Billy Wilder 1906–
(Born Samuel Wilder) Austrian-born American director and screenwriter.
Wilder is known primarily for comedies which display a dark side of humor and human nature. Wilder's filmmaking philosophy emphasizes the importance of the script, and his narrative skill is more evident than his visual talent. For this reason, Wilder is often overlooked by critics who think his biting satire overly clever and patently "Hollywood."
Wilder worked in Austria as a sports reporter before moving to Berlin. His journalistic love of detail is evident in his films. In 1929, Wilder was hired as a scriptwriter for the film Menschen am Sonntag and continued to write in Germany until Hitler came into power. In 1933, Wilder moved to Paris, where he wrote and co-directed Mauvaise Graine. The sale of another script financed Wilder's move to Paramount Studios in Hollywood.
While at Paramount, Wilder wrote with Charles Brackett. Under the tutelage of director Ernst Lubitsch, they cowrote elegant, sophisticated comedies. These operettas, as they were known, are noted for their witty double entendres and their use of masquerade and deception. Wilder's first solo project, The Major and the Minor, continued in the Lubitsch vein. In his next films, Wilder developed an increasingly black form of comedy. Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity both display tendencies of the film noir genre; they also graphically depict depraved aspects of human character. However, critics feel that his cynicism is often superficial, and that Wilder accepts Hollywood's need for a happy ending.
Sunset Boulevard marked the end of Hollywood's "golden age" as well as Wilder's collaboration with Charles Brackett. The film itself is a tale of endings. The lives Sunset Boulevard depicts do not merely end—they disintegrate. Wilder's choice of faded film stars to play roles reflecting their lives and the film's unabashed candor in dissecting their failings result in a work considered by many to be a definitive study of Hollywood.
Wilder's talent for farce is best displayed in Some Like It Hot. A fast-paced tale of men masquerading as women to avoid a gangland execution, Some Like it Hot is considered a tribute to human naivete. It is in this film that Wilder most clearly demonstrates his ability to direct actors. By casting Marilyn Monroe as a beautiful loser, he created a surprisingly insightful portrait of an otherwise stereotypical sex doll.
It appears that Wilder's traditional directorial style is not suited to Hollywood's new trends. His reputation as a filmmaker of overriding cynicism has limited his appeal: however, his gift for satire remains undisputed. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)
Nobody thinks much of it when little girls use mama's clothes to play dress-up. But when a full-grown young lady dons a kid's clothes to play a little girl, it makes a delightful idea for a very cunning film. At least, it has in the case of … "The Major and the Minor." (p. 1889)
"The Major and the Minor" is really just a cute twist on the mistaken-identity gag….
But it takes more than a twist to make a picture, and that's where the Messrs. Wilder and Brackett have come in—by writing a script which effervesces with neat situations and bright lines…. [There] comes a time when certain facts must be imparted to young girls. The opportunity the authors have provided [Major Kirby] to convey this knowledge, via moths, is one of the priceless moments in the film. The gentlemen have written—and Mr. Wilder has directed—a bountiful comedy-romance. (p. 1890)
Bosley Crowther, "'The Major and the Minor,' a Charming Comedy-Romance, with Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland, at the Paramount," in The New York Times (© 1942 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 17, 1942 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1939–1948, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1970, pp. 1889-90).
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Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder have been happily disinclined to wax morose about the problems presented by occupation—and by "fraternization," specifically. Rather these two bright filmmakers have been wryly disposed to smile upon the conflicts in self and national interests which proximities inevitably provoke. And in … "A Foreign Affair," they have turned out a dandy entertainment which has some shrewd and realistic things to say….
[Their] interest is in how human beings behave when confronted by other human beings—especially those of the opposite sex. And their logical conclusion is that, granted attractions back and forth, most people—despite regulations and even differences in language and politics—are likely to do toward one another that which comes naturally….
Of course, they have made these observations in a spirit of fun and romance. And the shame of the captain's indiscretion is honorably white-washed in the end. But there is bite, nonetheless, in the comment which the whole picture has to make upon the irony of big state restrictions on the level of individual give-and-take.
Under less clever presentation this sort of traffic with big stuff in the current events department might be offensive to reason and taste. But as handled by the Messrs. Brackett and Wilder … it has wit, worldliness and charm. It also has serious implications, via some actuality scenes in bombed...
