Wilder’s films before it, with an opening voiceover by Jack Lemmon’s CC Baxter that establishes the Manhattan setting as well as the film’s social climate. Lemmon’s second consecutive performance for Wilder as a rank-and-file insurance accountant in a sea of white collar drones would also net him his second consecutive Oscar nomination, and is remembered today as quite possibly the greatest comedic performance of his career.
Despite his corporate anonymity, he’s got a special in with his higher-ups, in that he’s worked out an elaborate system that trades the use of his bachelor apartment for their various affairs in exchange for the promise of an accelerated promotion schedule. Something of a happy-go-lucky pushover, Baxter is convinced that all these nights barred from his own home will be worth it when he has a cushy corner office to call his own.
He desperately wants to be a part of this old boy’s club, but in reality he’s nothing like them– whereas his bosses see women as disposable playthings, he has an unrequited and well-intentioned crush on the building elevator girl, Fran Kubelick. As played by Shirley MacLaine in her own Oscar-nominated performance, Fran is an arguably edgy love interest for her time.
A prototypical version of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope, Fran’s aesthetic sensibilities fly in the face of the era’s feminine ideals: short cropped hair, a self-deprecatingly aloof sense of humor, and a polite smile that just barely masks the melancholy and depression underneath. Her hidden sadness stems from her secret affair with Baxter’s alpha-male boss Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who keeps delaying and reneging on his promise to leave his wife and children for her.
THE APARTMENT marks MacMurray’s second collaboration with Wilder, and despite having appeared as an equally emotionally-bankrupt character in 1944’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY, his casting here as a slimy moral coward was still regarded as against-type thanks to the squeaky clean image he’d cultivated in family-friendly projects for Disney.
As it happens, Sheldrake uses Baxter’s apartment for a romantic interlude with Fran that quickly goes south when he declares that he won’t be leaving his wife anytime soon. Overcome with heartbreak and despair, she attempts suicide by downing an entire bottle of sleeping pills. Baxter finds her just in time, and spends the weekend nursing her back to health while playing keepaway with his apartment from the other lusty executives and their mistresses who would want it for themselves.
The situation provides a great opportunity for Baxter to finally make a romantic connection with Fran, but his own professional ambitions set him up to become just like all the other men who broke Fran’s heart– and just might become his own undoing.
For all his plaudits as a premier director of classical Golden Age formalism, Wilder’s approach to cinematography was deceptively cutting-edge. On a surface level, THE APARTMENT’s visuals are relatively mundane and utilitarian, but Wilder packs his frame with an abundance of thematic and contextual depth– beginning with the shape of the frame itself.
For marketing purposes, THE APARTMENT is a comedy, and most comedies of the era were captured using the Academy aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Wilder wasn’t interested in conforming to genre expectations, so instead he and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle shot THE APARTMENT on a significantly-wider 2.35:1 canvas (a newer ratio that was usually reserved for dramatic epics or westerns).
This particular choice speaks to Wilder’s particular insight into the human condition– finding laughter in tragedy and vice-versa– and enhances his framing in a subtle fashion. This effect is most evident in shots emphasizing depth, like a one-point, forced-perspective establishing shot that features endless rows of workers bees at their desks, stretching backwards into infinity.
It should be noted that because THE APARTMENT’s setups most frequently utilize a high depth of field, one could surmise that the Cinemascope aspect ratio was captured spherically, and not with specialized anamorphic lenses (which are infamous for their very shallow depth of field).
While it seems an obvious choice on its face, the decision to shoot in black and white is another aspect of Wilder’s genre-bending approach to THE APARTMENT. By 1960, the monochromatic format was on the wane, with mainstream studio films increasingly adopting color as the industry standard– comedies in particular were a ripe opportunity for splashes of brilliant Technicolor.
Wilder’s decision to shoot in monochrome underscores his countercultural approach to the picture, which was to subvert the language of classical Golden Age cinema with modern techniques (i.e., positioning the subjects of his close-ups in stark profile). Indeed, THE APARTMENT more closely resembles classic film noir with its shadowy, high contrast lighting and cold urban landscape than it does the bright and cheery comedy it might’ve been marketed as.
This desire to reflect the complex nuances of real life emotions via the cinematography is what makes THE APARTMENT one of the last great films of the black-and-white era– indeed, it was the last fully monochromatic film to win the Oscar for Best Picture until THE ARTIST in 2012 (and yes, that’s counting SCHINDLER’S LIST’s 1994 win, which wasn’t entirely black and white thanks to its bookending color sequences).
THE APARTMENT is a perfect crystallization of the various techniques that shape Wilder’s identity as an artist. His sharp-tipped humor is wantonly spread across the whole piece, which is made all the more impressive considering the fact that most of the film was actually written as shooting progressed. That he could think of such iconic lines– like Fran’s closing exchange with Baxter after he tells her he loves her: “Shut up and deal.”– is a testament to Wilder’s supreme skill as a writer even when under immense pressure.
There’s a purity to the construction of the film itself, owing to Wilder’s precisely calibrated camerawork that eliminates the need for unnecessary coverage by using dollies, cranes and pans to change our point of view instead of a hard cut. This lends a great deal of timelessness and class to the picture– a much-needed quality when the subject matter deals (rather bluntly) in unsavory behavior like suicide, adultery, and successful business men gleefully scratching their seven-year itches.
(Speaking of that film, Wilder can’t help but joke about his contentious working relationship with Marilyn Monroe by incorporating a cameo of a lookalike, playing up the actresses’ bimbo qualities to an exaggerated degree).
On a thematic level, THE APARTMENT works as a satire on the utter absurdity of modern urban life. Wilder fills the film with snappy little vignettes, like Baxter battling with the ridiculous amount of contacts he’s amassed on his rolodex, or wearily cycling through increasingly inane television channels– the cumulative effect being an insightful reflection of the white collar rat race, where workers are busier than ever before but yet aren’t actually producing anything.
Indeed, the ones with the most power are the ones who produce the least, bestowed with the rather meaningless title of “Executive”. Baxter’s tireless quest to attain this coveted title for himself dovetails neatly with Wilder’s tendency to write characters whose principles and values are primarily defined by their profession. Because the professional responsibilities implied in their job title are nonspecific by nature, the executives featured in the film have lost their moral anchor, and have taken to running around on their wives instead of actually doing any work.
Being of decidedly middle-class stock, Baxter desires to join this old boy’s club but only has the use of his dumpy apartment (and by extension, the forfeiture of his privacy) to offer in trade. Even as he climbs the corporate ladder to become an executive in his own right, his middle-class background still boxes him out from truly joining the inner circle, leaving his status low enough to have to regularly contend with blue collar brutes like Fran’s brother in law. Even after he gets his name on the door, he still has to go home and strain his spaghetti through a tennis racket.
In the corporate world, attaining the rank of executive is both the result of merit-based and political machinations, similar to the military. And just like the military, executives wear a uniform– the dark flannel suit– to identify themselves as Masters Of The Universe. While the men are preoccupied with blending into the crowd with their three-piece suits, Fran refuses to allow her own elevator girl uniform to take away her individuality. At one point in the film, she cautions Baxter that’s she’s more than just her job: “Just because I wear a uniform doesn’t mean I’m a girl scout”.
This stance illustrates why Fran is the most nuanced and realistic character in the film, casting her as a reflection of American culture’s collective turning away from the conformity of the postwar era to embrace the individualism and the expression of alternative ideas that marked the 1960’s.
THE APARTMENT’s influence on cinema cannot be denied or understated– its place within Wilder’s legacy is rivaled only by SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) in regards to the cornerstone works of American filmmaking. It was a bonafide commercial success, despite the unapologetic treatment of risque subject matter turning off a substantial portion of critics.
Come Oscar season, THE APARTMENT racked up a slew of nominations and several wins– LaShelle’s cinematography, Alexandre Trauner’s production design, and Daniel Mindell’s editing were all honored. Wilder himself won his second Oscar for directing, in addition to a win for his screenplay and The Big Win of the night– Best Picture. This would be the last time he was honored with the gold statue for any one project in particular, and while the Oscars are hardly the final arbiter of a film’s contribution to the art form, this fact lends credence to the argument that THE APARTMENT is Wilder’s last master work.
Wilder would go on to create excellent films in the decades to come, but none of them could ever quite manage to recapture the brilliant magic of THE APARTMENT. The film’s legacy as a signal for the looming sexual revolution was validated when the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1994.
Even now, the film possesses tastemaking qualities that have far outlived the time of their creation– Wilder’s enduring vision of a corporate America driving itself mad with lust and ambition has served as a key reference for a wide variety of contemporary works, from Sam Mendes’ AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999) to Matthew Weiner’s MAD MEN television series.
Any way you slice it, THE APARTMENT is one of the most important films ever made; a definitive portrait of mid-20th century American life and social values, as painted by one of the century’s most influential artists.
ONE, TWO, THREE (1961)
Wilder’s follow-up to THE APARTMENT would constitute the first work of his twilight era– a perfectly enjoyable film that still failed to connect with audiences despite his best efforts. Titled ONE, TWO, THREE (1961), the film derives its story from a 1929 Hungarian play as well as a 1939 film co-written by Wilder called NINOTCHKA (1).
Wilder and his late-career writing partner I.A.L. Diamond update the story to a contemporary Berlin that, as is explained to us in the now-requisite opening voiceover, has been torn asunder as competing political interests and economic philosophies struggle to fill the power vacuum left behind by the collapse of the Nazi regime.
Gangster-genre icon James Cagney plays the ambitious motormouth CR MacNamara, a soft drink executive with a leadership style so authoritarian that his underlings (and his own wife) jokingly refer to him as “Mein Fuhrer”. He’s Coca-Cola’s man on the ground in Berlin, tasked with overseeing the region’s market and actively inflating the influence of American capitalism in West Germany.
