Billy Wilder Essay - Critical Essays

Wilder, Billy


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.)

Bosley Crowther

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).

Bosley Crowther

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 Berlin, of the wretched and terrifying problem of repairing the ravages of war.

Bosley Crowther, "'A Foreign Affair'," in The New York Times (© 1948 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 1, 1948 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1939–1948, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1970, p. 2264).

James Agee

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 of story or character, as in its coldness. And if it falls short of greatness—and in my opinion it does—I suspect that coldness, again, is mainly responsible. (pp. 411-12)

There is no use pretending to discuss all the virtues, or even all the limitations, of this picture: it is...

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Penelope Houston

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, so that one accepts him at his own valuation. But as writer … and director Wilder has developed an exact, sardonic, objective style whose technical assurance carries him over passages where the quality of thought is unduly superficial. In Ace in the Hole, style and purpose achieve for the most part a fusion more impressive even than in Sunset Boulevard, and the result is perhaps his most remarkable film.

Penelope Houston, "Films of the Month: 'Ace in the Hole'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1951 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 20, No. 2, June, 1951, p. 45.

Bosley Crowther

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...

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Henry Hart

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...

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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...

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FrançOis Truffaut


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...

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Henry Hart

[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...

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John Gillett

[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...

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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...

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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...

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Henry Hart

[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...

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Pauline Kael

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;...

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John Simon

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...

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Elizabeth Sussex

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...

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Andrew Sarris

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...

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Stephen Farber

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.


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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...

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Bosley Crowther

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...

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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...

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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...

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Stephen Farber

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...

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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...

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Stephen Farber

[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...

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Stanley Kauffmann

"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...

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George Morris

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...

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Andrew Sarris

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...

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