ALL ENTRIES CONTAIN SPOILERS

26. BUDDY BUDDY

When you take on the task of watching the entire filmography of a director as acclaimed as Billy Wilder, you’ll probably find that some films live up to their reputation (The Apartment and Double Indemnity, for instance, are as exquisite as you’ve likely heard), some exceed their reputation (A Foreign Affair and Five Graves to Cairo demand immediate reassessment) and some fall a little short of their reputation (at the risk of being run out of town on a rail, Some Like It Hot!). But then there’s that dreaded fourth category: films that live down to their reputation! Often the handful of widely derided works by a respected auteur hide some extremely interesting nuggets and it’s fascinating to probe the neglected corners of a catalogue. But in the case of Buddy Buddy, Wilder’s final film, it’s as excruciating as the majority of reviewers have indicated. 

Reading about the creation of Buddy Buddy, there’s an immediate whiff of desperation about the whole affair. By the 80s, Wilder was in the strange position of being a universally acclaimed director who couldn’t get a film made. Considered old fashioned in the face of new innovations, Wilder had barely scraped together the resources for his penultimate film, Fedora, only to see it mocked and dismissed on release. Although he had produced his own films for the last thirty years, Wilder was anxious to continue working and accepted the offer of another producer to remake the European film L’emmerdeur. Although the film’s blackly farcical subject matter seemed suited to Wilder’s edgy reputation, the result feels like a rush job, primarily because it was. Wilder and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond completed the script in three months, a much shorter time than they would usually spend crafting a screenplay. The casting of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon as a laconic hitman and a neurotic suicidal loser respectively was seemingly based more on the three men’s desire to continue an established working relationship than whether they were suited to their roles. Wilder would later admit that Matthau was a bad choice for the assassin and that in order to fully capitalise on the plot’s comedic potential he should’ve cast a tough guy straight man like Clint Eastwood instead. Wilder is correct on this count but there is far more wrong with Buddy Buddy than one piece of miscasting.

The premise of Buddy Buddy is actually a very funny one. A hitman employed by the mob to eliminate witnesses sets up in a hotel and waits to pick off his target from the window. But a chronically depressed and excessively performative man in an adjacent room repeatedly makes flamboyant suicide attempts that keep drawing too much attention to the hitman’s hideout. There’s a very funny genre parody to be made out of this concept and perhaps it was made with L’emmerdeur, which I’ve never seen. Wilder, however, scuppers the comedy by casting Lemmon and Matthau and making it feel more like an extreme rewrite of The Odd Couple. While Matthau lacks genuine menace as the killer, Lemmon is unbearable as the persistent thorn in his side. To be fair, the part is deliberately written to be irritating but Lemmon throws himself into realising that with such scenery-chewing abandon that there are no spaces to laugh even if you were inclined to. Then there is Klaus Kinski, an even more egregious piece of miscasting. Kinski was so embarrassed by his performance as the guru-like director of a Sexual Fulfilment clinic that he would later deny even being in the film. Again, the shortcomings of the performance are rooted in the writing, with Wilder and Diamond relishing the freedom to talk dirty to the extent that they forget to write any actual jokes. Although the elimination of the Hays Code was a welcome development for cinema in general, Wilder was more entertaining when he was sneaking subversions past that persistent obstacle. By contrast, Buddy Buddy ends with an eleventh hour piece of gratuitous nudity which is blatantly there for titillation alone. It’s part of a climactic scene that is one of the worst things Wilder ever put on a screen and, while it is a little sad to see such as illustrious career peter out in this way, it also leaves the viewer in little doubt that Wilder retired at the right time… well, maybe one film too late.

25. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON

I was excited to finally watch Love in the Afternoon since it was one of the few Billy Wilder films I’d never seen. The pessimist in me might’ve suspected there was a reason that the film is so rarely screened or discussed but there are so many excellent obscure Wilder films that I went in with high expectations. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for me to realise that they would not be met. Love in the Afternoon is an important film in the Wider canon in that it was his first collaboration with screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond, with whom he would write the majority of the rest of his films as director. Though I’ve always been more of a fan of the earlier Wilder/Charles Brackett writing team, Diamond undeniably wrote some absolute classics with the director. Love in the Afternoon is emphatically not one of them though and its commercial failure and tepid critical reception was a bumpy start to the Wilder/Diamond story.

One factor that is repeatedly blamed for Love in the Afternoon’s failure is the age gap between Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper. In Wilder’s previous Sabrina, Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart had proved you could get away with an age gap if the writing and performances were good enough. Cooper, however, is noticeably uncomfortable in his role of a womanising playboy and Wilder’s direction seems preoccupied with trying to cover up this fact. The chemistry between Cooper and Hepburn is non-existent and yet believing in it is important for the Rom-Com appeal for which Love in the Afternoon shoots. A good deal of the alarmingly excessive two hour and ten minute runtime is spent trying to push the romance but the flame just never ignites. That wouldn’t be too much of a problem if the dialogue was the least bit amusing but this is one of the blandest screenplays with which Wilder was ever involved. Maurice Chevalier’s cynical private detective is the most interesting character but he is quickly sidelined after what seems like a promising set up. John McGiver is also amusing as the cuckolded husband who decides to kill Cooper but that plot peters out quickly, leaving us stuck with the bewildered Coop and the struggling Hepburn.

By about the 90 minute mark of Love in the Afternoon I honestly wondered how this thing was still going and how it could possibly limp on for another 40 minutes. Another promising farcical concept, of Cooper unwittingly hiring Chevalier to investigate his own daughter, also ends very quickly and throws the spotlight once more on the nothing romance. A final voiceover by Chevalier in which he informs the audience that the couple got married and moved to New York was apparently added against Wilder’s will to appease those who would object to the relationship as immortal. It’s hard to imagine anyone who would make that complaint enjoying Love in the Afternoon. Then again, quite honestly, it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying this painfully dreary nonstarter of a film. 

24. KISS ME, STUPID

The Hays Code was undoubtedly a restrictive and negative influence on filmmaking and its eventual inevitable crumbling in favour of the MPAA rating system opened up new horizons for cinema. In the case of certain directors however, the shift to a more liberal outlook in the industry resulted in a bumpy transition. Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment was a key film in facilitating the easing of censorship across the subsequent decade and Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond created a beautifully nuanced screenplay that addressed near-the-knuckle subject matter with a classy restraint that didn’t have to resort to strained innuendo. But the removal of the barriers that Wilder’s films had been battling against for so long was not always a good thing in terms of the quality of his work. By the time of Kiss Me, Stupid, Wilder’s determination to push the boundaries of what he could get away with had begun to look like juvenile censor-baiting, with little driving it other that his own lascivious glee. Kiss Me, Stupid was seen as irredeemably vulgar by most contemporary critics and was officially condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which is more often than not a sign that a film is on the right side of history. In the case of Kiss Me, Stupid, it’s not a film that is likely to cause widespread moral panic anymore. If anything, it looks like a tame but mean-spirited sitcom by modern standards. Its farcical merry-go-round of jealousy, deception and adultery has scarcely a sniff of the wit for which Wilder is known. The film’s depiction of infidelity as a rejuvenating experience was once the source of its controversial status. Now, its almost total lack of any decently executed comedy or convincing character beats is far more likely to be the source of an audience’s outrage.

