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13. SOME LIKE IT HOT

Almost everyone has that one universally acclaimed film that they just can’t understand the fuss about. For decades now, mine has been Some Like It Hot. My long term dislike of the film has always been a bothersome anomaly given that I adore old Hollywood, I love comedy and Billy Wilder is one of my favourite writers and directors. Given these facts and the consistent appearance of Some Like It Hot in lists of greatest films ever made, I’ve watched it four times over the years, assuming it would eventually click or I would work out why I never enjoyed it. The fourth time I watched it was for a podcast in which I swore that would be my final viewing, having spent a full working day’s worth of time trying to fathom the appeal. But finally I decided to go back for a fifth time and attempt to analyse one final time just why I didn’t like it. Now here’s the twist: this fifth time, I kinda liked it!

It takes a big man to admit he’s wrong. I guess that makes me a medium sized man because, while I enjoyed Some Like It Hot much more this time round, it still feels strictly like mid-tier Wilder to me and I’m still baffled that it is part of the Sight and Sound Top 50 or number one on various lists of funniest Comedies ever made. The two hour runtime far exceeds my patience with the frantically farcical material and Tony Curtis’s Cary Grant impersonation is funny for about a minute and we have to listen to it for about twenty. BUT… the dialogue is fantastic, the performances are excellent and Wilder’s direction shows incredible discipline in keeping a wildly chaotic concoction from spilling over the sides. The premise, in which two male musicians who inadvertently witness a mob massacre disguise themselves as women in order to hide out with an all female band, seems a little bit thin now but it was clearly far racier in 1959 when male stars in drag were a rarer sight. Some Like It Hot is actually a remake of a remake, with the original French film Fanfare of Love dating from as early as 1935 and the German remake Fanfares of Love (who knows why the fanfare became plural?) arriving in 1951. Both films featured male musicians dragging up to find work but Wilder and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond added the gangster plot to up the stakes. Though it works as motivation to set the plot in motion, the gangster storyline is actually the weakest part of the film. The comedy mobsters are not terribly funny or convincing and their re-emergence in the film’s last act sets it spinning off its axis into a lot of broad, flaily running around. Then there’s a face-off between rival gangs which comes by way of a surprisingly ill-fitting, overlong scene which jarringly slows the pace essentially to deliver a Deus ex Machina.

There are many who consider Some Like It Hot to be a perfect film but I find it a far bumpier ride. The early scenes in the speakeasy and with the massacre provide a great headlong rush of an opening but the train scenes are more of a mixed bag. Marilyn Monroe getting goosed by the steam from the train is a moment that ought to be as iconic as her Seven Year Itch subway shot and the moment when Jack Lemmon’s Jerry suddenly and inexplicably changes his female pseudonym to Daphne was one of a handful of moments when I laughed out loud. But the party in Jerry’s bunk is an example of when the comedy gets so rambunctious that it borders on annoying. Lemmon’s Oscar-nominated performance is one of the things that keeps Some Like It Hot afloat during some of its more desperately overplayed moments. His later scenes in which he is reluctantly and then willingly romanced by Joe E. Brown’s Osgood Fielding III take a one-note concept and render it consistently amusing through performance. Equally, the famous ending takes a lot of its punch from the delivery of Lemmon and Brown, whose double act ultimately eclipses that of Lemmon and Curtis. Wilder and Diamond originally only meant the line “Nobody’s perfect” as a placeholder and it is only vaguely chucklesome on paper. But Brown’s oblivious delivery and Lemmon’s mounting desperation and ultimate bewilderment render it priceless. There’s even a teasing ambiguity to the moment. Is Osgood just not concentrating or is he that invested in the relationship by this point that he genuinely doesn’t care? 

