A man sits alone in a flophouse south of the Mexican border. He’s been trying without success to travel into the United States and is at his wits‘ end. A cockroach crosses the wall in front of him and is about to steer onto the mirror when the man reaches up with his walking stick and blocks its path, saying, “Wait a minute, you. Where are you going? Where are your papers? You haven’t got them? Then you can‘t enter.”
The dialogue is by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, the movie is Hold Back the Dawn (1941), directed by Mitchell Leisen, and the star who was supposed to say these words was Charles Boyer. Alas, he refused. “The scene is idiotic,” he said to Wilder and Brackett. “How do you suppose a man can talk to something that cannot answer you?” Wilder, who had fled Hitler’s Germany and knew that Mexican flophouse firsthand, was furious. As they returned to their office to write Act 3, he told Brackett, “That son of a bitch. If he doesn‘t talk to the cockroach, he doesn’t talk to anybody.” From then on, they quietly wrote Boyer out of his own picture, giving everyone else the best lines. What‘s more, Wilder resolved that afternoon to become a film director. “I just wanted to protect the script,” he later explained to The Paris Review. He had no visionary theories to express, he said. For him, storytelling was a matter of clarity, and problems of style something to be solved in the manner of his hero and onetime mentor Ernst Lubitsch: “To do things as elegantly and as simply as possible.”
The body of work that resulted will be on full display over the next three weeks, beginning at UCLA — whose “Written by Billy Wilder” tribute emphasizes the more obvious classics — and continuing over subsequent weeks at the American Cinematheque with the chancier, later films. Between the two venues, it’s an unprecedented opportunity to see nearly every film with which Wilder has been involved since coming to Hollywood.
Wilder‘s best films are powered by the hard, glittering precision of the dialogue, combined with a rare, tough-minded commitment to the truth of how things play out in life. This underlying honesty is the dramatic equivalent of perfect pitch, and frees Wilder to observe with authentic merriment the most corrupt misbehavior. In Double Indemnity (1944), co-written by Raymond Chandler, a salesman and a housewife size each other up, recognize a kindred spirit, and embark on both a love affair and a murder scheme within moments of setting eyes on one another. Wilder appreciates female strength with a matter-of-factness rare in a male filmmaker of his generation. We can easily feel, between the lines, that the housewife is a much smarter cookie than the salesman. In Sunset Boulevard (1950), we watch as a young all-American macho submits to the otherworldly spell of a woman twice his age. That he needs money and seems to be a gigolo by nature gives their affair a worldly grounding, but a subtle death wish lures him on, too, as if the burden of being a man had simply become so great that he would gladly surrender it, along with his life. This is arguably the wisest film ever made in Hollywood about Hollywood. Certainly it’s the most successful to ever be narrated by a corpse.
Born in 1906, Wilder began as a newspaper reporter in his native Vienna, only to survive later on in 1920s Berlin by working as a taxi dancer at a luxury hotel. This double training — as a disciplined realist and a professional charmer — goes a long way toward explaining how he was able to foist Some Like It Hot (1959) on Eisenhower‘s America. Co-written with his long-term writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond, this farce lightly carries along murder, music, mayhem and cross-dressing in debonair stride. Yet Wilder seduced the audience into coming along with him, because the film’s gangsters are genuinely menacing and the Roaring ‘20s atmosphere is authentically, infectiously carefree. Conventional wisdom tends to define “charm” in terms of the aura of fantasy that a person projects, but Wilder persistently demonstrates that the opposite is true: Real charm is that rare capacity to speak the awful truth with a cleansing directness and, above all, humor.
Paradoxically, for all his unerring audience-sense, Wilder has at times found himself at fatal odds with the public at large. Thus Ace in the Hole (1951), one of the sharpest satires on mass hysteria ever filmed, was a dismal commercial flop when it came out — in the paranoid jamboree of the McCarthy Era, it cut too close to the bone. In the film, Kirk Douglas plays a conniving reporter who builds a simple story about a man trapped in a cave into a literal three-ring circus; the carnival becomes so distracting the public unthinkingly leaves the trapped man to his fate.
Americans continue to be gullible prey for the hysterias generated by the mass media, and hate for that fact to be too ruthlessly dramatized — but across half a century, Wilder’s film is as fresh as ever. The same is true of Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) (showing as part of the Cinematheque series), which tracks a quartet of small-town adulteries with the forgiving impartiality of a Boccaccio farce. When the film first came out, it was condemned by the Catholic Church and mightily derided by nearly every critic who went near it, with the exception of Joan Didion, then a reviewer for Vogue. “The Wilder world is one seen at dawn through a hangover,” she wrote, “a world of cheap double-entendres and stale smoke and drinks in which the ice has melted: the true country of despair.”
People often call Wilder‘s films cynical (for a long while, I was in the habit of doing so), but his faith in romantic passion, his refusal to cheat us with easy affirmations, mark him as someone of much greater philosophical depth. “Cynicism” is merely one of the clown masks in his costume shop, one he’s comfortable loaning out to any number of characters. What emerges from any sustained consideration of his life and work is a sense of grief. One of the most revealing passages in Ed Sikov‘s excellent Wilder biography, On Sunset Boulevard, comes when Wilder was in Germany at the end of World War II, helping the U.S. Army organize its footage of Nazi atrocities. He also had a more pressing agenda that he was keeping to himself: His mother, who was Jewish, had been living in Vienna when the Nazis took over, and had disappeared without a trace. There was no arrest record, and her name showed up in no deportation ledger — she was simply gone, as was his grandmother. Wilder kept searching, but told no co-workers of his quest, or of his distress. When a friend mentioned seeing a Bible in Wilder’s room, another cracked, “Ha! He‘s getting gags out of it.”
Wilder is similarly misunderstood to this day. Much as he wrests gags out of the least likely circumstances — that cockroach Charles Boyer so failed to appreciate is humor as haunting as any Wilder has ever actually filmed — he always conceals the true depth of his agenda, just as he did in the war. Stalag 17, Sabrina, even Ace in the Hole are so lucidly structured that growing up in the ’60s, my cousins and I could follow their plots when we were less than 12 years old, and even make sense of their racier grown-up themes. Yet it‘s the riches between the lines that stay with you, and reward later viewings. Wilder always honors his first obligation, which is to entertain, but he never loses sight of life’s hardest, least appealing truths: its cruelty to outsiders, its obedience to blind luck. This is the wealth he brought with him into exile, the true fortune he made in becoming so decidely American — and we‘re the lucky heirs.#
Wilder directs Kim Novak in Kiss Me, Stupid.
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