In half a century of writing and moviemaking, Billy Wilder took torn-from-the-headline subjects and born-in-the-boudoir jokes and created an amazing closed universe of wit. To see his movies is to enter an environment in which all the cracks are wise -- and no simple feeling can emerge unscathed.
As a writer or director or both, he gave us some of the smartest entertainments in Hollywood history, from Midnight and Ninotchka in 1939 to Some Like It Hot in 1959. And movies like Double Indemnity (1944) and The Lost Weekend (1945) brought a new, cynical realism to the screen.
In his metier, Wilder was incomparable. Sophisticated audiences went to his landmark movies hoping for the kind of acrid observations that could set you back on your feet like a stiff, bitter drink.
Throughout June and July, Baltimore audiences can once again see vintage Wilder on the big screen. Johns Hopkins' summer film series kicked off last week with Wilder's trifling debut film, The Major and the Minor, but hits its stride this Wednesday with Double Indemnity. Four more films -- The Lost Weekend, Some Like It Hot, Irma La Douce and Kiss Me, Stupid -- follow before the series winds up on July 24.
In addition, after having showcased Wilder's Ace in the Hole earlier this month, the Charles Theatre's Saturday revival series will unspool his creepiest, most original film, Sunset Boulevard, on June 29. (See related story for information about both series.)
Wilder hadn't made a movie in more than two decades when he died of pneumonia on March 27 at the age of 95. But throughout his later years the adulation of his fans and his propensity for quips of genius kept him in the public eye. Wilder would be immortal if only for his barbed, offhand wisdom, such as his famous remark about Louis B. Mayer's crowded funeral: "It shows that if you give the public what they want, they will come out for it!"
Nonetheless, Wilder's own hottest one-liners are no competition for his most Wilder-esque movies. It may be fun to re-hear real-life gags, like Wilder telling his prospective wife, "I'd worship the ground you walk on if only you lived in a better neighborhood." But it's no substitute for Jan Sterling in Ace in the Hole complaining that she doesn't like church because "kneeling bags my nylons" or for Cecil B. De Mille in Sunset Boulevard intoning, "Twelve press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit."
In classic Wilder scripts, good lines become great -- they encapsulate themes, put spin on the action, and sum up entire Zeitgeists. Wilder could make plain speaking or verbal curlicues come off as popular music. Nobody has topped Fred MacMurray's and Barbara Stanwyck's first double-entendre duet in Wilder's Double Indemnity, the one that ends with her saying, "I wonder if I know what you mean," and him responding, "I wonder if you wonder."
Wilder's dialogue simultaneously pricks up the ear and provokes nostalgia -- it's boulevard badinage that's been streamlined and toned-up, from an era when wit was part of street smarts. He's the comic laureate of the Big City, the place where the action is, or at least where it once was. He depicted Paris as a glamorous playground in Midnight and Ninotchka, New York as a hive of aspiration in The Lost Weekend and The Apartment. In Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity, L.A. is a sun-kissed, movie-haunted limbo where sex, lucre and homicide tumble together in emotional landslides. In the underrated postwar comedy A Foreign Affair (1948) and the overrated Cold War comedy One, Two, Three (1961), Berlin is a hustler's paradise.
Even Wilder movies that aren't set in cities get taken over by hard-boiled metropolitans -- like Chicago gangsters converging on a Florida resort in Some Like It Hot, or the exiled New York reporter (Kirk Douglas) in Ace in the Hole controlling a rescue operation in the Southwest so he can scoop his way back to Gotham in style.
Douglas mocks a righteous Albuquerque editor for wearing "belts and suspenders." Dwight Macdonald, who as Esquire's film critic was pretty hard on Wilder, once used the same phrase when advising a protege to avoid "doubled adjectives [a belt and a suspender]."
Wilder and Macdonald are disparate characters, but they shared an urban tradition of spirited banter and joshing. They mixed cheerfulness and aggression instead of merely unleashing aggression, which is more the fashion now.
Ups and downs
Despite his lionization in Hollywood, Wilder's national critical reputation went through some killer roller-coaster turns. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was at its lowest dip. Only in the decade before his death did it surge up again. There are two simple explanations.