Oeuvre Total Part 6: Billy Wilder, Giant Killer
- cowboys -
In an election year you hear a lot of history. A recent statement that the White House was built by slaves was rebutted with the astonishing assertion that those slaves were fed and housed. This kind of dialogue marks the periodic ebbs in our national discourse.
Every single American election year, our people tell us that, historically, this is the wrong year to take a moral stand; that this time, a vote for anyone but our factory-fresh candidate (we already printed the buttons!) is a vote for antichrist. If we object to cattle-prod persuasion, we’re told that, fine, our candidate isn’t perfect, but probably won’t destroy the world, whereas the opponent will absolutely bring a thousand years of darkness. And every time, we agree with the comparison of those other people’s candidate with Hitler.
“Never in American history” is a great way to start telling lies about your opposite number. You know what hasn’t happened in American history? A national election that wasn’t framed as Jesus v Satan.
The thing is, it’s usually half true.
But the cynicism of the ruling class is hard to overestimate. The root of cynicism is doubt, and rulers doubt the hell out of the rest of us. We’re stupid, we’re lazy, we’re selfish above all. Given our heads, we will always choose comfort – physical comfort (I’ll create jobs!), emotional comfort (I’ll keep letting the cops kill black people!), moral comfort (A vote for anyone but me is a vote for that fascist!).
We know it. In politics, as in every religion but yours (of course), the cognoscenti mock true believers for having faith. Except on the floor of these stupid conventions, hardly anyone is a true believer anymore, and the truest believers of all leave conventions en masse. Politicians play on our cynicism by trying to convince us the other guy’s the real politician. It’s almost the worst thing you can call someone, and the ones who claim they’re not are the biggest ones of all.
- indians -
Whence this doubt in America, one of many promised lands founded on genocide (see also: Canaan)? How can a nation be cynical, whose declaration of independence was written by a guy who raped his slaves? The answer’s not as simple as sarcasm. Jefferson didn’t have any doubts about his commitment to freedom. Our moral philosophy had yet to invent the mirror.
Some date 1945 as America’s loss of innocence, because we devised the worst weapon and used it against civilians to end the worst war. It was hard to feel entirely good about beating the Japanese that way, even if they were weird-looking and hit us first. Also because on the other front, our allies were the slaves of a totalitarian dictatorship that used genocide as a policy arm; they helped us to defeat another totalitarian dictatorship that used genocide as a policy arm.
No, we didn’t get the Wounded Knee joke there, but what we couldn’t admit about ourselves, we recoiled from in the enemy.
That Hitler, boy. Wow. I mean, Jews are, um, sure, but millions of ‘em…that’s overkill. At least.
Billy Wilder knew something about that kind of history. He came to Hollywood in the thirties from Austria via Berlin to make screwball comedies. That was a route quite a few Jews took when fleeing Nazis; what kills your mother doesn’t always make you Billy Wilder, but it’s a start. In 1945, for the War Department, he cut British footage down to a 20-minute shock-doc called Death Mills. It is not a comedy.
Wilder had already dealt with Nazis, less directly, in Five Graves to Cairo, and he would do it again soon. But it is interesting that in 1945, his tour of Germany so horrified him – a woman told him she appreciated the Allies turning on the gas; now she could more easily kill herself – that he abandoned work on a military picture and insisted on making a Bing Crosby musical in Technicolor.
The Emperor Waltz was not the last bad Wilder picture, but it was his last attempt at an ingenuous one for quite a while. In it, Wilder tried to drown out the Holocaust with a fairy-tale Austria that didn’t exist even in his childhood memories. He could not put his heart into reactionary work. Co-writer Charles Brackett’s tendency toward pathos went unchecked in Wilder’s desire for fluff and oblivion, and Wilder hated the result. That he couldn’t go home again was as true for him as for any European Jew.
Chastened, Wilder shot that abandoned military comedy, A Foreign Affair. It is a postwar love triangle among two Americans and a German, resolved when the German is sentenced to a labor camp. Wilder was Wilder again.
- cops -
From the Jungian perspective, America might have lost innocence the year before Death Mills. As a direct result of Wilder’s ‘44 crime noir Double Indemnity, not just bad guys but heels fed audiences’ new taste for cynicism. If you could doubt an institution as reassuring as Insurance…well! Our smile closed to a grin as the economy muscled out of Depression and American business, assisted by a worldwide military presence, gained ascendency over the planet. By the fifties, a middle-class disillusion added a leer to our face. Dropout Beats were hip to it, but the Beats never really made it in Southern California.
