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As seen in The Stereophile Guide to Home Theater, 1996:


Still living, but barely acknowledged, Billy Wilder is the last of the truly great Hollywood moviemakers

by Mark Fleischmann

When the remake of Sabrina opened a few months ago, the buzz surrounded one of two topics. One, could Harrison Ford step into a role originally carved out by Humphrey Bogart? Two, could talk-show whiz Greg Kinnear translate his small-screen smarm into silver-screen presence? Truth to tell, Ford and Kinnear both acquitted themselves well; as Ford explained between clenched teeth to David Letterman, a new script and new players made it an altogether new movie. However, all but unmentioned was the cowriter, director, and producer who made the Sabrina of 1954 a film worth remaking in the first place: an impudent man who once liked wearing hats indoors, a man with a savage wit, a man who repeatedly inserted into scripts the declaration "I wish I were in hell with my back broken," a once-energetic filmmaker named Billy Wilder. The omission recalled another curious silence a few years earlier when the theatrical staging of Wilder's 1950 film Sunset Boulevard hit Broadway.

Now nearing his 90th birthday, Wilder no longer makes movies or grants interviews. It's not that his work has been gathering dust: it was the subject of a major New York retrospective just a few years ago. He's not so much forgotten as underappreciated. People remember Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot; they just don't sufficiently honor the man whose directorial control and dark humor made the movie so fast-paced and sleekly hilarious.

Some film buffs love Billy Wilder, some hate him, but most simply take him for granted. He's got a mantel full of Oscars, yet influential critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris thrashed him throughout the '60s. Sarris later reconsidered, finally admitting Wilder to his "pantheon" of great "auteur" filmmakers. But by then, Wilder had made his final film and slipped quietly into retirement and obscurity, waiting for the video revolution to unexpectedly plunder the cinematic vaults and revive his films for the home-theater generation. Much (though not all) of his best work is available on videodisc, with several important items out of print and a few others unreleased.

For your information, pal, Billy Wilder is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, a triple-threat writer/director/producer worthy of mention in the same short breath with such generational peers as Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Capra, Sturges, and Welles. He is best remembered for hard-hitting dramas like Double Indemnity, Stalag 17, and The Apartment, as well as fierce farces like Some Like It Hot and Kiss Me, Stupid. The hallmarks of a Wilder film are barbed wit, a reliable yet subtle visual craftsmanship that blossoms in big-screen viewing, and a bittersweetness that leans more toward the bitter than the sweet, like a steaming cup of unsugared espresso. All three characteristics were born of a certain ruthlessness.

"I have ten commandments," Wilder once said. "The first nine are, thou shalt not bore. The tenth is, thou shalt have right of final cut." One of his screenwriting collaborators, Harry Kurnitz, put it a little differently: "Billy Wilder at work is two people: Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde." But then, if you were a passionate artist who'd spent your youth being driven from one corner of Europe to another by death and destruction, you wouldn't suffer fools gladly either.

Billy Wilder was born Samuel Wilder in 1906, in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now part of Poland. Little Billy, who acquired his nickname from his mom's crush on Buffalo Bill, was still a child when the First World War broke out and the family fled to Vienna. There his eight-year-old eyes saw mobs running wild in the streets, looting shops, tearing down statues, making bonfires, killing soldiers.

As a young man he moved from Vienna to Berlin to Paris, and from the study of law to newspaper writing to screenwriting. He also did a bit of Weimar-era directing, though his German-language movies are rarely revived on film and unavailable on disc. In 1933 the budding screenwriter, a Jew, witnessed the Reichstag fire. By 1934, with a nervous eye cocked at the ascendant Nazis, Wilder got his big break: a script-writing job at Columbia Pictures. He sailed to America.

There he faced a new problem: this professional writer, sharing the Columbia writers' bungalows with the likes of Dorothy Parker and James M. Cain, barely spoke English. But he persevered, floating from Columbia to Paramount by way of a few other studios, and writing several scripts before meeting the collaborator with whom he would coauthor several of his finest works. Where Wilder was direct, boisterous, and crude, Charles Brackett was suave, mannerly, and uppercrust. According to Wilder's biographer Maurice Zolotow, Brackett's first words to Wilder were: "Do you play cribbage?"

Brackett let his outgoing partner dominate the story conferences, presumably preferring to polish up the dialogue. Among the most memorable Brackett/Wilder scripts were Ball of Fire (1941, directed by Howard Hawks), Midnight (1939, directed by Mitchell Leisen), and two films for a Hollywood auteur whom Wilder worshipped as a god, Ernst Lubitsch: Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) and Ninotchka (1939). If you haven't seen Ninotchka, do. With Greta Garbo as a humorless Soviet and William Powell as the Parisian playboy who seduces her, it is film history's warmest comedy of the heart. Wilder would spend the rest of his career longing to duplicate its romantic alchemy, but the famous "Lubitsch touch" died with Lubitsch in 1947, while he was showering (a woman had been in the room shortly beforehand).