With its coarse, abrasive tone, Kiss Me, Stupid is a feelbad Comedy with a tepidly unearned happy ending. It is perhaps most famous for featuring Dean Martin in a role that transparently lampoons his own hard-drinking, womanising image. While many have applauded Martin’s turn as “Dino”, his game approach to the material is more laudable than the performance itself which struggles to break through the seedy exterior of caricature. Dino is a relentlessly persistent Casanova who doesn’t let a little thing like a woman’s blatant reluctance and repeated protestations deter his grabby hands. In Kiss Me, Stupid’s defence, it is taking satirical aim at toxic masculinity in both its depiction of Dino and the songwriter Orville J. Spooner (a borderline unbearable Ray Walston), who is jealous of any man who comes within a mile of his wife. But the satire consistently misses its target, with Dino’s unwanted fondling of Kim Novak’s Polly the Pistol proving very hard to laugh at and the unironic summation that Orville is a good man thoroughly undermining any criticism of his character inherent in the scenes that went before that. In one particularly misjudged set-piece, Cliff Osmond’s goofy friend character recommends Orville temporarily remove his wife from the house by hitting her, something he feels confident Orville can explain away later. And the “good man” takes him up on the idea, spending a lengthy, laughless scene secretly wielding half a grapefruit with the intention of sticking it in his wife’s face a la The Public Enemy. The punchline, in which the attempt is derailed when a visiting Reverend improbably asks if he can have half a grapefruit to quell his appetite, is almost brazenly useless in its lazy writing.

It is often noted of Kiss Me, Stupid that Wilder shows greater sympathy to his female characters than his male ones. While this is true to an extent, given that the male characters are some of the most revolting creations he ever put on screen, that doesn’t mean the female characters are any better written. Treated as objects by men but often by the film also, the miscast Novak is used in a similar way to Marilyn Monroe in the marginally less repulsive The Seven Year Itch. Somehow falling for Orville in a terribly written farce that dominates the second half of the film, she is another of Wilder’s occasional concessions to male fantasy fulfilment. Felicia Farr as Orville’s wife is by far the best thing in Kiss Me, Stupid, although her plot is thankless and messy, culminating in her sleeping with the aggressively amorous Dino (through her own agency, thankfully. It is well established that she is a longterm fan of his) and then being convinced of her mentally abusive husband’s virtues by a brief throwaway dialogue with Novak which seems like a half-hearted last ditch attempt to give Kiss Me, Stupid any kind of thematic resonance. Needless to say, it falls flat.

While it isn’t exactly progressive in anything other than its permissive attitude to non-marital sex (a kick up the rear that the prudish industry desperately needed after years of depicting even married couples in separate beds), Kiss Me, Stupid isn’t that likely to offend anymore either. Its very 60s surface attitudes are undercut by a satirical attack that is also delivered with an outdated indelicacy but at least the intention is there. But with no laughs and no discernible point, Kiss Me, Stupid ultimately feels like nothing more than two wasted hours.

23. THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH

Throughout my rewatch of Billy Wilder’s filmography I’ve often taken issue with the notion that his films are cynical. Certainly, he often employs an acid wit and takes aim squarely at his satirical targets, but the intention generally seems to be for the greater good, to spotlight terrible behaviours in order to destroy them. The Seven Year Itch is one of the exceptions. This adaptation of George Axelrod’s hit play feels deeply cynical in its conclusion that all men are womanising dogs and the only way to avoid cheating on your wife while she is away is to get the hell out of the city and find her. Axelrod’s play is apparently harder edged, having its protagonist Richard Sherman actually cheat on his wife and drawing comedy from his subsequent guilt but the Hays Code put a stop to that happening in the screen version. Both Wilder and Axelrod, who collaborated on the adaptation, felt the ban on depicting adultery essentially neutered the production, forcing them to find a lighter compromise. Wilder would later say he regretted making the film and that it needed to be made in a later era when such rigid rules over what films could depict were not in force. The problem with this contention is that The Seven Year Itch is so thoroughly a film of its time that its very 1950s attitudes to male/female relationships simply wouldn’t have played even a decade later.

There’s nothing wrong in theory with a film that uses broad generalisations to satirise the bastardry of men, especially in an era when the heads of women were so regularly on the satirist’s bloody block in the same way. But The Seven Year Itch just isn’t funny or insightful enough to seem anything other than limp and dated. Being a 50s Sex Comedy, the film was bound to grow creaky and alarming when judged against the sexual mores of later eras and it’s fair to say that what we’d now very definitely define as sexual assault is treated very lightly and with a forgiving attitude to the men who the film suggests simply can’t help themselves. There are numerous other examples of films that have dated in this way and they are often simultaneously cringe-inducing and interesting in what they tell us about changing attitudes. The Seven Year Itch could easily have been one of these fascinating relics if only its subject had been approached with any degree of insight or even if the jokes or performances had just been better. Unfortunately, the comedy is desperately repetitive and overloaded in a way that further exacerbates its cheap, stagebound feel. Occasionally it stumbles on a funny moment, like Oskar Homolka’s cameo as a psychiatrist, but even then the humour is bordering on that “take my wife, please” level of crap club comedian fare. The happy ending that the film settles on feels forced, rushed and does very little to erase the tired cynicism of everything that went before it.

The Seven Year Itch is primarily remembered for its iconic image of Marilyn Monroe having her dress blown up by the breeze from the subway. While there is a scene where this happens, the still promotional image is far more famous than any shot in the film. The general consensus about The Seven Year Itch tends to be that it is stolen by Monroe, whose performance is certainly forceful. It is also a bit annoying and strangely one-note. I think it is terribly unfair when people act surprised by the fact that Monroe could act but this is not the performance to prove that point. To be fair, I think she is giving her director exactly what he is asking for here, which is not nearly enough. The fact that her character is simply referred to as “The Girl” is indicative of the simplified stereotype she is. Exaggeratedly breathy, insultingly oblivious and inclined to suddenly start doling out kisses in that way only a woman written by men can be, Monroe’s character gives her nothing to work with in fulfilling the potential she had already shown in her small role in The Asphalt Jungle. The fact that Monroe is an impossibly desirable figure is the whole point here but her overly unrealistic reactions fail to sell even that cheap joke. Her relationship with Richard, the first evening of which culminates in him pouncing on her with such aggression that he knocks her off a piano stool, is never convincing and their lengthy dialogues seem to follow a preset route with no clear motivation. Tom Ewell, reprising the character he originated on Broadway, is still acting as if he’s on a stage rather than a screen. Again, the material feels largely to blame rather than the actor. His endless monologuing grates after only a few minutes and his vacillation between lust, guilt, self-disgust and self-delusion moves through the motions with the smallest of motivations causing a complete about-face. It seems his neuroses is supposed to be charming but it’s hard to root for a guy who makes several aggressive advances to the woman he is trying to resist. The film would be a lot funnier if he never made an actual move but still suffered the same level of guilt as if he had. As it is, we’re invited to laugh at Richard’s concerns about his own behaviour as if they are ridiculous, despite the fact that he just kissed someone against their will until they fell backwards off a stool.

To enjoy The Seven Year Itch you have to go to it with a willingness to accept how much attitudes have changed since its original release. I was quite willing to do this but I expected some laughs in return. When they failed to transpire, it became harder to shrug off the dated content. Many people find The Seven Year Itch sexist but I think it attempts to satirise both male and female stereotypes, the main problem being that it seems to have little to say beyond merely presenting them and inviting us to laugh at the heightened reality. Wilder had just come off the back of Sabrina, one of his most elegantly directed films. By contrast, The Seven Year Itch has the naff, clunky air of a Jerry Lewis film. The fact that its legacy rests heavily on a still image says a lot. The moment the images start moving and talking, it’s clear that The Seven Year Itch isn’t the classic that much reproduced pin-up may have led you to expect.

