Oeuvre Total Part 2: Billy Wilder, Miserablist

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I’ve never trusted Billy Wilder. I’m an old busybody camped at her upstairs window, giving side-eye to the salesman working the neighborhood. His suit is too neat, his hair too shiny; he’s too sure of himself, too glib, to be up to any good. He’s the kind of smooth talker I’m afraid will sell me a bill of goods.

Writer/producer Michael Holland’s love of the filmmaker recently caught my eye. Wilder’s birthday falls in June, and Michael dusted off a post from his Holland Imaginarium blog, an appreciation of 1957’s Witness for the Prosecution. In it, Michael says all the good that, I think, can be said of the picture.

For my part I find the script clunky, an Agatha Christie souffle that very nearly collapses under noise added by Wilder and Larry Marcus and Harry Kurnitz. Like the best of Agatha Christie, it is predictably unpredictable: You may not know what’s going to happen but you know that it will, and more or less in what manner it will. The joy is not in discovery, nor in being proved right, but in being proved wrong. Overall it is not badly directed; it is a very watchable movie, even compelling.

Witness is also trite and solipsistic in the way of most whodunits. It congratulates itself for fooling the viewer, which I call an insult. The story teaches nothing about the human condition that one can’t learn from an ad for detergent. Even as mindless entertainment it is second-rate: As in many Wilder-directed comedies, sixty years on its timing is off, holding for laughs that do not come now if they ever did. And when the direction isn’t at fault, the jokes are frequently unfunny, wasting Elsa Lanchester on cheap sight gags. Worst of all, and this is unusual for Wilder, it features one of the worst performances ever from a great actor. Charles Laughton, whose abiding charm is in deeply rooted performances almost but not quite over the top, pops his eyes so audibly in this movie that I have to close my own.

And so, reading Michael’s appreciation, I was moved to engage him in argument. In my opinion, Wilder’s impact and relevance and sheen of quality have faded before his name. Michael agreed to counter my point here over the next few weeks, while we explore what we mean; and he seized on a silly redundancy I’d written in an email and made it the title of this exchange. (Oeuvre Total, accent on the third syllable. Picture a 19 year old undergrad trying out his first pack of Gauloises and squinting a lot when he talks about Godot’s freedom from convention.)

I cleverly stuck Michael with the thankless task of opening the debate, but when I read his lovely general defense of Wilder, I knew I had my own work cut out for me.

For what can be argued against Wilder, a comedian who could write movies as funny as Midnight and Ball of Fire while his mother was being murdered by Nazis? A realist director who narrowed American cinema’s wide eyes with dark postwar fare like Double Indemnity? A humanist who expanded the brief of the studio era, negotiating various production codes – as well as management’s box-office fears – to indict an infantilizing media system (Ace in the Hole), to wink at guiltless sex (The Seven Year Itch, Love in the Afternoon), to present addiction without moral judgment (The Lost Weekend)? A legend among whose films are a few that will be watched and taught as long as we honor the seventh art, mythological titles like Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot?

Has any man watched The Apartment without investigating his own morality, without acknowledging the wolfish nightmares of the working woman, without making at least a momentary pledge to be a hero instead of a heel? Surely, this is greatness? Like David Thomson, I remain skeptical.

While a lot depends on his collaborators and period, I think Wilder does have greatness in him. Spottily, less often than his slickness, it is available.

But as a director Wilder is never better than his scripts, which are not uniformly excellent; he never grew out of that sense of textual obligation typical of directors who were primarily writers for a long time first. He had a famous dislike of on-set improvisation, of directing in any way that might draw attention from the words. But as a writer he was certainly open to visitations of genius (usually, I think, from his co-writers), and as writing influences direction, Wilder could get inspired. There’s no better word to describe Some Like It Hot.

But he doesn’t often inspire me. More often he gives me the creeps, not least because what I don’t like about him, his nihilism, is hard to see coming. He is almost always a persuasive technician. In this, he had the advantages of world-class training: In Berlin, he learned with colleagues like Emeric Pressburger; in Paris, he sweated through many hats while directing his first movie, admittedly not knowing what he was doing. In America he got the best working education available, from giants like Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks and, maybe most importantly, his frequent producer and screenwriting collaborator Charles Brackett.

Brackett’s influence on most of Wilder’s best work can best be seen by comparing that work to the stuff Wilder made outside their decade-and-a-half partnership. Saying this, I must own that the two highest points of Wilder’s directing career (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) were written not with Brackett but I.A.L. Diamond; but I find the Wilder-Diamond scripts less consistently good than the Brackett collaborations. The one-offs Wilder wrote with more easily steamrolled for-hire writers reveal Brackett and Diamond as the real humanists, warming a cold, brutal, even petty man and artist.

Brackett’s diaries list among Wilder’s personal traits that he was a rude dinner guest, callous in his treatment of friends and lovers, a chronic malcontent who craved persecution “as an animal craves salt.” Brackett was sometimes dismayed by Wilder’s amoral vitality, as when he observed that “Billy hasn’t the faintest idea what it is to love anybody.” These are things close partners will say about each other on bad days, and Brackett’s diary also records complimentary observations.

I do not mention Wilder’s personality in order to fall in line with the mindset which denies that high art can come from low people, and (maybe more depressing) denies itself the right to enjoy art by artists with despicable politics or private lives. By all accounts John Wayne Gacy was a pretty good party clown. And it must be said that if, instead of Richard Attenborough, Mohandas Gandhi were credited with directing Gandhi, it would be no less terrible a movie. Art is not its creator.

But what distressed Brackett in person, I see abundantly in Wilder’s art. There is a meanness of spirit under the surface of most of his movies that often splashes onto the lens. Andrew Sarris said that Wilder was too cynical even to believe his own cynicism, and here is the core of why Wilder found such success ushering the most ingenuous of forms into the age of lost innocence. He saw clearly through a jaundiced eye. Fighting fascism abroad and red-baiting at home, audiences recognized themselves in Wilder.

But not their best selves. My main problems with Wilder are of taste and moral philosophy. I prefer William Wyler’s postwar vision to Wilder’s; I would put The Best Years of Our Lives up against The Lost Weekend on every level of good taste and permanent usefulness. And I agree almost wholly with James Patterson’s assessment that most of what Wilder did well was done better by someone else – usually Elia Kazan.  

Watch Bitter Lemons for Michael Holland’s rebuttal. Michael’s Billy Wilder’s Oeuvre Total, Part 1 can be read here.

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