MacNamara, however, is unhappy– he’s got his eyes on a bigger prize: a cushy life in London as the head of Coca-Cola’s entire European operation. His family life isn’t too great either; the constant sarcasm and patronization from his wife Phyllis (played brilliantly by Arlene Francis) has driven him into the arms of his young secretary.
An opportunity for change finally presents itself when he receives a call from his boss back in Atlanta, Mr. Hazeltine, asking him to house his teenage daughter Scarlett while she’s on vacation. MacNamara reluctantly accepts, but is utterly prepared for the Scarlett Hazeltine that eventually arrives in Berlin. Played by Pamela Tiffin as a sexually voracious riff on her namesake from GONE WITH THE WIND, Scarlett’s bubbly Southern charms are more than MacNamara could ever contain.
She proves impulsive and rebellious, frequently sneaking out of his house at night to sneak over the border into East Germany. One morning she comes back with a new acquisition: a husband. The groom is Otto Ludwig Piffil (Horst Bucholz), a hotheaded and tempestuous socialist and activist who never wastes an opportunity to extoll the virtues of Communism while denouncing the capitalist pigs of the West.
Understandably, this is not an ideal situation for MacNamara, and it quickly spirals even further out of control when Scarlett’s father announces he’s going to be visiting West Germany himself in a few days. As the story unfolds in manic, careening fashion, MacNamara must scramble to make this situation right in the eyes of her father, even if it means having to traverse the iconic Brandenburg Gate– that tenuous, razor-thin border between the boundless prosperity of the West and the hard-fought austerity of the East.
In this sense, ONE, TWO, THREE is a fascinating reflection of a major historical event as it was unfolding in real time, and these current events caused no shortage of headaches for Wilder, Diamond, and their fellow producer Doane Harrison. The Berlin Wall actually went up along the Brandenburg Gate while they were shooting– the crew literally woke up one morning to find the wall had been constructed overnight right through the middle of their set, and thus had to relocate to Munich and build a replica of the gate’s lower portion.
Cagney in particular had such a negative experience on the shoot that he would retire from acting altogether for the next twenty years.
ONE, TWO, THREE’s cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp would be nominated for an Oscar for his first and only collaboration with Wilder. The visual aesthetic is similar to Wilder’s efforts on THE APARTMENT, presented in Cinemascope on black and white 35mm film. Owing to Wilder’s long-standing prioritization of dialogue and performance over cinematography, ONE, TWO, THREE is a strictly no-frills affair.
Wilder often packs multiple characters into a single frame so as to emphasize physical comedy and interaction, necessitating a presentation that favors deep focus, wide compositions, and classical camera movement instead of cuts. Wilder does allow himself a few expressionistic flourishes, however– scenes set in MacNamara’s office often are framed looking down rows of desks in one point perspective, much like Wilder had done to higher-profile effect in THE APARTMENT.
He also supplements Andre Previn’s jaunty score with the pointed inclusion of classical source music like Wagner’s “Ride Of The Valkyries” or Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” in a bid to heighten the mayhem.
ONE, TWO, THREE is loaded with Wilder’s signature sharp wit and clever turns of phrase, showing no sign on the surface level of an aging director on the downslope. His cavalier and dismissive attitude towards long-established sexual mores is on full display here, reflecting his interest in showing people as they really lived– imperfect, self-serving, and unabashedly sexual.
Despite her age, Scarlett readily acknowledges having had sexual encounters with many of her prior male suitors– an admission that would have been met back in that day with many a pearl clutched. There’s also the subplot that circles around MacNamara’s affair with his secretary, a relationship that Wilder portrays without an ounce of judgment or moralizing.
This aspect of MacNamara’s character is simply that– one of the many traits that constitute his individuality. Wilder’s treatment of this subject matter in ONE, TWO, THREE isn’t necessarily an endorsement, but it is regarded by him as a relatively minor indiscretion, with little impact to the narrative at hand.
This aspect of the film places ONE, TWO, THREE firmly within the tradition of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955) and THE APARTMENT, all of them casual explorations of marital infidelity that anticipate the forthcoming Free Love era– albeit from the limited, privileged viewpoint of a chauvinistic patriarchy.
ONE, TWO, THREE finds Wilder returning to Berlin to discover how the city has built itself back up from the desolate ruins previously seen in A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948). The landscape still bears the scars of World War 2, with the fallout from Nazi atrocities creating a crisis of conscience and class that has quite literally split the city in two.
For the purposes of Wilder’s narrative, these two competing sectors stand at ideological extremes– the Russian-controlled East resembles A FOREIGN AFFAIR’s desolate ruins and empty streets, and is lit very much in the style of a moody noir picture, while the capitalist West is a brightly-lit land caught up in the hectic bustle of runaway modernization. This dichotomy of setting provides a natural conduit for Wilder’s further explorations of class and status– the film’s central conflict stems from a bourgeois socialite falling love with a working-class socialist.
It’s an unholy union that causes no shortage of headaches for MacNamara, who’s been unwittingly thrust into the middle between them. And speaking of unholy unions: ONE, TWO, THREE also depicts how the conquered Nazi foot soldiers have reintegrated themselves back into civilian life. Some, like the Coca-Cola employee who can’t quite kick the habit of clicking his boots when given orders, are painted as neutered buffoons robbed of any lingering malice or power.
This depiction is similar to the treatment they received in A FOREIGN AFFAIR, and is perhaps indicative of Wilder working out his aggressions against the regime that exterminated his family during the Holocaust.
Like the heroes found in Wilder’s previous works, ONE, TWO, THREE’s protagonist is a man who identifies himself primarily through his occupation. Every single action that MacNamara takes is calculated towards a higher rung on the corporate ladder, even if it means such a move comes at the expense of his own family.
He’s a company man through and through, proud to be working for a major corporation like Coca-Cola– even to the point that he sees the brand as a shining beacon of American democracy and capitalism, and his job within that brand as the person blessed with the righteous task of illuminating the dark corners of the world with that light. This conceit also allows for the natural inclusion of uniforms as visual signifiers of identity.
ONE, TWO, THREE sees Wilder exploring this idea through the prism of occupation, like the utilitarian garb donned by soldiers and chauffeurs, as well as the prism of class, as seen in the sequence when MacNamara forces the blue-collar Otto to dress up in the starched regalia of the European aristocracy in order to impress Scarlett’s father.
ONE, TWO, THREE is an underrated film in Wilder’s canon– a breathless exercise in sheer comedic speed that was ultimately sabotaged by the times in which it was released. The film bombed at the box office despite positive reviews, owing in part to the national mood following the construction of the Berlin Wall and the dramatic increase in Cold War tensions that such a move engendered.
It was eventually re-released in French and German markets in the mid 1980’s to a much warmer audience reception, but the damage was already done. ONE, TWO, THREE’s failure to launch raised the idea that perhaps Wilder’s best days were behind him. With the Cold War now (mostly) relegated to the history books, there is an opportunity for modern audiences to appreciate ONE, TWO, THREE for what it is: a fizzy comic confection with a dash of misanthropic bite and genuine historical insight.
It may not be a cornerstone work for Mr. Wilder, but ONE, TWO, THREE further cements his legacy as the director that was intimately attuned to the sociological impact of the twentieth century’s world events and the best-equipped to reflect back the absurdity of it all.
IRMA LA DOUCE (1963)
The great irony of director Billy Wilder’s life is arguably that, while he was one of the classical Golden Era’s most-lauded filmmakers, he might have been even more influential had he been born only a decade later. By this, I mean that his desire to explore authentically complex adult relationships and controversial subject matter was hamstrung by outdated social values and an almost-Puritanical cultural attitude towards sex.
These long-held conventions were beginning to crumble away by the beginning of the 1960’s, but their timing overshot Wilder’s prime by a good eight or nine years. He managed to catch a taste of this potential with 1960’s THE APARTMENT, which blazed new cinematic trails by directly acknowledging a widespread culture of corporate-sanctioned adultery. 1961’s ONE, TWO, THREE further dipped a toe into the water by allowing its female romantic lead to have an unabashedly liberated sexuality.
In 1963, Wilder decided to go all in with IRMA LA DOUCE, a sexually-charged and garishly-colorful comedy about Parisian prostitutes that serves up the venerated director’s most naked depiction of adult playtime yet.
IRMA LA DOUCE is based on the musical of the same name, although Wilder and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond didn’t carry over any of the original’s song or dance numbers. The film would have reunited him with screen icon Marilyn Monroe for a third time, had she not died shortly before production began. Instead, Wilder looked to the pair of collaborators who brought him so much success with THE APARTMENT— Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.
Lemmon stars as Nestor Pateau, a Parisian cop whose dedication to his civic duty inadvertently exposes his captain’s corrupt relationship with a bevy of sex workers and gets him thrown off the force. MacLaine plays the titular Irma: a salty, street-wise lady of the night that’s never seen in public without her signature emerald green dress and accompanying tiny pet dog.
She takes pity on poor Nestor, and agrees to submit to him as her new pimp even as they begin a romantic relationship together. Irma’s line of work inevitably drives the virtuous Nestor into seething fits of jealousy, so he hatches a plan with his sage confidant, the local bistro’s barkeep, Mustache (played impeccably by Lou Jacobi).
The plan is simple: impersonate a wealthy British lord and become Irma’s sole client by recycling the same large pile of cash over and over. Nestor puts his plan into action, only to find it works too well, and has accidentally caused Irma to fall in love with his blue-blood alter ego.
Wilder may have dropped the source play’s’ musical form factor, but his adaptation of IRMA LA DOUCE is nevertheless shot and produced like one. Joseph LaShelle’s sumptuous, Oscar-winning cinematography renders the 35mm film frame in vivid Cinemascope Technicolor, and is complimented by confident dolly and crane movements that show off the dozens of buildings and intersecting streets that constitute the massive set built by regular Wilder production designer Alexandre Trauner.
