Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Based on a Story by: Tom Tryon
Starring: William Holden, Marthe Keller, Hildegard Knef, José Ferrer, Henry Fonda, Michael York
Country: France, West Germany
Running Time: 114 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
For the first 30 years of his extraordinary career, Billy Wilder consistently pushed at the edges of what was allowable in Hollywood movies. For all their lightness and humour, his films were resolutely adult and often structurally audacious. So if any of the great studio filmmakers should have been able to make the transition into the permissive new world of 1960s and 1970s cinema, Wilder was the most qualified candidate. Yet somehow, it didn’t work out. Having made virtually a film a year from 1942 to 1966 – the year the production code collapsed – Wilder’s productivity plummeted. It was another four years until The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and then only another three films followed before his last, Buddy Buddy in 1981.
As Wilder would insist in interviews up to his death in 2002, this decline wasn’t his choice; studios were no longer interested in what he had to offer, making each new production increasingly difficult. None of his later works found the audiences or acclaim of his earlier years. Of his output since The Apartment in 1960, only Irma La Douce and the studio-butchered Sherlock Holmes get much critical attention. But if any of Wilder’s post-1960 films are crying out for rediscovery, Fedora is surely the best candidate. That is not to say it is any sort of masterpiece, but it is thoughtful and unusual, with flashes of wit and insight. It is the product of a director aware that the industry has cast him aside and taking the opportunity to look back.
From the opening scenes of Fedora, it is clear Wilder is using his own Sunset Boulevard as inspiration. Like that film, Fedora is about the film industry and stars William Holden as a bottom-feeder becoming entangled with a fading, former great star. It begins with a death and then proceeds into Holden-narrated flashback. But Fedora is far from a remake. In this version, Holden is Barry Detweiler, a down-on-his-luck producer, arriving in Greece to track down Fedora, an enigmatic star who, very much like her obvious inspiration, Greta Garbo, entranced the world and then retired into seclusion. Detweiler has some kind of personal connection to the star that he feels sure will enable him to tempt her out of retirement and into his adaptation of Anna Karenina. Then it gets weird. Fedora now lives on a private island, with a small group of associates whom Detweiler soon begins to suspect are holding the star against her will. There’s a plastic surgeon involved and a mysterious countess. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling a big (if hardly surprising) twist at the film’s centre, which grinds the narrative to a halt and then sets off a whole new round of grotesque revelations.
There’s a lot to enjoy. The film is at its best when dealing with the film industry. There are some really good scenes set behind the scenes of Hollywood productions where Wilder reveals the fakery and egos that go into creating movies. Aspects of the story work as an effective attack on the industry’s obsession with youth. Mario Adorf contributes an amusing supporting turn as the cheerful manager of Detweiler’s hotel, and Holden is always watchable. Yet all of this feels incidental compared to the story of Fedora herself, which is at once tragic, farcical and tedious. The way in which her life is explored and revealed takes all momentum out of the film and the details are so odd and unlikely that they stop the story from working as satire. It all becomes so static and artificial that – with its sun-drenched locations and bitter view of popular filmmaking – the film it most resembles is not Sunset Boulevard, but Godard’s Le Mepris. Talking to Cameron Crowe in the late 1990s, Wilder’s conclusion was simple. In his view, Fedora “just did not work.” He’s right, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching.
This Master’s of Cinema release of Fedora looks and sounds very impressive. The print is clean with excellent detail and few obvious defects beyond a couple of washed-out exterior scenes. There’s a short restoration demonstration on the disk that shows that this is the best the film has looked in many years. The soundtrack is clear and does a good job of showcasing Miklos Rozsa’s excellent score (which he partially recycled for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid four years later). Beyond the demonstration, the only other extra is a 13 minute collection of deleted scenes. These are extremely grainy and appear to have been very late trims to reduce the running time (the score and voiceover are present). Most are brief, and have little impact, but there are a few minutes from a flashback sequence to Fedora’s heyday that are well-worth watching. Stephen Collins is amusing as the young Detweiler, run ragged as an assistant on a movie set.
For a film with such an interesting and troubled production history (there were financing and casting problems galore), it would have been nice to get a bit more context on the disk itself, although the retail release does include an essay booklet not made available for review.
Review by Jim Whalley