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Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder have a long and honorable record in bucking tradition, breaking rules, and taking risks, according to their lights, and limits. Nobody thought they could get away with Double Indemnity, but they did; nobody thought they could get away with The Lost Weekend, but they did; apparently nobody thought they could get away with Sunset Boulevard, but they did; and now, one gathers, the industry is proud of them. There are plenty of good reasons why Sunset Boulevard (a beautiful title) is, I think, their best movie yet. It is Hollywood craftsmanship at its smartest and at just about its best, and it is hard to find better craftsmanship than that, at this time, in any art or country.
It is also, in terms of movie tradition, a very courageous picture…. "Unhappy endings" are not so rare, by now, but it is rare to find one as skilful, spectacular and appropriate as this one. Besides all that, Sunset Boulevard is much the most ambitious movie about Hollywood ever done, and is the best of several good ones into the bargain.
It is unlikely that any living men know Hollywood better than Brackett and Wilder; most of their portrait is brilliantly witty and evocative, and much of it is also very sharp. It seems to me, however, that this is essentially a picture-maker's picture…. I suspect that its main weakness as popular art lies not so much in unconventionalities...
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In Sunset Boulevard the Brackett-Wilder team took an outsize, legendary character, examined her coldly and ironically—but did not destroy her legendary quality. Billy Wilder, now on his own, does rather the same, in a very different setting, in the hard and brilliant Ace in the Hole….
The technique, in contrast to the leisurely, personal style of Sunset Boulevard, is one of impersonal, direct observation…. Wilder isolates individuals not in distracting asides from the main theme, but to provide an added, sharpened comment on the mass….
The relative failure of the ending is an illustration of Wilder's limitations. His is a talent which one respects rather than likes. This is not the result of his choice of subject, nor of his occasional tendency to vulgarity (A Foreign Affair) or to sensationalism for its own sake (The Lost Weekend); it is because he seems to lack the powers of analysis which his cold, observant style demands. It is the technique of a reporter, brilliantly conveying the immediate impact of a character or situation, less successful in developing it. A more human director, or a more skilful analyst, could have made more out of [Chuck] Tatum's clash of conscience; Wilder is content to report it, as he reported Norma Desmond's tragedy, and Tatum is credible as a character in the sense that Norma Desmond is credible—a gigantic figure who catches the imagination,...
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A crackerjack movie entertainment has been made from "Stalag 17"…. [It is] a humorous, suspenseful, disturbing and rousing pastime….
[This] film shows much more than the rompings of playful fellows that the ads might let you believe…. And the intensity of these rompings, which represent the normal spirits and grim despairs of healthy young men without incentives and without feminine companions, gives vitality to the film.
But the taut fascination of the offering is not in the comedy and the japes; it is in the unending conflicts among a campful of volatile men. (p. 2707)
[There] emerges something in this film that considerably underscores the drama. It is a cynical sort of display of effectiveness in a group dilemma of a selfish philosophy and approach. It isn't pretty, but it is realistic—another comment on the shabbiness of war….
["Stalag 17"] is certainly one of this year's most smashing films. (p. 2708)
Bosley Crowther, "'Stalag 17'," in The New York Times (© 1953 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 2, 1953 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1949–1958, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1970, pp. 2707-08).
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No one should expect anyone so cynical as Billy Wilder to tell a simple Cinderella story straight, and he has not done so in Sabrina….
Sabrina has everything light entertainment requires: a pleasant story gently mocking of the rich, whose customs and appurtenances are put opulently on view; bright dialogue: a cast of popular and competent actors: directorial savvy and chi-chi. There isn't much in Sabrina that is related to reality, but there are occasional bits of social satire, and one line of realistic dialogue satirizing the Cinderella theme itself: "Nobody poor has ever been called democratic for marrying somebody rich."
As for Billy Wilder, there is considerable evidence in Sabrina that when he is not hard boiled he is hard put to it. He resorts to farce a little oftener than skill requires: borrows from other directors a little too brazenly …; and in his satire does not always distinguish between the truly powerful and the merely rich. (p. 361)
Henry Hart, "Film Reviews: 'Sabrina'," in Films in Review (copyright © 1954 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, Inc.), Vol. V, No. 7, August-September, 1954, pp. 361-62.
