OK Danny, after over a half of a year, one wedding, and a bout with some bad Bing Crosby, we have finished up our look at all Billy Wilder helmed films. I don't know about you, but I'm proud of our undertaking and feel like I have an even better understanding of the man who we both agree is the best director of all time. We have watched some perfect films, and we have watched ones that I never need to see again, but now it is time to do the hardest thing yet: it's time to rank them. I'll leave it to AFI to rank things 1 to whatever and instead look at the overall tiers of Wilder films.
We will go in 5 tiers and give our last thoughts on his career is a whole. Let's begin.
Tier 5 - I will never watch these films again. Wilder's biggest missteps.
Mauvaise Graine - This was Wilder's first film so I will give him a learning curve. This movie isn't as bad as some others in this tier, but it's totally forgettable. Right now (without looking at IMDB), all I could say about this movie is it was in French, it involved cars, and the main character was an asshole. It was not fun, amusing or memorable at all.
Emperor Waltz - A waste of two hours of my life. Ugly to look at, awful songs, characters with no chemistry and vastly beneath Wilder and what he was capable of.
Kiss Me Stupid - The most vile film that Wilder made. Ray Walston is a half step away from being an abusive husband, his best friend and business partner is an awful human being, and the women are just there to be used as sex toys. This movie made me feel dirty both times I have seen it, and shows Wilder, with the characters of Polly The Pistol and Zelda, was at this point REALLY far away from his great female characters like Norma Desmond and especially Phyllis Dietrich.
The Seven Year Itch - Sure, it has probably the most famous shot of Wilder's filmography with Monroe on the grate in her white dress, but man do I HATE this film. Now that I am further away from it I can't think of one main character I despise as much as Tom Ewell as Richard Sherman. My hell would be being stuck in a room with him as his inner monologue goes on and on and on. Kiss Me Stupid is vile but Seven Year Itch to me is still Wilder's worst film by a nose.
That's an interesting idea, Ryan, though I'm fairly sure tiers 3 through 4 are going to inspire the most amount of debate between us, since we know what we love and we know what we hate. My tier 5 would include one of my least favorite entries, the thoroughly bland Spirit of St. Louis, which is a wasted opportunity if ever there was one. I don't think Mauvise is as bad as you, though it wasn't memorable in any way.
But I did want to note that the films that are his biggest failures-- Kiss Me Stupid and Emperor Waltz-- were more or less departures for him. Wilder's brilliance is in the ways he both pushed boundaries and still strove to make films with a personal statement. Emperor Waltz is a glitzy musical after he'd finished a documentary on the Holocaust, and Kiss Me is bedroom farce that pushes American morality further than it could probably go, both then and now. Both were risks, and both times he fell flat on his face.
But more often than not his instincts paid off, even if Ace in the Hole made him gun shy for half of his career. He pushed what American films could get away with, making them more dangerous and daring, and when that ability faded, he took big ideas and melded them onto his own. I was surprised on this watch through on how much his later films held up, since they're almost always unjustly criticized.
But I'm holding you up. What's your fourth tier?
I agree with you that Ace in the Hole made Wilder really hesitant to go out on that ledge again. While he still had great films after this movie, I think it really helped shape his output in later years. Without further ado, here is my fourth tier, of which I will call: "He Tried: Noble Failures".
Love in the Afternoon - This one is hurt most by Gary Cooper NEVER being comfortable in his role. There are moments in this film that clicked like the traveling musicians and Maurice Chevalier as Hepburn's dad, but most of the film was too light to work. Would the film had been much better with Cary Grant in the role of Frank Flannagan? I would think so, but we'll never know for sure. But much like Walter Matthau being in Seven Year Itch, that is an 'almost real' movie I will always be interested in seeing.
