Bridging the transition between the studio system and the rise of independent producer-directors, and still active in the ‘New Hollywood’ era, Billy Wilder was a key player in the American cinema throughout the postwar period. A ’30s screenwriter who became a contract director in the ’40s, by 1950 Wilder had come to be regarded as a consummate studio auteur. Producing from the mid-1950s, he and his co-screenwriters were renowned in front office and fan magazine for making money, teasing audience sensibilities, and pleasing the critics. If the early-1960s saw a critical downturn, by the mid-1970s Wilder’s reputation led to accolades and awards.
He was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire the son of a businessman. Baulking at a career in law, Wilder’s imagination was fired by his mother’s girlhood experiences in America. (He was even nicknamed Billie because she had been smitten with ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody). Growing up in the devastated Europe of post-Great War American largesse, he fell under the spell of jazz, the Charleston, and Douglas Fairbanks. Dropping out of university in 1925, his knowledge of American culture got him into journalism. In 1926 he interviewed band leader Paul Whiteman. So impressed was Whiteman with Wilder that Wilder accompanied him on the Berlin leg of his tour.
In Berlin Wilder wrote widely on popular culture. Through contacts, he began writing for the German film studios. In 1929 he co-wrote the screenplay of Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, 1929). Tracing the rambling adventures of working Berliners on their day off, this naturalistic film remains a rare and vital slice of Weimar life. Directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, lit by Eugen Schufftan and shot by Fred Zinnemann against real Berlin locations, few films signal the emergence of the next generation so poignantly.
Fleeing to Paris shortly after the Nazis assumed power, Wilder got the chance to direct. Mauvaise Graine (Bad Seed, 1933) tells of a rich young man’s moral disintegration. Its camera infatuated with this neurotically mobile life, Wilder’s first film foresees a preoccupation with compromised protagonists, while its energy shows future storytelling flourish.
Wilder continually sent stories and ideas to Hollywood until, in 1934, he received an invitation to adapt one. Wilder travelled on a British ship in order to learn English. The project never materialised, but he got screenwriting assignments. In 1936 he was teamed with Charles Brackett. The collaboration between the urbane erudite Republican and the racy liberal Wilder was reputedly stormy, but set sophisticated standards for the treatment of sex and human flaw in American comedy. In Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), Ball of Fire and Hold Back the Dawn (both 1941), unsuspecting men are beguiled by beautiful and intelligent women. The comedies Midnight and Ninotchka (both 1939) remain textbook classics of risqué suggestion. Bearing the distinctive mark of Ernst Lubitsch and carried off with charm and grace by players such as Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Melvyn Douglas and Greta Garbo, Wilder and Brackett screenplays taught Wilder to write fluid scenes to the contours of star portfolios.
Like Wilder a Berliner, Lubitsch epitomises worldliness in ’30s comedy. A master of timing and disguise, he found ways of expressing the sexual component of social intercourse with deft aplomb. But for all its frothy charm, there is pessimism in Ninotchka. Whilst the Foreword: -
This picture takes place in Paris
in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette
and not an alarm. And if a Frenchman
turned out the light it was not
on account of an air raid!
caught that moment before the generous mores of the Old World gave way to the absolutes of war and American pragmatism, there is darkness : -
How are things in Moscow?
“Very good. The last mass trials were a great success.
There are going to be fewer but better Russians!”
that would later be attributed to Wilderian ‘cynicism’. Yet what Wilder sought and found was a balance that expressed the complexities of postwar life.
He eventually persuaded Paramount to let him direct The Major and the Minor (1942). While Howard Hawks worked on Ball of Fire, Wilder observed. Railing against visual experimentation in the modernist ’60s, Wilder’s own films display the unfussy transparency that we associate with Hawks. Working closely with editor Doane Harrison in the ’40s, the Wilderian complementarity of dialogue and image made for compelling and piquant tales of contemporary temptation.
Forties Wilder is inflected by the American culture which fascinated him. Tin Pan Alley love songs constantly ironise the vicissitudes of love. If Ball of Fire dwelt in the alleyways of New York argot, Double Indemnity (1944), co-written with Raymond Chandler, throbs with the values and imagery of American capitalism. Forties Wilder also shows real facility with genre. Set with journalistic zeal as the Western Desert fell to the Allies, Five Graves to Cairo (1943) is a highly inventive little war movie. Subverting Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray’s audience-friendly personae, Double Indemnity used genre to comment upon a changing America. Revolving around the combative mating ritual of a larcenous insurance salesman and a bored brassy claimant, the exchanges are tough, vernacular and eventually brutal, echoing a war entering its final bloody stages and a burgeoning crisis in American sexual relations. Featuring a manipulative, sexual woman, and shot on LA locations employing chiaroscuro lighting, this archetypal film noir remains a masterpiece of fleet narrative and sociocultural resonance.
