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.
Walter Matthau plays a professional killer going by the name of Trabucco, who is on his way to rub out gangster Rudy "Disco" Gambola, set to testify against the mob. As Trabucco heads off to a hotel across the street from the courthouse where he plans to set his hit, he runs into the depressed Victor Clooney (Jack Lemmon), who laments the fact that his wife has left him for the head of a weird Californian sex clinic. Soon, Trabucco is stuck trying to stop Victor from killing himself all while completing his hit.
So that was it, the end of the Billy Wilder filmography and it ends on a less than stellar note. I will start out by being positive and mention that Wilder seems to be a head of the curve with the hitman black comedy by about 15 years because the middle to late 90's was chock full of this genre. To this day you still can't go a month without a new hitman movie coming out. Some of the movies include In Bruges, Grosse Pointe Blank, Lucky Number Slevin, The Matador, Romeo is Bleeding, The Whole Nine Yards, and Killers and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Was Buddy, Buddy the reason all these movies were made? Not a chance, I think for most of them the big influence was Pulp Fiction, but it does show the man was before his time at the end.
Another thing that I enjoyed was Walter Matthau cursing up a storm. Usually a character dropping a random f-bomb does nothing for me in a movie but watching Matthau and his hangdog face angrily telling Lemmon to "Fuck off" really tickles me. Actually, Matthau was by far the best thing in the movie. His low key acting in this movie was amusing to me and I still can't think of a Matthau performance I didn't enjoy.
With that said, he was the ONLY thing I enjoyed in this film. Jack Lemmon tried his best but he could not make his character of Victor Clooney anything but annoying. When Matthau's Trabucco was going to shoot him behind the rock, I was 100% rooting for him. Lemmon was great at being high strung but this movie amplified it way too much.
Lemmon made it out a lot better than anyone involved with the awful sex clinic b-plot. Wilder had the wonderfully weird Klaus Kinski in the movie as a quackish sex doctor and didnt do anything interesting with him. He gave him a funny name and called it a day in one of the most unfortunate casting strike outs of his career. Even worse was Paula Prentiss as Lemmon's estranged wife. I can honestly not think of a worse performance than she gives in this film. She is wooded and over the top at the same time and any moment with her in the film was pure torture. I couldn't understand why Victor would want her back, I don't even understand why he would want to be in the same room as her.
I know that you were not a fan of this film either, but did you enjoy Matthau as much as I did in this film?
Fedora, an aging and reclusive film star, dies in Paris, struck by a train. At her funeral, a film producer (William Holden) thinks back over the past two weeks and the part he might have played in her death. He'd gone to Corfu to track her down, pushing himself into her island villa, where she lived with a nurse, an old countess, and the plastic surgeon who's success at keeping her looking young is amazing. We see her mental stability fail as the producer offers her a script for "Anna Karenina;" soon she's locked away in a Parisian asylum and the producer is in the hospital with a concussion. His reverie ended, the countess takes up the narration and completes Fedora's story.
In contemporary terms, Fedora reminds me a lot of Casino. Both movies are from famous and acclaimed directors who are playing in the same genre of some of their biggest and beloved hits. Casino was a three hour epic about gangsters and card sharks in Vegas and had a top notch cast and direction but is always set aside because "it is not as good as Goodfellas." The same thing could be said of Fedora, which is a close sibling of Wilder's own masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. It is very evident that Wilder was trying to capture that lighting in the bottle with Fedora and came up short, but 99.999% of all movies come up short when compared to the 1950 noir. I still enjoyed Fedora much more than I thought I would and would put it on the same level as Private Life of Sherlock Holmes where it is a good movie but could have been great with a bit of work.
Fedora has a tone that almost feels dream like and this greatly helps the film because it is a bonkers plot. I dig most William Holden films and this one is no different. Much like Sunset Boulevard, Holden plays a character who is a jaded Hollywood type who never became that big. He once again gets tangled with a crazy bunch of people in a majestic house and thankfully can sell the big bunch of crazy that goes on around him.
I think this movie caught Wilder's eye because it was a throw back and a obituary for the type of films he made in his heyday. While it was set in the present day of the early 70s, the over the top acting, pace and feel of the movie was something more akin to the 40s. The question I have for you is would you end it all if you couldn't be with that dream boat Michael York?
Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon) is the top reporter on a Chicago newspaper during the 1920s. Tired of the whole game he's determined to quit his job to get married. His scheming editor, Walter Burns (Walter Matthau), has other plans though. It's the day before guilty (but insane) murderer, Earl Williams, is due to go to the gallows and Burns tempts Johnson to stay and write the story.
