Wednesday, July 28, 2010

#2: Billy Wilder

- “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)


  1. Well this is a great number 2 you have here Dave. I'm a little surprised that The Apartment toping your list. I like that film but it's not one of my Wilder favorites.

    1. Sunset Boulevard
    2. Double Indemnity
    3. Ace In The Hole
    4. Some Like It Hot
    5. Stalag 17
    6. Witness For The Prosecution
    7. The Lost Weekend
    8. The Seven Year Itch
    9. The Apartment
    10. Sabrina

    There are a few I still have not seen like Irma La Douce, Avanti, and The Spirit Of Saint Louis.....M.Roca

  2. Dave, this is a surprise. I was sure your top two directors would be Kubrick and Hitchcock. Wilder is routinely dismissed by the auteurists, but I've always found him to be a fine filmmaker who made many tremendously entertaining films and several masterpieces. My favorite quotation from him is when he said that when he started writing a film, he never knew whether it would be a comedy or a drama. When thinking of films like "Sunset Boulevard" and "The Apartment," that statement certainly gives one pause to wonder!

    I would put "Sunset Boulevard" at #1, followed closely by "Double Indemnity," "Some Like It Hot," and "The Apartment"--for me these are his masterpieces. In the next group would come "The Major and the Minor," The Lost Weekend," "Stalag 17," "Sabrina," "The Seven Year Itch," "Love in the Afternoon," "Witness for the Prosecution," "Irma La Douce," and "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes." I have to say that I don't understand the recent surge of enthusiasm for "Ace in the Hole." Its cynicism seems facile even for Wilder, and Kirk Douglas's scenery chomping grows tiresome for me after awhile. Wilder didn't write quite all of his films. Three of those I named (all made in the mid-50s) were adapted from plays but are still quite good.

  3. R.D., Kubrick was #22, though Hitch has to be #1, right? RIGHT?!?

    Dave, I think this is the first time I've commented during this series, but I love it. Hope you'll cook up another fun series before long!

    1. Double Indemnity
    2. Ace in the Hole
    3. Sunset Blvd.
    4. The Apartment
    5. Some Like It Hot
    6. The Seven Year Itch
    7. The Lost Weekend
    8. Avanti!
    9. Stalag 17
    10. Witness for the Prosecution

  4. Lynch or Hitch? Leaving off either sounds shocking. I predict a tie. Or neither?

  5. Dave:

    1. Double Indemnity
    2. The Apartment
    3. Sunset Blvd.
    4. Ace in the Hole
    5. A Foreign Affair
    6. Some Like It Hot
    7. The Major and the Minor
    8. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
    9. Stalag 17
    10. Witness for the Prosecution
    11. The Spirit of St. Louis
    12. One, Two, Three
    13. The Lost Weekend
    14. Five Graves to Cairo
    15. Kiss Me, Stupid
    16. Avanti!

    You have placed Wilder at a very high echelon; he belongs there. I have seen, and well remember, every Wilder-directed film on IMDB. He is my favorite American director, native born or otherwise. Your 1-2-3 placement and mine are very similar. (I made my list last week.) I have only listed 16 but could have gone on. Your writeup does thte writer/director complete justice.

    My age places me in the narrative tradition of American film and Wilder suits that framework: he was a great storyteller. He understood his art, his adopted language (and its idioms), and importantly: his audience.

    “Double Indemnity” is classic Cain made better. (Cain has told us that Wilder improved the book, especially the ending.) It is great film noir, perfectly cast among the leads, and has given us Keyes telling Neff “closer than that Walter.”

    “The Apartment” is a masterwork, taking place on the underside of corporate New York. He takes his centerpiece from that period’s endangered species: the elevator operator. Miss Kubelik’s decline (encased in comedy) in some ways parallels that of her occupational group as a whole. Each subsequent year in the 1960s, that omnipresent uniformed group of New York ambassadors moved closer to oblivion. One cannot help but wonder about Fran’s future after “shut up and deal.”

    “Sunset Boulevard’s” beautifully written film is a perfect showcase for Wilder favorite, William Holden, and a mirror held to the emptiness and destructiveness of the town with the sign on the hill.

    Other directors’ films might look better. But need cinematic beauty be Lean’s desert or the overall stunning look of Barry Lyndon? Can it not be bombed out Berlin, the monks crossing the overhead railway bridge at Inverness, or the film noir shadows of California?