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George N. Fenin
The Seven Year Itch is another step down in the career of [Billy Wilder]. (p. 22)
[The Broadway play] was a simple, sometimes funny comedy enriched by nuances and subtle insights into the American "psychological" approach to the battle of sexes.
The screen version cannot advertise the same quality…. [Marilyn Monroe] was apparently forbidden to make the slightest attempt at acting: she has been built into the film as a symbol of sex, in a definite geometry of solids, the display reaching a paroxysm that leads us to suspect a streak of sadistic satire in Wilder's direction. Thus one follows the buildup with a great deal of curiosity, because it may be logically anticipating an unpredictable climax with an equally unpredictable creative contribution by the director. But after such a titillating game of senses,—which soon degenerates into rather cheap effects,—everything collapses…. The triumph of the pharisaic hypocrisy of the Production Code is total. No adultery, no danger of sudden repentance, for the camera focuses on our man in the street, destination family. Thus in the name of the Victorian values that still oppress our society, the incredible massacre of the story is carried out, the buildup wasted, and the audiences given a finale which does not carry any logical conclusion to the rather clearly expressed sexual appetites of the hero. (pp. 22-3)
[It] is proper to assume that Mr....
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The metaphor is exaggerated. It doesn't take seven minutes to realize that The Seven Year Itch is beyond smut and licentiousness and that it takes us past the limits of evil to a kind of worn-down regret, good humor, and kindness. (p. 159)
The most important character in the play, the focus of all attention, is the man who is deliberately ordinary, somewhat less average both physically and intellectually, so as to ensure the identification of the male audience and the greater enjoyment—sadistic, "superior," maybe envious—of the women. In the film, the center of interest shifts to the heroine, for the excellent reason that when she is on screen there is nowhere to look but at her body, from head to toe, with a thousand stops along the way. Her body draws us up from our seats to the screen as a magnet attracts a scrap of metal.
On screen, there is no chance to reflect. Hips, nape, knees, ears, elbows, lips, palms of the hand, profiles win out over tracking shots, framing, sustained panoramas, dissolves. All this, it must be admitted, doesn't happen without a deliberate, measured, finally very effective vulgarity. Billy Wilder, the libidinous old fox, moves along with such incessant suggestiveness that, ten minutes into the film, we aren't sure what are the original or literal meanings of faucet, Frigidaire, under, above, soap, perfume, panties, breeze, and...
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[The Spirit of St. Louis is] good, albeit not great….
No script, however ingenious, could by itself have made a film so good as this. Accomplished direction was also required, and that Mr. Wilder has abundantly supplied….
On the morning of the take-off a small mirror is needed so Lindbergh can read a compass affixed over his head. One of the hundreds of spectators who have waited all night in the rain, a quite plain girl, offers her pocket mirror, and is allowed through the police lines. (p. 126)
Wilder cuts to this girl's face several times during Lindbergh's actual take-off to reemphasize that everywhere, in the most obscure lives, the young man about to risk his life had quickened good will, awe and love.
The dramatics of the take-off consisted in making the audience wonder whether Lindbergh could get a plane so heavily laden with gasoline off the ground, and, if he did, whether he would clear some telephone wires and roofs. Wilder cut from the sloshy runway to the trembling plane, back to the mirror girl, then to the goggles on Stewart's craning head. This last surprised the mind and pushed it from rationality into the imbalance of suspense. (pp. 126-27)
The flight itself is dramatized by accentuating the dangers from ice, compass failure, gasoline shortage, and fatigue. It surprised me that Lindbergh's poetical and philosophical reveries and...
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[The technical problems of The Spirit of St. Louis are] managed with all the professionalism and flair that Hollywood can muster for such occasions.
The presentation of the story itself, by Wilder and his co-scriptwriter Wendell Mayes, is less happily organised, however. Lindbergh is not only the central figure throughout, but during the latter half the narrative is, of necessity, restricted to one man, a plane and the limitless ocean below. Such a situation might provide a director of [Robert] Bresson's sensibilities with the opportunity for an analysis of the flyer's sense of isolation, his particular tensions. Rejecting the obvious austerities of such an approach, Wilder has adopted a direct, extroverted style which avoids false melodramatics and, without any deep exploration of character, stresses his hero's idealism and strength of will. Although the general pattern of Lindbergh's original is followed, with its often lively flashbacks into his past life, an element of vulgarisation has also been imposed on an essentially sober account. Some spurious, rough-and-ready "comic" interpolations, notably a semi-slapstick anecdote involving an Army airfield and an irate officer, disastrously dissipate the tensions of the flight itself; also the characterisation of the jolly and (to non-Catholic eyes) slightly repugnant little priest, and Lindbergh's whimsical conversations with a fly in the cockpit of The Spirit, seem alien...