The Lost Weekend (1945) turned the best selling novel of an alcoholic’s life cycle into an Oscar winner for Wilder as co-screenwriter and director, announcing his arrival as a Hollywood player. Wilder’s output from 1944 to 1951 displays a confident touch of experiment. There is expressionistic bravura in The Lost Weekend. If the demand for painted daisies for The Emperor Waltz (1947) suggests an auteur overreaching, that swimming pool shot from Sunset Boulevard (1950) remains inspired.
The best of Wilder’s work has a tough-minded feeling for the times. Returning to a Berlin where he’d served as government propaganda officer, A Foreign Affair (1948) is mired in the bombsites and black market of postwar Germany, its grubby comedy satirising middle American ethics in a world of greys and off-whites. Critic Andrew Sarris’ complaint that Wilder brutalised Jean Arthur’s star charm hints at the evolution of comedy aesthetics which Wilder and his collaborators oversaw between Ninotchka and Sunset Boulevard. If A Foreign Affair attacked smug midwestern audiences, Sunset Boulevard turned the search for truth against the industry itself.
A haunting account of an unemployed screenwriter’s destructive liaison with a vain and aging star, Sunset Boulevard looks long and hard at the dirty light between making the grade and failing to finish. Reworking themes of innocence, experience and deception central to Wilder’s oeuvre, the film ranks with Citizen Kane‘s exploration of American promise and disappointment. Its playoff between the pompous trumperies of silent Hollywood and ’30s social realism clearly favours Wilder’s liberal-humanist tradition. Based, like Double Indemnity, around the protagonist’s voice-over, Sunset Boulevard sees through Hollywood hype and lives for what lies beyond and beneath a movie’s surface sheen. Shot in and around Hollywood itself, it looks forward to the dank rooms and crumpled sheets of postwar Wilder. The growing preoccupation with cynical modernity led to Wilder’s split with Brackett. His next film celebrated Hollywood aesthetics but savaged the audience.
Co-written, produced and directed by Wilder, Ace in the Hole (1951) had all the credentials of the studio auteur film. Revolving around another down-at-heel writer, this time a reporter, who boosts his career by exploiting a mountain cave-in which buries a man alive, this attack on gutter journalism is outdone only by its gleeful savaging of the gawking crowd. Wilder’s protagonists tend to be urban. But, however corrupt they become, Wilder clearly prefers them to the small-towners who come and watch. Organising Ace in the Hole around the dynamic Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) while generating a metaphorical axis between Tatum’s audience and Wilder’s audience, Wilder celebrates New York moxie and Wilderian chutzpah.
Responding to the film’s critical and commercial failure, the now freelance Wilder turned to adapting Broadway hits. Wilder themes permeate these films. Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954) and The Seven Year Itch (1955) examine a society obsessed with material consumption. As Double Indemnity re-read wartime sexual upheaval as anarchic suburban sexual politics, Stalag 17 located domestic American disputes between private enterprise and public obligation in a German POW camp in 1944. Detailing the frustrations of incarcerated men, Stalag 17 also subscribes to ’50s preoccupations with fraught masculinity, interrogating many a war movie cliché. It starred William Holden, Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, and a model for compromised postwar Wilder heroes.
The underrated The Seven Year Itch questions how one reconciles the era’s exaggerated models of sexual and mental prowess with individual limitations. Shot in chunky DeLuxe primaries and stretched across a CinemaScope screen, the film’s liaison between a mousy editor (Tom Ewell) and the carefree sexy girl upstairs (Marilyn Monroe) manages to find humour and sincerity cowering amidst a culture also counting The Seven Year Itch amongst its outpourings. The film remains one of Wilder’s most tender moments.
Whilst Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon (1957) had points to make about American high capitalism, these films depend upon showcasing the gamine Audrey Hepburn, another product of the system. In an attempt to rescue Wilder’s critical stock in the ’70s, Sinyard and Turner invoked these ‘Lubitschian’ films. But, with hindsight, ‘European’ Wilder from The Emperor Waltz to Avanti! (1972) lacks the feel for the postwar temperature of The Apartment (1960) and The Fortune Cookie (1966).