Buddy, Buddy - This makes it to tier 4 mainly for Matthau because, though he didn't really seem to be enjoying himself in the movie, his nastiness was fun enough for me to chuckle at him a few times. The movie was badly written, and poor Jack Lemmon is left out to dry with a very annoying and unsympathetic character. A movie with a plot ahead of its time but still not a good film.
Spirit of St. Louis - A film that was severely hampered by Wilder being friends with Lindbergh. I love Jimmy Stewart, but this movie doesn't give him much to do but be earnest and talk to a fly. I would have loved to see a warts and all type film of his life, but that was not to be. In the end we got a very by the numbers biopic that is instantly forgettable.
Avanti! - I liked the film and the performances, but the running time REALLY hurt this film. It was a bit much of a travelogue more than a tight film, and while I enjoyed it, I was still bored at parts of the film. They also could have dived much deeper in the father/son dynamic and how they were following a certain path. Finally, I still don't understand a world where Juliet Mills is a whale of a woman.
Fedora - Much like Avanti!, Fedora is a film that I both liked and was bored by. Some of the characters are bonkers and enjoyable. But when I wrote up the review after I saw it I was much more positive. The time since I have seen it and thought about it more, the more issues I have with the film.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes - I am almost where you are on this picture Danny but I watched the whole thing with just feeling like it was missing that one piece that would have made it really, really good. Wilder again was ahead of his time with deconstructing the myth of Holmes but the pieces never fully came together for me. I appreciate what he tried and found this move enjoyable but it still feels incomplete.
The Front Page - I just watched Oz: The Great and Powerful and it reminded me of The Front Page because it proves just because you CAN do something doesn't mean you SHOULD. The Front Page was beautiful in its set design and look and had a great cast but there was no point in making the film. His Girl Friday is an all time classic and this movie pales in comparison to that one and the fact that The Front Page was approximately the 58th retelling of this play in less than a half century.
This was my second time through the filmography of Billy Wilder, and I'll admit I undervalued both Private Life and Avanti! the first time I saw them as well. Both are very much vogue of the era they came from, and both carry the playful but dark touch that Wilder was so treasured for. Private Life in particular is such a wonderful tome that tries to pry the lid off of a character and make him not just human but humane. I think you owe it to yourself to catch the film's deleted scenes at some point, since they make the movie even more of a fascinating enigma.
That being said, you hit a number of nails on the head here. Buddy Buddy is pretty forgettable (I did post that review up, right?), and even in a world where Sunset Boulevard doesn't exist, Fedora wouldn't have turned any heads. The Front Page is a nice picture, and a good showcase for Matthau/Lemmon, but you're right that the film never manages to feel necessary. 'A pleasant time waster' is about the best you can do with it.
I wanted to talk a bit more about Love in the Afternoon since I've seen it three times now and remember it less than most any of these other movies, other than maybe Buddy Buddy (we watched that one, right?). Love is trying so cravenly to be a Lubitsch charmer that it almost snakes around and becomes repulsive. Audrey Hepburn is completely wasted as a woman in the midst of her sexual awakening since the script spends so much time on Cooper's reactions and hijinks. I think this is one of the great missed opportunities in Wilder's career, since it is neither bold enough to be edgy or funny enough to overcome its minor taboo breaking. As it is, it's just a waste.
I'd probably also stick the nostalgia-tinted Stalag 17 in this category, but I think you'll hit this soon enough and we can bicker about it then.
One last note: you've fit all of Wilder's last five features into the bottom two tiers. While I definitely disagree on Avanti, I think it's interesting that this seems to confirm popular opinion that The Fortune Cookie was his last good picture.
Some of the movies between 3 and 4 were really hard to divide. Avanti! was right on the edge as was Sherlock but I checked my watch a bit too much in both of those films to make it to the next level. My third tier I would label these movies "A really fun time" These movies might not be Wilder's best or be considered masterpieces (by me) but I enjoyed them all and could easily watch them again.