Like his previous films, Wilder opts to cover most of IRMA LA DOUCE in wide masters, using a deep focal length and reflective framing elements like mirrors, thus minimizing the need to cut away to other angles. Despite being shot almost entirely on a soundstage, Wilder manages to bring an authentic Parisian flavor to the story by showcasing several diverse neighborhoods like the produce district and the meat market (which neatly echoes the nearby prostitution ring’s wholesale offering of flesh).
IRMA LA DOUCE’s technical presentation is further rounded out by Wilder’s regular editor Daniel Mandell and Andre Previn’s Oscar-winning, French-flavored score.
Wilder’s trademark misanthropic sense of humor and thematic fascinations are naturally brought out by the film’s source material, beginning with the director’s signature opening voiceover that introduces us to IRMA LA DOUCE’s Parisian setting and colorful social hierarchy. As mentioned earlier, the film is Wilder’s most frankly sexual work to date, flirting wildly with women in various states of undress, plentiful double entendres, and the insitutional corruption on the law enforcement side that aids and abets their business.
The characters’ occupations drive their sense of identity, keeping in tradition with Wilder’s filmography. Their actions are a function of their jobs, and are primarily geared towards that end: the prostitutes solicit sex, the cops overturn apartments in search of suspects… even the butchers rarely deviate from the business of dismantling livestock for consumption.
They never imaginea life for themselves outside of their line of work, except for maybe Mustache and his handy knack for possessing precisely the right skills for any given number of tasks. Having been busted down from a proud cop to a sleazy pimp, Nestor is the only one who has no sense of identity at all. He’s lost his moral anchor, and as a result, his actions to right his ship only compound his sinking.
Like his previous work, Wilder uses the visual language of uniform to convey this theme– the cops dress naturally dress alike, as do the butchers and the pimps. Even Nestor’s impersonation of a British lord appropriates the starched airs of old money aristocracy into a kind of exaggerated uniform.
The use of Nestor’s aristocrat disguise also underscores the distinct class differences between the prostitutes and their customers, another one of Wider’s signature conceits. He wrings several jokes out of the juxtaposition between a high-class blue blood and the low-rent social system of this particular Parisian red light district.
Unlike the disappointing failure of ONE, TWO, THREE, IRMA LA DOUCE bounced back as a sorely-needed hit for Wilder and his collaborators. While the film posted big numbers at the box office, there were many who did not care for the film– including MacLaine herself, despite her resulting Best Actress nomination and a firm conviction in Wilder and Lemmon’s talents that made her believe reading the script beforehand was unnecessary.
Today, IRMA LA DOUCE is a fondly-regarded, yet minor, work in Wilder’s canon. Beyond containing an uncredited cameo from a baby-faced James Caan as an American soldier glued to his portable radio, the film’s chief cinematic legacy lies in the expansion of acceptable sexual imagery and Wilder’s display of a broader, more-exaggerated comedic style. The freewheeling 1960’s had finally arrived, and with it, a reinvigorated Wilder newly-liberated from the stuffy constraints of the Hays Code and Eisenhower-era sexual politics.
KISS ME, STUPID (1964)
After achieving success with his boundary-pushing sex comedy IRMA LA DOUCE (1963), director Billy Wilder and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond attempted to strike gold once again by adapting another provocative play into a feature film. Their new effort was based on a play by Anna Bonacci titled “The Dazzling Hour”, but Wilder’s misanthropic sense of humor led him towards a different, more acerbic title: KISS ME, STUPID (1964).
Unfortunately, the old adage that “lightning never strikes the same spot twice” proved true in the film’s case, as many felt Wilder’s taste for envelope-pushing humor went a little too far this time.
Producing in conjunction with Diamond and his longtime collaborator Doane Harrison, Wilder used the desert community of Twentynine Palms, California to stand in for a fictional Nevada town called Climax (the first of many innuendo-laden gags). The town is so small it seems comprised almost entirely of a single intersection– it’s a place where nothing exciting ever has, or ever will, happen.
Or so the townspeople think, until the world-famous Rat-Pack singer Dino (Dean Martin) rolls into town on his way out of Vegas. Martin is essentially playing his smooth, dapper self here, albeit with a cartoonishly-exaggerated sexual appetite and a casual disregard for the boundaries of matrimony. This presents a major problem for local piano teacher and aspiring songwriter Orville (Ray Walston), whose marriage to the prettiest girl in the town has driven him into a perpetual state of jealousy and paranoia.
Not unlike his director, Walston plays the wiry beta-male as a stickler for the integrity of the written note, and his debilitating possessiveness towards his wife, Zelda, positions him as a classical Wilder protagonist– an otherwise-decent man with a narcissistic fatal flaw that will be his undoing.
Wilder initially wished to have his two-time collaborator Jack Lemmon play Orville, only to have the role temporarily filled by iconic screen comedian Peter Sellers until a sudden heart attack forced him to withdraw and Wilder to reshoot several weeks worth of scenes. Walston ultimately fills the role, delivering a capable performance as a mild-mannered husband pushed to his breaking point.
Sensing a chance to finally hit the big time, Orville and his songwriting partner Barney (Cliff Osmond) secretly sabotage Dino’s car so that he’s stuck in town for the night, and then offer to put him up at Orville’s house so they can aggressively sell him their catalog of unpublished songs. Knowing his affection for dames– especially of the married variety– Orville and Barney concoct a convoluted scheme that will get Zelda (Felicia Farr) out of the house for the night (and on their anniversary, no less), while they bring in a good-time girl from the local brothel to pose as Orville’s wife and offer up to Dino on a silver platter.
Towards that end, they find Polly The Pistol– a street-smart prostitute played to trashy perfection by Kim Novak– and manage to rope her into the operation, only to discover that she can’t stand their guest and won’t be bought so easily.
Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle returns for his second consecutive collaboration with Wilder, lensing KISS ME, STUPID’s 35mm film frame in black-and-white Cinemascope. The film’s cinematography is highly consistent with Wilder’s established utilitarian aesthetic, which favors the polished sculpting of studio lighting and deep focal lengths.
As in his previous work, the film finds Wilder opting to shoot wide masters and use careful framing or classical camerawork instead of cutting to complementary setups or reverse angles. His general approach suggests a belief that visual flash, or even the simple act of a cut, served to distract the audience from the performances and his carefully-crafted dialogue.
If a particular scene could be adequately captured in one setup, he’d do it– case in point: a scene featuring people watching television through a store window, reflected in the glass so as to eliminate the need to cut back and forth between the broadcast and their reactions. KISS ME, STUPID’s compositions and camerawork are largely unobtrusive in this way, except for one very curious exception.
In the film’s penultimate shot, Wilder sends the camera pushing in at warp speed on Farr’s face as she delivers the titular line. The line itself is evocative of Shirley MacLaine’s final “shut up and deal” line that closes THE APARTMENT, yet unlike the static camera that captured it, Wilder’s camerawork here foreshadows the transgressive, jarring techniques pioneered by the successive generation of filmmakers that included the likes of Martin Scorsese.
LaShelle’s return as cinematographer is further echoed by the return of Wilder’s dependable stable of collaborators: production designer Alexandre Trauner, editor Daniel Mandell, and composer Andre Previn, who complements his conventional big band score with sourced swing and rock tracks that reflect the encroaching influence of American youth culture on mass media.
The 1960’s were a great decade for Wilder artistically, in that the cultural climate was more receptive to overt depictions of sexuality. He had helped to open this clearing himself, with the widespread success of 1959’s SOME LIKE IT HOT essentially humiliating the Hays Motion Picture Code into irrelevancy. Each of his features in the years since had become increasingly sexualized, culminating in IRMA LA DOUCE daring to position a French prostitute as the love interest to the chief protagonist.
KISS ME, STUPID’s winking double entendres in particular foreshadow the rise of swinging and other liberated sexual attitudes amongst married couples in that era. For instance, Zelda barely even flinches at Orville’s (fake) confession of his infidelity– she reacts in a non-judgmental fashion that’s almost playful in its dismissiveness, as if the idea of adultery was an mundane and expected as picking up the drycleaning.
There’s also the thought that Orville would offer up his own wife to Dino’s sexual carpetbombing campaign in exchange for finally making his dreams come true, a notion that Orville can only stomach because it’s not actually his wife. As in real life, both the men and women of KISS ME, STUPID use sex to get what they want, only they don’t quite know how to wield this mysterious and powerful new weapon.
To his credit, Wilder doesn’t pull any punches as to the virtuousness of his characters– he lays bare their lack of moral scruples for all to see (in the hopes that we might recognize ourselves in them). Like so many of Wilder’s past protagonists, Orville and Barney’s desperation is directly linked to their lack of success in their chosen profession, leading them to commit questionable acts in the name of their careers.
This isn’t to say that Dino’s success as a singer has made him a paragon of human decency; rather, his assured identification as a rich performer gives him a guiding set of values that he can choose to act upon… even if the values themselves are not objectively positive. Indeed, the story of KISS ME, STUPID is a struggle between two sets of class values: small-town America and big-city Hollywood.
Orville’s cultural paradigm is profoundly shaped by his middle-class upbringing in a rural locale– he sees women as an object to be kept. Conversely, Dino’s membership among the moneyed jet set no doubt influences his view of women as objects to be passed around. Neither value set acknowledges the woman’s agency as a person in her own right– a fact that makes it painfully obvious that sexual politics still had a long way to go.
Uniforms are another key component of Wilder’s artistic aesthetic, and while the domestic setting of KISS ME, STUPID doesn’t necessarily provide many opportunities for their inclusion, he still manages to further explore the cultural significance of their usage. The imagery of showgirls dressed in matching outfits is a literal example, but Wilder also uses Novak’s disguising of herself in the garb of a modest housewife to illustrate his conceit that costumes are themselves a form of uniform in that they signify function rather than identity.
KISS ME, STUPID further reinforces Wilder’s ties to the Rat Pack generation of celebrity, an association that goes back to his collaboration with Bing Crosby in THE EMPEROR WALTZ (1948). Beyond that, it does little to show Wilder’s growth as a filmmaker aside from his eagerness to explore the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable subject matter.