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George N. Fenin
After the whitewashed film version of The Seven Year Itch and the uninspired Spirit of St. Louis, Billy Wilder is now experimenting in the sophisticated and whimsical realm of Continental comedy [in Love in the Afternoon]. This is the story of an aged American viveur who becomes involved in a series of afternoon sexual affairs with the daughter of a private detective in Paris. It is not particularly "explosive," to be sure, but at times the director manages to sketch an interestingly sarcastic portrait of a lonely man—a man who slavishly indulges in fine foods and wines, in the jaded atmosphere of the Grand Hotel, in languid lights and soft music, and a man who is capable of celebrating his bedroom exploits with the smoothest of ease. He is presented as an appendix of the Golden Era of the past century.
The sardonic vein that is carefully built up to portray this study of a useless man is, unfortunately, completely spoiled by a ludicrous finale—another typical example of the Production Code's Diktat…. The climax of the story, and of the film, would have been much more coherent and honest had the two lovers merely separated as good friends, retaining, at most, a nostalgic remembrance of their love rites and experiences together.
Instead, a sanctimonious solution is shoved down the throats of the ever patient audiences….
[Wilder] has still not been able to...
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Peter John Dyer
[Some Like It Hot] will not appeal to those who find female impersonation unamusing in any circumstances; and certainly, since it also contains two painfully accurate re-creations of gangland slaughter, its opportunities for offence are considerable. In fact the gangster sequences are the least successful part of the film. There is too much random detail and intramural humour … and the whole could be cut by at least one bloodbath. The horrifying Al Capone reunion dinner, for instance, is effectively staged …, but it is an unrelated tour de force; its sole purpose, to conclude the "drag" act necessitated in the first place by an involuntary witnessing of the St. Valentine's Day massacre, could have been more simply served.
Although the comedy never quite shakes off this basic confusion in styles, it comes to life from the start….
Almost every character has a touch of consulting room fantasy….
Obviously the day is that much nearer when Billy Wilder must film Hirschfeld's Anomalies and Perversions as a musical. So long as it casts Jack Lemmon as an Oedipus complex, there should be no grounds for complaint.
Peter John Dyer, "Billy Wilder's 'Some Like It Hot'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1959 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 28, Nos. 3-4, Summer-Autumn, 1959, p. 173.
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[One, Two, Three] is 1961's best comedy. Which is a rather sad fact, for Wilder comedy is socially disintegrative. It amuses, but it devitalizes, and we are less, not more, after it's over. However, while it's unreeling it's engrossing.
Au fond, or au naturel, Wilder is a bird of passage, a luftmensch, an intellectual vagabond. He bites the back, not the hand, that feeds him. Not only is nothing sacred to him, but nothing is ever on the level, and his wit consists in tilting truth until even the staidest mind is unsteady. To what end? Nothing, really, except a sort of verbal revenge of the "out" upon the "in".
Wilder burlesques everybody—the Coca-Cola tycoon …; the South; nubile fillies from the South; Coca-Cola's go-getting sales director in Berlin; West Germans and East Germans; ex-Nazis and Prussian aristocrats; German Communists and Russian Communists; communism and capitalism; marriage and infidelity; and innumerable other aspects of contemporary life, sacred and profane. (p. 37)
It's the rapid-fire of gags … which really keeps this film moving. And breathless pace is all important, for, had the audience ever been given time for thought, the whole thing would have fallen apart. The gags are almost all grade-A….
Billy Wilder is one of those ex-Viennese who believe things are hopeless but not serious. In fact, this ancient wheeze is actually one of the gags...
