Director Retrospective: Billy Wilder
After doing a few retrospectives on talented and/or influential directors with smaller catalogs, I decided to watch and write about a very prolific director — one who created some of the best examples and most enduring films in a couple different genres and who garnered immense respect during his lifetime for the breadth of his career as well as the high quality (and remarkable consistency) of the films therein. For this director retrospective, I’m focusing on the films of Billy Wilder.
The Big List
So far, I’ve watched 25 (of 26) feature-length films by Billy Wilder. [The only one that I wasn’t able to track down and watch for this retrospective was Wilder’s final film, Buddy Buddy. Or, more accurately, the only copies of this film that I was able to find were in a format that won’t play on U.S. devices. Ha ha! Oh well…]
Anyway, here’s the full list: Mauvaise Graine (1934); The Major and the Minor (1942); Five Graves to Cairo (1943); Double Indemnity (1944); The Lost Weekend (1945); The Emperor Waltz (1948); A Foreign Affair (1948); Sunset Boulevard (1950); Ace in the Hole (1951); Stalag 17 (1953); Sabrina (1954); The Seven Year Itch (1955); The Spirit of St. Louis (1957); Love in the Afternoon (1957); Witness for the Prosecution (1957); Some Like It Hot (1959); The Apartment (1960); One, Two, Three (1961); Irma La Douce (1963); Kiss Me, Stupid (1964); The Fortune Cookie (1966); The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970); Avanti! (1972); The Front Page (1974); Fedora (1978).
The Top Five — No, Wait! — The Top TEN (That’s Better)
Because Wilder directed so many films and because picking a “Top Five” for him would be a little too easy (after all…his “Top Five” are all legitimate cinematic masterpieces worthy of preservation), I’ve decided to go with the same approach that I took with my Steven Spielberg retrospective and pick a “Top TEN” instead. So here are my picks (ranked #1-10, with some very brief comments on each)…
The Apartment (1960) – Picking the “best” Billy Wilder movie is a bit of an exercise in futility. As I was planning to write this director retrospective, there were five films that I legitimately considered placing in the #1 spot; and I believe a good argument could be made for any of them. In the end, I went with my “favorite” as Wilder’s “best” — i.e. the 1960 film that garnered Wilder a “Best Picture” Academy Award, The Apartment. I’ve mentioned in previous retrospectives that I’m not much of a fan of the “romantic-comedy” genre in general. That said, The Apartment — which I suppose is more of a “romantic-dramedy” — is a brilliant, complicated, and incredibly moving film that transcends genre in my opinion, resulting in a fascinating study of tragically flawed characters amid a mid-20th century American landscape. In terms of the narrative itself: A low-level employee (Baxter) at the Consolidated Life insurance company begins a side-arrangement with the higher-ups in his company to lend them his conveniently located apartment (to serve as site for their extra-marital affairs) in exchange for promotions within the company. But this “arrangement” is thrown into disarray when Baxter becomes embroiled in a love-triangle with an elevator attendant (Miss Kubelik) and a company executive (Sheldrake). The three lead performances are exceptional: Fred MacMurray as the opportunistic Sheldrake, Shirley MacLaine as maybe (?) the original “manic-pixie-dream-girl” Fran Kubelik, and particularly Jack Lemmon (in one of his very best roles in a long and distinguished career) as the eager-to-please Baxter. In their own way, each of these characters copes with loneliness, depression, anxiety, etc. They take advantage of others and act in ways that complicate their interests (i.e. at times, they seem to sabotage themselves). They want to be accepted and happy and work to both ensure those things and to hasten their collapse, simultaneously. A deeply, deeply “human” film about the ways we treat each other and ourselves (for better or worse), The Apartment is a landmark work in a distinguished directing career.