    Wilder’s joy to the ear takes many forms from the seductive banter of Holden and Olson imitating lines from screenplays past, to the harshness of Jan Sterling telling us she does not go to church “because kneeling bags my nylons,” to the serenity of the mirror girl telling Lindbergh “but I had to come -- you needed the mirror.”

    Very underrated is “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.” It is beautiful and incredibly smart. Yet it was close to ruined by a miscast Watson: as bumbling as the earlier Nigel Bruce, and bombastic to boot. In a poignant scene near the end, a romantic Wilder has a beautiful German spy spell out “auf wiedersehen” in code on a parasol.

    I had to place “Lost Weekend” somewhere. Films which break taboo barriers till tricky terrain: dramatics are needed for the message (and for sales). The alcoholics I have known have not gone on and on about their condition. It was endless pain and drudgery until death. As I said in the Melville posting, this one is too close to home. My brother drank double vodkas and vodka highball chasers endlessly for years. I eventually sat beside him in the drunk ward at Bellevue and he invited me to stay for dinner telling me that his wife was in the kitchen baking a meat loaf. He died a few days later.

    Film is very much enhanced by what we bring to it. I have inhabited worlds which were subjects that caught Wilder’s attention. The world of occupied Germany, proximity to alcoholism, the underside of corporate politics, and time in an antiquarian book firm specializing in Holmesiana were all at one time, home country.

    I have watched, and considered including, Death Mills. But it is in such a different stratosphere and of such momentous significance; I thought it best honored by letting it stand alone. Thank you.


  6. It's clear enough now how the #1 position will be filled, and it won't be the director of BLUE VELVET! Ha! I have never seen Dave's love for Lynch to be on the level of his Top 30 choices. This of course is a list of "favorites" and not a round-up of directors thought to be the all-time greats. Hence my own Top 30 -which I'll post in the comments section at the pole position unveiling, will be very different than Dave's, though there will be a number of overlaps. I hope others will do the same. The big difference of course is that Dave spent two months painstakingly laying out his position with stellar reasoning and terrific writing, making this project one of the finest of its kind we've seen on the net.

    The choice of Wilder is one that's hard to quibble with as he's produced severla masterpieces of American cinema. His cyncial and corrosive dramas have been well-framed on these threads. However I am strongly in the ACE IN THE HOLE camp and applaud its well-deserved resurgence in critical estimation, and do not all find its cynicism remotely facile, but consistent with this director's vision. It's one of his best films. The one I have serious issues with is SOME LIKE IT HOT, but I'll yield to prevailing opinion and stay mum. Ha!

    1 Sunset Boulevard
    2 Ace in the Hole
    3 Double Indemnity
    4 The Apartment
    5 Witness for the Prosecution
    6 One Two Three
    7 The Lost Weekend
    8 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
    9 The Major and the Minor
    10 Five Graves to Cairo
    11 A Foreign Affair
    12 The Major and the Minor
    13 Kiss Me Stupid
    14 Avanti!
    15 The Seven Year Itch
    16 Sabrina
    17 The Fortune Cookie
    18 The Spirit of St. Louis
    19 Some Like It Hot

    Again your passion for your subject has resulted in yet another essay of the first rank!

  7. I also am a big fan of Wilder's stuff. I dunno if I'd rank him as highly but he certainly belongs right up there considering the classic status of so much of his output. My faves:

    1. Double Indemnity
    2. The Apartment
    3. Ace in the Hole
    4. Some Like It Hot
    5. Sunset Boulevard
    6. Sabrina
    7. The Seven Year Itch
    8. Irma La Douce
    9. The Lost Weekend
    10. The Fortune Cookie

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. For #1 I'm predicting the director of Psycho. Though I'm not sure how Dave feels about the other films of Mr. Van Sant, so perhaps I'm off.

    After you finish the countdown, I'd be interested to see your personal top 30 (just in terms of a list, as I'm sure you're going to move in a different direction for your next series!) for non-U.S. directors, as your admitted preference for American filmmakers has certainly played out here!

    Interesting though, even with that inclination, how many directors here began their careers, acting/writing if not directing, overseas - speaks to the cosmopolitanism of Hollywood, I suppose. (Chaplin, Lang, Lubitsch, presumably Hitchcock, and of course Wilder.)

    Good eeeevening...

  10. Is The Apartment the best-written movie ever? There are so many variables to writing, and movies rely on how the scripts are executed as much as anything, but the screenplay for The Apartment may be the most ingenious script ever written.

