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“Well, nobody’s perfect”: Billy Wilder's cynical, classic cinema

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Ahead of our Billy Wilder film season, critic Nick Bugeja examines how the auteur's oeuvre helped define genres, classic Hollywood and an American era. 

Sometimes it takes an outsider to shine a light on society’s successes, idiosyncrasies and ills. For those inside a culture, it’s hard to see it objectively.

There are many outsider perspectives in filmmaking, though few directors have produced results as funny, important and indelible as Samuel “Billy” Wilder. Alongside other German émigrés, particularly Ernst Lubitsch, Douglas Sirk and Fritz Lang, Wilder frequently cast a scathing eye on American society, highlighting its failings while counterparts like Frank Capra and Vincente Minnelli tried to cover them up.  

Born in Austria in 1906, Wilder originally set out to become a lawyer but ended up in the grubby world of tabloid journalism. This seems a formative experience for Wilder, as a kind of investigative vigour pervades his work. If the sensationalism of tabloid journalism couldn’t satiate Wilder’s curiosity about the human condition, his films certainly did.

Forced to flee Germany for France during the rise of Nazism, several of Wilder’s family members were tragically killed – including his mother – leaving a lasting effect on Wilder and his work. Fortunately, he didn’t let the grief stop him.

Wilder arrived in Hollywood already fascinated by America: seduced by jazz, the Charleston dance and Douglas Fairbanks. (His adopted name, “Billy”, had come from his mother’s interest in the American folk hero “Buffalo Bill”.) It's no surprise that Wilder first worked as a screenwriter, utilising his writing experience and acerbic facility with his adopted English language. But after a number of his screenplays were butchered by poor direction, Wilder decided that enough was enough. Taking to the director’s chair with the admittedly-dated 1942 comedy, The Major and the Minor, Wilder went on to establish a long and formidable career in the studio system. Like the denouements of most Capra and Minnelli films, it turned out to be a match made in heaven.

Wilder’s best films are many things: fun, excitable, melodramatic, tragic, and endlessly quotable. They’re also unified by an ever-present, if sometimes imperceptible, examination of modern American life; unafraid to probe and pull at its unseemly and unsightly fabric to see where it comes apart.

Sunset Boulevard is a living testament to the distinctly American obsession with beauty, stardom and ego, and the monstrous figures – in this case Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) – it creates in its wake. Wilder’s career-making film,  Double Indemnity, as Richard Armstrong so perfectly captures for Senses of Cinema, “throbs with the values and imagery of American capitalism.” And The Apartment uncovers the self-deluding, decaying core of American social life in the post-war era through Baxter's (Jack Lemmon) unhappy decision to let his colleagues use his apartment for affairs.

Rather than confining his inquiries to one genre – as Antonioni and Peckinpah arguably had – Wilder’s films are wonderfully diverse, ranging from film noir, drama and satire to romance, melodrama and comedy. In many cases, particularly with Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity and The Apartment, Wilder’s films defined their genres. It’s hard not to visualise Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe’s gleeful faces in Some Like it Hot when you’re asked what the greatest comedies are; the same goes for the morally and aesthetically shadowy frames in  Double Indemnity when quizzed on classic film noir pictures.

Not only did Wilder work across genres, he also left an undeniable legacy on them. Make no mistake: working in one genre and style can yield beautiful, rich and meaningful rewards. Antonioni’s devotion to a cinema of modernism meant that he could examine alienation peerlessly; Peckinpah’s westerns unearthed the conflict between the poetry and horror of violence.

There’s certainly something to be said for Wilder’s versatility. For one, it reveals the scope of ideas and insights he had into American life: leaping between genres doesn’t make it easy to stick to a consistent theme.

Beyond this, it shows how adaptive Wilder was within the studio ecosystem. While directors, especially those of Wilder’s calibre, tend to be viewed as obstinate, self-obsessed, and overly discriminative, Wilder’s flexibility flew in the face of this archetype. It wasn’t that he compromised artistically, rather that he knew how to survive – and better yet, flourish – within the profit-orientated structures of mid-20th Century Hollywood. Many found this environment destructive to creativity (Orson Welles, for one), many more resented its very makeup. That Wilder negotiated this system so well is a reminder of his unfussy humility as a person and as an artist.

In a 1990s interview looking back at his career, director Cameron Crowe asked Wilder what he considered his best film was. “I used to say, the next one. I’m not doing any more,” is how Wilder responded. But Crowe wasn’t happy with that, pressing him further. Rather than giving a positive appraisal, Wilder chose a film that, to him, exhibited the least problems. “The picture maybe that has the fewest faults, obvious faults, would be The Apartment.”

It perhaps now may be unsurprising that Wilder’s overarching style eschews extravagance, excess and (mostly) self-referentiality. His mise en scène, while used to generate mood and atmosphere (think of the shadowy, uncertain rooms, train carriages and lobbies in Double Indemnity, The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard), primarily foregrounds the characters and the setting, allowing the story to progress briskly. In this process, the actors get to flex their performative chops, as the camera is often focused on their faces and bodies, moving through worlds of lost love and bitter disappointment. Wilder’s style also provides great opportunity for his biting, acerbic dialogue to be harnessed by the likes of Lemmon, Curtis, Swanson, Monroe, Hepburn and Bogart.

The experimentation with form undertaken by the New Hollywood directors doesn’t figure in Wilder’s work, which reveals an almost religious devotion to the building-blocks of conventional American filmmaking. And his almost-flawless execution has exalted his personal style to that of American classicism; without his oeuvre, the “Golden Age” would be decidedly less shiny, polished and accomplished.

His images don’t contain the catharsis of Peckinpah or the poeticism of Antonioni. They are simple and laconic, producing a sharpness in meaning and effect: young screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating face-down in Norma Desmond’s Hollywood pool; insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) sitting against a wall, curled up with his head in his hands, wracked with guilt over his malignant schemes and actions; Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) collapsing into the face of the camera from a long-unaddressed knife wound, bringing an end to his life of tabloid journalism and abject exploitation.

While it’s easy now to see Wilder as a product of his times, as a figure firmly planted within the post-war milieu of American cinema, as a (albeit exceptional) purveyor of the classical American style, this interpretation doesn’t capture the whole picture. The content of Wilder’s films brought a unique kind of social and cultural criticism to the screen, relentlessly poking holes in the ideals of American exceptionalism through his cynical beliefs that humans are consumed by the ego, that we lack the ability to love authentically, that we aren’t as smart as we think.

Only naturally, these themes and ideas were at odds with what the censors thought acceptable. Wilder ran into trouble with them throughout his career, with pictures like Kiss Me, Stupid, Double Indemnity and The Seven Year Itch. Although he was a filmmaker of the studio system, these artistic constraints were too much for Wilder. He refused to slavishly obey the censors’ every demand. After receiving backlash for Double Indemnity, Wilder decided only to submit his scripts to the censors once his films were completed, leaving them relatively powerless. The next generation of American filmmakers weren’t subject to this stifling bureaucratism, and no doubt it was Wilder’s challenging, critical filmic subject matter that impelled them to make films like Easy Rider, The Heartbreak Kid, A Woman Under the Influence, Taxi Driver.  

For a director whose life and family were horribly afflicted by the Holocaust and the evil systems of tyranny and discrimination that came with it, it’s no surprise that Wilder so highly prized creative freedom. Although his films are frequently painted as exercises in cynicism, there’s something distinctly hopeful in his efforts to be free to make films about the preposterousness and foolishness and selfishness of humanity.

Mad Men & Wilder Women: Focus on Billy Wilder film season begins on 3 January.