Friday, 16 December 2016

Billy Wilder - a reassessment

Billy Wilder, writer, director and producer, has been a major part of my life in film, from my late teens. The Apartment (1960) is one of my most treasured films, and has always been included in the top ten, however else that list might have twisted and turned. I have seen almost all of his films many times, and now I have done yet another retrospective. And this time I also, finally, watched the two American films he directed that, for one reason or another, I had never seen before: The Emperor Waltz (1948) and The Spirit of St. Louis (1957).

Up until this session I had had the idea that there were two phases to Wilder's career. One harsh and haunted, when he was co-writing with Charles Brackett, and one more mellow and romantic, and that the second phase coincided with his partnership with I.A.L. Diamond. I now think this is a mistake. His most romantic film, Sabrina (1954), came several years before he and Diamond become a duo. A Foreign Affair (1948), which is both mellow and romantic, came during his Brackett phase, between two of his darkest and most tragic, The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). One reason why The Apartment is my favourite is perhaps because the bitter and the sweet are most perfectly blended there. (Which reminds me of Wilder once quoting Samuel Goldwyn in an award speech, "You got to take the bitter with the sour.")

Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille in Sunset Boulevard.

In my earlier days I was a bigger fan of Wilder than I am today. There are more films that are flawed than there should be and where the blame cannot be put elsewhere, such as studio interference, but on Wilder. For example, the only good thing about Witness for the Prosecution (1957) is Charles Laughton's performance, otherwise it is a staid and unimaginative work. The first half of One, Two, Three (1961) is surprisingly dull and obvious, although the second half is on the other hand thrilling and relentless. Irma la Douce (1963) has fine moments but it looks awkward, colourwise, and the plot is too contrived. And neither of these films breathe. Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) is often unpleasant and feels forced, slightly desperate, and the casting does not feel right. The Seven Year Itch (1955) feels more theatrical than I imagine the actual play it is based on might have felt. And most of Wilder's films have the problem that too many scenes feel written rather than directed, there is a lack of fluency and ease in the visual storytelling, or things feel a bit too neat, and we are told things, things are spelled out to us, that might have been shown instead, and thus become more elegant, and even more moving. I cannot give an exact example now, I would have had to take down notes while watching, but I get this feeling often.

But that is not to belittle the writing, which is frequently very good, of course. That includes such things as structure, pacing and dialogue. There are also several recurring things he does which I like, such as have a word or a line of dialogue used several times in the same film, but with slight alterations, so that they accumulate meaning each time they are used, and either becomes more funny or becomes more poignant. A person might often repeat something he or she has heard before, making the words sound as if they were theirs, only we know that they do not really mean them, they were at a loss of what to say and therefore just repeated what first came to mind. The wide-ranging uses of pocket mirrors is another thing I like, and especially so in The Apartment.

"It makes me look the way I feel."

The frequent self-referencing (like Hawks, Wilder sometimes have his characters, or props, refer back to earlier films he has made or other films with the same actors), and aligning his fictional characters to real persons, like with Dino, played by Dean Martin in Kiss Me Stupid, or Sunset Boulevard, are two other things I like.

But what is less noticed perhaps, and a correction to my complaint of the "writtenness" of his films, is the rich texture of his interiors. The apartments in his films, whether Dietrichson's in Double Indemnity (1944), Don Birnam's in The Lost Weekend, C.C. Baxter's in The Apartment, Harry Hinkle's in The Fortune Cookie (1966), Irma's in Irma la Douce, Spooner's in Kiss Me, Stupid feel real, they breathe (unlike some of the films), you can almost smell them, and after having watched the films you might be able to do a drawing of their apartments. Norma Desmond's house in Sunset Boulevard is a bigger example. The opening sequence in Kiss Me, Stupid, with Dean Martin in Las Vegas, looks spectacular. (But unfortunately when the film comes to Climax, Nevada, it looks cheap and unconvincing, outside of Spooner's apartment.) 

***

After Germany had been defeated in 1945 and the concentration camps liberated Wilder was assigned to supervise footage from the camps, which led to the documentary Death Mills (Die Todesmühlen). This was obviously a horrendous experience (and he lost family members, including his mother, in the camps). When he came back to the US he did not want to make another dark and depressing film like his previous ones but instead do a colourful fantasy with songs, and set in the Vienna of the past, during the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which Wilder was born, long before Nazism descended upon it. That film would be The Emperor Waltz. It is an unusual film in Wilder's oeuvre, and it is rarely talked about or seen. But it is not a bad film. It has many good jokes and fine scenes, and some scenes have a special poignancy. There is even a scene where a veterinarian takes three newborn puppies and attempt to kill them by drowning because they are not pure poodles but mongrels. They are saved in the nick of time, but it is a peculiar scene to have in such a film, a moment of sheer horror and a suggestion of what kind of film Wilder might have made had he not tried to suppress it. It would take a few years before he went really dark again, especially with Ace in the Hole (1951) and Stalag 17 (1953).

In the barrack in Stalag 17

Another interesting thing about The Emperor Waltz is the way it looks. It is set in the Austrian alps but shot in Jasper National Park in Canada. The landscape is fine as it is, quite spectacular, but Wilder was unhappy, and so particular about the look of the film, that he demanded new pine trees to be planted, an island built in a middle of a lake, a country road painted and thousands of flowers too. His eagerness to improve on nature and the mounting costs (the film went way over budget) led Herman J. Mankiewicz to quip "It only goes to show you what God could do if he had the money." It was Wilder's first film in colour, something he otherwise disliked, and is not necessarily good at using. But here it works, perhaps because it rhymes well with the film as a whole. But it would not be until The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) that a colour film of his would look good again, and there the colours are very different from The Emperor Waltz. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is one of the visually most satisfying of Wilder's films, shot by Christopher Challis.

Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine on Wilder's man-made island.

The Spirit of St. Louis, about Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic, is not bad either, although it is compromised, and parts of it were shot, or re-shot, by John Sturges. But it has a fine structure and individual scenes can sometimes be quite impressive. It was not a successful film either, it flopped, but it was a film Wilder had been eager to do, and he and Lindbergh were friends of sorts, despite Lindbergh's Nazi leanings during the war. Their relationship might have made for a more interesting film. 

***

Of Wilder's films there is one that towers over all the rest of them, and that is, as mentioned, The Apartment: it is where everything comes together at their finest, casting, writing, direction and sentiment. Stalag 17 is the one that comes second. After them there are a number of really good ones, primarily Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset BoulevardLove in the Afternoon (1957), The Fortune CookieAvanti! (1972) and Fedora (1978). Films about hypocrisy, sleaze, venality, hustling, filmmaking, business, role-playing and sex, and ever so often genuine sweetness. (Like the scene with the rose in the fridge in Love in the Afternoon.) So that is plenty of fine films, and for the weaker ones, well, nobody's perfect.

The temporary morgue in Avanti! One of Wilder's finest scenes.

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