SIX OF THE BEST #14 – BILLY WILDER
Samuel “Billy” Wilder is arguably one of the finest screenwriters that ever put fingers to typewriter; and certainly one of the best writer-directors of all time. Indeed, until Woody Allen surpassed him he was nominated for best screenwriter at the Academy Awards TWELVE times! Overall, he would win six Oscars plus a special Academy Award.
Wilder was born in 1906 in Austria Hungary; in an area which is now part of Poland. Having moved to Berlin in his twenties, Wilder served an apprenticeship as a writer on a newspaper. However, he soon got work as a screenwriter in the German film industry and a star was born. The rise of the Nazis caused Wilder to move again, to Paris and then latterly to Hollywood. There he would have an incredible career in movie-making spanning over thirty years, writing, producing and directing over thirty-odd films, many of the classics of cinema.
So, in keeping with the remit of this occasional series I have decided to pick out six of Wilder’s best films and explain why they are just brilliant. To be honest I could probably pick out twenty of the best where Wilder is concerned, but will stick to six!
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Double Indemnity (1944)
For any screenwriters out there Wilder’s work is often a technical and intricate joy. Character, dialogue, plot and twists are all combined to create an incredibly deep texture within the work. Double Indemnity was adapted from James M. Cain’s devious noir novella and found Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck plotting to kill her husband for the insurance money. Wilder worked on the screenplay with Raymond Chandler and while the two didn’t hit it off their collaboration produced one of the classic film noirs of the period. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and confirmed the star status of both Stanwyck and MacMurray. As MacMurray’s desperate voiceover reveals the events of the story we are pulled into a web on deceit and murder which show human nature as greedy, vicious and unforgiving.
The Lost Weekend (1945)
It is worth noting that Wilder’s success would perhaps not been as successful if not for his partnership with producer and writer Charles Brackett. They worked on many successful films together and The Lost Weekend was one such triumph. Based on Charles Jackson’ novel about an alcoholic writer teetering on the edge of self-destruction, Ray Milland’s character found himself awash in an existential and drunken haze. Wilder’s work as a screenwriter is again brilliant as he takes a very unsympathetic character and makes him both human and empathetic. This is down to both Milland’s fine performance and Wilder’s key direction; both would win Academy Awards. Overall, it’s a tragic struggle which reflects those individuals who constantly battle against the booze. Many see alcohol as a friend but it can quickly turn into an enemy without warning or notice.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Working from an original story Wilder and Brackett turned the eyes and ears inward toward the Hollywood machine; asking the question: what happens to the Hollywood legends after their star has crashed and burned. The answer was the character of Norma Desmond, a silent movie star craving a comeback and refusing to accept her career is over. Gloria Swanson is absolutely terrifying as the ageing screen goddess, as she spits out famous lines such as: “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small!” Meanwhile, William Holden is also superb as the cynical writer beaten down by his own world weariness within the Hollywood system. The classic opening scene of his limp dead body lying face down in a swimming pool as he recounts how he came to be there is one of the most iconic images in all cinema.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
I probably could have gone for a number of Wilder’s movies including: Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954) or The Fortune Cookie (1966), which was the first film to place Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon on screen together; however, I’m a sucker for a good Agatha Christie story. Witness for the Prosecution features two stunning acting turns from Marlene Dietrich as the wife of the murder suspect, and Charles Laughton as the barrister charged with defending him. In his final film Tyrone Power plays the accused Leonard Vole, who is on trial for murdering a wealthy widow. Laughton’s eccentric barrister defends him but he has help on the way from an unexpected source. Wilder directs his cast with wit and suspense, making the most of Agatha Christie’s dynamite plot which has two grand and unexpected twists at the end.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Arguably the best film comedy ever and also one of the best films of all time, Some Like It Hot, on paper, shouldn’t really work. Two male musicians dress up as women to go on the run from the mob is as silly an idea as you could get. However, with Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond’s intricate script, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon so good in the leads, plus an effervescent Marilyn Monroe at the height of her star power you get all-round cinematic gold. Combining gangster, comedy, musical and romance elements the film fizzes with style, humour and song, as the complex plot involves hilarious identity and gender switches. At one point Curtis’ Joe has split himself into three parts. Ultimately, Wilder and his collaborators have created almost a perfect movie featuring one of the finest end lines in cinema history.
The Apartment (1960)
While Some Like It Hot veered toward comedic farce, The Apartment is a somewhat more mature and darker-themed comedy. Once again starring Jack Lemmon, he portrays C.C. Baxter, a downtrodden office worker whose apartment is used by executives for their extra-marital dalliances. While these liaisons see him gain promotion he begins to doubt his actions and his conscience gets the better of him. The guilt is especially heightened when he begins to fall for Shirley MacLaine’s elevator operator, Fran. Fighting back against the corporate bosses does him no favours but it does bring him closer to Fran. Both a satire against odious men and their sexist practices, plus a touching romance, Jack Lemmon illuminates the screen all hang-dog expressions and nagging angst. MacLaine too shines in a sympathetic role as a woman treated like a perpetual door-mat. The film won five Oscars and once again proved the genius of Billy Wilder.