What Sinyard and Turner reacted against was Wilder’s vulgarity, as Pauline Kael saw it in the ’60s. Unable to hit these liberationist times on the head, Wilder lurched from the brilliant cross-dressing comedy Some Like it Hot (1959) to the crude political satire of One, Two, Three (1961). However vital to auteurists it became, Kiss Me, Stupid, Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s 1964 response to the commercially successful Shapiro-Henning Doris Day/Rock Hudson scripts, erred towards locker room crass.
Collaborators since 1957, Wilder and Diamond represented the marriage of sharp talk and deep structure for which Wilder had searched since Brackett. For Wilder, Diamond “knew how the pipes fitted together.” Whilst Wilder’s ear for the speech patterns and cadences of the American language is as alive in Some Like it Hot and The Fortune Cookie as it was in Ball of Fire.
The Fortune Cookie completes a triptych in which the American insurance industry becomes a metaphor for the culture’s infatuation with the lucky break. If Double Indemnity saw darkness in America’s relationship with the insurance man, The Apartment saw half the country trying to con the other half, while The Fortune Cookie showed the lengths the other half would go to get their own back. The Apartment is a key work in which a clerk gets ahead by hiring his apartment to philandering superiors in exchange for promotion. Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter is a symbol of Joe Public’s complicity in corporate ethics, and an archetype that became Lemmon’s own. Its transparency recalling classical Hollywood’s traditionally seamless match on reality, its widescreen compositions state-of-the-art, The Apartment predicts the souring of the American Century in films ranging from All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) to Glengarry, Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992).
Probably the last Wilder film to have its finger on the cultural pulse, The Fortune Cookie is a dark allegory of a society in which, whilst millions watched TV, officials watched you. When Harry Hinkle (Lemmon) is slightly injured during a football game, his lawyer brother-in-law Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau) wants to sue for big money. The lone paraplegic spied upon by a seedy detective as he meekly defrauds a big corporation was a timely metaphor for Big Government intervention in private life. Matthau’s lawyer even resembles Nixon. The bugs and the cameras surely foresee Watergate.
Not merely crafted and entertaining, Wilder’s collaborations with Lemmon and Matthau contribute to his reputation as produced work and in some sense as autobiography. The Fortune Cookie euphemises the professional rapport between Wilder and Lemmon by having Willie ‘direct’ Wilder’s star. The Front Page (1974) finds them loath to quit the Bad Spirit – Good Schlemiel dynamic. Other Wilder films dramatise their own genesis. Ace in the Hole replicates the dynamics of auteur and audience. Double Indemnity grips with a story directly told. With Sunset Boulevard, Wilder’s projects from The Major and the Minor to Some Like it Hot are ‘about’ the industry insofar as stars and supporting roles elaborate star cultures.
In the ’70s, Wilder fell prey to funding difficulties and the dictates of fashion. Whilst The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) is regarded as a masterpiece by those lucky enough to have seen it uncut, The Front Page is probably the studio craftsman’s last characteristic work. Seeking to resurrect Sunset Boulevard‘s doomed romanticism, Fedora (1978) has, ironically, itself come to seem passé. However, in the light of the misjudged Buddy Buddy (1981), it remains the auteur’s last important film. Dividing his time between award ceremonies, prize-givings, film school seminars, and his Beverly Hills office, Wilder remained an able raconteur and a celebrated art collector until his death. He was one of the last links we had with classical Hollywood, and we owe him one of the most articulate, enjoyable and influential oeuvres in the history of the American cinema.
