The Sunday Dozen: Billy Wilder

January is film directors month at the Sunday Dozen.

Billy Wilder is my favorite writer-director. He typically had a co-writer who was a native English speaker to clean up his grammar and syntax. That was a joke: Charles Brackett and Izzy Diamond added a lot to the films they co-wrote with Wilder.

Wilder made a few clinkers in the last decade of his storied career. The worst by far was Kiss Me Stupid, which is one of the few Wilder pictures I’ve only seen once. Once was clearly enough.

I’ve done a Wilder top ten list for Saturday Odds & Sods but it’s damnably hard to find even on an internal search. I’m starting from scratch.

This list is arranged in order of preference. IMO, they’re all 4-star movies.

Let’s get down to it:

Sunset Boulevard: I wrote about it last Thursday. It’s a perfect film with perfect performances by the entire cast. After years of playing callow youths, it was the film that made Bill Holden a star. It established the sardonic persona that Holden would revisit in movies such as Network and Stalag 17. Holden won an Oscar for that Wilder directed film but it’s strictly a 3-star movie.

Double Indemnity: The grandaddy of all film noirs. It gave crime fiction movies a patina of respectability. It’s a de facto love story between Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson’s characters, which is why the ending is so shattering.

Emmanuel Goldberg DBA Edward G. Robinson should have won an Oscar for this movie. He steals every scene he’s in and MacMurray aided and abetted the theft. Stanwyck, as always, was brilliant as the femme fatale.

Some Like It Hot: It’s one of the funniest films ever made. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon walk in high heels. Curtis’ character looks better in drag but Lemmon gets into it. The closing line is so great that it’s paraphrased on the director’s tombstone:

Ace In The Hole is the most cynical film of its era. It contains the ultimate Kirk Douglas performance as the hard-bitten down on his luck newspaper man. It was re-titled The Big Carnival by the studio, but flopped at the box office anyway. It has, however, stood the test of time.

The Apartment: It was named the best picture of 1960 and Wilder won best director. Jack Lemmon as the put upon nebbish is perfect. It was a character type he’d repeat several times during his long career. It’s the best comic performance of Shirley MacLaine’s life and Fred MacMurray plays another rat bastard. He was so good in those roles that it’s a pity that he didn’t do more of them. Oh well, what the hell.

Sabrina: Wilder and Bogart didn’t get along. Bogie knew that the director wanted Cary Grant in the part. I like Bogie cast against type as a tycoon. It doesn’t matter: It’s Audrey Hepburn’s movie.

A Foreign Affair: One of Wilder’s most underrated movies. It stars Jean Arthur as a prim and proper Congresswoman taking a postwar trip to Berlin. It was shot in the war ravaged city, which made this a sentimental journey for Wilder who lived in the German capital before fleeing to America. Germany’s loss was our gain.

One Two Three: This Cold War/Coca Cola comedy is loud, raucous, and OTT. I usually prefer subtle acting, but Jimmy Cagney shouts his way through this movie and I love it. Wilder made the film because he thought Coke was funny. I am not making this up.

The Fortune Cookie was the first film to team up Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Matthau played a sleazy lawyer nicknamed Whiplash Willie. He never met an ambulance he didn’t chase. The movie indulges Billy Wilder’s love of football as Lemmon plays a photographer injured at an NFL game who then fakes an injury at Matthau’s behest. Hilarity ensues.

Love In The Afternoon: It’s a slightly skeezy rom-com that pairs Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn. He’s way too old for her but he’s Gary Fucking Cooper. Hepburn is, as always, luminous. There’s a stellar supporting turn by Maurice Chevalier as Hepburn’s rapscallion father. Rapscallion is a word I hope to revive. It sounds like something one would put in an omelet.

The Lost Weekend was Wilder’s first Oscar winning film. It features a brilliant performance by Reginald Alfred John Truscott-Jones DBA Ray Milland as a drunk on a bender. Milland won the best actor Oscar. It was the only time he was ever nominated. Milland was perhaps the most underrated actor of his era.

Witness For The Prosecution: It’s based on the play by Agatha Christie. It’s not your typical Wilder fare but it’s as entertaining as hell. There’s a rogue’s gallery of great performances by Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich.

What’s a Sunday Dozen without some lagniappe? Wilder and his original writing partner Charles Brackett wrote two classic movies before Wilder started directing his own scripts: Midnight and Ninotchka.

The last word goes to Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity:

4 thoughts on “The Sunday Dozen: Billy Wilder

  1. Ties with Robert Altman as my favorite US director. Yes, he was born in Austria, and, being a pedant, it troubles me to list him as a “US director”. However, all except for his 1st film, which was made in France, were made through Hollywood. Some had location work, like Berlin in One, Two Three, but they were still technically Hollywood films. Speaking of which, I actually think that the underrated One, Two, Three is a great film. Unfortunately, I also think it was his last great film. It was steadily downhill from there, starting with Irma la Douce. Before that, he’d had an amazing run of great films that lasted 20 years without a duff one.

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