Certainly Lemmon and Brown have more chemistry than Monroe and Curtis. Their big scene together in which the incognito Joe convinces Monroe’s Sugar that he is impotent so that she will repeatedly attempt to “cure” him feels somewhat icky and goes on for far too long. It’s important to place Some Like It Hot in its historical context and recognise that one of its themes is how men are dogs so Joe’s deception fits with the tone and a 1959 film was never likely to let the notion of informed consent bother it. But up to this point the routinely underrated Monroe really excels in the role of Sugar and this is the stage when her character starts to slip into the same bland objectification that dominated her turn in The Seven Year Itch as “The Girl” (at least this time she gets a name). Wilder and Diamond certainly seem to be saying that men are dogs but the endless kissing scenes between Monroe and Curtis feel like they’re throwing those dogs a bone. Again, context is crucial and it’s still possible to enjoy dialogue like “Why would a guy want to marry a guy?” “Security!” by placing yourself in the shoes of a 1950s audience, although it’s cheering to think that there will eventually be generations for whom such attitudes are so outside their sphere of experience that they struggle to do so.

I’m not entirely sure why I enjoyed Some Like It Hot so much more on the fifth viewing. I think my previous viewings have been so loaded with expectations of it either being better or worse than it is but this time I focused more closely on every aspect, putting aside my misgivings about the broadness of the concept in order to relish the dialogue and finding consolation for its lulls in quality in the consistency of the performances, in particular Lemmon’s and Monroe’s. I also didn’t focus on the bewildering extent to which this enjoyable film is praised, in order to judge it entirely on its own merits. Relieved of preconceptions, Some Like It Hot revealed itself to be far better than the bad film I had it pegged as. My appreciation of it only goes so far and I certainly don’t think it’s the solid gold classic everyone else believes it to be but at the very least I can say that I wouldn’t be totally adverse to a sixth viewing in future. High praise!

12. AVANTI!

Avanti! is a late-era Billy Wilder film which feels like a classic Old Hollywood production that emerged amidst the boundary pushing innovations of the New Hollywood era. Avanti! gives off the feeling of a safe and cosy work by an elder statesman in the face of upcoming trailblazers. It shows how much can happen in a comparatively short time, given that Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid was a highly controversial, bordering on scandalous film just eight years previously, due to its semi-positive attitudes towards martial infidelity. Avanti! tackles similar themes with added swearing and extended moments of nudity but its reception was muted, with most critics treating it as a sweet, inconsequential relic. There was none of the moral outrage that would certainly have greeted it at an earlier date, even without the swearing and nudity that would not have been allowed at that time. But too often art that is out of step with the trends of the times is viewed through a negative lens for that reason alone. While Avanti! doubtless feels old-fashioned in the year of The Godfather’s Best Picture win, its smart, classical approach still delights without the need for game-changing content. Wilder’s response to changing times is to utilise, though thankfully not overuse, the increased access to once forbidden avenues to enhance his established approach.

Avanti! is based on the play by Samuel A. Taylor, who also provided the source material and collaborated on the screenplay for Wilder’s excellent Sabrina. As adapted by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, Avanti! tells the story of brusque industrialist Wendell Armbruster Jr. who travels to Italy to claim the body of his late father who has been killed in a car crash. While there he discovers that his father was conducting a long-term affair with a woman whose body was found beside his in the car wreck. Caught up in Italian bureaucracy, Armbruster moves into a hotel where one of the other guests is Pamela Piggott, the daughter of his father’s mistress, there to claim the body of her mother. Although their initial relationship is uneasy, the two grow closer as they begin a ritual to honour the love of their deceased parents. Wilder cited the bittersweet romance of Brief Encounter as an influence but felt that the finished film fell short of his ambitions. A common complaint about Avanti! is that it is overlong but Wilder makes good use of the ample screentime in order to create a laidback travelogue feel, showcasing the luxurious Ischia landscapes in a manner that allows them to be revelled in at the viewer’s leisure. This creates a counterpoint to the various farcical developments involving missing bodies, interfering bureaucrats, blackmailing valets and murderous moustachioed maids. The whole affair is overseen by Carlo Carlucci, the harassed but extremely efficient hotel manager.