Ace in the Hole (1951) – Perhaps a bit of a “surprise” pick here at #2 — especially considering the next three films on the list — but I think that Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is as brilliant as it is underrated by most viewers. [To be fair, it was a box-office bust on its initial release, so I guess it was underrated then too.] Ace in the Hole tells the story of an amoral yellow-journalist named Chuck Tatum (played by Kirk Douglas), who hears about a man trapped in a nearby cave while illegally gathering Native-American artifacts. Quick to turn this story into a national sensation, Tatum brings spectacle to the occasion by manipulating the mass-media and works with other locals (including the town sheriff and the wife of the victim) to postpone the man’s rescue for the sake of increased suspense and, most importantly, ratings. Douglas is absolutely fantastic here as the ice-cold villainous Chuck Tatum — about as far a departure as one could expect from an actor who played heroes like Spartacus and Colonel Dax (in Stanley Kubrick’s films). Douglas oozes both cognitive and physical menace and absolutely chews up every scene that he’s in, as his character has total disregard for anyone else, unless they can somehow benefit him. And Wilder effectively captures a proto-reality television type vibe with those crowds of people who descend upon the small town so that they can feel like they’re a part of a national story — never minding that a person’s life is on the line. Wilder’s work is, in general, interesting because of the way that it can / will fluctuate between intense humanism and intense cynicism, but this movie abandons any optimism for one of the most pessimistic views of modern American society that one could imagine, a view in which everyone involved is culpable to one degree or another. What is easily, to my mind, the darkest work in Wilder’s oeuvre and arguably his most timely and relevant film for today, Ace in the Hole ought to be required viewing.
Sunset Boulevard (1950) – For many people and probably most cinephiles, I’d bet that Sunset Boulevard is likely rated as their “#1 Billy Wilder Film,” and, honestly, I can’t argue with that assessment. It’s a truly fantastic film and its success — both commercially and critically — allowed Wilder a lot of leeway to take chances in his subsequent movies. From the amazing swimming-pool shot that opens the film to the cameo appearances by Hollywood icons like Buster Keaton and Cecil B. DeMille to the movie-in-a-movie by Erich von Stroheim (who plays another character altogether), Sunset Boulevard is one of the greatest “meta” movies of all time. Dealing with a shady screenwriter using a past-her-prime actress from a bygone era for security, the performances here are very good from William Holden (as said shady writer, Joe Gillis), Nancy Olson (as Betty Schaefer), and the aforementioned von Stroheim (as the piano-playing butler, Max). But the real star here — both literally and figuratively — is Gloria Swanson, who totally CRUSHES it as Norma Desmond in one of the all-time great performances ever captured on film. She chews up and spits out every scene that she’s in and does so in a way that you pity her loneliness and fear her madness. I mean…this scene or this scene or this scene, etc. etc. etc. Swanson owns the role and goes bigger than big “BIG” here, and it’s wonderful. Sunset Boulevard isn’t exactly an “easy” watch; and despite its weirdness, it’s also one of his tonally darkest films. [I personally think Ace in the Hole, the follow-up to Sunset Boulevard, is even a little darker than this, but it’s close.] This is a film that every film-lover watches and studies for good reason.
Some Like It Hot (1959) – Depending on my mood, I could easily imagine Wilder’s Some Like It Hot being higher on this list; after all, I think it’s the most “re-watchable” among the director’s best films. The narrative revolves around a pair of poor jazz musicians (Joe & Jerry) during Prohibition, who accidentally witness a mob execution and, as a result, must go on the run. In order to survive, they disguise themselves as two women (Josephine & Daphne) and join an all-female ensemble, where they meet the band’s frontwoman (Sugar Kane). And…from that point, the movie goes pretty crazy with another layer of disguise for one of the characters, some unexpected romantic relationships, etc. The cast is really, really good here — particularly Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Curtis channels his inner Cary Grant for one of his disguises; and Lemmon, who would go on to do five more films with Wilder during his career, demonstrates some amazing comedic timing throughout. Marilyn Monroe’s performance in this film is more uneven, as the actress was infamously difficult to work with during Some Like It Hot. Apparently, she was suffering from extreme anxiety at the time and was also pregnant; and her refusal to arrive on-time for her scenes and her inability to remember her lines greatly irritated Wilder and cost the studio hundreds of thousands of dollars in delays to production. [Previously, the actress had appeared in The Seven Year Itch; however, this would mark the last time that Monroe and Wilder worked together. She passed away a few years after this film’s release.] Still…her entrance into the film is great and she has some good chemistry with both Curtis and Lemmon at various points. And Joe E. Brown also deserves a shoutout for his excellent supporting performance as Osgood Fielding III, a dimwitted and head-over-heels millionaire who falls for Lemmon’s “Daphne” character and has some of the best lines in the film. Simply put, Some Like It Hot is definitely one of the funniest films ever made and one that also feels ahead of its time.