The Lost Weekend - A movie that barely cracked this tier because it was a bit too melodramatic, but you have to be in awe of how Wilder makes the main character borderline unsympathetic. The work of his DP John Seitz is also a big plus for it. This movie might be one that hasn't aged well but there is enough there to put it in his mid category.
The Major and the Minor - Nothing more than a fun 90 minutes. Ginger Rodgers was a perfect actress for Wilder's American directorial debut in that she can combine the sugar and spice so well. Ray Milland playing against the characters I know him from is a great clueless romantic lead. I also love the fact that Wilder was able to make a film that has characters thinking they are falling for a 12 year old girl and make it sweet rather than creepy.
Stalag 17 - I really dig this movie and William Holden was great. His Sgt Sefton was not a nice guy and never pretends to be. I still think he got to the bottom of who was the spy not because he wanted justice but wanted to rub it in the other POWs faces that they were wrong. His last line of, "If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let's pretend we've never met before" is not only a great line, but sums up his character so well. Making a movie that balances WWII drama and kooky comedy is not easy, but Wilder does it great. In my opinion, the most easily rewatchable in all movies in this tier.
Sabrina - One of the best Hepburn movies around and another just really fun time. While it is a sweet, romantic film it also has sex on the brain through most of the film. Any scene with "Isn't it Romantic" playing in the background is dripping with innuendo and Sabrina herself borders on a stalker while watching William Holden and his conquests. A great example of Wilder being able to balance the sweet and the dirty so well.
Witness for the Prosecution - Wilder does Hitchcock and does it well. A WONDERFUL performance from Charles Laughton makes this movie watchable even after you know the twist ending. Although it is a courtroom thriller, Wilder did not forget to add a lot of zip with his dialogue, especially between Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. Other than Double Indemnity (which is more noir than thriller), Wilder didn't do another thriller and it's too bad because he did it well.
One, Two, Three - The most fast paced movie that Wilder did. Cagney rats off more dialogue in a minute than most characters get in a whole movie. Like I said in our original review, this was the best Mel Brooks movie that Mel Brooks never made.
Irma La Douce - The movie I was the most surprised about in his library. I was kind of dreading the film but I had so much fun with it. Jack Lemmon and Shirley McLaine show that The Apartment was not a fluke and they had great chemistry. The character of Mustache in my opinion goes in the hall of fame of Wilder supporting characters. A movie that shouldn't have worked as well as it did and the happiest discovery of this journey.
The thing that struck me most about Sabrina this time is how much of a creepster Sabrina actually is. But it's so hard to notice or care when she's played by Audrey Hepburn; she makes it look so innocent and sweet. It's really a prototypical romantic comedy in a lot of ways, mixing sophistication with heartbreak at ease. He made a lot of 'better' films, but Sabrina may still be his most charming.
Mind you, if I were to select a film that embodies the exact opposite, Irma La Douce would probably be it. That one is as light as a soufle, a lark with an amusing premise and a few good set pieces. Outside of that, I barely remember a thing about it; I will say it manages to be the kind of film Love in the Afternoon wants to be without its many drawbacks. However, Irma's bankrupt shrug of an ending nearly kills it dead.
But that brings me back to something about Wilder's films, where romance doesn't always work out between those in love. In most of his movies, infatuations override common sense, with love as often intoxicating as the rye in Lost Weekend. Almost all of the trouble in his films-- look at Private Life, Sabrina, Double Indemnity-- seems to emerge from a desperate need to fulfill a longing, and the destructive consequences of such. It used to be there were social inhibitors to check people's passions for one another-- the Christian church certainly always tried its best-- but Wilder was seeing that grasp deteriorating ever so slightly. When the American passion becomes unrestrained, why does that cause so much suffering? Or, in Sabrina's case, so few bananas?
But there are other things to talk about with Wilder to be sure. I'm getting close to being baffled about what your second tier will involve, since I would certainly have put Witness for the Prosecution, Sabrina, and Lost Weekend there. Let's hear what you've got next.