If Wilder failed in making a film that captures the bruised, tragic romanticism of Brief Encounter, he succeeded in making a more caustic, comedic variation. Wilder would later regret the comedic flavour of Avanti!, which he did not intend to be perceived as a Comedy at all. But the elements of Rom-Com, Farce and Satire that abound throughout actually leaven the romance, preventing the film from becoming dull or one-note across its lengthy runtime. Central to the success of the comedic material is Clive Revill’s fabulous turn as Carlo the hotel manager. His characterisation provides a warm, witty counterpoint to Jack Lemmon’s unpleasant Armbruster, a tactless bulldozer of a character the like of which you very rarely find as a romantic lead. The innate lovability of Lemmon is crucial in making the character work and he displays great range, evidenced in comparison to the more sympathetic, if still layered, characters Lemmon had portrayed for Wilder in previous films. Although his sudden bereavement affords Armbruster a certain level of sympathy, his rudeness and impatience are clearly existing characteristics that are merely exacerbated by tragedy, with Lemmon managing to evoke a sense of his character’s existence before the film’s opening scene. 

As Pamela, Juliet Mills is gently sympathetic but powerfully neurotic, obsessed with her perceived weight problem and unattractiveness. Wilder had Mills gain 25lbs for the role but she never once looks overweight, certainly not enough to justify the excessive amount of references to her apparent corpulence. There’s a part of me that wonders if this was meant to be the point, with Pamela’s insecurities far exceeding the reality of her weight issues. This angle might’ve worked had Wilder and Diamond not had numerous other characters make reference to her weight. Avanti’s major failing is a cruelty in this regard that sits awkwardly with its essentially good heart. There’s a sense that Wilder himself is enjoying writing fat jokes, not least saddling the character with the surname Piggott. A scene in which she recounts a suicide attempt by overeating also feels mean and misjudged. It’s frustrating because the study of low self-esteem could easily have been one of the more interesting elements of the film had Wilder and Diamond been able to keep their own crueller tendencies in check.

Despite its occasional lapses in taste, Avanti! manages to sell the notion of its unlikely central romance through great performances, smart writing and the lengthy runtime which allows things to unfold at a steadier pace than the average time-pressured screen romance. I particularly like the way in which the title phrase, a standard Italian reply to a knock on the door that grants the visitor access, becomes a metaphor for romantic consent in one of the film’s sweetest moments. It’s a well-earned tonal change for a film that begins in the abrasive register of Armbruster before being gradually softened by the affable Pamela. Avanti! also benefits from the numerous different types of humour it employs. While Wilder regretted the amount of humour he included, he deftly switches between his trademark verbal wit, broader farcical misunderstandings and well-executed physical comedy. Lemmon and Mills both get wordless routines to perform, his an amusing introductory sequence with mildly risqué undertones, hers a slightly Benny Hill sequence in which she is pursued by a pack of horny admirers. If the latter is more unsettling than funny, there is ample compensation in an absolutely fantastic physical performance by cameoing Italian comedian Pippo Franco as a super-efficient coroner who has the act of form-stamping down to a fine art. In a demonstration of Wilder’s skilful balancing of tones, this performance occurs during one of the most emotionally downbeat scenes, a typically Wilderian acknowledgement of how the ridiculous can seep into the tragic with such easy disregard for our vanity’s delusions of dramatic significance.

If Avanti! feels like a film out of time amongst more enduring examples of American cinema from 1972, it is also a film that allows the viewer to feel gloriously out of place. Interspersing beautiful travelogue moments with hotel room scenes that betray the story’s stage origin, Avanti! acts as both a vicarious escape and a confirmation that you can’t really escape yourself wherever you go. But its increasingly romantic denouement does suggest that we can learn and grow, a change often facilitated by our environment. Ironic then that a good deal of Avanti’s charm stems from it feeling like an old fashioned film staunchly refusing to change too much in the face of new innovations. 