22. THE EMPEROR WALTZ

The Emperor Waltz is the most featherlight film in the entire Billy Wilder canon but the story behind its creation is deeply tragic. In 1945, Wilder worked on the short film Death Mills, a documentary about Nazi atrocities and concentration camps. Having lost several members of his family to the Holocaust, Wilder was deeply affected by the material and he felt the need to make something lighthearted and whimsical as he recovered from the experience. This is how the unlikely notion of a Bing Crosby Musical directed by Billy Wilder came into being. As it turned out, the experience of making The Emperor Waltz was not a happy one and Wilder disliked the results. Though various accounts point the finger at Crosby, whose superstardom afforded him the ability to do things his way as opposed to following Wilder’s rigid instructions, Wilder himself later placed the blame for the film’s failure squarely at his own door. He claimed that his attempts to return to the comforts of his Austrian childhood, while shutting out images of the war-torn Vienna he had recently witnessed first hand, resulted in a toothless and artificial film that was not the intended Lubitsch-homage he had in mind. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that Wilder’s subsequent run of films (A Foreign Affair, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole) would include some his darkest reflections and blackest comedy. The Emperor Waltz, meanwhile, seems to be a lesson that just because you’re craving a cream puff doesn’t necessarily mean you can make one yourself.

Given the nature of The Emperor Waltz’s inception, it’s hardly surprising that its main attractions are visual. George Barnes’s ravishing Technicolor cinematography, the lavish production design and Edith Head and Gile Steele’s Oscar-nominated costumes all make the wrapper so attractive that you desperately wish the confectionary inside tasted better than it does. This being a Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett screenplay, it is not completely without social commentary and there is a running theme of class divisions that allows for some interesting snippets of dialogue and an appealingly liberal viewpoint. Unfortunately, the film leans heavily on the metaphor of a love affair between two dogs, a purebred poodle and a scrappy fox terrier, that runs parallel to that of Bing Crosby’s gramophone salesman and Joan Fontaine’s Countess. Dog-based comedy is something that generally bores and irritates me and it is bizarre to see Wilder attempting such a cutesy concept, although to be fair the mutts have more chemistry than Crosby and Fontaine.

For a Musical, The Emperor Waltz is a little light on songs. Victor Young’s compositions pop up now and again but they are all utterly forgettable, samey croons when the bare-bones script could really have used the shot in the arm that a livelier score could’ve given it. The songs are mostly just sung by Crosby without dance accompaniment, although a fleeting moment of choreography is so terrible that this might have been a merciful decision. The Emperor Waltz is the first dud in Wilder’s directorial filmography, although fortunately it subsequently led to one of his most inspired bursts of creativity. All in all, Wilder feels thoroughly out of his depth here, ironically due to dipping his toe in much shallower waters.

21. THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS

Given Billy Wilder’s Jewish heritage and tragic history, he seems a surprising choice to have written and directed a Biopic of vehement antisemite Charles Lindbergh. But then Wilder, who co-wrote the screenplay with Wendell Mayes from an adaptation by Charles Lederer, didn’t really make a Biopic of Lindbergh so much as a fictionalised record of one incredible achievement. In focusing so closely on Lindbergh’s famous solo flight from New York to Paris, Wilder seems uninterested in really getting under the skin of the man himself. He certainly avoids any discussion of Lindbergh’s Nazi-sympathies or obsession with the dominance of the white race, a subject of which Wilder was certainly not unaware and which he reportedly joked about when he met the real Lindbergh himself. When a plane they were both aboard hit turbulence, Wilder leaned over to Lindbergh and said “Mr. Lindbergh, would it not be embarrassing if we crashed and the headlines said, ‘Lone Eagle and Jewish Friend in Plane Crash’?” Wilder’s typically acerbic reaction to a problematic alliance may betray a discomfort that would ultimately contribute to Wilder calling The Spirit of St. Louis his worst film. But it seems to have bothered Wilder more that Lindbergh was such an impenetrable character. Certainly, the version up on screen gives very little away about himself beyond his passion for aviation. This was a passion shared by James Stewart, who lobbied hard for the role despite being twenty-two years older than the 25 year old who had taken that legendary plane ride. Despite undergoing a strict diet and exercise regime to look the part, Stewart looks exactly his age. One last ditch effort was made to remedy this by dying Stewart’s hair blonde, which ironically makes him look like an adult man attempting to infiltrate the Hitler Youth.

There’s certainly a more interesting film to be made about Lindbergh the man in which the famous flight would only be one chapter. But as a film based solely around that event, The Spirit of St. Louis just about overcomes its lack of character development and a miscast leading man to emerge as a passable entertainment. The most interesting part of the film is how Wilder overcomes the difficulties of realistically imparting complex aviation details and a central event that involves a man sitting alone in an enclosed space for 33 hours (obviously not depicted in real time). In the case of the technical dialogue, Wilder introduces characters to whom Lindbergh can plausibly explain the minutiae of his flying machine, most notably a woman who gives him her makeup mirror and gets a tour of the cockpit in return. The flight itself is interspersed with flashback memories and enhanced by a voiceover of Lindbergh’s internal monologue but the most ingenious wrinkle is the arrival of a fly to whom Lindbergh speaks out loud. It’s a potentially ludicrous solution that actually works really well, allowing Stewart to act in more than just facial expressions and voiceover. But all these little quirks cannot overcome the central problem of Lindbergh’s comparative blankness. The result is that what we’re essentially watching is one of Stewart’s small-town-hero types flying from New York to Paris.

It’s odd to read so many reviews that claim The Spirit of St. Louis is almost a one man show. In reality, the pivotal flight doesn’t begin until about seventy minutes into the film and then Stewart’s solo scenes are intercut with plenty of memories involving other characters. Having been promised an interesting look at one man in isolation, I was actually disappointed in how little time is dedicated to that angle. In terms of the build up, I was pleased that the film didn’t just jump to its main event and took time to establish the magnitude of Lindbergh’s undertaking. But in all honesty, if you don’t have an interest in aviation yourself then the slow crawl through conception of the idea, securing funding, designing and building the plane and dealing with various other complications might just bore you into the same sleep-battling state that Lindbergh finds himself in later in the film. Wilder manages to insert some human elements through encounters with ancillary characters all of whom prove more interesting than Lindbergh. These are the rare moments when The Spirit of St. Louis actually feels like a Wilder screenplay, particularly an amusing brush with a suspenders salesman whom Lindbergh meets on a train. My favourite part of the whole film is a dialogue-free montage in which we see the reactions of all these supporting players as Lindbergh sets off on his mission. It’s a beautifully directed moment that briefly creates the stirring response that the rest of the film so badly fails to inspire. 

While I wouldn’t agree with Wilder that The Spirit of St. Louis is his worst film, it’s certainly one of his lesser efforts and at 135 minutes it far outstays its welcome. While Wilder and Stewart seem excited by the prospect of the central adventure, neither man can compensate for Lindbergh’s lack of charisma as a character. Perhaps in taking the seemingly necessary step of removing Lindbergh’s nastier qualities, Wilder was inadvertently left with not much else. It seems the price at which he purchased the film’s feelgood factor was ultimately much too high.

