Today: July 17, 2024

Billy Wilder

The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot. Billy Wilder’s name has been linked with some of the greatest films of Hollywood’s golden era.

The
Lost Weekend
, Sunset
Boulevard
, Double Indemnity (Main Picture), Some Like it Hot. Billy Wilder’s name has been linked with some of the greatest
films of Hollywood’s golden era. He also happens to have the distinction of
being the only man to ever win Oscars for Best Motion Picture, Best Director
and Best Screenplay on the same film
The Apartment – which is
re-released this June. No wonder so many people are simply wild about Wilder.
Jonathan McCalmont takes a look at five of the best from the softhearted cynic.

Billy
Wilder
is the most sentimental filmmaker to
ever acquire a reputation for cynicism. Born in a corner of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now a part of Poland, Wilder began his career
as a journalist before fleeing Nazi persecution and re-inventing himself as one
of the most influential and beloved writer/directors of Hollywood’s golden age.
What made Wilder’s talent so unique is that he mastered pretty much every genre
he attempted. This innovative and flexible talent allowed him to become the
poster boy for both noir cynicism and screwball romanticism. With his films
currently undergoing an appropriately lavish re-issue, there has never been a
better time to discover the work of a director who plumbed the depths of
cynicism only to discover one happy ending after another.

Based on a hugely influential
autobiographical novel by Charles R.
Jackson
, The Lost Weekend (1945)
earned Wilder two Oscars, one for his direction and another for his
screenwriting. The Lost Weekend is something of a cinematic landmark as it was
the first American film to deal with the issue of alcoholism in anything
approaching a realistic fashion. The film opens with Ray Millard’s character grumpily packing for a journey. Every time
he moves to the dresser, his eyes are drawn to the window where a bottle of
whisky hangs at the end of a rope. Millard’s character is a drunk … a low-down,
conniving, self-destructive drunk who will stop at nothing to get his buzz on.
However, as Millard explains in a beautifully delivered speech halfway through
the film, he is not just a drunk; he is also a writer. The film follows both
drunk and writer as they spiral downwards, hit rock bottom and continue
burrowing. Regardless of how brutal and misanthropic this film gets (and the
scene in the drunk tank is particularly harrowing), this central duality
between writer and drunk means that Wilder always has an escape hatch. He can
be dark, he can be twisted but ultimately the writer was always going to win
out over the drunk. This ain’t no Requiem
for a Dream
… Nosiree Bob, but it is a damn good film nonetheless.

Similarly conflicted is Sunset Boulevard (1950). Set in and
around the Hollywood machine, Sunset Boulevard tells of an aspiring writer who
allows himself to be seduced by an aging starlet in the hope that her
much-touted Hollywood clout will help to kick-start his career. As the film
progresses and our hero becomes more and more financially dependent upon Gloria Swanson’s undead beauty, our
hero begins to realise that he is locked in a system that will literally drain
the life from him. In fact, we know from the film’s opening that our hero dies…
the question is how and why. The film is perhaps best known for its decision to
cast disgraced director Erich von
Stroheim
in the part of a devoted husband and former director who now plays
the part of the starlet’s chauffeur. With all of these pieces in place, the
film seems poised to explode with satirical energy but we never quite get
there. Having cast von Stroheim opposite Swanson, Wilder refuses to acknowledge
their relationship or to unpack its meaning. Swanson should have been a
metaphor for a vampiric studio system that devours talent in order to sustain
itself but, at the last minute, Wilder flinches and portrays her as an isolated
lunatic. It is this lunacy that makes Swanson’s character (and the film itself)
so memorably and frustratingly ambivalent. Apparently, even mad gods deserve
worship.

Wilder’s tendency to allow his characters
off the hook is also evident in the noir classic Double Indemnity (1944). The film revolves around an elaborate
insurance scam perpetrated by a femme fatale with a rich husband and an insurance
salesman with an urge to prove just how smart he really is. Filled with
absolute sensational dialogue (almost every line is quotable) the film is held
together by a powerhouse performance by the great Edward G. Robinson who delivers insanely intelligent speeches that
cut to the core of the human condition before lamely patting his pockets in
search of a match. Needless to say, the insurance salesman always has a match
and this is where the heart of the film lies. This need to outsmart everyone
else ultimately dooms the couple as only the lightest of pressure is sufficient
to set them at each other’s throats, while Robinson’s claim investigator just
sits back and waits as the wages of cynicism are paid in full.

Wilder’s steadfast refusal to fully
embrace misanthropy also produced one of the greatest films of all time. The
plot of Some Like it Hot (1957) is,
at first glance, spectacularly misanthropic: two crooked musicians witness a
murder and dress up as sexy dames in order to hide out from the mob. While in
drag, one dame (Tony Curtis) falls
in love with another dame (Marilyn
Monroe
) and pretends to be Cary
Grant
in an effort to seduce her. The second dame (Jack Lemmon) inadvertently lands himself an elderly millionaire who
isn’t overly bothered by said dame’s possession of a penis. The old boy’s
admission that “Nobody’s Perfect” has done more for gay and transgender rights
than Lady Gaga’s Born This Way could
ever hope to and thus the film’s misanthropic set-up is redeemed as an ode to
tolerance and warm-hearted romanticism. The jokes flow, true love blooms and it
really doesn’t matter who you are and what set of genitalia you happen to
possess.

Had Wilder been anything less than a
great director, this tendency to veer away from cynicism at the last minute
would have seemed like an intolerable betrayal. What makes Wilder’s about-turns
not just tolerable, but actively enjoyable is the sense that every film marked
the fruition of a personal line of thought, a path cut into the jungles of
cynicism using wit and intelligence. Personal demons banished with a stroke of
a screenwriter’s pen. However, there is one particular film that shows what
Wilder could accomplish when the demons of cynicism and misanthropy proved too
much for him. In fact, the results are downright sickening.

Made as part of the US military’s attempt
to educate the German people about Nazi atrocities, Murder Mills (1945) is easily the most gruesome and stomach-churning
treatment of the Holocaust ever committed to film. Comprising nothing but
horrific images shot during the liberation of the death camps, the film offers
an absolute masterclass of symbolic manipulation showing the implicit links
between the Nazi pageantry enjoyed by the German people and the Nazi atrocities
that allowed them to dream of racial imperium. Sickening to watch even now,
Murder Mills makes you all the more appreciative of Wilder’s unbounded optimism
and sentiment.

The
Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity are both available to buy on wonderfully re-masterd
Blu-ray from The Masters Of Cinema Collection on 25th June and The
Apartment is in cinemas from 15th June

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