Double Indemnity (1944) – Honestly, I wouldn’t bat an eye if someone picked Double Indemnity as their favorite (and “best”) Billy Wilder film. Or, more accurately, I think that any of these films listed in my “Top Five” Wilder films are worthy movies for the #1 spot and would easily be the best work of most other directors’ filmographies. Adapted from a James Cain novel by Wilder and Raymond Chandler (who hated each other), Double Indemnity follows Walter Neff, an insurance salesman, who conspires with a woman named Phyllis Dietrichson to murder her husband and to make it look like an accident so that they can collect his insurance policy; however, things begin to fall apart as Neff’s friend and successful insurance investigator, Keyes, starts to piece together the inconsistencies surrounding the man’s untimely death. Both of the leads here — Fred MacMurray as Neff and Barbara Stanwyck as Dietrichson — are superb here, as is Edward R. Robinson in a supporting role as Keyes. MacMurray, who is probably best known to most folks for his all-American family-man portrayal in the TV show Father Knows Best, really shines when working with Wilder in roles that were very “against type” for the actor — first in this film and again as Sheldrake in The Apartment. As for Stanwyck, this is personally my favorite performance of hers that I’ve ever seen, as she plays the “femme fatale” trope pretty much perfectly here. This was not Wilder’s first foray into the noir mystery/thriller genre — i.e. he’d just made the worth-seeing Five Graves to Cairo the year before — but it is arguably his best work in that genre, depending on how you feel about and how you classify Sunset Boulevard (itself a tonally strange film). The film’s black-and-white visuals are consistently stunning and the script’s dialogue is razor sharp, resulting in what is certainly one of the best and most memorable examples of film-noir of all time.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) – I’d wager that I have The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes rated a bit higher than most people. I’m certainly not a Sherlock Holmes expert or enthusiast; however, I found Wilder’s take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective to be engaging, sympathetic, and thought-provoking. Wilder’s “biggest” film (i.e. he originally envisioned it as a kind of traveling picture-show that would be screened in relatively limited theaters and would be more like an “event” than a movie), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was actually set to also be the director’s longest and most epic film — with an original run-time of about 3.5 hours and several different cases within for Holmes and Watson to solve. [The final version of the film, however, was cut down to about 2 hours and focuses mostly on one case, involving a mysterious disappearance, a castle with ancient monks, and the Loch Ness Monster.] The performances here are strong — particularly Robert Stephens as Sherlock Holmes, Colin Blakely as Dr. Watson, and Christopher Lee (because of course!) as Mycroft Holmes. Stephens’s portrayal is notable here, as he pushes his version of Holmes into interesting territory: Holmes is brilliant but also excruciatingly lonely in his own way — he’s addicted to opium, susceptible to bouts of depression, and implicitly homosexual in a hetero-normative society. (If you’re a fan of the more recent BBC television Sherlock Holmes, then you’ll almost certainly like Wilder’s film, which helped to inspire Cumberbatch’s version of the character.) But perhaps more than anything, this is Wilder’s greatest “What if…?” film because one senses an even greater movie beneath the surface — one that was lost due to studio cuts, costs, and interference.
Stalag 17 (1953) – Despite being critically lauded and receiving several Academy Award nominations upon release — including a Best Actor win for William Holden (he probably should’ve won a few years earlier for Sunset Boulevard), it seems like Wilder’s Stalag 17 has mostly been forgotten by most casual viewers. Based on a play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski from their experiences during WWII, Stalag 17 focuses on a group of American soldiers living in a German POW camp. One of the most memorable aspects of the film is its mixture of seemingly disparate genres. On the surface, it’s obviously a military/war film due to its setting, characters, conflict, etc. However, it’s also a comedy — the soldiers, many of whom feel the monotony of prison life, develop games and pranks to breakup the reality of their day-to-day life as well as to invoke some sense of self-agency and resistance in the camp. There’s also drama and some considerable suspense here too, since there is a spy amongst the POWs who keeps revealing their communication and escape plans to the German officers. [In a rare shooting schedule, Wilder purposefully filmed Stalag 17 in scene-order which meant that the spy’s identity would be a surprise to even some of the actors.] Although much of the comedy and some of the performances feel a bit overacted (probably because some of the actors were coming from the stage rather than prior film experience), Stalag 17 features an intriguing premise, real stakes for the characters, interesting genre-fluidity, and good turns from the aforementioned Holden, Sig Ruman, and director-turned-actor Otto Preminger. An underrated WWII film and one with a slightly different tone/style than we’re accustomed to at this point.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – Depending on who you talk to, Witness for the Prosecution is a Wilder film that sometimes sneaks its way into the “Top Five” films of the director’s career as a sort of darkhorse pick. And while I don’t think it’s worthy of “Top Five” consideration, I would definitely have it ranked in the #6-12 range depending on my mood at the time. For this particular retrospective, I’ll slide it into the middle of the pack at #8. Wilder’s only real courtroom drama and based on a play written by crime-novelist icon Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution is buoyed by two great performances: Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich (two actors who are pretty much great in every film that I’ve ever seen them in). Laughton plays Sir Wilfrid Roberts — a highly accomplished, highly intelligent, and somewhat curmudgeonly defense lawyer who is returning to legal practice after health problems. In his first case back, he defends a man (played by Tyrone Power) who is accused of murdering a wealthy heiress in an attempt to get her sizable fortune; Dietrich, meanwhile, plays the accused man’s wife. As mentioned, Laughton is stupendous here and captivates throughout — whether its interacting with his overly protective nurse, interviewing suspects/witnesses on the stand, etc. He’s a physical and cognitive force of nature here. Similarly, Dietrich — who is also very good in her earlier Wilder film, A Foreign Affair— pretty much steals every scene that she’s in and feels like a worthy combatant of sorts with Laughton for our attention. There’s a “twist” in the movie that, unfortunately, I guessed way too soon, which probably lessened the overall impact of the film for me; but it’s still highly enjoyable because of the great performances.