20. THE FRONT PAGE

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s famous play The Front Page had been remade several times already by the time Billy Wilder decided to make his own adaptation. As well as a handful of TV versions, there was the excellent 1931 film by Lewis Milestone and Howard Hawks’s even better His Girl Friday in 1940. In light of these two films, Wilder’s The Front Page may seem redundant to modern audiences but it emerged at a time before you could purchase and take home the films you loved so it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption that the public might be ready to see Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns in action again after thirty-four years. With its cynical view of unscrupulous newspapermen and corrupt officials, many felt that The Front Page was a natural choice for a Wilder remake but that is more the case thematically than stylistically. Wilder was always keen that the dialogue written by himself and I.A.L. Diamond be delivered clearly and word for word, and his insistence on this point robs the source material of the frantic pace and overlapping delivery that was preserved by Milestone and perfected by Hawks. Instead, the material plods a little with a stagey feel that was overcome by the apparent spontaneity of previous screen versions. If Wilder’s adaptation is the first you see, it may be easier to enjoy it for Hecht and MacArthur’s gripping story and biting tone but once you’ve experienced the same at 100mph and with the deft comic panache of Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, it’s hard to give the 1974 version a fair hearing as a standalone piece.

One thing Wilder does get right is the hardbitten edge of the press room. His Girl Friday had been so focused on its leads that the supporting characters were thoroughly outshone but Wilder reinstates the ensemble approach of the original film, with the deliberately un-PC interactions of the veteran reporters providing an ongoing commentary on events. Wilder’s film also looks handsome, with borrowed sets and repurposed cast members from the recent smash The Sting helping it to achieve a similarly effective period setting. Earlier versions of The Front Page had been set in contemporary times (although censorship issues required them to open with captions disassociating their depiction of the press and elected officials with the real world, something they both did with deliberately counterproductive sarcasm) but Wilder makes his a period piece in order to account for the fact that daily newspapers were no longer the primary source of reportage (an 80s remake, Switching Channels, would update the material for the TV news era). Fortunately, this does not blunt the satirical edge, with Wilder and Diamond clearly implying that the devious methods of 1929 reporters are still being employed in the present day.

One thing that doesn’t really work is Wilder’s attempt to open out the story to more locations. Earlier adaptations stuck almost entirely to press rooms and offices, making the material cinematic through excellence of writing and performance. Wilder switches between a greater number of locations and includes a misjudged Keystone Cops style chase that clashes with the overall tone. As is necessary, a large portion of the third act takes place in the press room, which seems natural in the films in which that has largely been the case anyway but here it just makes the crucial climactic scenes feel more stagebound. 

There are also a lot of character and casting problems. Walter Matthau might seem like a natural choice for the devious Walter Burns but Wilder makes him aggressive and angry where Adolphe Menjou and Cary Grant had made him a smooth, skilful manipulator. These earlier readings of the character gave him a certain charm without underselling his selfish villainy. Matthau’s version is an abrasive bulldozer, bellowing, swearing and attempting clumsy sabotage by telling Hildy’s fiancé he is a perverted sexual predator. As that fiancé, a young Susan Sarandon (too young to be convincingly paired with Jack Lemmon, although Wilder had apparently learned nothing from his Love in the Afternoon debacle) is severely underused in an underwritten role that never really gives her a chance to do anything with it. As Hildy, Lemmon is adequate but after Rosalind Russell brought the role so vividly to life in one of the great screen performances of all time, the switch back to the blander male version of the character feels like a comedown. The supporting role of Bensinger, so memorably played by Edward Everett Horton in the 1931 original, is changed from a pernickety, fastidious hack into an unambiguous gay stereotype. To be fair, the actor David Wayne is probably less to blame for this retrograde content than Wilder and Diamond. Given that Wilder had been trying to insert a more nuanced examination of homosexuality into his films since The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, this unsympathetic portrayal reeks of audience pandering from a director desperate for a hit. As the Freudian psychiatrist, Martin Gabel seems to have walked in from a Mel Brooks film, while the decision to give comedy icon Carol Burnett the straight role of Mollie Molloy proves detrimental. The emotional heart of previous versions, Burnett makes Molloy into a borderline hysterical character, her theatrical shrieking seeming much more suited to a stage production than a screen one. Burnett herself was so displeased with her own performance that she is said to have apologised to a plane full of travellers on a journey where The Front Page was screened as the in-flight entertainment.

Wilder would later claim he disliked the concept of remakes and wished he’d left The Front Page alone, although he would remake the French-Italian film L’emmerdeur as Buddy Buddy a few years later. Let us not forget either that Some Like It Hot, still one of the director’s most enduringly popular films, also technically falls into the remake category. What Wilder probably regretted more than the fact that The Front Page was a remake was the fact it wasn’t a terribly good remake. It still serves as a perfectly adequate evening’s entertainment, perhaps even a good evening’s entertainment for those who have never seen the other adaptations. But as the 70s progressed, Wilder was beginning to feel like an artist running out of steam and it’s no surprise to learn that he only had two more films left in him at this point.

19. THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has a history that must be pieced together like one of the great detective’s cases if the viewer is to fully understand the film that was ultimately released. Across the last few days I have been engaged in just such an investigation and it has been fascinating. I watched the film twice in the process, sandwiching all the supplemental material from Eureka’s excellent blu-ray edition between the two viewings. As a result, I found that I had a better feel for the film on the second viewing. But that is not to say I liked it any more. Although it has gradually come to be considered an underrated masterpiece by many, I found The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes to be a very flawed work that is more interesting to study than it is enjoyable to watch.

As a big fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Holmes stories I brought some baggage to The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes but, unlike many Holmes purists who outright rejected Billy Wilder’s alternative take on the character, I’ve always enjoyed the more fanciful Holmes adaptations like Without a Clue, They Might Be Giants and Young Sherlock Holmes more than I’ve enjoyed the majority of attempts at straight recreations. As such, the promise of a film focusing more on Holmes’s sexuality, vulnerability and attitudes to women than on the art of detection sounded tantalisingly fascinating. Unfortunately, Wilder and I.A.L Diamond’s ambitious screenplay is far too unfocused and unwieldy even in the truncated form in which it reached the screen. The original intention for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (after the lamentable notion of a Holmes Musical had mercifully fallen through) was a roadshow picture running to over three hours and incorporating four original cases: The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room, The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners, The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina and The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective. The weighty tome of a screenplay was shot in its entirety but after some unsuccessful preview screenings and in the face of the declining popularity of studio epics, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was hacked to pieces, losing well over an hour of its runtime and two whole cases, as well as a prologue, epilogue and a flashback sequence to Holmes’s university days.

The cut footage from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has proved elusive over the years but Eureka’s blu-ray features a terrific 50 minute reconstruction piecing together all the surviving footage with production stills, audio excerpts and written extracts from the screenplay. Frustratingly, the audio of The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room survives without the pictures to accompany it, while the entirety of The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners is available but without its soundtrack. While rifling through this material is gratifying in granting a better understanding of Wilder’s vision, the impression I get is that The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes would scarcely be improved by the reinstatement of the missing scenes should they ever be rediscovered. The film’s curiously glacial pace is hardly crying out for an extra hour of runtime and the awkward tonal imbalance of the two hour cut would be further exacerbated by the reinsertion of the very broadly comic The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners or the really quite dreadful prologue. The sad truth is that Wilder’s most interesting theme, that of Holmes’s sexuality, was scuppered by Conan Doyle’s son refusing to allow a depiction of his father’s character as gay. This notion is ambiguously floated in the first half-hour before being pushed aside and muddied by an abortive romantic interest in Geneviève Page’s Gabrielle Valladon, which dominates the latter half of the film.