Whereas his previous pioneering efforts were met with applause, the critical reception to KISS ME, STUPID was rather tepid. The film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, although that was to be expected– what Wilder really sought was the approval of the common man, and the collective pushback from that particular demographic was the blow that truly hurt.
He had made his career by walking that fine line between crass and class, but many felt that his efforts in KISS ME, STUPID had finally congealed into smut. Unlike so many of Wilder’s other works, KISS ME, STUPID doesn’t seem to have grown in esteem or appreciation in the intervening decades; there’s a particularly stale air to the film’s sexual politics, a charmlessness that threatens to sink the whole endeavor if it weren’t for the few glimmering flashes of Wilder’s signature brilliance.
While the seeds of Wilder’s decline were arguably sown earlier, KISS ME, STUPID makes it evident that this seeds were beginning to bear their sour fruit, and that the legendary director was firmly on the downslope of the cultural zeitgeist.
THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1966)
In 1966, the venerated director Billy Wilder celebrated his 60th birthday. He had already accomplished so much in his six decades of life, yet he showed no signs of slipping quietly into retirement anytime soon. The pace of his output was beginning to slow, of course, but his dance card was as full as it had ever been.
The clout afforded him by the success of his landmark classics was enough to weather the occasional box office bomb unscathed, but the distasteful reception of 1964’s KISS ME, STUPID seemed to suggest that maybe Wilder’s grasp on the cultural zeitgeist was finally starting to slip. His next effort, THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1966) would provide a brief respite from his sagging decline, but more importantly, would establish the foundations for one of the most wildly successful comedic partnerships in all of cinema– Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Whereas Wilder typically drew inspiration from plays or books, THE FORTUNE COOKIE was inspired by a real-life event Wilder directly observed. During a football game, one of the players accidentally collided with a cameraman, sending him tumbling head over foot. This was enough to get Wilder thinking about the comic potential of such an event if it were the inciting event of a film, and so he enlisted the help of his late-career writing partner I.A.L. Diamond to flesh out the idea into a full-fledged feature.
Unlike other Wilder narratives, which set the action in glamorous locales like LA, New York, Berlin, or Paris, THE FORTUNE COOKIE is set in rust-belt Cleveland, Ohio. A series of intertitles divide the action into several separate chapters, the first of which finds CBS cameraman Harry Hinkle (frequent Wilder leading man Jack Lemmon) getting caught in the path of football player Boom Boom Jackson’s (Ron Rich) full-speed charge and earning himself some unexpected sick leave.
Hinkle belongs firmly to that particular archetype that Lemmon made a career out of playing: the virtuous everyman whose honesty and decency makes him something of a pushover. He’s a figure to be pitied, not admired; his “live and let live” attitude has cost him his marriage and multiple opportunities to better his station.
This injury finally offers a chance to cash in with a hefty lawsuit, and Harry’s brother-in-law, Willie Gingrich, (Walter Matthau) won’t let this particular ship sail by. Gingrich is a lawyer by trade, and a particularly conniving one at that– almost immediately, he concocts a scheme to sue the insurance company into oblivion. Naturally, the successful execution of this scheme requires Harry to do the one thing he cannot do: pretend that the extent of his injuries are far worse than they actually are.
Wilder had wanted to work with Matthau since 1955’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (where he had been the director’s first choice), and his longstanding desire to collaborate with the curmudgeonly actor pays off with an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor, in addition to establishing a comedic partnership between Matthau and Lemmon that would be reprised eleven other times– a handful of which were under Wilder’s stewardship.
Lemmon and Matthau’s complementary comic chemistry here is supported by cast members Judi West, Cliff Osmond, and Ron Rich. West plays Sandy, Harry’s ex-wife and an opportunistic narcissist who only wants back in this life because he might become rich. Osmond, who also appeared in KISS ME, STUPID, plays the mustached Purkey, a private investigator who’s spying on Harry’s recovery for the opposing law firm. Rich plays Boom Boom Jackson, the football player responsible for Harry’s injury and his subsequent volunteer caretaker.
THE FORTUNE COOKIE’s cinematography, captured by returning director of photography Joseph LaShelle, is consistent with Wilder’s established aesthetic. While color film was well on the road to ubiquity in the mid-60’s, Wilder seems to prefer the CinemaScope canvas of black-and-white 35mm film.
The polished lighting and classical camerawork is indicative of Wilder’s artistic forging during the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking– an era that was quickly falling out of fashion in the 60’s, challenged by a new generation of directors who were eager to upend long-held traditions about cinematic grammar, technique, and style. However, THE FORTUNE COOKIE finds Wilder somewhat conceding to this new era by covering the opening football footage in the handheld documentary style.
His predilection for minimal coverage continues, using deep focus and wide compositions to pack the most possible action and story into each setup. The visual consistency of THE FORTUNE COOKIE is reinforced by returning technical collaborators like associate producer Doane Harrison, editor Daniel Mandell, and composer Andre Previn, whose jazzy orchestral score is complemented by jaunty stadium band marches and a wispy rendition of the jazz standard “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”.
THE FORTUNE COOKIE is an archetypical work in Wilder’s canon, providing further examples of his creative hallmarks as an artist. His signature acid-tipped wit is wielded with reckless abandon, making for several clever and misanthropic turns-of-phrase that keep the jokes coming like bursts of machine gun fire.
He’s clearly making use of his newfound freedom as a director of provocative subject matter during an increasingly-permissive era. While THE FORTUNE COOKIE isn’t as overtly sexual as KISS ME, STUPID, Wilder still heavily implies a night of passion between Lemmon and his ex-wife, as well as subverts the camera’s traditionally-male gaze during one scene in particular by placing a surprisingly-revealing silhouette of a nude man showering in the background.
While many other films made during the height of segregation tended to stay strictly within the mainstream white / Anglo-Saxon perspective, Wilder boldly includes a scene with Boom Boom Jackson visiting a blacks-only bowling alley. It’s a jarring scene to watch now, especially since there aren’t many other examples of similar scenes in films from the era. By including a perspective that was mostly ignored by mainstream American cinema of the time, Wilder reinforces his artistic bonafides as a socially-progressive chronicler of the wider human experience.
The film also boasts Wilder’s key thematic fascinations– the iconography of uniform, personal identity as shaped by one’s profession, and class conflict. For most of the characters in the film, their wardrobe is a function of their profession; the various nurses, doctors, and football players required by the story are easily identified via their individual uniforms.
Even the old-money lawyers from the opposing legal team dress alike in dark, expensive suits while they gather in a mahogany-paneled office with vaulted ceilings and paintings of old men in white wigs on the wall. This stuffy, elite image stands in sharp contrast to Matthau’s office, the haphazard disorganization of which implies a scruffier, scrappier operation.
His conniving crookedness is a defining character trait, and echoes how mass entertainment frequently depicts lawyers: bent, shameless, litigious, and self-advantageous. His intimate familiarity with the letter of the law (and thereby the loopholes implied within) informs his moral value set. Meanwhile, Lemmon’s work injury leaves him unable to even do his job, which causes his own moral anchor to cast adrift and leave him vulnerable to the temptation that drives the plot.
Despite some production trouble (Matthau suffered a heart attack that shut down the shoot for several weeks), THE FORTUNE COOKIE was received with a modest success more befitting of a director of Wilder’s stature. Most of the praise centered around the crackerjack chemistry between Lemmon and Matthau, which made for an endlessly entertaining comic partnership.
An objectively better film than KISS ME, STUPID in virtually every respect, THE FORTUNE COOKIE scored Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Writing alongside Matthau’s aforementioned-win for in the Support Actor category. While it can’t match the sheer brilliance of Wilder’s earlier Work, THE FORTUNE COOKIE nevertheless stands as a perfectly enjoyable caper that proves his directing days were far from over.
THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970)
As the twentieth century entered its seventh decade, one of its most prominent cinematic artists was also entering the twilight of his career. After twenty-one feature films, a handful of them among the most celebrated films of all time, director Billy Wilder labored under the growing realization that perhaps his best days were behind him. His influence had been waning for several years, usurped by a new generation of provocative, rebellious auteurs that had grown up watching and learning from his work.
He also began losing longtime collaborators to retirement or even the Great Beyond, as he did with longtime mentor and regular producing partner Doane Harrison. Harrison had been one of the most influential figures in Wilder’s artistic development, grooming him with filmmaking values and techniques like “in-camera cutting” that would shape his aesthetic on a fundamental level.
After a series of flops and modest hits, and a waning confidence in how many more films they had left in them, Wilder and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond began dreaming up an audaciously ambitious idea that would serve as one last large-scale effort– a 260 page script about literary detective Sherlock Holmes’ personal life that would be made for $10 million dollars and released as a 165 minute roadshow presentation, complete with intermission.
This film was THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970), a particularly simple title for a story about exactly that. Set in Victorian-era London and Scotland (roughly 1887) and based on the world-famous characters by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the narrative is split into several separate stories. Both star Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely as Sherlock and his portly assistant Watson, respectively, albeit with a few key modifications made to Doyle’s characters that emphasize their personal vices.
The first story finds Holmes and and Watson attending the ballet (and a subsequent high society after-party), only for Holmes to pretend he’s in a homosexual relationship with Watson in order to evade an aging beauty’s request to help her conceive a child. The second, which features iconic genre actor Christopher Lee as Sherlock’s aristocratic brother, Mycroft, resembles more of a traditional Sherlock story wherein he and Watson travel to Scotland to investigate the disappearance of a missing engineer.
The case brings them face to face with the Loch Ness Monster, which they eventually discover is an elaborate attempt to disguise the testing of a primitive submarine that had been developed as part of a larger arms-race conspiracy with Germany.