That's an interesting thought on romance in Wilder's films, and one I would have to 100% agree with. He was always scoffing at the "fairy tale" romances where love will conquer all. He might have been in the middle of his career during the generational shift to free love, but I don't think he ever showed a typical Hollywood romance. The closest he came was probably Sabrina where the main character could be seen as a stalker and Major and the Minor where the main guy is on the verge of being a pedophile.
For my second tier, I might have really dug Sabrina and Witness but we are getting into rarefied air now. This next classification I call the "Near Masterpieces", where they are great films and would be the best films that 99% of all directors could ever possibly make yet don't quite reach the best films that Wilder did. Without further ado:
Five Graves to Cairo - I must thank you again Danny for introducing this movie to me because it is a great film. It is a lean thriller that was filming when victory wasn't guaranteed for the Allied Forces in WWII. Anne Baxter was just as good in this as she was in her most famous role in All About Eve and Erich von Stroheim was wonderful as Rommel. Wilder kept the tension going through out this film and kept the movie moving. I loved the haunting look of the opening and Baxter coming down the staircase was the first of Wilder's great staircase scenes. One of the most underrated films in Wilder's library.
A Foreign Affair - I don't know why this movie works so well for me but it damn sure does. The bitterness and corruption that Wilder shows just a few years after the US victory in WWII was something unexpected. Like I said when we talked about this before, I think this movie rivals The Third Man as the best time capsule of post war Europe and how utterly destroyed-- morally and physically-- it truly was in the late 40s. Like we just talked about, this is another movie where the romance is anything but sweet nothings. Since I rewatched this for our piece, I have picked it up and watched it two more times just to have something on in the background. For me this movie is very rewatchable and like Five Graves just barely misses the best of the best Wilder produced.
I agree, both of those films are great, though I didn't think so of A Foreign Affair until you pointed out the sly metaphor going on. There's such sadness and loss dripping from each frame of it. It's a movie that needs a hug, even with the happy ending it got.
I'm not sure if you skipped Wilder's holocaust documentary or not, but adding it in here makes it a rather dark three part act of the second World War. The first part is sacrifice and heroism, the second horror and loss, the third trying to stop it from happening again. You could probably add in Emperor Waltz as some sort of horrifying prelude, One Two Three as a light postscript and Avanti as a sweet coda, but those are all his most nationally charged films. Their portrait of the world range from bleak to downright anarchic, but each is uniquely Wilder.
One thing I want to note about Wilder is that he's definitely a director who tried his hands at so many different genres, but it's rarely noted that he did his craft in so many different places. As an immigrant, he wasn't afraid to set his films on another continent, or play cultures against one another to see what happened. There are so few progenitors like him-- Curtiz, Capra and Hawks, maybe-- and so few that came after-- I'll probably just stop at Soderbergh and Spielberg for that one. It takes a great talent to make so many films seem to come from one voice, yet all feel distinct and insightful. That may be one of the things I liked about Wilder best: seeing how he saw the world all those years, his belief in its highs and lows. I just wish it had ended on a better note than Buddy Buddy (... wait, did we watch that?).
So I'm pretty sure I've got a good guess or two as to tier one at this point. I'll admit I'm surprised about one of them, though it's not undeserved. So list away!
I didn't put the Holocaust doc in my list because it is a movie you really can't rank. You brought up a good point with not many contemporaries can mingle so many cultures and locations with distinct voices but one name I would probably add would be Danny Boyle. Boyle's films are all different genres but at the same time all distinctly his creation. It is pretty impressive for a person to make Millions and Trainspotting within 10 years of each other. His library does remind me of Wilder's a bit because they both liked going from drama to comedy to thriller and back, the one difference is Wilder (thankfully) never made a family film like the wonderful Millions. The result may have been horrifying.
Now, it is time for the latest and greatest films of Wilder's career (according to me), his masterpieces.