The original prologue of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was set in modern times and featured Watson’s grandson arriving at a London bank to obtain his grandfather’s belongings that have been sealed in a strongbox until a specified date. Contained inside are the manuscripts of cases too sensitive or scandalous to have been published in Holmes’s lifetime. Featuring a comically excitable bank manager played by John Williams and cheap throwaway references to James Bond and miniskirts, this prologue undoubtedly belongs in the same bin in which the infamous Sunset Boulevard prologue featuring corpses conversing in a morgue mercifully ended up. Its place in the finished film is suitably filled by a classy opening credits sequence in which the premise is adequately put across in a few lines of voiceover by Watson, accompanied by various iconic artefacts being taken from the strongbox and whetting our appetites for a great Holmes adventure that is never quite delivered. One thing that is clear from this set-up is that the removal of The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners was always going to be for the best. A mildly amusing farce in which Holmes encourages Watson to apply his methods to try and solve a double murder, only for Watson to stumble into the wrong room and take two drunken, sleeping newlyweds for the corpses, The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners pays tribute to numerous such moments of embarrassment for Watson in Conan Doyle’s original writings, including the short novelty piece How Watson Learned the Trick. The scene is a bit of a one joke affair but the main reason its deletion is necessary is that it simply doesn’t fit with the premise. The other three cases proposed for the original film centre around Holmes’s drug dependency, his ambiguous sexuality and a scandalous threat to national security. Why Watson would include a short piece about his own inconsequential humiliation amongst these controversial revelations is anyone’s guess.

The other deleted case, The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room, is instructive regarding an important element that is missing from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in any version. With its intriguing title, The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room seems to promise a classic mystery story in the Conan Doyle style and the set-up certainly piques the interest as Holmes and Watson are called to investigate a murder where the culprit has, for some unknown reason, completely inverted the scene in the crime so that all the furniture hangs from the ceiling. For those whose inquiring minds are immediately set in motion by this concept, the solution can only come as a disappointment as the whole thing is revealed to be an elaborate ruse by Watson in order to distract Holmes from his depression-inducing boredom and prevent him from resorting to cocaine use. In terms of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’s greater focus on Holmes himself and his various vulnerabilities, the premise arguably fits but it seems almost perversely designed to confound the expectations of Holmes fans and it is a warning of things to come, given that of the four proposed cases, one is a deception, one a mistake, one a mere incident rather than a mystery, and the final one a disappointing, meandering mess. While the cutting of The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room does remove the anticlimax, it also leaves the finished film with just two sections: The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina and The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective. The former, a half hour examination of Holmes’s sexuality with farcical elements, constitutes the better portion of the film, before the lengthy, meandering latter case consumes the rest of the runtime. However, without the context of the other cases and deprived of the ability to explore the possibility of Holmes’s homosexuality further, The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina becomes a strangely adrift prologue in itself, making The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes feel confused rather than sprawling by design.

To finally arrive at the film as actually released, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is an odd artefact indeed. Feeling like neither a Billy Wilder film nor a Conan Doyle story, the film is handsomely designed and shot, and entertainingly, if a little stagily, acted by Robert Stephens as the tortured Holmes and Colin Blakely as an assertive, blustering Watson. Wilder and Diamond’s screenplay is a tad clunky, struggling to approximate a dry British wit that clashes with their own style, resulting in a few slightly crap vaudevillian puns (hearing an unexpected knock at the door, Watson says “Perhaps Mrs. Hudson is entertaining”, to which Holmes replies “I’ve never found her so.” Ber-dum-tish!). The set was reportedly not a happy one and while Christopher Lee, who does rather a nice job as Mycroft, speaks very highly of his experiences with Wilder, several other cast members clashed with him. In particular, Stephens saw the experience as a prison sentence and grew so tired of Wilder’s meticulous perfectionism that he took an overdose of sleeping pills and whiskey, shutting down production for a time. Although this acrimony is not necessarily visible in the finished film, the curious autumnal tone, caught between comedy and tragedy, just never quite comes off. When I first saw The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes many years ago, I recall feeling haunted by the downbeat ending in which a heartbroken Holmes retires quietly to his room with the cocaine bottle, but this time round the pathos felt severely undermined by the fact that only minutes earlier there was an ersatz Queen Victoria traipsing round the screen and dispensing the line “We are not amused” as if someone had pushed a button marked “Catchphrase Now!”

The compromised themes of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes indicate that, with Adrian Conan Doyle’s cooperation regarding his father’s work, Wilder might’ve had a much more interesting story on his hands. For a film made in 1970, the gay-themed material is handled with comparative sensitivity, with a nod to the psychologically damaging effects of forced closeting and a satirical bullet aimed squarely at fragile masculinity. When Holmes lies about his relationship with Watson in order to evade the advances of a Russian ballerina, it results in Watson’s hedonistic womanising at an aftershow party being compromised as his female dance partners are gradually replaced by men. The butt of the joke is clearly Watson himself, who finds himself at sea amongst an open-minded throng of revellers, and his subsequent confrontation of Holmes is by far the film’s finest scene. Unfortunately, the embargo placed on further exploration of Holmes’s interest in men sees the film collapse into a tale of a contradictory romantic interest in a female client. Attempts to investigate the source of Holmes’s apparent misogyny were also flattened by the removal of the flashback sequence, in which Holmes’s chaste admiration of a mystery woman is upended when he discovers he is the only one not aware that she is a prostitute. On the one hand, the flashback would create another diversion in an already wayward film but on the other hand it fills in some interesting details about Holmes which, in the released version of the film, are represented by a throwaway tragicomic line about death of an old fiancé. By the film’s end, its vagueness on Holmes’s inclinations feel more the result of a botched edit than of intentional ambiguity.

For a lover of the whole Holmes aesthetic like myself, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is sufficiently watchable and even occasionally entertaining. Pains are taken in an early dialogue between Holmes and Watson to distance this character from the one in the original stories, with Holmes pointing out numerous exaggerations made by his sidekick and biographer. But even as Wilder and Diamond’s screenplay makes this distinction, it also harbours an obvious ambition to emulate the excellence of Conan Doyle’s mysteries to some extent, an ambition it completely fails to achieve. A lot of faith is placed in the ninety minute Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective section but its more promisingly cinematic premise of an investigation that takes the characters to picturesque Scottish locations is undermined by a dreary, languidly paced story which becomes harder to concentrate on the more desperate details it piles on. Trappist monks, acrobatic dwarves, dead canaries, the Loch Ness monster, Queen Victoria: all are present but not even an inkling of intrigue is inspired, while the interesting psychological angle becomes lost as Wilder tries to juggle the mounting preposterous details. The film’s reveals fall flat and its subtly defeated finale just doesn’t work after such a frenzy of absurdist activity. Had Wilder and Diamond brought on a more competent mystery writer as a third collaborator, perhaps the premise for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes could’ve been saved. But Wilder seemed convinced of its quality anyway, insisting he had made an “elegant” film that was butchered in the edit. Diamond, meanwhile, took a whole year to forgive Wilder for allowing the film to be so drastically edited. There are still fans of the film today who take Diamond’s part and bemoan the lost status of a potential masterpiece. But it seems to me that the existing portion of the film is flawed enough that no additions could elevate it anywhere close to that level, and having glimpsed approximations of the missing scenes I’d venture that they’d just make the film more long-winded, jumbled and difficult to sit through. Its production history may be an interesting case in itself but in my book The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a missed opportunity.