When I was getting my journalism degree and before I learned that newsrooms are sad places where dreams go to die, I pictured/hoped that working as a journalist was like Superman (who wouldn't want to work at "The Daily Planet") the Ron Howard film The Paper or like one of my favorite classic films His Girl Friday. I wanted to work in the environment where everyone talks in quippy phrases, all actions are weighted with important consequences and everything went so FAST. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell were great in His Girl Friday and it was directed wonderfully by Howard Hawkes that it has become one of my favorite screwball comedies from this era.
Why have I talked so much about my career aspirations and my love for a Howard Hawkes film in our series for Billy Wilder? The reason is simple, I used to not like The Front Page because I compared it to a film I loved in His Girl Friday. The Front Page was a remake of the stage play that was then turned into a film and then remade as His Girl Friday so this version is the 3rd movie of the same story.
Was it a movie that needed to be made? Not at all and that is where I always got off the train with the film in the past. There was no reason to remake it since they perfected it last time and it was always going to be in the shadow of the all time classic. Yet, I watched it again this time with fresh eyes and with a goal not to compare it to His Girl Friday but look at it within Wilder's career had taken him at this time. When I did this, I found the movie to be an amusing 1:45 of my time. It is not one of Wilder's greats or even on the tier below but anytime Lemmon, Matthau and Wilder team up so far I have had a good time.
This is another time where Matthau steals all the good moments and leaves poor Lemmon to always be the straight man. I love how Wilder uses Matthau, much like he did in The Fortune Cookie, as that loveable guy that you would never trust if he was in your own life. Watching Matthau scream into the phone with that exasperated tone always amuses me and some of the other journalists in the courthouse were fun little Wilder characters.
I also liked how this movie lets it be known that it is set in Chicago in the 20s and goes to town with the corruption of the city at that time and how jaded the reporters would have been to it all. I think this is also one of the better uses of color that Wilder has used because some of the settings and scenes popped.
Danny, is this an enjoyable movie and nothing more or am I now being too kind to the film?
Baltimore industrialist Wendell Armbruster (Jack Lemmon) crosses paths with London shop girl Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills) when they come to Ischia to pick up the bodies of her mother and his father, who have been killed in an automobile accident after a ten-year summertime affair. Straitlaced Wendell tries to avoid a scandal while free-spirited Pamela is impressed by the romantic setting. After some confusion with the bodies and a blackmail attempt by unscrupulous locals, Wendell and Pamela extend their parent's affair into the next generation.
Let's start out with the obvious about Billy Wilder's Avanti!: is there anyone in the world who would even think of calling Pamela Piggot 'fat'? She hardly qualifies as plump, but the characters in the world of Avanti! seem to find her positively enormous and kind of a bore. I find her well rounded, at the very least.
Last time I saw Avanti! I must have been in a grumpy mood, because I don't think any other movie I've rewatched through this series of reviews so badly needed a reevaluation. Part of me wonders if I was too young and inexperienced when I'd seen it, perhaps being a bit priggish or demanding. Nowadays it reminds me of something a tier below Amacord or Two for the Road, fitting in with those 1970's examinations of nostalgia and age.
But even a lower tier doesn't make it unpleasant. Wilder said he was trying to emulate Brief Encounter with the picture, and while this has nowhere the amount of power as that, it's a remarkably sweet bedroom farce that takes a laconic town and places a bellicose man against it. On the island's side, though, it also has a beautiful woman extolling its many simple pleasures; what's a man to do?
There's so much in Wilder's Private Life of Sherlock Holmes that seemed telling, and here, if it isn't a deep seated confession, it seems to also be a rather pointedly honest look at what it's like to have an escape, a deep pleasure that you can celebrate and enjoy.Whether that's an extramarital affair or simply your extended lunch break, who is to say. It's very much about the joie de vivre (not how Italians would put it, I'm sure), the ability to enjoy the moment for what it is and unseating yourself from so many of life's unceasing demands.
That message being delivered by such a wonderfully photographed film isn't lost, as the visceral pleasures of the island and its scenery and the simple but sweet jokes lacks any layer of irony or detachment. Avanti is about a place that is and was, but most notably a place that can continue to be loved, adored and enjoyed.
I know this is roiling your mind, Ryan, since it's the first question you've asked for the last four or five movies, but no, I don't think the film is horribly misogynist. Even the Sicilian woman with a gun is portrayed with a great deal of sympathy, even when she becomes a killer; her crossing herself would be a throwaway in many movies, but here is a beautiful glimpse of grace crossed with crazy.
The real question I must ask you for now, Ryan, is whether you felt the film was too long or just right? 2 1/2 hours is a big investment, and while the movie isn't an epic in any sense, I never felt it drag or become tiresome.
Your thoughts? Or do I have to say 'permisso' first?