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November 24, 2012


Favorites Corner: Films of Billy Wilder


An occasional feature where the writers compare their five favorite films by some of the greats of world cinema. A change in format for this edition because there was, predictably, considerable overlap: instead of three ranked top fives a combined chronological top eight.

Billy Wilder (1906-2002)


Double Indemnity (1944)
Geoff’s #1, Helen’s #1, Nir’s #5

(GEOFF) Barbara Stanwyck at her very best, playing a woman who is, in all fairness, a bit of a bad seed. The clever plan hatched by Stanwyck and genial sap Fred MacMurray to murder her husband naturally falls to pieces once Edward G. Robinson’s intuition enters the picture, but after so many viewings, it’s less the construct of the story/scheme that stays with me than the realization that each of these characters’ actions are based on a false premise. They’re all way too smart for their own good, and they believe they know, really know, what makes the other person tick. The darkness of the film then is not the whispers of light floating through the Venetian blinds, but MacMurray and Stanwyck destroying everything in their wake based on their own arrogance and presumptive notions. It’s only at the very end, when it’s far too late to save anyone, the characters and audience alike realize how wrong they were.

The Lost Weekend (1945)
Nir’s #2

(NIR) Ray Milland plays an alcoholic who strategically gives up a happy weekend with his fiancée in order to stay cooped up in a small apartment and drink. He lives to drink and it’s not only interfered with his job but with his private life. We follow Milland’s character throughout four days and watch as he drinks, runs out of alcohol, bar hops, and eventually ends up in a detox clinic where he hallucinates something terrible. Milland won the Academy award that year for his fearless and honest portrayal of a desperate, broken man; Wilder won for Best Director; and the film also won Best Picture and Best Screenplay. It deserved every award and I’ve watched it several times through the years because it’s utterly mesmerizing. In terms of greatness, Milland and the film are on par with Nicolas Cage and Leaving Las Vegas (1995).

Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Geoff’s #2, Helen’s #4

(GEOFF) It’s a movie that opens with narration by a dead man floating in a pool, and it only gets better from there. I’ve seen it several times on the big screen, and maybe it’s because I romanticize my likely future as a hard-drinking wreck of a former screenwriter, hounded by debt collectors and only able to get work in Ohio, but the film’s sharply painted portrait of failure and delusion within aging creative types in Hollywood strikes a deep chord within me.

Ace in the Hole (1951)
Nir’s #1, Geoff’s #4

(NIR) Who better to play a snake-like, self-destructive, egomaniac than Kirk Douglas? Well, Billy Wilder made the right choice in casting him in this brilliant, scathing portrait of a newspaper man and the lengths in which he goes to in order to manipulate the media and make tons of money. He loves the attention that he receives more than the attention that the media sends out towards the situation (in which a man in trapped, for weeks, under rocks inside a cave) and his ego only grows stupendously. Douglas was the perfect actor for this film and watching him become a horrible person is riveting. This is one of Wilder’s most underrated films and also one of his most accessible. It’s also proven to be timeless; the media hasn’t changed at all the last 60+ years.

Stalag 17 (1953)
Helen’s #3, Nir’s #4, Geoff’s #5

(HELEN) Voiceover narration was one of Wilder’s favorite narrative devices so it’s a doubly good thing he was so incredibly good at it. In scope and significance, this movie’s falls somewhere between the legendary dead men talking of Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity and the deadpan comic prologue of The Apartment. One distinguishing difference between this and those being who’s doing the narrating, the first person in Stalag 17 the sidekick not the hero (I use the term advisedly in the context of the Billy Wilder canon). A privileged observer but still an outsider looking in- and unable to see very far. Amusing and informative, Cookie’s narration only scratches the surface of an enigmatic cynic whose interior life is kept private to the end.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Helen’s #5

(HELEN) It really shouldn’t work as a movie. The story’s stage origins are obvious and close-ups are antithetical to the should-be sensational climactic plot twist. Yet work it does. The dialogue is witty, the pacing is snappy, the widescreen compositions are elegant, and it’s an acting tour de force by Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Elsa Lanchester.