The Lost Weekend (1945) – His first win for “Best Director” at the Academy Awards, Wilder’s The Lost Weekend recounts a drunken weekend in the life of struggling writer and severe alcoholic Don Birnam (played by Ray Milland). Birnam spends his days avoiding the rehabilitation efforts of his brother, arguing with the local bartender, stealing money and drinks, and remembering better days when he met his long-suffering girlfriend. Apparently, Wilder first encountered Charles R. Jackson’s novel — on which the film is based — when he needed some reading material for a long train ride. Intrigued by the novel and still reeling from his recent collaboration with writer/alcoholic Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity, Wilder was interested in the opportunity to create a dark film that explored a “taboo” topic at the time. [Oddly enough, The Lost Weekend was protested by both alcohol companies and temperance groups, the former of which felt that the film mis-represented their products while the latter felt that it promoted drinking for audience members.] Milland received a “Best Actor” award for his depiction of Birnam; and, though his performance struck me as a bit ham-handed in certain scenes, he certainly fully commits to the role. And Wilder’s exploration of alcoholism — via memory, hallucination, imagery, etc. — still feels somewhat bold and transgressive today, so one can imagine how confrontational it must’ve been in the mid-1940s. I don’t think it quite lives up to a “classic” designation that some critics bestow upon it, but it’s certainly worth seeing at least once.
The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) – While he’s undoubtedly one of the iconic “stars” of filmmaking history, I have to admit that I’ve never been much of a fan of Jimmy Stewart’s performances. Therefore, I wasn’t really expecting much from Wilder’s The Spirit of St. Louis — in which Stewart plays another iconic celebrity in American history: Charles Lindbergh, who achieved notoriety for completing the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris. [Of course, Lindbergh would return to the news when his young son was later kidnapped, ransomed, and then murdered — an event that was referred to as the “Crime of the Century” — though Wilder’s film focuses solely on the famous flight.] Aside from the interesting story, I was surprisingly captivated by Stewart’s role here. This is, without any question, Stewart’s movie; after all, much of it takes place with the actor mostly alone in the plane during his long flight as he fights fatigue, confusion, fear, boredom, and panic. The film effectively captures the physical toil of this perilous journey — one that many others attempted and failed, often leading to their death or disappearance — and Wilder effectively creates a sense of extreme claustrophobia, heightening the cognitive and emotional stress. One of Wilder’s most underrated films, in my opinion.
The Underrated One
Despite listing a “Top Ten” for Wilder, there are still plenty of other films from his filmography that you really ought to watch at some point, if you get the chance. Some might notice that there are a couple of “classic” Wilder films that I did not include in my list above — notably The Seven Year Itch and Sabrina. These are both good films; they just aren’t up to the levels of the films above in my personal opinion. Five Graves to Cairo is a fun mystery/espionage type film with some solid performances — particularly from director-turned-actor Erich von Stroheim (who some will surely recognize from Sunset Boulevard). Similarly, A Foreign Affair features good turns from both Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich; and One, Two, Three allows for a demonstration of James Cagney’s considerable talents. The Front Page is a remake of a better film (His Girl Friday) but is solid in its own right, thanks to a strong cast (Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Susan Sarandon, Carol Burnett, Charles Durning, etc.); and The Emperor Waltz — while not a “great” film — is notable as Wilder’s venture into musicals and feels a bit like a slightly off-kilter Disney film or something. But my pick for the most “Underrated” Wilder film is his second feature-length film (and first in English): The Major and the Minor (1942). This is definitely not top-flight Wilder; however, it’s just completely bonkers and inappropriate — which is a bold move for someone’s first studio effort. The basic plot involves a young woman named Susan Applegate who tries to get cheap train-fair by disguising herself as a teenager (“Little Su-Su”) and, while on the train, meets a noble (albeit pretty gullible and oblivious) military educator and eventually falls in love with him — though, of course, because he only knows her as a teenager, that would be…well…a problem. Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland play their respective roles well here in what must’ve been strange characters on the script-page. Again…it’s not a “great” film but there is something unforgettable about its transgressive quality. The Major and the Minor is a film that just feels like it could not be made today, which is arguably why you ought to watch it — a sort of silly, reversed, pseudo-Lolita or something (which is as peculiar as it sounds).