11. ONE, TWO, THREE

One, Two, Three was Billy Wilder’s first film following the multiple-Oscar triumph of The Apartment. One, Two, Three was not a commercial success and its pronounced tonal difference from the film that preceded it meant that critical acclaim was tentative. Praise for the film has grown over the years but it is still one of Wilder’s lesser-seen works and one which tends to split opinion between those who see it as the beginning of a downturn in quality and those who hail it as an underappreciated masterpiece. James Cagney (in his final leading role) plays C.R. ‘Mac’ MacNamara, a high-ranking Coca Cola executive working in West Berlin but angling for a big promotion that would take him and his family to London. Tasked with looking after his boss’s seventeen-year-old socialite daughter Scarlett during her visit to Berlin, Mac is horrified when he discovers that Scarlett has married young East German Communist Otto Piffl, who despises Capitalism and is not shy about espousing his anti-American rhetoric. Having first conspired to get rid of Otto and have the marriage annulled, when he learns not only that Scarlett is pregnant but that her parents are coming to visit the following day at noon Mac finds himself in the position of having to get Otto back and groom him into appearing to be the ideal husband.

The stage is set for a plot that could easily tip over into a hokey farce or rise to the occasion of being an ingeniously constructed comedy. With a tight, one-liner stuffed screenplay, a game cast and a risqué political subtext, Wilder manages to make sure One, Two, Three is far more the latter than the former. Farce is one of the trickiest types of comedy to pull off because in constructing a suitably intricate plot, the writer must know exactly when it is time to escalate proceedings and just how far they can go before breaking point is reached. The necessity to put so much effort into the plot can also mean that the characters involved emerge as thin stereotypes whom the audience care little about and, for farce to work, there has to be at least some connection with those acting it out if the embarrassment and urgency are to be felt as keenly as they must be. Wilder and Diamond’s script, undeniably the major trump card here, cleverly gets round these problems by presenting us with characters who are broadly drawn but not absolute clichés. There are familiar plot wrinkles here, such as a smart but opportunistic businessman who is sleeping with his secretary, but said secretary is herself a smart, opportunistic character and not the sexist fantasy of the empty-headed sex object used so liberally in 60s comedies. Mac’s wife Phyllis, played wonderfully by an underused Arlene Francis, is not a ball-breaking monster designed to make us sympathise with her adulterous husband, but rather a dignified, perpetually-amused onlooker who is aware of her husband’s infidelities and reaches her breaking point with them in her own understated way, a plot point which is played more for dramatic tension than thigh-slapping “ain’t-marriage-a-racket” laughs. 

Broader stereotypes are to be found in the heel-clicking efficiency of the German staff or Otto’s slogan-spewing Commie but these are all part of the film’s political themes and Wilder uses them to poke fun at every nationality involved in the Cold War. A cuckoo clock with the bird replaced by an Uncle Sam figurine is a central symbol of American patriotism at its tackiest and Wilder and Diamond cleverly incorporate it as an important plot point. The divisions between East and West Berlin are played for laughs too, which ultimately sealed One, Two, Three’s fate with audiences when its production coincided with the erection of the Berlin wall. When the film came out amidst this turmoil, it was seen by many as utterly tasteless and mean-spirited. Although it can often improve satire if the political situation being parodied is at its height, the brand of broad but politically-significant farce being offered up here probably aged better with some distance from newsreels filled with grim repercussions. That said, had the wall gone up before production began on One, Two, Three, it is unlikely Wilder would have been deterred. On the contrary, Wilder made a love-triangle comedy in which one of the protagonists was an ex-Nazi only a few years after the end of World War II so there’s every indication he would have seen the escalation of the Cold War as even more reason to push on with a comedy making fun of it.