Some Like It Hot (1959)
Helen’s #2, Geoff’s #3

(GEOFF) My favorite Jack Lemmon performance is probably Glengarry Glen Ross, and it’s the sense of manic desperation his Shelly Levene gives off, like wavy stink lines above Pig-Pen in an old Peanuts cartoon, that makes the character so terribly sad. It’s a similar sort of desperation in Some Like it Hot, but played with measured manic silliness instead, and the results hold together the screwball nonsense of two men dressed as women on the run from the mob and desperately in love with Marilyn Monroe. And who can blame them? Mobsters are scary.

The Apartment (1960)
Nir’s #3

(NIR) Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon have never been more natural and their performances more affecting than in this, one of Wilder’s best films. It’s heartwarming, often hilarious, brilliantly shot and lit, and sometimes depicts dark undertones of depression and suicidal contemplation. C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) periodically lends his apartment to several company managers until he receives a promotion. His new boss, J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), also begins to bring his love affairs there. The girl that Baxter is interested in, Fran Kubelik (Maclaine), shows up one night with Sheldrake and things grow complicated. Lemmon and Maclaine’s relationship is a recognizable and realistic one, their exchanges of dialogue are honest, and the film is wonderful through and through. This is the definition of a classic in every way, shape and form.

Wilder’s directed superb comedies, dramas, war films, and hard hitting exposes. He was very versatile, had a terrific eye for compositions and great knowledge over camera movements, and told terrific stories wonderfully. He was, simply put, one of the best writer/directors of the 20th century.


Share your favorites in the comments.

Previous: Films of David Mamet
Next: Films of the Coens (coming soon)

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nov 25 2012

    I’d also add that Wilder is one of the most successful filmmakers of all time. His films had won tons of Oscars, almost every single one of them.

  2. Miriam
    Nov 28 2012

    Double Indemnity is a stunning film, possibly a perfect one. I could praise every element but what stays with me now is the poignancy of the final scene and the real sorrow of Keyes (Robinson), whose transparent integrity is the foil for the machinations of the schemers.

    I always laugh more than I expect to when I watch Some Like It Hot. Years ago I had a lucky screening at the BFI in London when they were starting a series of member favorites. This was voted the number one comedy. It was a marvelous experience to see it on a really big screen with a large and appreciative audience.

    William Holden is a favorite of mine, even so Sunset Boulevard is too painful in its brilliance to watch very often. Stalag 17 really showcases Wilder’s writing skills.

    One of my earliest movie memories is of peering over the back seat at a drive-in. The family had gone to see The Apartment and I stayed awake long enough to hear my Dad’s outraged comments (when I saw it years later I realized why he was upset).

    Thanks, I think, for the list. One of the reasons I’m so behind with my DVD stack is that I get distracted to watch old favorites. You have reminded me that I’ve never seen Witness or Ace in the Hole, so I can watch a favorite director and still see a new movie.

  3. Nov 29 2012

    @Miriam, you are going to love Ace in the Hole. Kirk Douglas’ ferocity is unmatched. :O)

  4. Dec 2 2012

    Nir, you are dead on about the ferocity Kirk Douglas brings to his character in Ace in the Hole. I saw it on the big screen a couple years ago, and was really blown away by his performance.

  5. Dec 3 2012

    I’m jealous that Helen got to write the bit about Stalag 17, I really love that movie, if for no other reason than it helped bring us Chicken Run.

  6. Dec 3 2012

    Kirk Douglas is still alive by the way. At age 96 he is reportedly the world’s oldest living blogger.

  7. Dec 5 2012

    @Miriam: I have to admit I’ve never seen ACE IN THE HOLE either. Who knows, maybe it will bump WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION when I get to it, but I’m happy to have had a slot free for that one.

    @Geoff: Editor’s prerogative. :D

  8. Dec 6 2012

    @Richard, lol

    @Geoff, I could have sworn that Chicken Run was an all chicken version of The Great Escape. 0_<

  9. Dec 6 2012

    Ah, but you know they live in (chicken) hut 17. ^_^

  10. Dec 6 2012

    …yeah. There’s that. Drat! Now I want to rewatch Chicken Run!