- “A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”
I love this video and when I saw it for the first time about a month ago while searching for the video I included in the Ernst Lubitsch entry in this series, I vowed that I had to include it in the inevitable Billy Wilder post. For whatever reason, it won't allow emedding, but I encourage everyone to go watch it. It is a great example of that innate gift of storytelling that Wilder possessed – just watch him here, recounting this experience, building it to a climax, but doing so completely off the cuff as if he is just having a conversation with someone. He did the same thing in his screenwriting, effortlessly spinning tales – however believable or not – that are perfectly paced, flawlessly executed and invariably deliver a payoff to live up to any expectations.
While not quite as diverse as the resume of Howard Hawks, Wilder is another classic Hollywood director who tried his hand in a number of genres and hit it out of the park in many different stadiums, so to speak (Hey, the Reds are winning, why not use the baseball metaphor?!). And I don’t mean that he simply made outstanding films in a number of areas, I mean that he helmed movies that are routinely cited as being the best of their kind ever made. Look at the praise they have received. Some Like It Hot was voted the greatest American comedy ever made by the AFI in the year 2000. Double Indemnity is routinely cited as one of the finest films noir ever made. Sunset Boulevard is another classic noir, but transcends such genre classification and is rightly acknowledged as one of the finest movies ever made in Hollywood. With The Apartment, Wilder created not only one of the funniest films of the sound era, but the romantic comedy that countless big budget productions and popular television sitcoms have been mimicking ever since. I could go on with further examples, but anyone familiar with Wilder’s work already knows the score. The man could craft a story in any style or genre and not just make it work, but make it spectacular.
Similar to what I did say for Hawks, though, is that Wilder brought a cohesive vision to each unique project, essentially stamping his own imprint in each genre. Everything Wilder did, no matter how serious, always seems to have been done a bit tongue-in-cheek. Even as Walter and Phyllis were plotting murder in Double Indemnity, the breakneck speed and cadence of the dialog can’t help but make one grin. Ditto for Sunset Boulevard, which at times plays like a black comedy. The outlook that Wilder adopted for much of his work is actually a rather dark, pessimistic one. His films might eventually wind their way to more optimistic territory, but for most of the proceedings Wilder puts on display the sleazy side of human nature. Trysting couples plotting murder for profit. A reporter keeping a man trapped in a cave in order to further is his own career. An insurance man fishing for a promotion by opening his own apartment to company higher-ups to conduct affairs. A down on his luck writer who strings out the money and affection of an ex-star. Initially, these are not immediately likable characters. Yet, Wilder’s wit is enough to keep any of his films from being completely dark. The dialog is so crisp, the situations so entertaining, that eventually you find yourself being won over or rooting for any of them. This of course doesn’t apply to all of his films, but is applicable in many of them.
It must have been easy to impart these themes and views in each of his films, as Wilder co-wrote every film he ever directed. In fact, even after he became one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood, Wilder was still known to view himself primarily as a writer. Just look at his tombstone, which can easily be seen by doing a simple Google search. The only inscription reads: “BILLY WILDER – I’M A WRITER BUT THEN NOBODY’S PERFECT.” Legend has it that Wilder fully threw himself into directing only because he didn’t want to have to hand over his scripts to those that might butcher them. It is thus no coincidence that he co-wrote every film he ever directed. So it is also worth applauding his writing partners I.A.L Diamond and Charles Brackett who worked perfectly with Billy. Even so, while his focus may have been more on the writing process, Wilder was wily enough to team with technical geniuses, resulting in strikingly memorable visuals. Working with legends like John Seitz, Joseph LaShelle, Charles Lang and others meant that all of his films are wonderful to look at. His directorial technique may not have been groundbreaking, but the results were still spectacular.
I still have a way to go before I have made my way through Billy Wilder’s entire filmography. But I can honestly say that I don’t dislike a single one of the nineteen films listed below, which makes me even more excited to finally get to those that I am missing.
1. The Apartment (1960)
2. Double Indemnity (1944)
3. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
4. Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
5. One, Two, Three (1961)
6. Ace in the Hole (1951)
7. A Foreign Affair (1948)
8. Stalag 17 (1953)
9. Kiss Me Stupid (1964)
10. Some Like It Hot (1959)
11. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
12. The Seven Year Itch (1955)
13. Avanti! (1972)
14. The Fortune Cookie (1966)
15. Sabrina (1954)
16. The Lost Weekend (1945)
17. Irma La Douce (1963)
18. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
19. The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)