18. MAUVAISE GRAINE

Mauvaise Graine remains the least seen or discussed of all Billy Wilder’s directorial efforts and it’s certainly an outlier. The one film Wilder directed outside of Hollywood, it was made in France shortly after Wilder relocated to Paris to escape the rise of the Nazis (tragically, his mother, grandmother and stepfather were all murdered during the Holocaust). Having built up a solid career as a screenwriter in Germany, Wilder found himself having to make new connections in order to get his next film idea up and running. An established director was needed in order to secure financing so Wilder ended up sharing credit with Alexander Esway, although according to several reports, including Wilder’s own, Esway’s involvement was minimal, to the extent that leading lady Danielle Darrieux didn’t remember ever seeing him on the set. Wilder’s memories of making the film were not happy and he claimed he ended up being in charge of every aspect of production, with budget constraints necessitating the use of extensive location shooting and using camera mounted on trucks to capture the many scenes that take place in vehicles. While it may have been an ordeal, the limitations placed on Mauvaise Graine’s production appear to have worked in its favour. While a higher budget film of the era would’ve used back projection and sound stages, the car chases and driving scenes in Mauvaise Graine feel authentic, energetic and exciting.

Mauvaise Graine is a fairly simple morality tale about an idle Parisian socialite named Henri whose rich father cuts him off in order to teach him some responsibility. Having had his beloved car sold out from under him, Henri seeks it out and steals it back, a decision that brings him into the crosshairs of an organised gang of car thieves. Becoming involved in their racket, Henri befriends the boyish Jean-la-Cravate and falls for his sister, Jeanette, who assists the car thieves by luring male car owners away from their vehicles using her feminine wiles. For a 1930s crime film, Mauvaise Graine plays out fairly predictably from there but it hits its expected beats with wit and excitement. Wilder, though directing only out of necessity, shows his visual flair from an early stage. The scenes of Henri searching the streets for his car as images of automobiles are overlaid on his morose face feels like a precursor to Ray Milland’s iconic wander through floating barroom signposts in The Lost Weekend. There’s a great shot of a car numberplate with Jeanette’s vanity mirror in the foreground, which suddenly snaps into focus to show she has copied the number down on her mirror. A car chase in which Henri and Jeanette are unaware that their car is on the verge of falling apart uses cuts between the drivers, their pursuers and the gradually collapsing car parts in order to create maximum tension.

Mauvaise Graine’s acting and story have little to distinguish themselves but the filmmaking itself compensates for that. As well as capturing Wilder’s natural visual expertise, Mauvaise Graine’s screenplay (co-written by fellow exile screenwriters Justin Lig and Max Coplet, along with French playwright Claude-André Puget) has flashes of the wit and unusual character beats that would come to define his more famous American films. A droll group of policemen get some zingers in at the expense of the crooks during a climactic raid, while Jean’s penchant for stealing the neckties of unsuspecting victims provides some amusing asides while also demonstrating the naïve impulsivity that drives his character and will ultimately be his downfall. Subtle seed-planting of this kind would become just one of the many assets that made a Wilder screenplay stand out. Mauvaise Graine may not be a lost classic but it’s well worth seeking out. Its unfairly weak reputation seems to have been exacerbated by people who come to it expecting Sunset Boulevard. The fact that Wilder didn’t direct again for eight years, and that he was working within the Hollywood system by then, inevitably means Mauvaise Graine is a very different beast from his later films. But if you’re a fan of early sound cinema, Mauvaise Graine distinguishes itself as a surprisingly confident and innovative piece for its era.

17. IRMA LA DOUCE

One of the first things nearly everyone will tell you about Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce is that it is far too long, and nearly everyone is not wrong. At 147 minutes, this is Wilder’s longest film and yet it is also one of his most frivolously silly. But epic length is not something that need be reserved for self-serious tales alone and in a way Irma la Douce’s excessive length befits a film that is excessive in so many other ways. Given that the Hays Code was weakening but still in place at the time of production, Irma la Douce is one of those curiously sexless Sex Comedies of the 60s. It has the freedom to depict prostitution and premarital sex in a franker manner than it could’ve gotten away with in the previous decade but its stagey, carnivalesque atmosphere sucks the sexuality out of its centre, so that whenever two people pair off and head upstairs together, it’s easier to imagine them changing costumes for the next scene than it is to assume any boots have been knocked. Sadly, this extends to the central romance between Shirley MacLaine’s Irma and Jack Lemmon’s Nestor. While they had a deeply sweet chemistry in The Apartment, Irma la Douce’s goofy approach fails to sell the notion of an attraction between them, let alone the love that is supposed to blossom in the course of a single night. Fortunately, emotional realism is not what Irma la Douce is really shooting for and as the film progresses it changes from what initially appeared to be a harder-edged story about prostitution into a silly farce involving outlandish disguises, mistaken identities, convoluted deceptions and even a couple of fourth wall breaks. There’s a moment of realisation when the plot switches where you either go with it or you don’t. If you do, you’ll be sufficiently charmed by the final half hour in which every scene seems to be attempting to outdo itself in ludicrousness. If you don’t, Irma la Douce will just seem to get worse and worse.

In all honesty, I spent most of Irma la Douce trying to work out what I thought of it. I knew I was enjoying it to an extent but I was also struggling to allow for moments as broad as when Nestor escapes prison by bending the bars with his bare hands. It wasn’t until the climactic twist, a deliberately nonsensical comedic flourish, that I felt able to contextualise the entire film as the bizarre adult cartoon that it is. Wilder and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond have essentially gone for broke, stacking preposterous moment on preposterous moment. This isn’t the kind of elaborately constructed farce that runs like clockwork. Rather, it seems like it is being made up as the film goes along. There are wonderful scenes that crop up amongst the melee, such as when Nestor evades the police by donning his old gendarme uniform and blending in with the search party sent to root him out, and eventually it is moments like these that carry the film. As the characters’ behaviours begin to beggar belief beyond the point of a plausible emotional connection, Irma la Douce becomes a series of sideshows.

There are some underlying themes here. As Nestor inadvertently replaces Irma’s pimp, his decision to trick her out of sleeping with anyone but him feels like a lampoon of what we now call toxic masculinity. Nestor is controlling and possessive but too spineless to approach the situation like an adult. Instead, he comes up with a ploy to disguise himself as the English Lord X who has been rendered impotent in World War II and seeks only companionship and a partner with whom to play cards. As a man who can’t accept being financially supported by a woman, it seems significant that the sexually rejuvenated Nestor ends up cornering himself in the guise of impotence. He is also a Frenchman who adopts the role of a Brit which, in strictly stereotypical terms, virtually amounts to the same thing. But any satirical critique of male insecurity is thrown out of the window as the Lord X plot spins out of control and Irma’s love for Nestor is actually reinstated when she believes he has killed Lord X out of jealousy. It’s all a bit of a mess really, which makes me wonder if the hilariously audacious resolution to the Lord X plot was born of desperation rather than design. Either way, by this point the sheer strangeness has begun to work in a curious way, as Wilder and Diamond completely toss the rule book out the window. Again, you either go with it or you don’t.

Irma la Douce is a handsome, if excessively stylised, film with Joseph LaShelle’s bright colour cinematography bagging one of the its three Oscar nominations. One of the other nominees went to MacLaine, which seems rather odd given the regrettable extent to which her initially captivating performance is eventually sidelined in favour of Nestor’s antics. Lemmon is good as always, although the broad nature of his character’s insane plot doesn’t give him the chance to shine as he had in The Apartment. Nestor becomes more and more unlikeable as the film progresses leading up to a moment when he slaps Irma, making it harder to laugh along with his subsequent silliness in a way that was never a problem in Some Like It Hot. The character transformation makes sense thematically as the initially affable Nestor starts to acquire the behaviours of the pimps he once abhorred, but by this stage in the plot the film has committed too strongly to its silly side for such astute social commentary to sit comfortably. Stealing the show from both the leads is Lou Jacobi as bar owner Moustache, a dryly hilarious foil to Lemmon’s neurotic hysteria. One of the film’s funniest jokes is a running gag about how this apparently ordinary barman has had a preposterously storied life including stints as a professor, a lawyer, a colonel in the Foreign Legion and a doctor working alongside Albert Schweitzer. Jacobi’s measured, witty turn acts as a much needed anchor in the latter half of the film, even as his double act with Lemmon ultimately pushes MacLaine out of the frame a tad too much.