Continuing to coauthor scripts with Brackett (and in later decades with I.A.L. Diamond and others), Wilder began his directorial career with two films unavailable on disc. The Major and the Minor (1942) is a lightweight sex comedy despite its taboo-breaking Lolita overtones; Five Graves to Cairo (1943) is a weightier drama. Neither prepared audiences or critics for the first of the truly great Wilder dramas, 1944's Double Indemnity.

I once went to dinner wearing a T-shirt that read, "SEX. MURDER. ART." "A winning combination," a friend quipped, and so it is in Double Indemnity. Barbara Stanwyck is the femme fatale who lures Fred MacMurray to his doom in this darkest of film noirs, which Wilder cowrote with Raymond Chandler from a James M. Cain novel. An insurance agent, MacMurray falls for Stanwyck and uses his inside knowledge of the business to plot her husband's death. But in the tradition of Hitchcock and Lang, Wilder drapes him at every turn with horizontal venetian-blind shadows--visually metaphorical jailhouse stripes--as he dictates his confession, as he flashes back to his initial lust ("I was thinking about that dame upstairs and the way she looked at me"), as his insurance-company bosses argue over whodunnit, little suspecting it was their own shadow-swathed golden boy.

MacMurray may be more readily recalled as the goodnatured father of television's My Three Sons but his clean-cut, youthful good looks--captured a decade before the TV series--only add to the shocking frankness of his performance. Stanwyck smartly navigates a role that might have been played more naturally by a Joan Crawford type, using a honeyed voice to create the character, and a sinister Mona Lisa smile at critical moments. Watch her face for two great moments of inspired underacting: when MacMurray agrees to kill, and when her husband dies. A crackling Edward G. Robinson, as the insurance-company examiner who's hot on golden boy's trail, puffs a black stogie while MacMurray smokes cigarettes. Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar. His final scene with MacMurray--beautifully written, stunningly underplayed--was a last-minute substitution for one Wilder scrapped, a gas-chamber execution at Folsom Prison.

Wilder and Brackett collaborated for the final time on another bleak masterwork, Sunset Boulevard. This time it is William Holden lured to his doom by Gloria Swanson in a similarly structured story, but with an autobiographical twist--Holden's screenwriter character is as close to a direct mouthpiece Wilder ever allowed. Wilder and Brackett remembered what it was like to be a down-and-out writer; they wrote from the heart. That hit a nerve or two. At the Hollywood premiere Barbara Stanwyck embraced Swanson and they wept for the cameras, while the MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer shook his fist at Wilder: "You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you!" Wilder replied with an obscenity, saving his best retort for Mayer's crowded funeral: "It shows that if you give the public what they want, they will come out for it." Wilder actually had two last laughs--his writer-centric script won the Oscar for screenwriting. An opening scene with talking corpses in a morgue having been scrapped, the great moments belong to Swanson, who gives the key performance of her career--"we had faces then!"--while her staring, expressive eyes, burning like insane lamps, scorch everything in their path.

And then there's The Apartment, Oscar's favorite picture of 1960, yet mysteriously out of print -- presumably not for long. Jack Lemmon watches helplessly as Fred MacMurray (still an insurance excecutive, now more priapic than murderous) romances a vulnerable Shirley MacLaine. She gives one of her richest and deepest performances, aided by a heartfelt script. When she finds her makeup mirror is broken, she says: "I like it that way. It makes me look the way I feel." If your guests call for a holiday screening of It's a Wonderful Life, tell them: "Wait, I know a better Christmas-suicide movie." Then haul out this poisoned candycane.

When Wilder explored conventional dramatic forms, the results were always satisfying, if not the stuff of genius. Stalag 17 (1953) sets the standard for taut prisoner-of-war drama. The attempted social realism of The Lost Weekend (1945) bogs down a Oscar-winning Ray Milland performance with fits of self-pitying speechifyin' and is most remarkable for its vintage glimpses of Manhattan, including the long-gone Third Avenue elevated subway, and Frank Faylen as a malicious psycho-ward nurse. (Even so it won Wilder his first three statuettes, for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.) Wilder's filming of Agatha Christie's novel Witness for the Prosecution (1958) makes good use of Marlene Dietrich's acting abilities and iconic qualities--but is memorable mainly for the mal mots it puts in the mouth of a willing Charles Laughton, a criminal lawyer who is recovering from a heart attack and dislikes his nurse: "Some dark night when her back is turned I'll grab her thermometer and plunge it between her shoulderblades," he mutters, haughtily hissing on another occasion: "If you were a woman, I would strike you."