    He may not be an auteurist, but Billy Wilder might be the most consistently rewarding American filmmaker (if you absorb Chaplin by osmosis, then I would probably argue for him. After all, Wilder came from overseas too). I love an old talk he gave about working with Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler books: he noted that Chandler was a master writer, that his prose was gorgeous, his characters realized and the mood perfect. But he also said that Chandler couldn't plot a story to save his life, and he praised Agatha Christie, whose book he had to gut in terms of characterization and style in order to give it any amount of flair, for being able to plot a story so well that you couldn't put down a weakly written book, and he actually reserved most of his praise for her in that he felt it was harder to maintain a story than be a beautiful writer. "She plots like a fucking angel" has become one of my favorite random art quotes.

    There are some Wilder films I need to see, so I'll settle for a top 5:

    1. The Apartment
    2. Ace in the Hole
    3. Sunset Boulevard
    4. Double Indemnity
    5. Some Like It Hot

  11. Dave,

    Wilder is one of my top favorites ranking in the top three (the other two would be Scorsese and a certain director I am sure will be named #1 on your list). Many of his screenplays are some of the best ever done, beautifully written and a pleasure to read on the printed page which usually is not the case with screenplays.. As a director he does not let the camera get in the way of the story; the words are sacred yet his films are not as sparse visually as some critics claim. The opening of "Sunset Blvd" with Holden in the pool and the ending of "Ace in the Hole" when Kirk Douglas falls down dead, his face practically in the camera are two examples.

    Double Indemnity
    Sunset Blvd.
    Ace in the Hole
    Some Like It Hot
    The Apartment
    The Lost Weekend
    Stalag 17
    One, Two, Three
    Witness For The Prosecution
    Five Graves to Cairo
    Kiss Me Stupid
    The Fortune Cookie
    The Major and The Minor
    A Foreign Affair
    The Seven Year Itch
    Irma La Douce
    The Front Page
    Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
    The Spirit of St. Louis
    Love In the Afternoon
    Buddy, Buddy

  12. Can't argue with Wilder or with your ranking of the films. I'd have no hesitation placing 'The Apartment' at the top of the list, either. And I'm in full agreement that there isn't a single Wilder film - even the extraordinarily low ratio of minor works - that isn't enjoyable. 'Avanti!' is particular guilty pleasure of mine.

  13. I'm putting Ace in the Hole on top because it's practically one of a kind in its epic noirishness. But it was still a close race with Sunset Blvd, another stupendous work. But I haven't seen as many Wilders as some people, probably because sound comedy still isn't my first choice on most occasions. I don't believe I've yet sat through The Apartment, and that is for want of trying. Nothing against the film; I've just never been that interested in seeing it despite the Oscar. I'll fix that someday.

    1. Ace in the Hole
    2. Sunset Blvd
    3. Stalag 17
    4. Double Indemnity
    5. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
    6. A Foreign Affair
    7. Witness for the Prosecution
    8. One, Two, Three
    9. The Lost Weekend
    10. Some Like It Hot
    11. The Spirit of St. Louis
    12. Sabrina

  14. Hello from Greece.My top 5 is:
    1.The apartment
    2.Some like it hot
    3.Double indemnity
    5.The fortune cookie

  15. 1. The Apartment (1960)
    2. Some Like it Hot (1959)
    3. Double Indemnity (1944)
    4. Ace in the Hole (1951)
    5. The Lost Weekend (1945)
    6. Sunset Blvd. (1950)
    7. Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
    8. A Foreign Affair (1948)
    9. Stalag 17 (1953)
    10. The Seven Year Itch (1955)
    11. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
    12. The Fortune Cookie (1966)
    13. One, Two, Three (1961)
    14. The Major and the Minor (1942)
    15. Sabrina (1954)
    16. Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

    I actually saw the bigger bulk of his filmography on a recent binge, which is incidentally still going on (next up is Irma la Douce). So far, only Kiss Me Stupid has left somewhat unsatisfied, not sure why.

  16. There are few film for which I must go :
    The Apartment
    Stalag 17
    The Lost Weekend
    One, Two, Three
    Five Graves to Cairo
    Witness For The Prosecution
    Kiss Me Stupid

  17. Wilder was not american.

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  19. Billy Wilder's sunset boulevard is the most incredible movie I've ever seen in my whole life!