Billy Wilder

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Stephen Farber

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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. (pp. 9-10)

Certainly such conversions are possible. But Wilder is rarely successful at dramatizing them. His commitment seems to be to the cynical attitude expressed through the first three-fourths of these films, the morally uplifting conclusions are played, almost invariably, without conviction…. The more one considers Wilder's films, the more apparent it becomes that the confusions and contradictions in his work are not always simple compromises, and they are motivated by something more than a worship of the box office. Wilder's sensibility is far more complex than most people have been willing to grant. For a famous cynic he has surprisingly ambivalent feelings about innocence and corruption….

Wilder is not ordinarily committed to message moviemaking: he wants to reveal the rottenness hidden beneath the placid surface of contemporary society, but he is clearly tantalized by the rottenness if it is on a daring enough scale. (p. 10)

[Wilder has a] disenchanted vision of today's world, dominated by Americans with "kissing sweet" toothpaste grins, who haven't the slightest shred of culture or refinement of elegance. But another director would be more bitter about that recognition. Wilder cannot suppress a sneaking sense of wonder at [Marilyn] Monroe's blissful obliviousness to the possibility of a more graceful way of life. (p. 11)

Wilder does not believe that innocence can survive unscathed. He does not believe that faith and trust are a reasonable basis for human relationships. His films chronicle the corruption of innocents, the fall from purity. But considering Wilder's reputation as a cynic, we would expect more ruthless mockery of the innocents. Instead they are treated with affection, even admiration. (p. 12)

The clearest indication of Wilder's conflicting feelings about innocence is the nature of love in his films. There are never, in Wilder, two completely innocent lovers….

The innocents in Wilder's films are never attracted to other innocents, always to people who have been married or have had eventful sexual pasts; surely this is Wilder's comment on the impossibility of innocence's survival and the irresistible pull of corruption. But there is a pull in the other direction too—the most worldly characters hanker for the virgins. (p. 15)

[It] is striking how often Wilder's films actually deal with a relationship...

(This entire section contains 885 words.)

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of young man or woman and aged lover. (pp. 15-16)

But even where the relationsip are between two people of the same age, they are relationships between playboys, prostitutes, promiscuous (or married) men or women on the one hand, and characters, who are relatively innocent or unattached; in Freudian terms, such a relationship is always a euphemism for an oedipal relationship…

It is impossible to ignore how often Wilder deals with secretly oedipal relationships, and it may not be surprising that homosexuality plays a furtive role in a number of his films. Psychoanalysis argues that when the only heterosexual relationship desired is incestuous, the whole idea of heterosexuality becomes threatening. There is a distrust of love, often of women in Wilder's films that leads to a withdrawal into idealized homoerotic experiences. (p. 16)

Wilder's characters are denied the standard Hollywood version of love. In his films other motives stir the characters with a force love cannot begin to match [alcoholism, greed, power, fame, family reputation]. These are the motives that stimulate people into action…. (p. 17)

Wilder's faith is in dishonesty; he believes in the exuberance to be found in choosing your role and playing it to perfection….

It would not be quite accurate … to call Wilder's style realistic. There is almost always a touch of flamboyance in the filmic details….

It is Wilder's delight in the outrageous that is the most distinguishing visual characteristic of his films. In spite of Wilder's cynicism, there is a rather astonishing exuberance in the imagery of his films, an exuberance in the power of art that his films so often celebrate. (p. 20)

Stephen Farber, "The Films of Billy Wilder," in Film Comment (copyright © 1971 by Film Comment Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved), Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter, 1971–72, pp. 8-22.

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