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One, Two, Three is overwrought, tasteless, and offensive—a comedy that pulls out laughs the way a catheter draws urine…. [It] was actually shot in Berlin and Munich (where the Brandenberg Gate was reconstructed), but the real location is the locker-room where tired salesmen swap the latest variants of stale old jokes…. If you find these jokes fresh and funny, then by all means rush to see One, Two, Three, which will keep shouting them at you for two hours. It's like you-know-what hitting the fan. (p. 63)
In Hollywood it is now common to hear Billy Wilder called the world's greatest movie director. This judgment tells us a lot about Hollywood: Wilder hits his effects hard and sure; he's a clever, lively director whose work lacks feeling or passion or grace or beauty or elegance. His eye is on the dollar, or rather on success, on the entertainment values that bring in dollars. But he has never before, except perhaps in a different way in Ace in the Hole, exhibited such a brazen contempt for people. (p. 64)
Perhaps a diabolic satire could be written on the theme of Coca-Cola haves and have-nots, but Wilder's comedy isn't black and there are no disjunctions: his method is as mercenary as the characters…. There is one nice touch—an old man singing "Yes, We Have No Bananas" in German, and there's also the dance of a behind on a table that's quite a "set piece." But even the portrait of...
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Billy Wilder's films are belt-and-suspender films: they combine the jaunty, sportif appearance of the belt-wearer with the comfortable, homespun look of the suspender-wearer. I wish I could report that the results are foolproof and unimpeachable. Actually, they fall between two wears….
[It] is time to realize that though Wilder has made some extremely skillful, effective, and, in part, even penetrating films, he has never done anything first-rate. One reason for this is, probably, insufficient artistic imagination; another, certainly, is excessive caution. (p. 23)
Wilder's formula is films that are vulgar enough to appeal to the typical movie audiences, yet spiked with just enough cynicism, naughtiness, tough wisecracking, and double-entendres to make the avant-garde moviegoer detect "meanings within meanings," an action that takes place "on several levels," and a Wilder who is really "laughing at the whole thing"—or whatever phrases are currently fashionable among avantgarde viewers. In other words, Wilder's films combine solid suspenders with sophisticated belts. (p. 24)
It is, I suppose, a truism to say that a serious, indeed tragic, problem is reduced to slapstick [in A Foreign Affair]. But the particular meretriciousness lies in the glib purveying of something to everybody. The unthinking spectator sees (a) a funny little German and his even funnier little son...
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Set mainly in a bawdy-house that is never in the least bawdy, Billy Wilder's Irma La Douce is the kind of fantasy much favoured by Hollywood—a sex comedy from which sex has been carefully eradicated. Enticed into the cinema by the promise of untold orgies, audiences are sent away reassured that even wildly successful prostitutes have no sex life to speak of, and that the habitués of the Rue Casanova are perhaps a little more colourful but scarcely less wholesome than themselves. Now that so many continental directors are presenting a different, and more accurate, picture of prostitution, one can hardly blame Wilder for trying to suspend disbelief, and even disappointment, by laying on the charm with a trowel. The trouble is that in doing so, he has thrown sophistication overboard in what should have been an ultra-sophisticated film.
Treated simply as a piece of inverted romanticism, the story of Irma …, queen of the tarts, being wooed and won by Nestor …, the most honest man who ever came her way, is certainly amusing, but not amusing enough to hold the screen successfully for 141 minutes…. Instead of the sort of explosively uninhibited satire of the whole upside-down Hollywood code that Wilder is surely sharp enough to have made, Irma La Douce is, in fact, a fairly routine frolic. On this level, it has much of the best that Hollywood can give….
Wilder's direction is distinguished not so much...
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The trouble with Billy Wilder in "Kiss Me Stupid" is that while he doesn't really believe in morality, he doesn't really enjoy immorality, and so we get another exercise in joyless jejune cynicism a la "Irma la Douce." Wilder's forte has never been visual style, but the studio decor in and around Climax, Nevada, sets a new low in drabness and dreariness rendered in all the penny-pinching, two-toned dustiness of black and white photography, that most realistic of all cliches. Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond milk Climax for all its galactic and climactic worth and throw in some clever topical gags about the Sinatra fils kidnapping and that little old winemaker me, but someone forgot to write in plausible situations for the pratfalls. That is to say, the dialogue is all there, good, bad, and mostly indifferent, but the scenario is missing, and even the dirtiest denouement in the world cannot obscure a series of false premises….
