There’s been a recent dustup amongst movie critics. A well-known British film critic has relegated Billy Wilder to second tier status, and film critics big and small all over the world are responding. (This has happened at least twice before, first with Andrew Sarris and later with David Thompson. Wilder is always teetering, it seems.)
Here’s my two cents.
Wilder was a Berliner first, working as a reporter during the Weimar Republic, wandering the burlesque shows amidst the extreme inflation and vicious poverty, the stalking serial killers and the preponderance of philosophers. As the Nazis began to consolidate power he, being Jewish, fled to Paris. From Paris he soon fled to Los Angeles.
From two of the intellectual capitals of the world to a corrupt, one-pony town stealing water from other states while a group of wealthy visionaries staked their claim on the dreams of the whole world. The early 1930s and the start of the talking pictures; it was here he started his film career.
Wilder belonged to a group of émigrés—most of them Austrian, German, Czech, or Polish but of Jewish descent—who fled Europe due to persecution in the 1930s. This group included Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, Josef Von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich, and others. As a group they shaped American cinema. (For what is noir, really, but German expressionism combined with a distinctly American post-war existential angst?)
He was a short, witty, puckish little man who struggled with English and dated only American girls to erase his accent. He adapted quickly, but never lost a sense of bewilderment about his adopted country. The movies were now utilizing sound, and he made good early on as a screenwriter.
He was a writer first, and then a director. He made movies from the forties to the seventies, an astonishing four decades of moviemaking.
Wilder’s movies combine a cynical view of the human condition with a wry, often black humor. He loved dirty jokes, but due to the censors had to hide them in genteel language. The result is fabulous. Take, for example, a line from Marilyn Monroe from Some Like It Hot: “I used to sing with male bands, but I can’t afford it anymore.” (Translation: She’s had to pay for too many abortions, so better to travel with a female orchestra.) Course but in an elegant way, bleak, despairing even, but funny—these are Wilder’s hallmarks.
He made comedies. He made crime movies. He made romances, a legal thriller and even a prison camp movie, a la Le Grand Illusion. His movies often had a touch of the madcap about them, as if the absurdity of life, condensed to two hours, couldn’t quite be expressed without manic explosions in the plot.
Although he toyed with a variety of genres, Wilder was no hired gun. He often developed or co-wrote his movies, and stuck to a handful of themes. At the core of his oeuvre, Wilder held a belief that America, at its essence, was a brothel. Capitalism is prostitution; the pursuit of money has little room for dignity. His great films all have at their central characters trading sex for various things: stability, money, protection, status. Wilder saw that women were considered commodities, and that the only things they had to trade were their bodies, their dignity. And nowhere was this truer than in Hollywood, where female stars were used until aged and worn out, then forgotten.
In movie after movie, Wilder puts his characters through an extreme ethical test. For how much, he kept asking, will a person compromise his/her most cherished beliefs?
The answer, usually, is not much. He often tacked on happy endings, but touched with a bitter melancholy.
Re-occurring themes, an immense body of work, a closet full of awards and a reputation for being a decent guy. So why is this titan of American cinema always in danger of slipping into the kingdom of the forgotten?
The answer is color. Billy Wilder was really two directors. The first was economical, taut, clever, funny and a creator of some of the great films of the American canon. The second was flabby, inconsistent, histrionic, jittery and a touch cluttered. The dividing line was the move from black and white cinematography to color. Wilder was a genius with the former, and weak in the latter. He isn’t alone. The awful truth is that many of the masters of black and white were horrid shooting in color. Frank Capra and Otto Preminger both suffered from the same problem. As did dozens of others. Just as the silent film directors suffered in the transition to talkies, so did the black and white directors suffer in moving to color. Not only do the compositions often look cluttered, but the acting is also often ham-fisted and lame.
Black and white has a flattening effect of the backgrounds. The angle of objects, the shadows, the curvature of the walls, these things mattered. The old masters used the shadows to create atmospherics. Watch Clark Gable carrying Carole Lombard across a moonlit creekbed in It Happened One Night, one of the most beautiful shots from the 1930s. But revisit Pocketful of Miracles, and you’ll see that the compositions are crowded, ugly. Preminger made gorgeous black and white films, but with Hurry Sundown, the movie looks cheap, as if painted with cut-rate paints. And a truism of movies is this: if a movie looks bad, then it will play bad, no matter how talented or earnest its creators. European directors weren’t immune either. Fellini, Antonioni, Renoir and Bunuel all made brilliant black and white movies but their color films suffer from the same batch of problems.
Back to Wilder. Stack Wilder’s best black and white movies—The Apartment, The Lost Weekend,; Stalag 17; Double Indemnity; Sabrina; Witness for the Prosecution; Some Like It Hot; Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole—against his color films—The Spirit of St. Louis; Irma La Douce; The Seven Year Itch; One, Two, Three; and The Front Page. He made one of the best romantic comedies of all time, one of the best legal thrillers, one of the funniest movies in history and two defining film noirs all in black and white. Meanwhile, his color films are forgettable, and at times downright mediocre.
His best films present a body of work that eclipses most of the big American directors. He belongs in the rarified company of Hitchcock, Ray, Hawks, Sturges, Wyler and Minnelli. He was a comic genius, who used his bitter view of human dynamics for comedy. He is, like John Huston, an essential director in the history of movies.
Just not in color.
(Here’s Jack Lemmon, meditating on his friend and former collaborator Billy Wilder for TCM. I love these things.)