Billy Wilder Andrew Sarris - Essay

Andrew Sarris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Ford's Seven Women, can be understood and appreciated only in the context of an entire career as a testament of twilight…. Fedora is far from the height of fashion…. I only hope that Wilder's career has not been reduced to retrospectives, and that he is allowed to come snapping back with the wit and verve of which he is still capable as the last surviving heir of Ernst Lubitsch.

Andrew Sarris, "Some Like It Not" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1979), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIV, No. 15, April 16, 1979, p. 41.