As befitting a grandiose road show presentation, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES was shot in sumptuous CinemaScope Technicolor. Wilder works with cinematographer Christopher Challis for the first (and only) time here, who slathers a gauzy, soft filter over the 35mm film image and exposes it using a broad, even lighting scheme that eschews the evocative shadows Wilder had used so effectively in prior films like DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950).
Despite this relatively anonymous visual approach, Wilder nevertheless injects his utilitarian compositional style into the setups, using framing elements like reflections, or classical dolly or crane-based camera movements in lieu of close-ups, cutaways, and other forms of complementary coverage.
In recent films like KISS ME, STUPID (1964), Wilder has exhibited a willingness to take inspiration from the younger generation of emerging auteurs– a development also seen in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES when Wilder incorporates zoom lenses as another tool in his coverage-streamlining arsenal. Longtime production designer Alexandre Trauner returns after a brief absence, as does longtime composer Miklos Rozsa after a particularly lengthy one.
Rosza’s orchestral score is appropriately ornate, giving itself just enough character to stand on its own while also allowing ample room to share the stage with classical excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
With its witty banter and clever turns of phrase, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES contains many of the thematic hallmarks of Wilder’s distinct artistic signature. The narrative’s chief motive as a sensational peek into a famous literary character’s personal life allows Wilder many an opportunity to indulge in risqué images and ideas.
Beyond the film’s sexual humor– thinly-veiled innuendo and various sight gags that play off Sherlock’s aforementioned same-sex ruse– Wilder eagerly courts controversy by revealing Holmes to be a habitual cocaine user.
The narrative is built around the conceit that there’s more to the venerated characters of Sherlock and Watson than readers are familiar with, and as much the film wants to explore what kind of people they were behind closed doors, Wilder’s longstanding fascination with protagonists who identify themselves through the prism of their occupation hampers him in his attempts to explore the characters beyond the intrigue of their jobs.
Over the years, his in-depth exploration of the iconography of uniform has expanded to include tangential ideas like costumes and disguises, which this particular film references when Holmes expresses contempt that his signature cap and cloak is a costume that’s been unwillingly foisted upon him by an adoring public who can only see him in one specific way.
Finally, the canny observations about class differences that informed Wilder’s previous works are also addressed here, albeit in fleeting fashion. Sherlock and Watson’s successes have brought a fair deal of wealth and renown, enabling them to fit in quite naturally at high society parties and other spheres of aristocratic influence. However, the often-seedy, sordid nature of their investigations keeps their interpersonal communication skills grounded at street-level– Sherlock is just as comfortable chatting up a blue collar gravedigger as he is courting refined socialites.
For nearly all of his career, Wilder had utilized the teachings of Doane Harrison to fuel the creative aesthetic responsible for some of the greatest films in cinema. Consider it ironic, then, that Wilder’s first true editing disaster would occur once Harrison was no longer around to offer guidance. The circumstances of production created a situation in which Wilder couldn’t immediately supervise the cutting of the picture by editor Ernest Walter.
This left the post-production process exposed to suffocating mandates from the studio, United Artists. They had suffered a series of misses and flops throughout 1969, and were determined to make THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES a hit– at least, by their own misguided standards. This meant paring the original roadshow presentation down to a normal feature experience, excising nearly half of the intended content and reducing the four filmed storylines to two.
Wilder was understandably devastated by the hasty neutering of the picture, which he openly eulogized as the “most elegant film he’d ever shot”. In many ways, this was the worst possible thing someone could’ve done to Wilder, hitting him directly in his artistic core. Naturally, the finished product came nowhere near his original vision, and opened to mixed reviews and tepid box office receipts.
Some of the excised material can be seen in limited fashion, but the full scope of Wilder’s vision can never be reconstructed as he initially saw it– the negatives containing the deleted storylines were reportedly discarded as soon as the decision came down. THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is an objectively compromised film with little to no chance of a comprehensive reconstruction.
There’s no telling if Wilder’s original vision would have even held together had it been left untampered with, but the film’s legacy stands today as one more way station along the path of Wilder’s slow artistic decline.
As a director who valued the primacy of writing over all else, Billy Wilder often used stage plays as the source material for his feature-length film projects. While he was looking for a project to work on following the disappointing reception of 1970’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, Wilder was contacted by the agent who had earlier sold Wilder on adapting 1955’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH regarding a new play by Samuel Taylor called “Avanti!”.
The play had achieved only a modest, short-lived success on Broadway, but the material provided Wilder with an avenue to indulge his desire to tell, in his words, “a bittersweet love story” in the vein of David Lean’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945) (1). His screenwriting partner, I.A.L. Diamond, initially proved unavailable to join him on this new venture, so he recruited screenwriters Julius J. Epstein and Norman Krasna to collaborate with him on the script.
Fortunately for Wilder, his eventual dissatisfaction with their work coincided with the timing of Diamond’s availability opening back up, and he was able to bring his longtime partner back on to the project. Shot abroad on the Italian mainland as well as the island of Capri, AVANTI! (1972) continues Wilder’s long string of well-crafted European romance comedies even as the ends of said string have frayed to reveal some heavy wear and tear.
AVANTI! puts a distinct spin on the conventional sex farce picture, setting it within the buttoned-up and sexually-chaste climate of Roman Catholic Italy. The fun begins in Baltimore, where the high-powered business tycoon Wendell Armbruster Jr (frequent Wilder headliner Jack Lemmon) receives word that his father has been killed in a car accident while on his annual solo trip to the Italian island of Ischia.
Wendell catches a last minute flight to Rome, and after some comic hijinks at customs, makes the journey by train and then by sea to the remote Mediterranean island. Going on his fifth appearance in Wilder’s filmography, Lemmon turns in a dependably charming performance as the curmudgeonly capitalist at the center of the story.
As Wendell checks into the same motel that his father stayed at during his past vacations over the last ten years and begins the process of recovering the body, Clive Revill’s stuffy hotel director, Carlo Carlucci, divulges a shocking revelation: Wendell’s father wasn’t alone when he died– he was with his longtime secret mistress! It’s then that he meets the mistress’s daughter, a sweet British woman named Pamela Piggoff and played by Juliet Mills, who reportedly was told by Wilder to gain twenty-five pounds for the role.
Together, they grapple with Italy’s sleepy work ethic to retrieve the bodies, even as they inevitably fall into the same kind of extramarital romance their parents once enjoyed.
AVANTI! finds Wilder working with an entirely new set of technical collaborators behind the camera, namely cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller, production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and editor Ralph E. Winters. Kuveiller was selected by Wilder chiefly because of his work on Elio Petri’s A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY (1969)(1), and more or less replicates the director’s utilitarian visual aesthetic.
Considering the picturesque Old World setting, AVANTI!’s cinematography isn’t exactly lush or vibrant. The 35mm film canvas renders Wilder’s simple setups in swaths of cool neutral tones, peppered with warm splashes of red and orange. While the 1.85:1 compositions and classical camerawork arguably fail to assert themselves as inspired or artistic choices, Wilder’s decades of experience behind the camera nonetheless makes for effective storytelling.
Wilder’s signature barbed wit finds many instances to insert itself into AVANTI!, even if the edges have dulled and crusted over with age. The film continues a trend that has developed over the course of his most recent features– an increasing reliance on exaggerated physical comedy. For instance, the entire opening sequence in which Lemmon switches outfits with a fellow passenger on his flight unfolds without a single line of dialogue, relying instead on manic gestures and overzealous facial expressions.
This emphasis on physical comedy establishes something of a cartoonish vibe to the film, further evidencing Wilder’s aesthetic migration from the subtle to the overt. Many other ideas and images mark AVANTI! as a product of Wilder’s particular vision: the usage of mirrors and reflections as compositional devices, the visual shorthand of uniform as an occupational and cultural identifying device (like the robes of the cardinals and the habits of the nuns alluding to the sexually-repressed nature of Roman Catholicism), and the comic exploration of class dynamics in its telling of the love story between a millionaire businessman with his own private jet and a modest woman who values the simple things in life– like lying nude on a rock out in the middle of a lagoon to soak up the sun.
Indeed, AVANTI! marks something of a culmination in Wilder’s career-long pursuit of increasingly-provocative subject matter by featuring nudity for the first time in his work. In keeping with his own wry outlook on the human condition, however, the nudity glimpsed in AVANTI! isn’t meant to be particularly titillating or arousing; the pasty skin on display belongs to a female character with a self-proclaimed weight problem and a male performer who carved out a respected career for himself by displaying a wholesome, squeaky-clean image.
The sight of Lemmon’s bare ass seems like some kind of unholy transgression, and Wilder is well aware this. At the same time, there’s an emotional distance in the way that Wilder stages these moments of sexual playfulness, giving the distinct impression that, in his advanced age, Wilder’s taste for sexual provocativeness is being eclipsed by the tastes of his own audience. The British network Channel 4’s review of the film perhaps said it best:
“Taken at face value, it’s simply a travel comedy about funny foreigners and love in the Mediterranean. Yet what stands out is how uncomfortable Wilder seems to be with making a sex comedy in the 1970s. Forced to take on board the aftershocks of the summer of love but saddled with an old man’s attitude and an old man’s cast, Wilder seems perilously out of his depth.
As Lemmon and Mills strip off to reveal pale white skin and flabby fat, you can’t help feeling that the resolutely misanthropic director is somewhat appalled by the realities of his characters’ bedroom antics.”” (2)
Owing to Wilder’s supreme professionalism as a filmmaker, AVANTI! wrapped on schedule and $100,000 under budget (1), but that kind of technical economy unfortunately would not lead to financial or critical reward. At 2 ½ hours, most critics cited the length of AVANTI! as a major liability, despite a modestly charming story and cast.
Wilder’s efforts would result in several Golden Globe nominations come awards season, but the perennial Academy favorite would find no Oscar love this time. He ultimately grew disappointed with the final product, frustrated by the audience’s refusal to agree with his conviction that AVANTI! was his edgiest film to date. Indeed, the sexual revolution that Wilder had helped to usher in was fast outpacing his own gender politics, saddling AVANTI! with an inherently geriatric worldview.