Ultimately, the political underpinnings of One, Two, Three have aged better than a couple of its broader moments. Wilder just about gets away with Lilo Pulver’s secretary being used as a bargaining chip between leering businessmen by making their lascivious grotesqueness and failure the real butt of the joke, although there are a couple of shots where we are invited to join the businessmen in their objectifying gaze. A gag about a Military Police officer being driven to instantaneous madness when he mistakes two coloured balloons for a woman’s breasts is the one moment when the wheels really come off the wagon but it’s a brief moment of silliness that arrives amongst a gloriously well-oiled third act and as such is forgivable. A scene involving Otto being tortured using a recording of Brian Hyland’s novelty hit Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini also fails in turning a serious subject into light comedy by carelessly taking it too far in the other direction. 

But for all these slip-ups, One, Two, Three really comes into its own in its final act. Forced to turn Otto into an acceptable son-in-law for his boss, Mac has to orchestrate a full makeover in a matter of hours while also dealing with a series of emergencies that keep arising. This is the point where the film goes ballistic, making excellent use of Cagney’s ability to fire off dialogue at machine-gun speed. If executed wrongly, farce that escalates to this extent can become repetitive or annoying but Wilder and Diamond do a phenomenal job of pulling together little plot strands you never dreamed would come back again so that everything seems to happen naturally and there is enough variety in the events that occur to ensure that endless pratfalls never need to be employed. Virtually every character who has already appeared in the film, plus a few last minute additions, gets to play a part in this fantastic final third and the dialogue continues to be as fizzily effective throughout rather than stepping back to let the physical comedic elements do all the heavy lifting. It’s fast and furious but nothing is left dangling, resulting in a satisfyingly neat conclusion.

It’s easy to see why One, Two, Three, a film about division, also divides critics. Its particular brand of farce, however well delivered, is difficult to make as thoroughly elegant as the deft comedy-drama split that characterises Wilder’s best work. But Wilder completely commits to his mission statement here, making One, Two, Three one of the fastest-paced comedies ever put on screen without sacrificing the eloquent, witty dialogue that he’d come to be known for. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a masterpiece but its certainly a great comedy that shows how Wilder’s intelligent approach can enliven what could have been an excruciating mess of flailing limbs and mugging faces.

10. STALAG 17

Stalag 17 is a bit of an odd duck in the Billy Wilder canon. Adapted by Wilder and Edwin Blum from a popular play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, the film version of Stalag 17 apparently deviates considerably from the source text (although Trzcinski presumably didn’t mind too much given that he makes a cameo appearance here as a prisoner of war attempting to delude himself that his wife has been faithful). Whether this deviation is a tonal one or merely plot-based I’m not sure but Wilder’s version is tonally peculiar in its mixture of Comedy and War Drama. Wilder had mixed these genres before of course, but in the case of Stalag 17 the comedy is much broader than in anything Wilder had previously helmed. The film boasts genuinely high stakes, several deaths by machine gun, a brutal beating, torture by sleep deprivation and an involving mystery about an informant. If you edited these scenes together back to back, it would seem like a straight Drama. But given the goofy comedic antics with which they rub shoulders, the overall tone becomes a lot lighter as the slapstick and clowning seems to bleed into the serious moments. Ultimately, it works to an extent, making for a much more unusual and enjoyable experience than another grim prisoner-of-war tale would have. But I also feel that the deliberately jarring juxtaposition of the comic and dramatic beats is more interesting than a lot of the comedy itself, which is broad and silly in a way that grates as much as it amuses. This is largely down to original cast members Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss as Harry and Animal, a vaudeville style double act who dominate far too strongly in the early part of the film. They do all the old stinkers from “Who turned out the lights?” to “You can say that again” and their cartoonish buffoonery would be much better in small doses. To cut them altogether would be to lose the strange magic of Stalag 17’s unique personality but given that the film is nearly two hours long some judicious editing wouldn’t have gone amiss.

