Wild about Wilder
Kennedy Wilson on one of the world’s most popular film directors, who spoke to the little people who sat in the dark
Famous film directors are often pigeonholed into one category or another: John Ford, westerns; Hitchcock, suspense, Tarantino, splatter
But one golden age director, Billy Wilder, defies categorisation. ‘It’s maybe surprising’, says film writer Kim Newman, ‘just how many Wilder films appear in people’s top tens’.
Many are incomparable classics that range from tragicomedy and razor-sharp satire to film noir. Nothing, not even Marilyn Monroe’s legendary lateness, fazed Billy Wilder.
His Sunset Boulevard (1950) was an eerie takedown of the seamier side of Hollywood. One critic called it ‘a monument to ambiguity’.
William Holden played a washed-up writer who becomes the kept man of a faded silent movie star (Gloria Swanson) in a spectacularly crumbling mausoleum mansion. The film is chock-full of memorable scenes: a dead body in the swimming pool, the burial of a pet monkey, a card game with Buster Keaton.
‘It remains the most cruelly damning indictment of Hollywood – how it works, the unkeepable promises, and the damage that they cause’, wrote critic Damien Love.
There is a case for Wilder’s best film being the fatalistic thriller Double Indemnity (1944) which has been released on a fantastic Blu-ray, loaded with extras from Criterion.
Fred MacMurray is the cocky insurance salesman who falls for femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck, a wife with murder in mind. The film is full of claustrophobic shadows amid the LA sunshine and was based on a James M Cain story. Wilder wrote the screenplay with that other hardboiled writer of the 40s Raymond Chandler.
When MacMurray and Stanwyck first meet they have a famously flirtatious exchange that’s a masterclass in how to write crackling movie dialogue. “Wilder did a terrific job,” said Cain. “It’s the only picture made from my books that had things in it I wish I’d thought of.”
Wilder was one of many Austro-German filmmakers who fled Europe during the rise of Hitler going on to reinvent Hollywood. Indeed, the popular stereotype of the film director became an authoritative, German-accented control-freak strutting about in jodhpurs, with a bullhorn.
Wilder was born in Vienna in 1906 and began his working life as a journalist before moving to filmmaking in Berlin. He helped in the seminal Menschen am Sonntag (1929), before arriving in Hollywood where he shared a room with actor Peter Lorre whose most famous role was the slimy Ugarte in Casablanca.
It was good timing... Producers needed new people to grapple with the high-tech medium of sound.
Before Wilder became a director, he was a sought-after script doctor and screenwriter. Double Indemnity was his third directing role and it proved to be a huge critical and box office success. It was followed by The Lost Weekend (1945) a bitter story of alcoholism and as strong an indictment of addiction as you can get.
Around this time, he returned to Germany to make Death Mills at the behest of the US government. This short film showed the liberation and lingering horror of the Nazi death camps and was designed as part of a de-radicalisation programme for Germans dealing with their country’s defeat in the Second World War.
His Foreign Affair (1948) used the ruins of Berlin as a backdrop for a story about the city getting back on its feet with interventions from the Allies. It’s memorable for the performance of Marlene Dietrich’s smoky nightclub rendition of ‘Black Market’.
Wilder was also, remarkably for what had gone before, famous for his comedies. He directed the Marilyn Monroe vehicle The Seven Year Itch (1955) and directed her again in the definitive sex farce Some Like it Hot (1959) which has been lauded as one of the best film comedies ever made.
The antics of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag is comedy gold. In 1960 Wilder cast Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in the bittersweet comedy The Apartment, which would prove to be the last of his great films.In all, he was nominated for a, frankly astonishing, 21 Academy Awards. Winning six.
His One, Two Three (1961) proved to be a turkey and, when MacLaine and Lemmon were teamed in his Irma La Douce (1964) - decried as ‘abominable’ by the New Yorker - Billy Wilder’s astonishing star had waned.
That said, he left us a great legacy of unforgettable nights at the cinema. ■
Info: Double Indemnity is out on Blu-ray, www.criterion.com
Wilder doing what he loved most