Ace in the Hole - Probably the movie that most people might not rank this high but I love the movie to pieces. I used to think the one person that isn't a bad person was the poor schmuck Leo but after discussing this movie with you, I don't even think he comes off well. So we have a movie that has a vile leading man Chuck Tatum (a never better Kirk Douglas) a cold leading lady and corrupt officials a plenty. Even the spectators of the "carnival" come off as shallow people enjoying the spectacle and not thinking of the consequences. I also think Ace in the Hole is one of Wilder's best directed films, the claustrophobia of the mine, the bustling sideshow at the mountain and the small touches Wilder adds to the film are wonderful. The introduction of Chuck Tatum was a small funny moment in the film without many of them. This was greatly countered by the ending moments of the film which are anything but funny. The way Wilder puts the camera right next to where Tatum's body falls and then lingers on it dares the viewer to look away. Looking away is one thing I can never do with this wonderful film.
Double Indemnity - The PERFECT noir, period. We have gone over why this movie is so great. The femme fatale, the crime, the world shrinking around Neff and the bitter endings most characters find in this film are what I think of when I think of the genre. This is also the second movie that had a wonderful scene with a stairway in Wilder's career.
Some Like it Hot - Wilder was known for his endings and this one was his masterpiece. This is the greatest role Marilyn Monroe ever had and the chemistry between the two male leads is almost unmatched. This movie is past the point of being hysterical and each line, action and movement are there to make you laugh. There are few scenes that are better, in any genre, than the yacht scene where Tony Curtis is making his moves on Monroe by making her make her moves on him. This is in the top 5 funniest films ever and it might just be the greatest comedy ever made.
Sunset Boulevard - The perfect mix of black comedy and noir. Wilder was not worrying about biting the hand that feeds him and makes a movie that shines a light on the way that Hollywood has no problem using and then throwing away talent. It takes some guts to ask some of the biggest silent film actors still alive at the time to cameo in your film and then make fun of them throughout their scene via voice over. The three main stars, William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim, are wonderful in this film and could not imagine any other actors in their roles. This is another film that was beautifully shot with the showstopper scene of Swanson as Norma Desmond coming down her stairs. I could watch that scene over and over and never get tired of it. This might be the film that is the best known to this day of Wilder and it is easy to see how it has become a timeless classic.
The Apartment - My favorite Wilder film and my favorite movie overall. This movie has it all, heart, humor, drama and actors at the top of their game. Jack Lemmon played the everyman so well that he just disappears and you see C.C Baxter, a man that is very similar to someone that we all know. Unlike a lot of the other films on this final tier, Wilder shows his softer side and gives this movie a lot of hope. Baxter wants to be a mensch and struggles to be that throughout the movie but you believe he is almost there as the credits roll. Usually I wouldn't call a movie dealing with a clumsy suicide attempt romantic, but the spark between Lemmon and MacLaine is so bright that the movie becomes very romantic. This movie also captures better than any other film the feeling of loneliness and despair that comes to anyone alone on Christmas. If I would ever get a tattoo of a quote on me, it would be from this movie because the dialogue in this movie and the way the actors recite them are music to my ears. The Apartment is one of a few perfect movies where I would not change a single second of its running time.
Well, there we go, that is how I would rank all of Wilder's films. He had some lows but much more often he had some HIGH highs. Wilder helped make so many stars into the icons that they are and created countless movie moments that have gone down in history as some of the greatest. Wilder is the first name I think of when I think of the great auteurs because of his immense library. I am known by many people in my life as "the movie guy" and every once in a while someone asks me about some film suggestions. The first question I usually ask is "do you watch many classic films" and if the answer is no, there is only one way to direct them, by asking "have you ever heard of Billy Wilder?"
Exactly. If you asked me to narrow down the greatest American film directors of all time, there's no way Wilder would escape that top tier. His work as an auteur in a time of heavy film censorship was unmatched, and he was a fearless film maker, always willing to drench his films in the perfect mix of hopeful cynicism.