The Wilder comedies are pungent, fast, and furious. The best and worst of them starred Marilyn Monroe. Delirious Prohibition-era criminality kicks off Some Like It Hot (1959), introducing Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as two musicians on the run from the Chicago mob. They dress in drag to hide with an all-girl band--starring Monroe, naturally, as the singer who croons "I Want to Be Loved by You." Wilder adores her with his preferred black & white camera (he hated color) while Lemmon and Curtis up the ante for perversity, switching back and forth between falsetto and normal voice. The brittle and energetic Lemmon, of course, went on to become Wilder's favorite onscreen alter ego. If The Seven Year Itch (1955) is not one-tenth as stunning, the problem is not so much the sickly color as the sickly screen presence of Tom Ewell as the comic male lead in this silly stagebound romance. Ewell spends endless minutes in dull soliliquy. It works when Marilyn does it; alas, she does it too briefly. Pssst--subway grate scene, side B, search to 19:20. Pass it on.

Wilder was getting the A-list stars but not the results he wanted. The unreliable, drug-addicted Monroe and insecure, alcoholic Bogart were walking nightmares to him. The final straw was Peter Sellers, whose heart attack aborted six weeks of filming on Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). Wilder started over with Ray Walston--yes, everyone's favorite Martian, but remember him in South Pacific? Walston can carry a musical-comedy role like this one with ease. He and Cliff Osmond (a porcine character actor of whom Wilder made good use) are aspiring Nevada nobodies who entangle Walston's pixie wife (the lovely Felicia Farr) and a heart-of-gold working girl (Kim Novak) in a plot to get "Dino" (Dean Martin) to perform one of their songs. With the buxom Novak slipping half-out of both her accent and haltertop, everyone from the New York Herald-Tribune to the Legion of Decency assailed the movie--starting a critical jihad that savaged the last third of Wilder's career--calling it coarse, smutty, squalid, an insult to Judeo-Christian sensibilities, and "the slimiest movie of the year." Joan Didion demurred in Cosmopolitan: "It is a profoundly affecting film, as witnessed by the number of people who walk out on it."

If you're considering a double bill of underrated comedies, the other half is The Fortune Cookie (1966), with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (real name: Matasschanskayasky) as a couple of con men who try to fleece a football star. If Wilder had one failing as a filmmaker, it was his Woody Allen-like propensity for putting not only his words but his go-for-the-jugular idiom into characters' mouths--yet here, Matthau matches him whim for caustic whim, joyously venal and fervently misanthropic, delivering lines that could strip paint off a bannister. The character's name: Gingrich. This is the best-ever pairing of these two grumpy old men, far superior to Wilder's late remake of The Front Page (1974), and the widescreen disc set catches all the action. It's out of print--temporarily, we pray.

You have to drink coffee for two hours just to keep up with another of Wilder's furious comic creations, James Cagney's crazed Coke (as opposed to coke-crazed) executive in One, Two, Three (1961, also widescreen, out of print). No one ever delivered "I wish I were in hell..." with more glee. Don't miss Pamela Tiffin's boy-crazed co-ed, who falls in love with an East German ideologue and punctuates every third sentence with a mock-orgasmic yelp: "He called me a typical bourgeois parasite and the rotten fruit of a corrupt civilization, so naturally I fell in love with him. I wash his shirts and he broadens mah mind. And if it's a warm night we go lie on the roof and watch the Sputniks go by."

Wilder attempted few straightforward romances. He may have felt overshadowed by his mentor Lubitsch, adding at best a few romantic grace notes to his career in comedy and drama. An idiosyncratic sweetness compensates for the overweening gentility of his Sabrina, with Audrey Hepburn as a suicidal naif who starts all the engines in her mansion's closed garage. Love in the Afternoon (1957) pairs Hepburn with an autumnal Gary Cooper. Perhaps Wilder's most surprising and accomplished romance is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), a late epic whose studio-enforced trimming becomes the theme of a richly supplemented widescreen disc set from Criterion/Voyager. Tragically, the cut footage was destroyed. Fedora (1978) is either a flawed masterpiece or an uninteresting late work, depending on whom you ask.

Little space remains to discuss several absent friends: Ace in the Hole (1951), a doom-and-gloom expose of avarice on a par with the most powerful moments of Double Indemnity, as well as The Emperor Waltz (costume musical, 1947), A Foreign Affair (another recently remade romance, 1948), The Spirit of St. Louis (Lindbergh bio with James Stewart, 1957) Irma La Douce (with Shirley MacLaine, 1963), Avanti! (a lovely forgotten comedy with Jack Lemmon, 1972), and the career-closing Buddy, Buddy (1981). Irma is currently out of print; the others remain unissued. One only hopes the onrushing DVD format will accommodate a full Hollywood-era Wilder videography, with all of today's limited offerings and then some. A video library without Wilder? Why, I'd rather be in hell with my back broken.


Thanks to Theo Kalomirakis for loaning discs from his library to compensate for late-arriving review copies. He's a genius home-theater designer, knowledgable film buff, and good pal--a winning combination.

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Billy Wilder died on March 28, 2002 at the age of 95.

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