In fifties Hollywood, escapist VistaVision war stories (do read Michael Holland’s excellent article on road shows) couldn’t compete with Joe McCarthy and HUAC on television. Wilder was not making road shows. He was crucifying them along Sunset Boulevard, in a movie narrated by a filmmaker who’s been shot in the back. Wilder was making lots of other vicious pats on America’s back, too; you would never recognize the Eisenhower era from Wilder movies. Rock Hudson is in none of them.
Ace in the Hole corrupts journalists into destroying the good faith of the girl next door. Sabrina is a story about big business dictating personal lives; it starts with a suicide attempt. The Seven-Year Itch gets most of its laughs from a man abandoning his family to chase a skirt. Love in the Afternoon details a young woman frustrated in her attempt at sexual liberation – but at least she makes the attempt! Some Like It Hot is a throwback, probably the best screwball comedy made between 1940 and Peter Bogdanovich, but the morals of the thirties were a major transgression (and a big hit) during the black-and-white Cold War.
Wilder’s was not the world of George Stevens or William Wyler or Howard Hawks, who did not survive the war with more than a couple of good ones left apiece and who spent most of the fifties moralizing out of nostalgia. Wilder was still the hungry critic, still vital, still in an ideal position to speak to a culture that badly wanted his influence.
Wilder helped make sacred-cow tipping mainstream. He was a primary cinematic advocate of the wry grin, along with John Huston and Elia Kazan and Nicholas Ray and Richard Brooks, a pantheon whose writing talent could elevate them over the competent Anthony Manns and Otto Premingers. Wilder’s fifties efforts are more consistently successful than any but Kazan’s.
And unlike Kazan’s stumbles in that decade (Panic in the Streets is a cautionary primer of noir cliche), Wilder’s failings are never due to incompetence. Ace in the Hole is one-note compared to Brooks’s Elmer Gantry or Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, but those came years later, and from New Mexico Ace tells a much better political story than most movies set in Washington. The only thing really wrong with Sabrina or Stalag 17 is that they are too stately to be funny or gripping, and if all you want is a whodunit, Witness for the Prosecution is one. Spirit of St Louis, a lackluster rah-rah that wholly ignores its hero’s Nazi sympathies, is like Emperor Waltz in that it fails to conjure a mythological past. That was never Wilder’s forte.
- robbers -
Of all the golden age studio auteurs, we have the hairy eye and sharp technique of Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock to thank for the reinvention of American cinema in the seventies. By the late sixties, as the masters’ excellence waned, their influence on young filmmakers was stronger than ever. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde is inconceivable before Wilder. And if 1960’s The Apartment was Wilder’s final perfect personal expression of an enraged social consciousness, it is also one of the most indelible marks in American art.
Wilder’s brutalized sensibilities grew more haphazard with the nation’s, but his sixties movies veer toward flightiness, their comedy alternately weepy and sneery at sweet prostitutes and jaded salesmen. These movies are mostly unable to assimilate the dynamic forces evolving the culture. By 1970 he was having movies taken away from him.
It’s too bad about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a big Wilder road show truncated by a studio that was probably right not to trust him anymore. In a nice foil to their earlier gender-bending, Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (with the extraordinary contribution of actor Robert Stephens) turn the great detective into a flamboyant epigrammatic fop. Wilder’s Holmes sweatily extricates himself from stud service to a ballerina on the grounds that he is in love with Dr Watson, and nothing in the movie (including the cut scenes) suggests that he is only pretending to be gay. His relationship with the picture’s women is extraordinarily platonic, not for their lack of trying. But despite his resemblance to an Oscar Wilde sensualist, he may very well be asexual; the only penetration we’re sure he enjoys comes from a syringe.
And to tweak convention even harder, Wilder pulls his last real surprise as a filmmaker: Private Life presents this queer-duck Holmes as uncynically as Conan Doyle ever did. Wilder’s detective is a moral, ethical, hard-working professional who takes refuge from a personal demon (depression, caused perhaps by a fragile detente with his own sexuality) by periodically locking himself in with a bunch of cocaine. On paper, in its sophisticated morality, it is as much a seventies movie as anything by Robert Altman or Bob Rafelson or Martin Scorsese. In practice, it suffers from as bad a case of roadshow distemper as the Cleopatras of the past decade – sedate, plodding, ever eager to chase a tangent far from an intangible storyline.
After Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon, America was having none of that. Even in slow character studies like Francis Coppola’s The Conversation where not much happens, there is an enormous amount of micro-event. Taking ten seconds to walk across a room, as happens many times in Private Life, had to be justified with more nuance and development than Wilder seemed capable of getting it up for.
- boy -
But the paranoid political movies of the seventies owe almost every thematic element to Wilder, at least as much as they owe their formal gestures to Hitchcock. When Hitchcock throws us on the bed with devils, he always lets us keep one foot on the floor of deliverance: The rule of law, usually, or a good man, or a good woman.
Surely, Alan Pakula thrillers use Hitchcock’s devices to tell stories as optimistic as All the President’s Men, in which a scruffy odd couple brings down a corrupt administration, and as preposterous as The Parallax View, in which a gonzo journalist enrolls in a school for political assassins. But both movies have the same Wilderian premise, the prime sensibility of any seventies political movie, whether by Pakula or Coppola or Michael Ritchie or John Schlesinger or Sidney Pollack: You can’t trust your institutions, especially government. That’s Billy Wilder talking.
I watched Parallax and Schlesinger’s Marathon Man back to back the other day. Michael Small scores both with almost the same creepy minimalist theme. Investigating a contractor who tries to murder both presidential candidates, Warren Beatty is photographed by Gordon Willis, the Prince of Darkness who never saw a shadow he didn’t darken. Running from American agents who want to deliver him to their friend the Nazi war criminal, Dustin Hoffman is lit by Conrad Hall, who hated darkness so much that he blows out almost every window frame in the film. And yet they’re both beautifully murky-looking, very bleak pictures that doubt, if not the inherent goodness of man, at least his ability to function in a venal society.
Because they are essentially hopeless, these are not properly called thrillers but horror movies. Compare them with Hitchcock alienations like The 39 Steps or Saboteur or Foreign Correspondent or North by Northwest, in which a wholesome society accidentally develops some evil and, having identified it, fights and kills it. There is no such order and no such efficacy to the politics of seventies movies. And if you go back to Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole, there’s no escape there but death.
By 1976, when Robert Redford saves the republic with the power of the press in President’s Men, he has already proved (in Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor the previous year) that the capacity of the press to save anything is very much in doubt. Despite the real-life Washington Post series that instigated Nixon’s downfall, the message of a popular entertainment like All the President’s Men is not “Thank God we’re safe” but “Jesus Christ, they’re trying to kill us.” And so it should be, when it’s closer to the truth.
Thanks for the seventies, Billy Wilder.
- girl -
Today, business interests control politics as openly as they do any other industry, and so there aren’t many Ace in the Holes or Face in the Crowds or Elmer Gantries anymore. George Clooney is the most recent big-budget American to make much political art that wasn’t exclusively propaganda, directing Good Night and Good Luck and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and producing Steven Gaghan’s Syriana. Confessions especially is terrific, but the other two too are suspicious, clear-headed, righteous. These movies made little popular impression and no money. They have not been emulated.
Movies of social importance tend to be allegories anymore, and when a movie with actual politicians in it is made by a major studio, it’s usually set in another era. New-Millennial Hollywood is, for instance, finally ready to deal with black history. But at its height, in movies as honest as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, the modern political film likes to tuck politics safely in the past.
This is one of the reasons political conventions are so popular on television. We just don’t see a lot of that wide-eyed pageant anymore, that spirit of dedication to cause. It’s too silly to make movies about. We’re over that. Billy Wilder helped us get over that, for better and worse.
We demand capes and superpowers in our entertainments now, at least partly because even when he showed us a good time, Wilder trained us to look at much of real life as scary, discouraging, ugly. We learned from Billy Wilder movies that getting through the day was hard work indeed; it’s a useful thing to hear. But a culture needs leisure and peace of mind to take encouragement from hard words.
As we settle in to another decade of declining economic power, Americans are so tired that we ask first to be reassured in our entertainments, especially politics. Now, as during the Depression, movies and elections about rich people and gods are very comforting. In a way, Wilder helped turn us toward propaganda by making art a little too well. His wake-up call was so loud, we stuffed our ears with cotton candy.
Part 7 of 10 coming soon.
Oeuvres Total to date:
Part 1 by Michael Holland
Part 2 by Jason Rohrer
Part 3 by Michael Holland
Part 4 by Jason Rohrer
Part 5 by Michael Holland
Stage and Cinema reviews
Bitter Lemons articles
American Theatre assignments
Jason and Todd Talk through Lousy Pictures podcasts