What Wilder loses in edginess, however, he gains in poignancy. The film’s beautifully bittersweet ending, in which Armbruster and Piggoff decide to bury their respective parents side by side atop a picturesque ocean cliff side instead of burying them under the auspices of the separate lives they led back home, feels authentically sweet because it comes from a place of true, heartfelt sentiment on Wilder’s part.
Here is a highly-acclaimed director looking back on the life he’s led as he nears its end, rejecting the masquerade of modern society and its values in favor of something real and honest. He had built his career on chronicling the inherent absurdity of the Twentieth Century, applying a misanthropic viewpoint to his narrative of the new society that emerged from the ashes of World War II to establish the world we inhabit today.
AVANTI! isn’t particularly edgy or provocative in its depiction of this brave new world, feeling very much like the work of an old man who has nothing to prove. However, with age comes wisdom, and the simple poignancy of Wilder’s storytelling makes for an authentically emotional experience that will resonate for generations to come.
THE FRONT PAGE (1974)
The journalism satire “The Front Page”, written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, had been the subject of a filmed adaptation several times before– once in 1931, and another time in 1940, under the title HIS GIRL FRIDAY (2). With the boundary-busting era of New Hollywood firmly under way, executives at Universal apparently felt the time was right for yet another version.
They looked to director Billy Wilder– a fixture of Old Hollywood and classical filmmaking ideals– as just the kind of guy they needed: a seasoned professional firmly wedged between the pioneering generation of filmmakers and the recklessly ambitious upstarts who came to claim the art of cinema for their own. Wilder himself was intrigued by the idea, thanks to his own stint in the newspaper business in his youth– but whereas previous adaptations took place contemporaneously, he decided to set his own version of THE FRONT PAGE around the time of the play’s first production, 1928 (2).
This wasn’t just because he was intimately familiar with the newspaper industry in the late 20’s, but also because he believed that print journalism was no longer the preferred method of news delivery in the age of television (2). Wilder had long produced his own films, but THE FRONT PAGE sees him passing along the duty to Paul Monash, so that he and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond could focus entirely on the screenplay (2).
THE FRONT PAGE reteams the classic comedy odd couple Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, both of whom had worked with Wilder before on THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1966). Set in Chicago during the height of the Jazz Age, the story finds Chicago Examiner reporter Hildy Johnson (Lemmon) on the eve of his retirement. The role is once again tailored to Lemmon’s upstanding, everyman physicality, which naturally gets put to the test when his attempts to quit and catch a train with his fiancée to a new life are sabotaged by his conniving and tempestuous boss, editor Walter Burns (Matthau).
Burns will try just about anything to keep his best reporter in his fold, so he takes advantage of an unfolding crisis to lure Hildy into one last story: the search and capture of escaped death row convict Earl Williams (Austin Pendleton). Williams, whose only crime was sympathizing with some Italian anarchists, has managed to slip away from his handlers on the night before his execution, and has taken up sanctuary in the prison’s press room.
When Hildy and Burns discover Williams hiding out there, they find themselves torn between their duty to report the news and to help out an innocent man. Susan Sarandon and Carol Burnett also star– Sarandon as Hildy’s glamorous fiancée and Burnett as an outspoken prostitute.
THE FRONT PAGE was lensed by legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who also shot for the likes of such visual stylists as Ridley Scott and David Fincher in his lifetime. His first and only collaboration with Wilder sees a much more subdued execution, thanks to Wilder’s preference for performance and writing over visual flash.
While a cursory glance over his filmography would suggest that he preferred to shoot in black and white, the entirety of Wilder’s post-60’s output was captured in color– a development that, judging by THE FRONT PAGE’s muddy, earth-toned palette, serves to suggest that his interest in image-making rested more with lighting rather than color theory. Cronenweth’s abilities in that arena serve Wilder well, but there seems to be something of a mismatch between the seasoned director’s compositions and his anamorphic 2.35:1 canvas.
His subjects tend to be framed on extreme ends of the frame, leaving lots of dead space. This sense of visual sluggishness extends to the sedated camerawork, characterized by molasses-slow dolly moves. Even the film’s big car chase sequence is captured with a flagging sense of energy, thanks to an under-cranked camera producing a jerky fast-motion effect when played back at normal speed.
To his credit, though, Wilder’s technique here feels consistent with his established tone and setting, recalling early silent films from the narrative’s time period.
Just as a flagging sense of energy marks the potency of THE FRONT PAGE’s cinematography, so too does it lessen the edge of the thematic explorations that inform Wilder’s artistic identity. While the narrative doesn’t quite get around to examining signature topics like class conflict and uniforms, the film does manage to keep a focus on characters that identify almost singularly with their profession– the backbone of Wilder’s artistic worldview.
Like Kirk Douglas’ muckraking reporter in ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)– Wilder’s previous foray into the world of journalism– the characters here are driven almost entirely by career considerations. Burns and his associates live for the glory of the Big Scoop, working themselves to the bone while ignoring their families and their personal lives– even when they’re off the clock.
Hildy is the only one who endeavors to quit his job and live his life for himself and his new bride, and so he must spend the bulk of the narrative fending off his former partners’ machinations to pull him back into the fray.
Since the sexual revolution of the late 1960’s, Wilder’s reputation as a mischievous provocateur has been steadily usurped by the culture around him. His 1972 film, AVANTI!, was the first to feel like his edge had been surpassed by the rapid growth of society’s acceptance of new social norms. With the Hays Motion Picture Code now firmly in the past, it becomes evident that a large portion of Wilder’s interest in sexual taboos lays in the challenge of dancing around limitations and censorship with wit and suggestion.
Outside of Burnett’s character being a prostitute who’s unabashedly unapologetic about what she does for a living, there is very little content of a sexual nature required by the narrative. Instead of letting his characters unleash their inhibitions, he lets them unleash their mouths instead, peppering the film with abrasive language and fairly severe curse words (for the era, at least) in a bid to maintain his artistic edge.
As a result, THE FRONT PAGE fails to recapture Wilder’s particular brand of writerly magic, making for a fairly forgettable entry in the venerated director’s canon. The production process was apparently rife with disharmony between Lemmon, Matthau and Wilder, but not severe enough to keep them from ever working together again (despite their insistence otherwise)(1).
Burnett was the most overtly critical of the finished product, going so far as to publicly apologize to a plane full of people after the film was screened on a flight– although Wilder himself later intimated to his biographer, Charlotte Chandler, that his own sentiments could’ve given Burnett’s a run for their money (2). The first movie of his to not make make a profit since IRMA LA DOUCE a decade earlier, THE FRONT PAGE premiered to utter indifference at the box office and mixed critical reviews that leaned towards the negative.
The picture did, however, receive a few nominations at that year’s Golden Globes: Best Picture- Musical or Comedy, and a pair of nods that pitted Lemmon and Matthau against each other in the Best Actor- Musical or Comedy category. While THE FRONT PAGE is fairly enjoyable in its broad strokes, it can’t hide the fact that Wilder’s directorial power was quickly, and irreversibly, losing steam.
At 72 years old, the venerated Hollywood director Billy Wilder had a much higher proportion of yesterdays than he had tomorrows. He was intent on spending those few remaining tomorrows doing what he loved: making movies. Retirement was, quite simply, not an option. While he was in relatively good health, his advanced age meant that any project he took on could theoretically be his last.
This meant that whatever he took on, it had to be good. In recent years, he hadn’t quite cut the mustard in that regard– his latest output consisted of a string of flawed misfires that came across as increasingly craggy in the context of a youth-oriented Hollywood. In developing his follow up to 1974’s THE FRONT PAGE, Wilder leaned in to the fact that he was a piece of living history,fashioning a new story that evoked his former glory.
Working once again with his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder adapted a novella by author Tom Tyron titled “Crowned Heads” under the title FEDORA, sculpting it as a companion piece to his 1950 milestone, SUNSET BOULEVARD. Both projects dealt with the mystery surrounding a reclusive, aging actress, but times had changed since Wilder’s earlier masterpiece.
Navel-gazing films about the Hollywood industry weren’t doing well in the late-70’s box office, and given the disappointing performance of Wilder’s last few films, Universal executives weren’t exactly tripping over themselves to offer the legendary director his usual deal when he came to them with FEDORA. Instead, they put his script into turnaround, casting a pall over the project that no other studio in town would touch.
No longer would his clout as one of the best filmmakers in history be enough to guarantee a greenlight– he’d have to earn it like everyone else. In the end, it was but by the grace of German investors that Wilder was finally able to start production (2). This development marked a profound turning point in Wilder’s career, signifying nothing less than the beginning of the end.
Throughout his long and storied career, Wilder alternated between homegrown portraits of his adopted American homeland and romantically-styled travelogues of European destinations. FEDORA is the last of the latter, set on a picturesque Greek island. One of Wilder’s marquee leading men, William Holden, returns to the director’s fold after a long absence as Dutch Detweiler, a middle-aged independent producer who’s made the long journey to convince the titular Fedora– a glamorous and reclusive film star– to mount a comeback in his new picture.
Holden’s final performance for Wilder is full of melancholy grit, burdened by a bittersweet nostalgia. Marthe Keller plays the titular Fedora, a paranoid and eccentric shut-in who hides her fading beauty (as well as her true identity) behind a giant pair of opaque sunglasses. Her delusion and paranoia echoes SUNSET BOULEVARD’s Gloria Swanson, confounding Detweiler’s quest at every turn while drawing him ever deeper into her own compelling mystery.
Henry Fonda also appears in a cameo as himself, keeping in line with FEDORA’s portrait of the Hollywood industry by gifting Fedora with a long- overdue honorary Oscar.