Because it eventually leans so heavily into its over-the-top lunacy, Irma la Douce manages to work to an extent as a fascinating curio with fitful bursts of inspiration. But the tonal shift from a more sedate first act is a bumpy transition and I wonder whether it should’ve started in a higher gear and stayed there. That said, scenes like a slapstick barroom fight in which a man gets a pool ball stuck in his mouth for an interminably long time suggest that maybe this side of the film did need curbing lest we have to sit through more execrable moments of that kind. Irma la Douce sits rather strangely in the Billy Wilder filmography. On the one hand, there are moments when it is clearly a Wilder film and looks like it might find its way towards something more incisive and emotionally engaging. On the other hand, there are stretches where it feels more like something directed by Blake Edwards and any connection with real emotions is sold off cheaply for whatever laughs it can get. It works in a way but not in a way that can sustain nearly two and a half hours of screentime.

16. FEDORA

Fedora was the first Billy Wilder film in twenty years not to have a prominent comedic element, yet when it was preview screened audiences still laughed heartily. For all its earnest, melodramatic tone, so much of Fedora feels inherently ridiculous. There’s an ominous gothic atmosphere that clashes oddly with its picturesque Greek island setting and Wilder’s post-production decision to redub the voices of the two lead actresses saddles the film with a clunky, TV-style cheapness that provokes inappropriate snickers at moments of high drama. With its satirical examination of old Hollywood, not to mention the return of William Holden as leading man, Fedora is frequently compared to the classic Sunset Boulevard but the full hand-biting ferocity of that film is undermined in Fedora by a conservative longing for the glory days which Wilder can scarcely hide, particularly when he has Holden reel off an embittered speech about beardy New Hollywood oiks and their award-winning handheld-cameras. The result is a film that feels much closer to the cynicism of which Wilder is so frequently accused, without the soft-centred humanism that saved previous works from empty, curmudgeonly griping.

Hold on a second though, I think Fedora might be a borderline minor gem, if not necessarily the type Wilder had intended. By stumbling into Whatever Happened to Baby Jane levels of grotesquerie but without that film’s self-aware playfulness, Fedora becomes something of a camp classic. Based on Tom Tyron’s novella, the story provides a sufficiently interesting and gripping foundation for the film. Wilder doesn’t manage to adequately conceal the major plot twist from viewers but it is a relief to realise that once it arrives there is still a good chunk of the film left to come, allowing room for further twists and turns that flesh out a story that satisfyingly pays off the Mystery genre approach of the first half. There is a particularly nice ending which is laced with melancholy irony and climaxes with a moment of bittersweet bathos that instantly reminds anyone who may have forgotten that they are watching a Billy Wilder film. 

Despite the return of Holden and the presence of José Ferrer, Fedora is certainly not an actor’s film. Holden feels somewhat wasted, sauntering through an underwritten role in which character increasingly plays second fiddle to a blandly investigative function, before being sidelined as the film switches to a flashback structure. Ferrer is amusing but muted, while the pivotal performances of Marthe Keller and Hildegard Knef are ransacked by the dubbing. There is something I’ve always found inescapably cringey about actors playing themselves and Fedora’s cameo appearances by Henry Fonda and Michael York do not escape this curse. But the hokey tone set by a cast struggling to transcend the ridiculous feeds into Fedora’s strange, even at times disturbing, appeal. Once the film becomes more focused on Fedora herself rather than Holden’s Barry Detweiler and his attempts to unravel her strange situation, it steps up a notch into the sort of Melodrama that you secretly hope is going to be as thoroughly overcooked as it ultimately turns out to be.

Although there are those who have proclaimed it a forgotten masterpiece, I can’t imagine there are many out there who name Fedora as their favourite Billy Wilder film. And yet there is a part of me that finds its oddness almost irresistible. It’s not even in the so-bad-it’s-good category because, despite its prominent flaws, it works perfectly well as a televisual potboiler that could be adequately paired with episodes of your favourite 70s detective shows. Without the name Billy Wilder attached, Fedora might even have sneaked some of its shortcomings past unnoticed. The high standard set by its director’s past filmography also means that it’s easier to imagine the sort of film Wilder had in mind compared to the scrappy curio with which he ended up. Fedora’s production was hampered by obstacles placed in Wilder’s path by his waning popularity and the studios’ growing reticence in employing him. It’s easy to see how Wilder ended up projecting his frustrations into his lead character here.

15. THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR

After relocating to Hollywood in the mid-30s, Billy Wilder forged a highly successful screenwriting career, establishing a long term collaboration with writing partner Charles Brackett and being nominated for three Oscars in the process. Now eyeing up a career in directing, Wilder wanted his first shot to be a surefire success in order to avoid the risk of his directing ambitions being cut short. With this in mind, he chose to adapt Edward Childs Carpenter’s lighthearted play Connie Goes Home into a mainstream farce about a woman who disguises herself as a twelve year old girl in order to be able to afford her train fare home, only to be forced by complications into living the role for far longer than anticipated. Wilder had in mind Ginger Rogers for the role and after the two hit it off during a lunch meeting, she accepted. Light, accessible and eager to please, the resulting film The Major and the Minor has that agreeably charming first album feel. It is less ambitious than Wilder’s later work but the caustic wit of a Wilder/Brackett screenplay bolsters the lightweight premise at every turn. 

Wilder’s decision to cast Rogers proved inspired. Rogers had recently won an Oscar for Kitty Foyle, a dramatic role and her only Academy Award nomination, but she had proved herself especially adept at comedic roles with scene-stealing turns in 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and an absolutely killer turn in Stage Door that really should’ve bagged her another Academy Award nomination. Rogers is mostly mentioned nowadays in relation to her roles with Fred Astaire and many think of her primarily as a dancer but she was always an actor first and foremost and her comic talents in particular are something she proved time and again, backwards, forwards, sideways, in heels and out of them. The patently ridiculous premise of this woman in her 30s passing for a prepubescent girl is almost entirely sold through Rogers performance alone, as she switches between her sultry adult tones and a high-toned pre-teen alternative that is pitched at exactly the right level to amuse but not annoy. Her reactions to the numerous undignified situations in which she finds herself, even being attacked by horny teenage cadets, are perfectly measured to ensure that she remains in control, rather that becoming a goofball overwhelmed by chaos, which would’ve been the broader, less sophisticated way in which to play this material.

Wilder and Brackett’s screenplay continues to showcase the sparkling dialogue for which they’d become known through classics like Ball of Fire and Ninotchka. Though it is frequently misattributed to Noel Coward, The Major and the Minor is actually the source of the famous line “Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?”, spoken by an appropriately sleazy Robert Benchley, whose predatory character is a progressively irredeemable shot at toxic male behaviour in an era when this kind of philanderer was too frequently depicted as the roguish hero. The actual male hero of this piece is Ray Milland’s Major, who is portrayed as gentle, kind, sympathetic and vulnerable. His most traditional heroic attribute is his strong desire to be posted to the front lines, a tip of the hat to America’s recent joining of WWII which is a crucial driving force in the plot but is skilfully kept in the background, allowing the audience to infer the implied tribute without the need for a grafted-on rousing speech. Milland plays the part very charmingly but the major problem (ber-dum-tish) with his character is that he is a little too readily duped by Rogers’ disguise. You have to suspend disbelief to an extent in order to enjoy The Major and the Minor and I wouldn’t have had a problem pretending I believe that an entire military academy takes a 31 year old woman for a 12 year old child based on some pigtails and girlish attire, were it not for the fact that Wilder and Brackett’s screenplay makes a tactical slip-up early on. When Rogers’ protagonist Susan “Susu” Applegate first boards the train with a child’s ticket, she is immediately suspected of fraud by two conductors who expose her lie and chase her through the carriage. The scenes are funny but to work they rely on the notion that Susan’s disguise is blatantly transparent, which works against the suspension of disbelief that the film then asks of its audience. It’s the equivalent of having a scene at the Daily Planet in which one lone janitor in a sea of reporters stands up and yells “Are you people crazy?! Take off his glasses and have another look!”