Of course, no one who is condemned by the Legion of Decency can be all bad, but I wish Wilder hadn't tried to weasel out of his condemnation by posing as a starry-eyed idealist of the nouvelle vague at war with entrenched morality. Wilder has always been a clever entertainer with just enough nastiness in his personality to avoid the anonymity of studio production. Only Wilder would be vicious enough to staff the supposedly bawdy Belly-Button drive-in cafe with fat, old, and ugly waitresses, their navels bared. Left to...
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The Fortune Cookie is almost the only recent American comedy that's about some recognizable contemporary menaces—insurance frauds, shyster lawyers, prying detectives, the American eagerness to confuse money and love. It also is in black and white and actually looks cheap, though it aims at big commercial success. This would be about enough to make it a movie worth seeing, but it also has some good writing and two shrewd performances…. Billy Wilder's satires, like The Apartment, usually look more cynical than they are; in this one the main problem is that [Willie], though his lines are indeed sour, is simply too much fun to watch, too charming a caricature to have much edge.
Stephen Farber, "Entertainments: 'The Fortune Cookie'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1967 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XX, No. 3, Spring, 1967, p. 61.
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John Russell Taylor
Why Meet Whiplash Willie? What's wrong with The Fortune Cookie [the film's U.S. title] for a title? At least it has the virtue of sounding like a comedy, which Billy Wilder's new film is, rather than a B-Western, which it emphatically isn't. The new title does not even have the advantage over the original in mere intelligibility: before going to the cinema I knew what a fortune cookie was, but I needed the film to explain to me all about whiplash lawyers and their way of life….
But then Wilder is never all that easy. With the gleeful vulgarity of Stalag 17 or Kiss Me Stupid we all know where we are, even if it is somewhere that the more delicate of us may not choose to be. But as a rule he chooses not to isolate his wilful bad taste. Instead, he pushes drama further than anyone else would (in Hollywood, anyway) towards raving melodrama…. The treatment is tonic, but like many of the most effective tonics, it can leave a nasty taste in the mouth. And so it is with Meet Whiplash Willie, another of Wilder's sweet-sour cocktails. If it were just ruthless comedy everything would be quite straightforward. So it would if the story were treated instead as a drama of conscience leading to a sentimental conclusion. But Wilder being Wilder, it is both at the same time, and that is where the trouble comes in. (p. 147)
[The] ultimate trouble with the film is that it obstinately remains two...
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It is surprising how loath film-makers have been to make films about themselves, or about the magic medium of illusion they transmit to the world. As egotistical and narcissistic as most film artists are—including the writers and directors, who are the crucial creators, of course—they have seldom dared turn their cameras on their own involuted lives or explore the cultural importance and impermanence of most of the work they do. For that reason, Sunset Boulevard … was not only rare as an invasion of a ticklish subject when it came along, but it was—and still is—the most arresting and subtly philosophical film about Hollywood that there has been. (p. 198)
Sunset Boulevard takes a long look at the past of this mesmeric medium and makes the sardonic discovery that most of its yield is vaporous and vain, that the seeming triumphant creations accomplished in one age will be, with but few exceptions, crumbling celluloid in the next. It offers the sobering implication that the major output of movies is myth, momentary excitements and exaltations that are as evanescent as dreams….
Norma Desmond, one of the great, glamourous stars of silent films who now dwells in a musty mansion set back from Sunset Boulevard, where she has been in archaeological seclusion for a couple of decades when the story begins, represents more than the delusions of grandeur of one old star. She represents the ostentation and...
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JOSEPH McBRIDE and MICHAEL WILMINGTON
Wilder's forte is the great American congame. In practically all of his movies (original stories and adaptations alike) the plot revolves around some sort of swindle. (p. 2)
In Wilder's view, sex and money are inextricably linked. His characters use sex to obtain cash and position and involve themselves in frauds to get sex. Sometimes, however, greed and lechery conflict, and the whole scheme blows up…. This kind of mordancy is often charming but sometimes, in more serious situations, makes Wilder's attitude seem repulsively petty…. Wilder uses the sex-greed conflict as a comment on human frailty; nature won't even let people be evil, just weak. Only in a few cases is he entirely sympathetic to their swindles—at the very lowest level, where they do little harm, or when the characters are actually trapped in a situation which has robbed them of choice…. Wilder simultaneously indulges in an irresponsible delight in the intricacies of deception and a curious moral sense which almost always leads him to condemn his characters for their weakness.
