Billy Wilder: An Introduction - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Billy Wilder: An Introduction

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Billy Wilder
Here we are at last. The white whale of the website. Back when Andrew and I started tossing around the idea of doing articles delving into the filmographies of our favorite directors, invariably one name always came up: Billy Wilder. I've been a fan of his since I saw Some Like It Hot on a date in 2002, and, gradually, I watched all of his films.

The thing about delving into Wilder though: there's a lot about Wilder already out there, unsurprising for a director considered one of the greatest to have ever stepped behind a camera. For those unfamiliar, he's one of the most prolific film directors of all time. Four of his films-- Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Apartment, and the aforementioned Some Like It Hot-- are consistently ranked in the top 100 films of all time, from the AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies to the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? ranking. He's won two Best Director Oscars for two Best Pictures. He helped define Audrey Hepburn's pop culture image in Sabrina and Marilyn Monroe's in The Seven Year Itch. He's the man who first paired Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. And he turned the line "Nobody's perfect." into a pop culture touchstone to boot.

Man, two paragraphs in and I'm already beginning to feel overwhelmed. That's why I've been putting this off until now. No matter how many books or articles or documentaries or analysis I read or see, I will never feel I'm up to snuff when it comes to approach this man. And, trust me, for a man who goes by Mr_Sheldrake on Twitter, I've definitely seen and read my fair share.

But there's a time for a doing and a time for sitting on your ass. Since I need help getting off my ass and one of this site's co-authors is also a raging Wilder fan, Ryan and I decided to team up for this one.

27 movies covering 47 years of a man's career. Are you ready for this, Ryan?

I'm ready, except for the fact I have to watch Kiss Me Stupid again.

In all seriousness, I think you are right when you say it is a monumental task. You already mentioned the four films of his that are without a doubt four of the best films of all time. What is also amazing is that those aren’t his only four good films: Stalag 17, Witness for the Prosecution, Ace in the Hole, A Foreign Affair, Five Graves to Cairo... here are movies that might not rank up with the greatest, but are still respectfully solid works.

I can’t think of anyone that was both a writer/director that had such a long streak of making four star films. Hitchcock and Spielberg have a lot of good movies but they were at the top of their game and didn’t write most of their work. That means that they could cherry pick the best scripts out there; to direct AND write the films is so much more difficult.

One thing I wanted to bring up that I am sure we will mention often in the coming weeks is Wilder’s look on people/life. Do you think he was a pessimist that added a glimmer of humanity in his characters for the studios, or that he was an optimist that was beaten down by living in tragic times?

I like to think of him a third way, which he pretended to be a person who sees humanity as petty but actually had a very big heart. How else could you explain that he could create both Walter Neff and C.C. Baxter? Something tells me that most of my writing in this series will not be able shot composition or editing or any other directing trick Billy Wilder came up with but instead will be looking at the characters, the dialogue and the script. While Wilder was a great director, he is undoubtedly one of the greatest screenwriters, and that's what always draws me in.

What's always strange to me about Wilder as a writer and director is that his work can be pretty consistently great-- up until his last run, of course. Most directors mature into something amazing, but you look and realize Double Indemnity is only his fourth movie as writer/director and you begin to understand just how wild his career is.

If I had to narrow down what Wilder's singular look upon humanity was, I don't think I can. It's obvious that the rise of Naziism (which caused him to flee Berlin in the early 30's) was a stark lesson, creating within him a grim view of what a society believes itself to be and what it really is under the surface. That duality affects a lot of his work; however, I will say, if not optimistic, there is certainly enough of a romantic streak in his works to make what subjects he explores palatable. After all, Sunset Boulevard would have been just a freak show without Betty Schaefer.

Whether or not that's because Wilder was a romantic or if he just knew that he needed that... well, we could compare Sunset Boulevard to Ace in the Hole and see what that says. No, wait, actually, let's get there first and figure it out then.

And I'm going to disagree with you on that last point. In a couple of months, if you can get me to shut up about the composition of the staircase scene in Sunset or the framing of the murder scene in Indemnity, good job; those are moments whose compositions and ethereal beauty transcends just Wilder's writing and become something much more.

Don't get me wrong, Wilder is a wonderful director that has many iconic shots but to me his dialogue is like music that never gets old. If I had to describe Wilder in one word, the first one that would come to mind is writer.

I am glad that you called Wilder a romantic also because when I say that and the fact that I think The Apartment is one of the most romantic films ever made, I get funny looks. Wilder had many women that are less than ideal role models like Lorraine Minosa and Phyllis Dietrichson but he also gave us Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn in their most iconic roles and helped them become the legends that they did. To have a hand in shaping two of the most influential actresses of the 20th Century takes someone who is not a cynic at heart.

I say we stop the gushing over Billy Wilder in general terms and start gushing over him in more specific ways. Lets get this show started! I am sure you will be very excited about this but very soon, you will hear me admit that you were right and I was wrong when it comes to something in Wilder's career.

I'm afraid I don't hold many controversial opinions when it comes to Wilder films, Ryan, besides thinking The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a bundle of lost footage away from being a masterpiece. Though I am also just enough of a freak to prefer Five Graves to Cairo to Casablanca. But we can delve into that insanity when we get there.

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8/5 - Introduction
8/12 - Mauvaise Graine (1934)
8/19 - The Major and the Minor (1942)
8/26 - Five Graves to Cairo (1943)

9/2 - Double Indemnity (1944)
9/9 - Death Mills (1945)
9/16 - The Lost Weekend (1945)
9/23 - The Emperor Waltz (1948)
9/30 - A Foreign Affair (1948)

10/7 - Sunset Blvd. (1950)
10/14 - Ace in the Hole (1951)
10/21 - Stalag 17 (1953)
10/28 - Sabrina (1954)

[Break in November for our annual theme month]

12/2 - The Seven Year Itch (1955)
12/9 - The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)
12/16 - Love in the Afternoon (1957)
12/23 - Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
12/30 - Some Like It Hot (1959)

1/6 - The Apartment (1960)
1/13 - One, Two, Three (1961)
1/20 - Irma la Douce (1963)
1/27 - Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

2/3 - The Fortune Cookie (1966)
2/10 - The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
2/17 - Avanti! (1972)
2/24 - The Front Page (1974)

3/3 - Fedora (1978)
3/10 - Buddy Buddy (1981)
3/17 - Billy Wilder Speaks (2006)
3/24 - Wrap Up

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

Comments (6) Trackbacks (0)
  1. very cool project. I’m with you on the 5 graves love.

  2. I’m a big fan of Wilder. Looking forward to following this project!

  3. This sounds wonderful man. I’m just getting into Wilder — recently watched Stalag 17 & The Seven Year Itch.

    • Those are both interesting films– I haven’t seen Stalag in at least a decade, so it’ll be good to revisit. Hopefully our stuff is fun to follow. Thanks for reading, Sam.

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