I liked your tier idea, even though I think there are other interesting ways to break up his filmography outside of preference. You can do genre-- noir, crime, comedy-- though a lot of them would intersect, since Wilder never just turned out movies without exploring all of their sides. You can also divide it into his co-writers--- Charlie Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, which is also an interesting contrast, though it misses a lot of his one-off partners who helped make him great.
Instead, I think his body of work should be taken a film at a time, at a look of a creative and how the decades treated him. Most say his best work came out because the Motion Picture Production Code forced him to be cagey in couching his films in implications and lurid deeds rather than words. But that overlooks Some Like It Hot-- one of the first films released without MPAA approval and a smash hit at the box office-- and all of his work thereafter. I've mentioned it several times before (and we disagree on this obviously), but I think some of his most personal, beautiful stuff came out near the end of his career. I think if he'd still had the support of a studio rather than feeling like he was scrambling as an independent, he would have had more opportunities to make even better films.
But that's all past now, and let's work with what we've got. We talk about the auteur theory over and over again, Ryan. Besides the cynicism, what else have you learned about Wilder from these movies?
I think two things really stood out for me this time while watching all the films together. The first thing (and I have mentioned it a few times) is how I underestimated Wilder as a visual director. I always think of him first as a great writer and one of the best dialogue writers in the history of film that I never paid attention to how great his compositions were. While watching the library of Wilder films again I think he is as good of a visual storyteller as an auditory one. Double Indemnity, Five Graves to Cairo, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole and The Apartment are just few of the many of his films that you could almost watch silent (but why would you want to do that) because the visuals are so strong.
The other thing I really noticed is that Wilder is good with certain actors and others are left out to hang. Other than Buddy Buddy, Lemmon and Wilder did not make a unmemorable character in all of their team-ups and Matthau was a natural for reading his dialogue. On the female side I wish he would have done more with Ginger Rodgers but look at what he did for Barbra Stanwyck, Shirley McClaine, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. It takes a certain trust between actor and director to make such iconic roles and Wilder did AGAIN and AGAIN with his casts.
On the other end you have the train wreck of all actors that were involved in Kiss Me Stupid, Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper which Wilder had no idea what to do with or how to use them in their films. The actresses in Stupid were nothing more than props her the men to use or sleep with, Bing Crosby never seemed more square in a movie and Gary Cooper bordered on acting like a serial killer that I kept waiting for Hepburn to find a closet full of dead hookers during Love in the Afternoon. When the actors fit into Wilder's wheelhouse, magic happened often... but the magic wasn't 100% of the time.
Finally, going back to the dividing by co-writers, I was much more an Diamond guy before we did this journey because he was there for Some Like it Hot and The Apartment but also made some total dogs with Wilder. I now believe Brackett was his better co-pilot because he challenged him much more. When Brackett and Wilder started working together Wilder was not WILDER, the same can't be said about when Diamond got the gig.
Danny, you have anything left that you want to add to this almost year long trek?
I think I'm pretty much tapped out dry at this point, Ryan. Watching it again-- in order, with Death Mills for this go around-- and it's an impressive testament to one man's life. From the brash youth, the humbled filmmaker, the cynical and angry man, to the dirty old guy, and finally to the reflective elder, you see all of Wilder in his films. The man himself isn't much of an enigma-- or, I should say, he's as much of an enigma as he wants to be-- but the shades of his movies illuminate a whole human being.
And I think that's what draws me back to him time and time again. Wilder's films encompass so much of his own humanity, the world of a man who hopes for the best and expects the worst, and he and his hundreds of talented collaborators realized those many worlds so perfectly. Their hard work enriches my own life immeasurably.
Anyway, thanks for going on this journey with me, Ryan. It's always a treat to experience something wonderful with a good friend.