And it is perhaps too simple to suggest that Wilder's central characters are all con-men; usually there is an unholy alliance of sorts involving an innocent and a corrupt partner. (p. 3)
In general, Wilder's point of view is that of an innocent fascinated by the world's corruption and attempting, with some success and a great deal of comic tension,...
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JOSEPH McBRIDE and MICHAEL WILMINGTON
Sherlock Holmes is another example of Wilder's penchant for digging beneath the surface of famous personalities and professions to expose the painful contradictions between the image and the actuality…. Wilder and his coscenarist I.A.L. Diamond take a more serious attitude toward Holmes's weaknesses than his creator does, making him a more vulnerable and human figure. He operates beyond the law, like most of Wilder's central characters, but the fact that he is also a servant of the law makes his fallibility more poignant. Holmes's attraction to crime is not, as in the stories, the fascination exerted by imperfection on a superhuman "deductive machine," but, characteristically for Wilder, a man's dalliance with his own self-destructive impulses.
The classical detective story, the "whodunnit," is a highly moralistic genre which insists upon a totally rational moral system and an ambiguous approach to character…. To Wilder, a moralist malgre lui, the detective story's fascination with hidden vice implicates even the detective himself. His films almost invariably revolve around a con-game, as seen from the viewpoint of the swindler; but there, as in his adaptation of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution, the central character is a man of the law who is swindled into joining forces with a criminal. His Holmes is a jaded romantic, a reformed roué who exposes himself to criminals in order to exorcise...
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Wilder's work, like the work of most of his contemporaries, is compromised; in his case, though, the compromises have been condemned with unusual severity. The common critical view of Wilder—much too simple a view, I believe—is that he is a cynic who repeatedly tempers the harshness of his vision in deference to the box office. (p. 9)
Wilder's tendency to caricature is one way of diluting the acid. But even at its most frivolous, this caricature cannot help exposing Wilder's misanthropic temperament. In The Seven Year Itch, a comic strip psychiatrist arrives early for an appointment and explains impassively, "My 3:00 patient jumped out of the window during his session, and I've been 15 minutes ahead of schedule ever since." Only a cynic could toss off a joke like that with such casual good humor, but in this case the character is so broadly overplayed that we don't have to take the satire on psychoanalysis seriously…. In dealing with Wilder, it is important to distinguish between such abrasive, disturbing black satire and more comfortable sick jokes—gag lines that reveal a cynical frame of mind without effectively or intelligently satirizing anything.
Wilder's eleventh hour conversions are even more troublesome compromises. In Double Indemnity the ruthless, scheming heroine shoots the hero once, and then drops her gun, for the first time in her life halted by a genuine pang of love....
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In his new movie, Avanti!, Billy Wilder is still trying hard to become Ernst Lubitsch. The strain shows, some of the romanticism is forced and mechanical, but there is much of which the Master might approve….
In the last few years, as the porno revolution and advancing age have deprived Wilder of his old ability (and desire) to scandalize, he has relaxed considerably in his handling of sex. The Private Life of Sherlock Homes, and now Avanti! find him in a mellowing, more gracious mood; he is less defensive in his treatment of love, less cynical in his attitude toward women, and less inclined to find sport in sexual cruelty. (p. 1)
The dialogue is largely concerned with unseen events (details of the accident, the old couple's affair, complications with the funeral arrangements), and while this is partly attributable to the source being a stage play (by Samuel Taylor), it also adds to the pervasive feeling of nostalgia, the sense of the past being richer and more alive than the present….
In keeping with the theme, Wilder's visual style is sedately elegant, comfortably old-fashioned in its use of unobtrusive cutting, smooth camera movements, graceful choreographic emphasis. A precise, economical style but in no way a dull one…. (p. 2)
Although Avanti! is a twist on the earlier Wilder-[Jack] Lemmon romantic plot, this time having the man cruelly denying...