The One to Avoid
Between 1934 and 1960 (a period in which he made 17 films), Wilder’s work is remarkably consistent. Granted not all of his films during that time reach the heights of peak-Wilder; but they are, by and large, all good and enjoyable films to one degree or another. In fact, during that period, there’s only one film that I didn’t really care for — i.e. Love in the Afternoon, a film that is not without its charms but feels terribly miscast to me. After 1960, however, Wilder’s career becomes more hit-or-miss with lackluster films like The Fortune Cookie, Avanti!, and Kiss Me, Stupid. But of all his works, the one Wilder movie that I’d suggest skipping is his penultimate film, Fedora (1978). As I’ve already said in this retrospective, I’m a big William Holden fan, and this is the last collaboration between the actor and Wilder. Sadly, they just aren’t able to re-capture any of that Sunset Boulevard magic here, despite the fact that this narrative shares some thematic similarities with that earlier masterpiece. There’s an overarching “mystery” here that drives the main character to investigate the enigmatic, eponymous actress Fedora; however, chances are that you’ll figure it all out far before the film hopes and things never get as weird as one would like. I kept hoping that the narrative would take the supernatural route to explain its peculiar characters — similar to Tony Scott’s wonderful The Hunger — but that’s just not really in Wilder’s wheel-house. (After all, for all his fantastic genre fluidity, he just doesn’t seem at all interested in horror, the one genre that this film probably needs to pull from in order to succeed.) Ultimately, you’d be better off to just skip Fedora and re-watch Sunset Boulevard.
The Place to Start
This issue has come up with a few of the other directors — especially those who experiment with various genres during their career: Where to start? Really…with the possible exception of Ace in the Hole (which I think is a brilliant movie but not one that I’d begin with), any of the films mentioned in the Top Five above are good places to start. However, if I had to pick, I’d suggest beginning with Some Like It Hot. It’s nowhere remotely as “dramatic” as some of his other films (in fact, it’s noticeably absent of drama), but Some Like It Hot is also arguably Wilder’s funniest film and is chock-full of his trademark subversiveness — especially for the time. Highly entertaining and engaging film that I’d imagine the vast majority of viewers would appreciate on some level.
The Final Word
Billy Wilder didn’t begin as one of my favorite directors but, as I’ve gotten older and watched more films, he’s slowly risen to near the top of that list. He made one of the greatest romantic-dramadies of all time (The Apartment), one of the greatest slapstick comedies of all time (Some Like It Hot), and one of the greatest film-noirs of all time (Double Indemnity). He almost certainly made the best movie about Hollywood ever (Sunset Boulevard). He directed social-satires (Ace in the Hole), social-issue films (The Lost Weekend), war films (Stalag 17), romances (Sabrina), courtroom dramas (Witness for the Prosecution), musicals (The Emperor Waltz), etc. He was never afraid to tackle famous icons — both real (The Spirit of St. Louis) and imagined (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes). He even made a sports film of sorts (The Fortune Cookie). As a director, he created some of the most memorable images in cinematic history — e.g. Marilyn Monroe’s white dress — and, as a screenwriter, crafted some of its most memorable dialogue — e.g. “Nobody’s perfect.” Wilder found ways to balance his more tyrannical, directorial impulses with a need for collaboration, as he frequently worked with the same actors (e.g. Jack Lemmon, William Holden, Shirley MacLaine, Walter Matthau, etc.) and, more importantly, the same co-writers (e.g. most notably, Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond). But I think that what most attracts me to Wilder’s work is, as mentioned earlier, his varying tonal registers — that is, the way that he can vacillate between extreme humanism in one film and extreme cynicism in another (or often within the very same film!). All of these characteristics make for a rich and complex body of filmmaking that should be around for a long time to come.