Wilder recruits Gerry Fisher as FEDORA’s cinematographer, who lenses the 35mm film picture in color on a 1.85:1 canvas. Wilder’s approach to cinematography was much more evocative in his black and white days, but somehow it didn’t quite translate as well to his color pictures. FEDORA’s exterior scenes are overexposed, imbuing the film with a harsh, blinding sunlight that washes out his color palette.
While Wilder’s preference for minimal coverage is largely intact, there is a distinct lack of inspiration in FEDORA’s visual approach, utilizing classical camera moves and zooms in a manner that adds little in the way of kinetic energy.
Just as Holden returns for one last round with Wilder, so too do two key technical collaborators from the director’s prime deliver their final commissions for him: production designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Miklos Rozsa, whose mysteriously romantic score is complemented by the local flavor of Greek folk music and Jean Sebelius’ eerie classical work, “Valse Triste”, during a centerpiece funeral scene.
With FEDORA, Wilder takes great pains to echo the key narrative beats of SUNSET BOULEVARD, beginning in media res with the death of a main character and Holden’s gravelly narration setting the scene. However, FEDORA’s tepid imitation of its predecessor only underscores its supremacy, and illustrates how far Wilder’s potency has withered in the decades since.
That’s not to say that his signature is absent from FEDORA entirely– his fondness for European culture (and Paris specifically) is highly prominent, as is his desire to retain his cultural edge in the face of a rapidly-liberalizing society.
As the sexual revolution gave way to the Free Love era and beyond, Wilder had to forsake his signature mischievousness and titillating taste in favor of increasingly crude gestures like blunt profanity, nudity, and misguided jabs at homosexuality. Indeed, FEDORA’s few flashes of classic Wilder wit comes when he’s lambasting the act censorship itself.
In her review for the New York Times, critic Janet Maslin described FEDORA as having “the resonance of an epitaph”. Indeed, a funereal air hangs heavy over the film, the product of a filmmaker who is grappling with his legacy as his career nears its end– even the script that Detweiler is trying to get in front of Fedora is titled “The Snows of Yesteryear”.
Unfortunately, FEDORA would not be greeted with the same kind of praise that enshrined SUNSET BOULEVARD as one of the greatest films ever made. The film premiered at Cannes as the culmination of a retrospective on his life’s work, only to be hampered by mixed critical reviews that admired Wilder’s intent and introspectiveness rather than the actual film itself.
United Artists picked up the film after it was dropped by its original distributor following a disastrous charity screening (3), and was given a limited release in select American and European markets with a meager marketing budget– virtually ensuring that the film would bomb (1).
This strategy no doubt doomed FEDORA to failure, but it arguably would have floundered on its own merits, given how much time it devotes to attacking Hollywood’s obsession with youth culture. While it’s a profoundly flawed film that lives in the shadow of the monumental SUNSET BOULEVARD, FEDORA nonetheless shows Wilder’s desire to end his career on the level of his mid-century masterpieces.
His desire for greatness is visibly palpable on the screen, but his swan song is ultimately compromised by both his diminished reach and the eagerness of Hollywood to relegate him to the annals of cinematic history.
BUDDY BUDDY (1981)
Following the disappointing reception of what he intended as his swan song– 1978’s FEDORA— director Billy Wilder went into an unofficial retirement. However, he continued to write new projects with his scripting partner I.A.L. Diamond, in the hopes they’d cook up an idea worth mounting one last physical effort for.
At the dawn of the 1980’s, MGM contacted the 75-year-old Wilder to develop an American remake of a 1973 French hit, L’EMMERDEUR (2). Despite his self-imposed retirement, Wilder was hungry to direct once more, and saw in the project an opportunity to reunite with his comic partners Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau while squeezing out one more feather in his cap.
The resulting work, 1981’s BUDDY BUDDY, regrettably failed to recapture the magic of the trio’s earlier collaborations, and would ultimately become the venerated filmmaker’s final film– closing out his amazingly accomplished career on a sour, anticlimactic note.
Set in humdrum Riverside County, California– the epitome of blandly generic locales– BUDDY BUDDY is a textbook, if unexciting, example of the comic dynamic between Lemmon and Matthau. It tells the story of Trabucco (Matthau), a hitman for the mafia who has been sent to assassinate a fellow gangster before he can testify in a high-stakes criminal case.
Matthau is the same old sourpuss grump here that he’s always been, slipping in and out of his various hits by becoming a master of disguise and blending into the background in various mailman and priest costumes. He stumbles into an unwitting partnership with Lemmon’s Victory Clooney– an ulcer-ridden and suicidal man who has made his own journey out to Riverside to find his wife, Celia (Paul Prentiss), suspected of running off to a sex clinic in the area.
Lemmon also doesn’t expand upon the plucky, goody-two-shoes characterization he built his career upon, but his character’s occupation as a censor for CBS– mentioned in passing but never truly explored– allows for Wilder to throw one last tomato at his lifelong nemesis: institutional censorship. Together, these mismatched men of a certain age will have to begrudgingly work together if they’re both to achieve what they want.
Wilder may have played an influential role in the development of black-and-white noir cinematography during Hollywood’s Golden Age, but his late-career work tended to lack that same sort of dimensionality and pop. Indeed, BUDDY BUDDY might just be Wilder’s most visually unappealing film ever– although admittedly, I had to watch the film panned and scanned onto a bootleg VHS-to-DVD transfer since the film hasn’t been officially released to disc.
Shot on color 35mm film by cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr, BUDDY BUDDY boasts bright, naturalistic colors… but that’s about it. The pan-and-scan transfer effectively compromises the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, obliterating any semblance of artistic composition. Combined with sleepy, uninspired camerawork, unimaginatively broad lighting, and simplistic coverage, BUDDY BUDDY comes off as a lifeless, flabby affair suited more for the small screen than the cinema.
Wilder’s minimalistic aesthetic, so precise and muscular in his prime, is so minimal here that it’s essentially non-existent. The only semblance of energy comes in the form of composer Lalo Schifrin’s score, which has a jazzy character that doesn’t take itself too seriously, oozing the flirtatious intrigue of a cheeky spy film.
If it seems Wilder’s unique artistry has forsaken him entirely on the visual front, the spectre of thematic inspiration lingers in the periphery like a ghost. BUDDY BUDDY sees the director’s last usage of the iconography of uniform, building further upon the idea of uniforms co-opted for disguise. Matthau’s character routinely escapes his crime scenes by dressing up in the ubiquitous uniforms of mailmen, priests, and even milkmen, using them as visual shorthand to manipulate the assumptions of those around him to his advantage.
BUDDY BUDDY is a comedy of very little laughs, but it does contain a few dying spasms of Wilder’s signature acid-tipped wit– like in the scene where Lemmon interrupts a suicide attempt to urinate. By the same token, however, Wilder’s onscreen depiction of this act points to his increasingly-sophomoric attempts to remain edgy in the face of a society rapidly out-liberalizing him.
Whereas these attempts at risqué humor used to be coded with clever innuendo and sight gags, Wilder now puts it forth rather bluntly and crudely. Just like seeing Lemmon’s bare ass in 1972’s AVANTI!, there’s something about Matthau uttering the word “fuck” on-screen in BUDDY BUDDY that feels fundamentally unsettling; sacrilegious, even.
The final film of a venerated auteur is an inherently intriguing notion. Most directors spend so much of their short time on earth commenting on the nature of life that it’s reasonable to assume his or her swan song holds some kind of parting wisdom or insight that eludes those in the spring of youth. Some, like Stanley Kubrick, don’t get to choose their final film, passing on suddenly without warning– yet, their final works feel like a proper capstone anyway.
Others, like Wilder, do receive the privilege of anticipating a new project might be the last, but nevertheless fail to rise to the challenge. BUDDY BUDDY is a stuffy, uneven, and joyless final work from one of the most delightfully mischievous filmmakers to ever live.
The toothlessness and ultimate irrelevance of the experience suggests that perhaps Wilder simply didn’t care about making movies anymore– a silly notion when considering that his love for filmmaking is the only reason he was coaxed back in the first place. BUDDY BUDDY simply made it plain for all to see– Wilder’s magical touch was gone.
The film was understandably a total failure at the box office, savaged by horrified critics and indifferent audiences. Even Wilder himself detested the final product, publicly abandoning any sense of pride or ownership in it. BUDDY BUDDY’s failure essentially ended the partnership between Wilder, Lemmon and Matthau (although the two comedians would reunite for a second run of well-received comedies some years later), but it didn’t dampen Wilder’s enthusiasm to generate new work– at least, not initially.
He continued writing with Diamond until Diamond’s death in 1988, and even then he didn’t officially retire from filmmaking until 1995. While that decision retroactively made the then-fourteen-year old BUDDY BUDDY his final film, it did allow the cinematic community to stop agonizing over his current work and start appreciating the entirety of his contribution to the art form. He was awarded the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986, and then the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award two years later.
On March 27th, 2002, at the ripe old age of 95, Billy Wilder passed away from pneumonia, a complication of the cancer that had overtaken him. He was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, where his close friends and collaborators– Lemmon, Matthau, and Marilyn Monroe– had also been laid to rest.
As an artist fundamentally shaped by the historical sweep of the twentieth century, he would not live to experience very much of the twenty-first, but he would leave behind a transgressively pioneering, bitingly funny, and deeply human body of work that will resonate for generations to come.
Like many people my age, my first brush with the work of director Billy Wilder happened within the institution of education. My college’s film history class screened his 1944 classic DOUBLE INDEMNITY to illustrate the conventions of the noir genre, my professor taking great pains to hammer home the fact that the images and ideas we associate with noir– fedora hats, Venetian blinds, femme fatales– originated from this film almost singularly.
Billy Wilder was held up to us as a preeminent director of Hollywood’s Golden Age, helping to shape the art form’s evolution in the decades following World War 2. Due to the sheer breadth of cinematic history that needs to be covered in a semester, Wilder’s innovations in chiaroscuro and moral ambiguity were duly, yet briefly, noted as we moved on to the next bullet point on the syllabus.