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[Wilder's] films have always exposed the deceptions of love; there are shadings in his romantic scenes. Still, Avanti! is, for him, an uncommonly tender and affectionate film. Although the central character is very sharply drawn, and although many incidental jokes—an Italian giving the Fascist salute to a visiting American statesman, a tracking shot past a group of nuns lined up to see Love Story—reveal his old acid touch, this film is less cruel than almost anything Wilder has done. It makes some nervous concessions to the audience, as Wilder's films usually have; a few inappropriately crude farcical scenes are signs of insecurity…. Gradually, however, Wilder finds his tone, and the movie takes hold. It is actually not so uncharacteristic as it first seems; it is a less troubled variation on the serious themes that have concerned Wilder throughout his career. (pp. 50-1)
Avanti! is somewhat reminiscent of A Foreign Affair, in which a prim American Congresswoman discovers the decadence of postwar Berlin. But in that film Wilder compromised his harsh portrait of American self-righteousness; Avanti!, by contrast, is one of his most straightforward anti-American satires….
In contrast to the brutal, hard-driving American tourists, the Europeans are cultivated, romantic, indolent, tender, passionate. Wilder mocks the excesses of the Italians—particularly in the hilarious portrait...
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"Nobody's perfect." Possibly that is the most famous last line of any American film. Well, nobody, nothing, is perfect—perhaps; but the picture that closes with that line [Some Like It Hot] is almost the exception to the rule. It may be somewhat ungrateful to call a very funny film a masterpiece; it sounds like an attempt to take it out of human circulation. Still Billy Wilder has brought it on himself. What is worse, I have to insist that this unfailingly delightful farce is a triple milestone.
It is significant three ways in American film history. It is the best film (so far) by the last European director to flourish in this country. It is the best film of the last great sex star created by Hollywood. It is the last of the carefree American comedies that sprang up when sound came in, bloomed through the thirties, and had a revival after World War II. (p. 324-25)
The dialogue is not a collection of gags but a temperamental use of language: that is, vernacular is filtered through a chuckling temperament, diction is selected and arranged so that, while the characters speak always as themselves, the lines support and further the tone and action of the whole….
In addition, there is a deft, knitted use of ideas. Themes are stated that are played back at odd angles. When the "girls" report for their jobs, the suspicious leader asks them their musical backgrounds and they say they studied...
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As moving as much of it is, Fedora is a problematic film. I wish Wilder had given the thwarted romance between Barry and Fedora the same intensity he brings to the similar relationship between Sherlock Holmes and his German Spy. I also wish he had devoted less time to the unraveling of the surface mystery….
And yet. And yet. Fedora is an elegant reminder of a formal perfection that has all but vanished from contemporary filmmaking. When Wilder's camera tracks past a luxurious ballroom of waltzing dancers, the exhilaration and beauty of the scene are tempered somewhat by the cranes and booms we see filming it. Even in this movie within a movie, the time for this kind of grandeur has almost gone….
Like the three movies which precede it, Fedora is a film of memory. But this time, we must remember, too. No other Wilder film depends so much on associations from his other movies. In this respect, Fedora may prove unsatisfying for those who do not love and appreciate Billy Wilder's films. But those of us who do, it is a worthy addition to the work of one of the supreme artists of the American cinema. (p. 39)
George Morris, "The Private Films of Billy Wilder" (copyright © 1979 by George Morris; reprinted by permission of the author), in Film Comment, Vol. 15, No. 1, January-February, 1979, pp. 34-9.
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From the first strains of Miklos Rozsa's vintage '40s score [in Fedora] we are transported to a timeless realm in which nothing has really changed. The cold cruelty of the blue Mediterranean forms an aptly Wilderean backdrop for a crazy yarn about a star who has apparently defeated time….
Wilder may have outsmarted himself by his morbidly convoluted method of telling the story of Fedora by beginning after we have seen Marthe Keller run down by a train, thus setting into motion Detweiler's reminiscence about the "late" Fedora he had known. Long before the plot winds down, several of the characters find themselves wandering interminably around Fedora's coffin as they wait for the last of the needlessly explanatory flashbacks to run their course. Long before noir was a critical catch-word, Wilder's characters seemed to walk on the dark side of the street out of a natural predilection for peril. Even Wilder's comedies—The Apartment, Sabrina, Avanti!, most notably—have been shadowed by death and self-destruction. But in Fedora the cinema itself ends up in a coffin of Wilder's own design. And one can hardly expect 1979 screening audiences to join Wilder at the wake. Fedora, like D. W. Griffith's The Stuggle, Charles Chaplin's Limelight, Jean Renoir's Picnic on the Grass, Josef von Sternberg's Ana-Ta-Han, Carl Dreyer's Gertrud, Orson Welles's Falstaff, and John...
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