A thornier issue for many in relation to The Major and the Minor is that of paedophilia, from which many accuse the film of mining inappropriate comedy and romance. Certainly it skates dangerously close to the subject in a way that films would be unlikely to today but if you look past the surface anxiety caused by the premise, there’s more going on here than misperceived leering. The chief misconception seems to be that Milland’s Major falls in love with Susan even though, or even because, she is presented to him as a 12 year old, but that’s not the case. Rather, he at first perceives her that way based on superficial presentation but, as he gets to know her, the truth of her maturity starts to inevitably show through. Rather than act on his growing attraction, the Major is appropriately alarmed by it and prevents himself from pursuing it, even as the teenage boys in his charge fail to do the same. This isn’t normalisation of paedophilia so much as a farcical examination of a man with an age appropriate attraction who is duped into thinking it is depraved. When the Major finally sees Susan in her adult attire, his cry of “SUSU!” isn’t an attempt to reinfantilise her but a revelatory celebration that the troubling sickness he thought was engulfing him is in fact no sickness at all. In his repression of his attraction, the Major is pointedly differentiated from the other male characters: Benchley’s lascivious predator whose insistent advances drive Susan out of her city and her profession, and the military cadets whose haughty entitlement is as much to blame as teenage hormones for their sexual aggression. 

The premise of the final scenes, in which Susan is forced to now play a character much older than herself when the Major unexpectedly turns up wanting to meet her mother, is a clever flip but the scenes themselves become a little cloying and the climactic moment at the train station feels undersold. But as the Major and Susan disappear into the steam of the train, there’s a satisfying feeling that Wilder has largely pulled off a tricky tone in order to create a crowdpleaser with plenty of thematic substance. While it falls short of attaining classic status, The Major and the Minor did its job of proving Wilder’s abilities as a director and allowing him to take his career to the next level.

14. THE LOST WEEKEND

Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, the director’s fourth American film, was a high profile adaptation of Charles R. Jackson’s novel of the same name. A grim, frank examination of alcoholism, Jackson’s novel was perhaps a little too bold for the 40s cinema screen but Wilder and his regular writing partner Charles Brackett did an often fine job of adapting it. In doing so there were a few edges sanded down, including prominent implications that protagonist Don Birnham was gay and the insertion of a more hopeful, if still suitably ambiguous (though, truthfully, also unsatisfying) ending. It seems unfair to hold these things against The Lost Weekend, given the impossibility of getting certain material past the oppressive production code of the era, but it inescapably hurts the film, making Birnham a more one-dimensional character who’s motivation for drinking feels underexplored. But, in keeping with Wilder’s more brittle sensibilities in comparison with his contemporaries, The Lost Weekend does manage to retain some of the grit that is so necessary in creating its impact. The character of Gloria is clearly a prostitute, something the film never states outright but comes as close as it possibly can to doing so. And Birnham’s descent into a hellish, obsessive stupor across several days is wrought with an effective mixture of wit, empathy and even outright horror.

It’s crucial to remember that alcoholism was rarely taken seriously on screen when The Lost Weekend appeared. Alcoholic characters were ubiquitous but were generally depicted as figures of fun, happy in their haze and non-threatening thanks to their inebriated inability to function properly. Lascivious advances were not uncommon but these invariably resulted in an off-aim lunge and a staggering self-hug. With this in mind, The Lost Weekend must’ve felt like a very important film in its days, finally showing the dark side of the bottle’s influence without a punchline to undermine it. While this obviously helped single out the film for praise from contemporary critics, it has also seen some modern critics compare The Lost Weekend to an over-earnest public information film. I’ve never particularly seen The Lost Weekend as finger-wagging or puritanical. I think it sets out with the best of intentions, showing the impact alcohol abuse can have on a person’s life, personality and relationships. That we’ve seen so many such films since then has undoubtedly reduced its impact on audiences down the years.

Though there is decent support from a range of lesser-known actors, as well as a strong turn from second lead Jane Wyman, the success of The Lost Weekend rests mainly on Ray Milland’s shoulders. Milland’s performance as the troubled writer Don has variously been mocked as overwrought and hailed as one of the greatest Oscar-winning performances of all time. For me, the quality of Milland’s performance varies according to the material. In the more naturalistic scenes, Milland is excellent, combining a public front with an underlying sense of unease that he will be discovered at any moment. The tricks to which he resorts in order to get a drink are carried out with a combination of pride at his own cleverness and shame at his own dependency. But Wilder and Brackett give him too many lengthy, eloquent speeches about alcoholism and here Milland slides into a stagier style which reflects the nature of the monologues he’s asked to perform. Few people like a big, well-written speech more than I do and Don being a writer at least gives Wilder and Brackett some convincing context for his eloquence. But the florid speechifying does become a little wearing and it is a relief when it recedes for a while to allow Don’s downwards spiral to play out.

That downward spiral is by far the best stretch of The Lost Weekend. This is where the film becomes more visual and less verbose, allowing Milland to shine in his increasingly disheveled, agonised battle against his better nature and his raging thirst. Though not without its moments of melodramatic excess, Milland’s performance here is appropriately obsessive. You can see his personality drop away completely until he is defined by the booze. Wilder’s direction has more opportunity to shine here too. Of course, there’s the famous and massively influential sequence of Don stumbling towards the camera as barroom signs flash tantalisingly past. Wilder also brings an otherworldly sense of terror to the scenes in an alcoholic’s ward where Don is taunted by a sadistic nurse, and a thriller-like tension to a sequence in which a cash-strapped Don attempts to steal a woman’s handbag to pay for the drinks he’s already consumed. The key scene in regards to how seriously you take The Lost Weekend is a horror-inflected moment in which Don hallucinates a bat killing a mouse in his apartment. The bat initially looks laughably fake and this can upend the whole scene but the subsequent mouse-killing is very effectively and horrifically realised. My reaction to this one sequence encapsulated the ups and downs in quality I perceived throughout The Lost Weekend. A promising setup fleetingly rendered ineffective by a moment of clear artifice, before being saved by a visceral development.

When it came to rating The Lost Weekend I spent the film wavering between 3.5 and 4 stars but the disappointing ending ultimately saw me settling on the lower score. While Wilder and Brackett evade the complete-cure happy ending in favour of which many lesser writers would’ve been happy to discard the reality of the situation, the attempt to incorporate a note of hope does necessitate a level of self-realisation on Don’s part that feels at odds with what’s gone before. Wilder’s Don attempts suicide to relieve others of the burden he has placed upon them. Jackson’s Don, meanwhile, crawls into bed and wonders what everyone is making such a big fuss about. Wilder gets to his moment of hope without any great contrivances but it feels anticlimactic. And the final shot of the city is slightly too eager to make clear that The Lost Weekend is not just an intimate tale of one man’s struggle with the bottle but a big issues film about a societal problem. Y’know, the kind that wins Oscars.

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