The 100 Essential Directors Part 10

Josef Von Sternberg to Zhang Yimou

by PopMatters Staff

5 September 2011


Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder
(1906 - 2002)

Three Key Films: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Apartment(1960)

Underrated: Ace in the Hole (1951) “I never went to college, but I know what makes a good story: Bad news sells the best, because good news is no news.” Kirk Douglas’ Chuck Tatum is one of the great charismatic, nasty noir men of 1950s cinema, up there with Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis’ Sidney Falco from The Sweet Smell of Success. Ace in the Hole was Wilder’s first film that he wrote himself, in addition to producing and directing, and it’s his uncompromising statement about the callous amorality of media exploitation. Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter from New York, who’s been fired from 11 jobs across the country, makes his way to Alberquerque, where nothing much happens, just so he can make something happen. He hears about an incident where a man falls into a cave and is stuck, and he convinces the sheriff and the engineers to prolong the rescue so that he can milk the story to sell papers and attract a crowd. Everyone, including the naive man stuck in the cave, goes along with the scheme for the extra attention, and Tatum even manages to bed the man’s wife in the process.

Ace in the Hole was a bit of a commercial failure during its time. It was so bleak and belittling in terms of what it seemed to say about our need for fame, and audiences weren’t ready to see Kirk Douglas play someone so heartless and self-serving. The title was even changed to something less hard-boiled, The Big Carnival, to make it more palatable. The film has been restored and re-released by Criterion in 2007. Wilder was brilliant at showing us different shades of opportunistic, hustling characters. As an Eastern European émigré, he understood that no ambition in America was too big if the person is relentless enough to see it through. But he was fascinated but what a person is willing to lose in the process to see that ambition realized—what aspects of his own integrity he is willing to sacrifice just to get what he wants.

Unforgettable: A tie between Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond winding down the stairs in the final scene of Sunset Boulevard and Shirley MacLaine smiling indulgently at a lovesick Jack Lemmon in the end of the  The Apartment, as she says, “Shut up and deal.” Both scenes are emblematic of the duality and complexity of Billy Wilder. It’s amazing that the man who made something so brittle as Double Indemnity, could make something as frothy as Sabrina. Norma Desmond’s final exit has become an iconic moment in cinema, and endlessly parodied (Carol Burnett’s Norma Desmond with the garish giant eyelashes and the mardi gras beads…), but the scene of her slowly descending the stars and staring out into the camera conveys something about the power of delusions, and how the need for fame and adoration is enough to lead someone into madness and self-exile.

The ending of The Apartment is the movie equivalent of a breath of fresh air after being in a toxic, smoke-filled room. The entire atmosphere of the film is the pushy, mean-spiritedness of middle-management corporate life in New York City and its sordid moral laxity. In it, are two sweet, but naive people, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). The last line is a masterpiece moment in screenwriting and staging and really just “tying everything together”. What do you say after you’ve been through a nasty extramarital affair, a failed suicide attempt, the loss of your job, and the puncturing of your life-long ideals and ambitions, and you realize you can still manage to be in love with someone? The line is brilliantly stripped of sentiment but is still potent enough to convey the depth of the characters’ feelings for each other.

The Legend: Billy Wilder’s name is synonymous with Hollywood. During the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, he made some of the most successful films with some of the most famous stars. He was one of those directors who proved that you could be both commercially successful and still be sharp in terms of our artistic craft. He had an incredible restlessness and hunger when in came to conquering Hollywood. He did everything from romantic comedies (Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon [1957]), screwball comedies (Ball of Fire [1941], Some Like it Hot [1959]), One, Two, Three 91961), film noir (Double Indemnity, and Ace in the Hole), to unexpected character-driven dramas (The Lost Weekend [1948], Witness for the Prosecution [1957]). His wit and his audacity helped create extraordinary dialogue with some of the greatest, most quoted lines in all movies: “Shut up and deal” The Apartment, “Nobody’s perfect,” Some Like It Hot, “How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” Double Indemnity.

I mentioned that The Lost Weekend was “character-driven,” but really, all of Wilder’s films are “character-driven” in the sense that he set the standard for the sort of movies we see today, where we’re drawn to a character and are moved and carried away by him or her and want that character to win in the end. Wilder changed Hollywood filmmaking in this way. Take a look at a successful romantic comedy like 27 Dresses (2008). Formulaic, but endearing for a large audience. That movie owes everything to Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon, where the young woman lead, passionate, idealistic, but lonely, gets rewarded for her goodness in the end because of her spirit (saccharine and cloying, yes, but it has a grain of truth that people long to believe in). All of the popular cross-dressing comedies that have followed in the wake of Some Like it Hot, from Big Momma’s House (2000) to Tyler Perry’s Madea movies, owe a serious debt to the trailblazing success of Wilder’s work with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.

Wilder’s success came from his pragmatism, which bordered on the cavalier and playfully sadistic. To get through to an American audience, he knew he had to make it big and broad. “Don’t be too clever for an audience,” he’d advise. “Make it obvious. Make the subtleties obvious also.” This persona of the convictionless, commercially successful filmmaker was a façade that Wilder liked to take up to taunt the public and the media, when in reality, he was more of a meticulous European theater director along the lines of Max Reinhardt. Billy Wilder’s movies are wildly successful: even if less people watch those movies now than they used to, they’re recycled and reabsorbed into new movies in ways where they are instantly familiar and recognizable. Movies are meant to enlighten us and bring something significant to our lives, but fundamentally, they’re meant to give us pleasure, and Wilder knew this better than anybody. Farisa Khalid



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