Festival Daily
18 lis 11
Day 4 - Wild About Wilder

Billy Wilder was born in Sucha Beskidzka, now a part of Poland. But in 1906 it was a thriving hub within the great Austro-Hungarian empire. Of his nation of birth Wilder commented, 'The Austrians are brilliant people. They made the world believe that Hitler was a German and Beethoven an Austrian'. It is one of many off-screen bon mots in a career that saw Wilder's sharp tongue and savage wit employed for numerous films that have become Hollywood classics.

The festival is bringing eight of Wilder's films together for a small retrospective, marking the 105th anniversary of the his birth. The selection not only display his skill as a filmmaker, they highlight his ability to take on any genre and make it his own. From noir to screwball and courtroom drama to satire, Wilder understood the mechanics of genre filmmaking and turned it on its head.

The featured films cover the most successful period of Wilder's career, from the mid-1940s through to the early 1960s. They also include work that represents two of his most successful collaborations, with the writers Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond. Wilder collaborated on 13 films with Brackett, including two of Ernst Lubitsch's finest comedies (Bluebeard's Eighth Wife and Ninotchka). The Lost Weekend, their riveting 1945 drama about one man's descent into an alcohol-ravaged hell, won them Oscars for Best Picture and Screenplay. The same success should have followed with Sunset Boulevard (1950), their final collaboration. A coruscating attack on life in Hollywood, Wilder was attacked by MGM Studio Head Louis B. Mayer following the film's first industry screening. He told the director, 'You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood'. Wilder suggested that Mayer go procreate with himself. The film was not a huge success, but now ranks as one of the best insider views of Tinseltown, with Norma Desmond's final line to camera the first in a series of memorable last lines created by Wilder and his co-writers.

One of Wilder's best forays into classic genre filmmaking is also screening here. Double Indemnity (1944) is one of the great Film Noirs and perfectly displays the director's often mischievous penchant for casting actors against type, or playing with established screen personas. Barbara Stanwyck may have been the perfect femme fatale, form her vampish hairstyle down to her tantalising anklet, but Fred McMurray was Hollywood's Mr. Nice Guy and Wilder was to forever transform audiences perception of him. The film is a taut thriller. It is also blisteringly funny at times, although the humour is more caustic that generous. It is this that places it above so many other noir thrillers. Wilder was not content with the story of an innocent schmuck led astray, he wanted to explore the fabric of our being by contemplating what it would take to corrupt a man whose only vice was to be attracted to another man's wife.

Like Double Indemnity (which was co-written with the original novel's author, Raymond Chandler), Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and The Seven Year Itch (1955) were not collaborations between Wilder's favourite writers. WithWitness for the Prosecution, Wilder took on the courtroom thriller. It soon becomes clear that the conventions of such a drama bored the director, who chose instead to offer a character portrait of the judge, played by Charles Laughton. The two famously got on and the Laughton offers up one of his finest screen performances. The Seven Year Itch is also one of Wilder's lesser films. However, thanks to the sparkling performance of one of its stars, along with that memorable scene over a subway tunnel, it is given far more credit than it perhaps deserves. Based on a play, the film is, for the most part, too stagey. Wilder also wanted a young Walter Matthau in the lead, but was stuck with Tom Ewell. The film is saved by Marilyn Monroe, whose easy charm and brilliant comic timing lights up every scene she appears in. Not that she was easy for Wilder. Over the course of two films she almost drove him mad. He described her as having 'Breasts like granite and brains like Swiss cheese,' and finally admitted, after completing their second film together, that 'I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and they tell me I'm too old and too rich to go through this again.'

Monroe's tardiness on set and an apparent inability to memorise any line changes notwithstanding, that second film they made together, Some Like It Hot (1959), now ranks as one of the greatest comedies ever made. It was the second collaboration with I.A.L. Diamond following the mediocre Love in the Afternoon (1956). And it showed, once again, Wilder's innate ability to undermine genre conventions. What starts as a gangster film becomes a comedy, then a romantic comedy, only to have everything combine in the last twenty minutes, with a dose of slapstick thrown in for good measure. And topping it all, another great final line, albeit one that was never meant to be. Spoken by Joe E. Brown, the line was created by Diamond, but he and Wilder agreed that they would return to it with something better. However, they couldn't think of anything else and decided to keep it.

Some Like It Hot also saw the beginning of a collaboration with Jack Lemmon. The perfect foil for Wilder's humour, Lemmon was so skilful an actor, the director once said of him 'Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon'. If he was great opposite Monroe and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot, he surpassed himself in The Apartment (1960). Wilder and Diamond's near-flawless account of a man whose apartment is used by his bosses for their extra-marital affairs is a bittersweet drama with a cynical undercurrent. Fred McMurray is once again cast as the morally bankrupt character, with Shirley McLaine impressive as his amour and the object of Lemmon's affection. Capturing the shifting morality of America and shot in beautifully crisp black and white, the film is a masterpiece of comedy and pathos.

One final film is appearing in the festival's retrospective. One, Two, Three (1963) may be less well known that other films listed, but it is no less worthy. Arguably the last great screwball comedy from classical Hollywood cinema, it also features the final starring role for James Cagney, whose performance and line delivery are like a hurricane. Furiously paced and often painfully funny, Wilder and Diamond's account of a West Berlin-based Coca Cola executive who goes into meltdown when the young daughter of his boss elopes with a radical Communist from the East, it is further proof of Wilder's genius as a filmmaker and a excellent addition to this homage.



Ian Haydn Smith

Editor, International Film Guide & Curzon Magazine
e-mail ihsmith@yahoo.co.uk


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