This afforded a serviceable overview of Wilder’s contribution to one genre in particular, but created a severe deficit in the understanding of Wilder as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time.
Beyond the marquee names of world leaders and cultural figures from the last 116 years, it’s a challenge to think of a singular person so fundamentally and intimately shaped by the grand sweep of the 20th Century than Wilder, to the point that its major social movements are an inherent part of his artistic aesthetic. Having been born in 1906 and died in 2002, Wilder saw nearly the entirety of the 20th century with his own eyes.
If the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 could be thought of as the inciting event that sparked World War 1, causing a cascading tumble of events ultimately culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall, then Wilder was born right into the epicenter: Austria-Hungary. His formative years were spent in other history-soaked locales like Vienna and Berlin, where he worked as a journalist and drew inspiration from filmmakers like Ernst Lubitsch in his initial forays into screenwriting.
His experiences there gave him an appreciation for the working world, gifting him with a set of richly thematic ideas about occupational identity that he’d draw from for the rest of his life. After making his first feature– 1934’s MAUVAISE GRAINE— in Paris, he’d journey to America to work in Hollywood.
This move also made him something of a refugee, having fled Europe to escape an ascendant Nazi regime that would eventually ensnare members of his own immediate family during the Holocaust a decade later. Within five years of his immigration to America, Wilder had already scored himself an Oscar nomination for his writing with 1939’s NINOTCHKA. This led to his breakout directing effort, 1942’s THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR— the success of which kicked Wilder’s filmmaking career into overdrive.
Great comedy can sometimes stem from a place of profound tragedy and anguish, and it wasn’t until Wilder lost family members to a genocide that he himself only narrowly escaped that he found his most effective artistic voice. The tragedy added an edge to his sense of humor, imbuing him with something of a vindictiveness during his early career that manifested itself most plainly in his cinematic depictions of German characters (especially Nazis) during that time.
Whereas conventional Hollywood comedies preferred to play it safe and widely-accessible, Wilder’s unique edge made him one of the most incisive and biting satirists of his day; able to straddle the line between drama comedy with effortless ease.
The years following World War 2– the 1950’s in particular– were Wilder’s boomtimes, seeing him deliver a nearly-unbroken string of classics like DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), STALAG 17 (1953), SABRINA (1954), THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and THE APARTMENT (1960).
He became one of the leading directors of his generation, playing a hugely influential role in the establishment of mid-century cinematic values and ideals. As an artist who took great pleasure in dancing around censorship as well as great pains to continually push the envelope in regards to sexuality, Wilder spent a great deal of his career doing battle with the restrictive Hays Motion Production Code.
He ultimately succeeded in vanquishing this great dragon, but just as any hero needs a good villain in order to be compelling, the sudden absence of a serious challenger to his creative expression diminished his directorial power to the point of near-irrelevance. Soon enough, society’s acceptance of liberal attitudes began to outpace his own, and as such, the tone of his films took on an increasingly geriatric, crusty tenor.
The protracted twilight of his accomplished career was a steady downward spiral of one heartbreaking misfire after another: KISS ME, STUPID (1964), THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970), FEDORA (1978), and BUDDY BUDDY (1981), amongst others. Despite these disappointments, Wilder had built up enough goodwill with audiences over the decades that his legacy as one of the greatest and most influential American directors was secure.
Serving both as a writer and a director on all of his films, Wilder was an auteur in the truest sense of the word, but he knew he couldn’t do it alone. Judging by the names that pop up several times over the course of twenty-six features and forty-seven years, Wilder was a man who valued his collaborators, and kept them around.
He was fond of re-using his leading men and ladies, forging lasting bonds with iconic Golden Age stars like Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Ray Milland, Erich Von Stroheim, Fred MacMurray, Audrey Hepburn, and Shirley MacLaine. He was an active participant in the formation of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau’s comic partnership– one of the most influential comedy duos in cinematic history.
With a total of seven leading performances for Wilder, Lemmon in particular came to be something of an avatar for the comic side of the director’s artistic personality, while William Holden’s four appearances made him the embodiment of Wilder’s darkly serious side. Understandably, these are a lot of names– and these are just the performers.
Wilder frequently turned to the same department heads to help him realize his vision. While he always directed solo, he preferred to write with a partner– routinely collaborating with Charles Brackett during the first half of his career and I.A.L. Diamond during the second. Cinematographers John Seitz, Charles Lang, and Joseph LaShelle were frequent and familiar faces on Wilder’s sets, each one helping to shape the director’s uniquely minimalist aesthetic in his own individual way.
Alexandre Trauner often served as the production designer, working in concert with legendary costume designer Edith Head to give Wilder’s films a polished elegance. Doane Harrison, initially something of a mentor figure for Wilder in the art of direction, would later become both an editing and producing partner, succeeded on the Steenbeck by Arthur P. Schmidt and Daniel Mandell. Finally, Miklos Rosza, Franz Waxman, and Andre Previn all served several tours of musical duty, supplementing Wilder’s witty dialogue with the swells of lush Old Hollywood orchestration.
As a director who valued the craft of story over technical pyrotechnics, Wilder’s visual aesthetic was characterized by a muscular kind of minimalism, embracing a calculated economy of mine-en-scene that endeavored to tell the maximum amount of story with a minimum of coverage. He used close-ups the way they should be used: sparingly, for effect.
Oftentimes, he’d incorporate his reverse shot into the primary setup, using compositional elements like mirrors or window reflections. As a member of the Golden Age club of filmmakers, he almost exclusively used classical camera movement techniques like dollies and cranes, and most likely thought of New Hollywood-style handheld camerawork as undisciplined, perhaps even vulgar.
His lighting schemes were always polished and glamorous in that quintessentially Old Hollywood way, although they tended to have a diminishing effect in his late-career color works.
Like many directors, Wilder’s artistic aesthetic coalesced around a small set of distinct themes that he’d explore time and time again. These themes were: characters who are defined almost solely by their occupations, the iconography of uniform, and class conflict. The typical Wilder protagonist was a man (and almost exclusively, at that) whose primary sense of purpose was derived from his job, leaving little time for family or a social life.
Oftentimes, his plots were defined by his protagonists’ desire to achieve something for the sake of his career. A prime example of this was Kirk Douglas’ muckraking journalist in ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), a man so hellbent on scooping The Big Story that he paid the ultimate cost. In this sense, Wilder was very much a man of his time– the idea of having a “career” instead of a job, especially in the white-collar sense, was a notion that gained popularity because of the postwar prosperity of the 1950’s.
This theme is so prevalent throughout Wilder’s work because the man himself tended to identify his character through his profession, to the extent that his tombstone would read, in his signature biting wit: “I’m a writer, but then nobody’s perfect”.
Explorations of class conflict were a natural tangent from Wilder’s default paradigm, with his earlier work comparing and contrasting the social dynamics between the poor and the rich. Many films, like THE EMPEROR WALTZ (1948), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and SABRINA (1954), were structured in this way, reflecting the Old World’s institutional inequality of wealth.
As the middle class’s economic influence grew following World War 2, Wilder would tailor his approach by using their desire for upward mobility as a narrative engine. In later works like THE APARTMENT (1960), ONE, TWO, THREE (1961) and BUDDY BUDDY (1981), the characters live comfortable lives but possess a drive for more, simply because it is within reach.
Wilder used the iconography of uniform as a kind of visual shorthand for these conceits, oftentimes choosing professions and class positions for his characters that were able to be quickly conveyed in a sartorial sense: military officers, cops, chauffeurs, nurses, priests, etc. While not exactly uniforms per se, Wilder’s middle-class heroes almost always wore neutral-colored suits to signify their socioeconomic status, while he often depicted the privileged sector in the standardized evening attire of tuxedos or white dinner jackets.
In later works, Wilder would explore the usage of uniform as manipulation, with characters wearing these functional outfits as a kind of costume or disguise. In a sense, he had imbued his characters with the lessons he learned exploring this topic, giving them a strategic advantage that made accomplishing their narrative objectives all the easier.
In studying the entirety of Wilder’s output, his legacy to the art of cinema is apparent with crystal clarity. He may not have been a supreme visual stylist, but he was a narrative trailblazer who succeeded in expanding the range of socially-acceptable subject matter and the types of stories filmmakers were allowed to tell.
His contributions to the development of the noir genre are a crucial player in that legacy, but are ultimately little more than a supporting role. He may have gained a reputation as an acid-tipped misanthropist, but that doesn’t mean he was necessarily a cynic at heart. He ultimately believed in the intellect of his audience, and his writing reflected that, with its subtle shading and winking references that never stooped to patronize the lowest common denominator.
His status as one of the best filmmakers to ever live is ironclad, reinforced by his position as one of the Academy’s most-celebrated artists. With a total of 21 Oscar nominations under his belt, he’s tied with Martin Scorsese as the second most-nominated director in Academy history, just behind William Wyler.
Twelve of those nominations were for his screenwriting, leaving him with a record that went unbroken until Woody Allen surpassed it with 1997’s DECONSTRUCTING HARRY. He would win a total of six Oscars, two of them for directing THE LOST WEEKEND and THE APARTMENT.
Those films, along with DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SUNSET BOULEVARD, THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH, SABRINA, and SOME LIKE IT HOT, are the bedrock of Wilder’s legacy. They have a timelessness to them that has transcended their mid-century origins, and continues to inspire generation after generation of directors– from the Coen Brothers, to Fernando Trueba, to Michael Hazanvicious, who’s Oscar-winning breakout film THE ARTIST (2011) is as much a love letter to Wilder in particular as it is to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
He may not be a fixture of mainstream American culture anymore, but Wilder nevertheless continues to shape and inform it, perpetually influencing the influencers who look to him as a role model and silent mentor. As long we continue to recognize and show the absurdity of human nature, Billy Wilder will always live on, laughing right along with us.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———