Films directed by Wilder:
Mauvaise Graine (Bad Seed) (1933, Co-director)
The Major and the Minor (1942, also Co-screenwriter)
Five Graves to Cairo (1943, also Co-screenwriter)
Double Indemnity (1944, also Co-screenwriter)
The Lost Weekend (1945, also Co-screenwriter)
The Emperor Waltz (1947, also Co-screenwriter)
A Foreign Affair (1948, also Co-screenwriter)
Sunset Boulevard (1950, also Co-screenwriter)
Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival) (1951, also Producer & Co-screenwriter)
Stalag 17 (1953, also Producer & Co-screenwriter)
Sabrina (Sabrina Fair) (1954, also Producer & Co screenwriter)
The Seven Year Itch (1955, also co-Producer/Director/Co-screenwriter)
The Spirit of St. Louis (1957, also Co-screenwriter)
Love in the Afternoon (1957, also Producer & Co-screenwriter)
Witness for the Prosecution (1958, also Co-screenwriter)
Some Like it Hot (1959, also Producer & Co-screenwriter)
The Apartment (1960, also Producer & Co-screenwriter)
One, Two, Three (1961, also Producer & Co-screenwriter)
Irma La Douce (1963, also Producer & Co-screenwriter)
Kiss Me, Stupid (1964, also Producer & Co-screenwriter)
The Fortune Cookie (Meet Whiplash Willie) (1966, also Producer & Co-screenwriter)
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970, also Producer & Co-screenwriter)
Avanti! (1972, also Producer & Co-screenwriter)
The Front Page (1974, also Co-screenwriter)
Fedora (1978, also Producer & Co-screenwriter)
Buddy Buddy (1981, also Co-screenwriter)
Der Teufelsreporter (The Devil’s Reporter) (1929) Dir: Ernst Laemmle (Screenwriter)
Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (1929) Dir: Robert Siodmak & Edgar G. Ulmer (Screenwriter)
Der Mann, der Seinen Morder sucht (Looking for His Murderer) (1931) Dir: Robert Siodmak (Co-screenwriter)
Der Falsche Ehemann (The Counterfeit Husband) (1931) Dir: Johannes Guter (Co-screenwriter)
Ihre Hoheit Befiehlt (Her Majesty Commands) (1931) Dir: Hanns Schwarz (Co-screenwriter)
Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives) (1931) Dir: Gerhard Lamprecht (Screenwriter)
Es war Einmal ein Waltzer (Once Upon a Time There was a Waltz) (1932) Dir: Victor Janson (Screenwriter)
Ein Blonder Traum (A Blonde Dream) (1932) Dir: Paul Martin (Co-screenwriter)
Ein Madel der Strasse (A Girl of the Street) (1932) Dir: Hans Steinhoff (Co-screenwriter)
Das Blaue vom Himmel (The Blue from Heaven) (1932) Dir: Victor Janson (Co-screenwriter)
Madame Wunscht Keine Kinder (Madame Wants No Children) (1933) Dir: Hans Steinhoff (Co-screenwriter)
Was Frauen Traumen (What Women Dream) (1933) Dir: Géza von Bolváry (Co-screenwriter)
Music in the Air (1934) Dir: Joe May (Co-screenwriter)
Lottery Lover (1935) Dir: Wilhelm Thiele (Co-screenwriter)
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) Dir: Ernst Lubitsch (Co-screenwriter)
Midnight (1939) Dir: Mitchell Leisen (Co-screenwriter)
What a Life (1939) Dir: Theodore Reed (Co-screenwriter)
Ninotchka (1939) Dir: Ernst Lubitsch (Co-screenwriter)
Arise, My Love (1940) Dir: Mitchell Leisen (Co-screenwriter)
Hold Back the Dawn (1941) Dir: Mitchell Leisen (Co-screenwriter)
Ball of Fire (1941) Dir: Howard Hawks (Co-screenwriter)
Armstrong, R., Billy Wilder, American Film Realist, McFarland, Jefferson, 2000
Crowe, C., Conversations with Wilder, Faber & Faber, London, 1999
Dick, Bernard F., Billy Wilder, Da Capo Press, New York, 1996
Hopp, Glenn, Billy Wilder, Pocket Essentials, Harpenden, 2001
Sikov, E., On Sunset Boulevard, The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, Hyperion, New York, 1998
Sinyard, N. & Adrian Turner, Journey Down Sunset Boulevard, The Films of Billy Wilder, BCW Publishing, Ryde, 1979
Wilder, B. & I.A.L. Diamond, The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie, Studio Vista, London, 1966
Zolotow, M., Billy Wilder in Hollywood, G.P. Putnams Sons, New York, 1977
Sikov’s bibliography is about as thorough and comprehensive as it could be, while my own includes many original reviews of Wilder’s films.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Billy Wilder: The Chiaroscuro Artist by Anna Dzenis
Ace in the Hole by Richard Armstrong
Stalag 17 by Sander Lee
Midnight by David Boxwell
Compiled by Michelle Carey
Billy Wilder at Reel Classics
Features great reproductions of original film posters, some classic dialogue (as mp3s) from The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard and more links.
The German-Hollywood Connection: Billy Wilder
Useful insight into Wilder’s beginnings in Germany and his early days in Hollywood. Features some nice photos of latter-day Wilder.
American Cinema – A Tribute to Billy Wilder
Visually bare though informative site features a biography, filmography, bibliography, list of Academy Awards received, list of Wilder’s co-screenwriters.
The Writer Speaks – Billy Wilder
A transcript of an informal conversation with Wilder and Jack Lemmon, upon the honouring of the former with the Writers Guild Foundation’s Career Achievement Award.
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