If Wilder’s overt comedy feels broader than usual here, his dramatic wit is firing on all the same cylinders as those that made Ace in the Hole’s grim outlook more palatable. William Holden’s Sefton, a despised, cynical black marketeer, is a tremendously Wilderian protagonist. Although he is ultimately forced into the role of hero, the film wastes no time in depicting him as far from a pleasant guy. When we first meet him he is betting on the lives of two fellow prisoners attempting to mount an escape. Sefton isn’t a monster, he’s not rooting for them to be gunned down, but having assessed the likelihood he is more than willing to make something for himself out of a tragic situation. He is also prone to lauding over his comrades the advantages his hustling brings. He enjoys his comforts more because the others don’t have them, an attitude that appears to be rooted in the chip on his shoulder regarding social class, which for all we know may be the result of far worse transgressions than his own smug taunts. Holden plays this complex, compelling character beautifully, earning himself a Best Actor Oscar in the process. Holden suspected he’d only won as a consolation for not winning for Sunset Boulevard but he is much better as Sefton, a subtly portrayed member of an ensemble who gradually, quietly pulls focus in the same way he takes everything for himself. The writing of Sefton is amusing in both its cynical surface wit and the astute observational undercurrents, making him a perfect counterpoint to Harry and Animal’s screwy asides or Sig Ruman’s brilliantly audacious comic performance as the disingenuous German Sergeant Schulz.

Stalag 17 spends a lot of time establishing its mood and, while those impatient for the plot may find themselves alienated by these early stretches, those who enjoy a well-crafted atmosphere will be richly rewarded. The film gets better and better as it goes along, its central mystery gradually taking precedence over the looser antics and setting up an exciting, adventurous finale. Having established the daily hijinks of the men, the film cleverly uses them as background enhancements. There’s an absolutely terrific scene in which Sefton silently puts together some crucial information as the other men engage in a singalong of When Johnny Comes Marching Home. And when Sefton finally steps up as the hero, his finest hour is undercut by the cynical comments of his comrades, a moment which ends the film on an appropriate note for the tone it has worked so hard to establish. It is this tonal balance that is perhaps its most impressive achievement. There are those who dislike Stalag 17 that describe it as like two different movies but that is to sell it short. It’s actually like several different movies, with each member of the group being fully realised enough to warrant their own storyline. When different characters step into the spotlight, the film switches genres with them, from Mystery to Drama to Thriller to several different types of Comedy. Whether it works for you or not depends on whether you think these styles blend or clash. Actually, that’s not quite true, because I think they sort of clash but they do so rather gloriously, reflecting the messiness of a life than can land such a disparate group in the same inescapable location.

9. THE FORTUNE COOKIE

After the critical and commercial success of his masterpiece The Apartment, Billy Wilder had seemingly come a little creatively unraveled over the course of the 60s. That’s not to say he hadn’t made some good films but they had gradually become more chaotic and less human, culminating in the crass and widely reviled flop Kiss Me, Stupid. The Fortune Cookie, though it remains comparatively underrated, feels a lot like Wilder and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond getting back to something more grounded after the cartoonish excesses of One, Two, Three and Irma la Douce. With a focus on frivolous lawsuits and opportunistic greed, The Fortune Cookie has retained its satirical relevance as much as Wilder’s Sex Comedies have dated. The story of cameraman Harry Hinkle, whose accidental injury at an American Football game is trumped up into an exaggerated legal issue by his unscrupulous brother-in-law, The Fortune Cookie, like so much of Wilder’s work, is often called cynical. But when Wilder points out societal problems he very rarely does so with the defeatism of a true cynic. The very act of pointing out the issue is a step towards remedying it, which is why I’ve always found Wilder’s work to be characterised more by a prominent and astute humanism. The Fortune Cookie may be the clearest example of this. From the start, Wilder and Diamond are clearly as repulsed by lawyer “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich as they are amused by him, and Harry’s implication in his scheme, though ultimately inspired by love, is viewed with similar revulsion, allowing the audience to experience his internal moral battle with equally sick stomachs.

The Fortune Cookie floods the screen with morally stagnant characters but amongst them is that rare thing in a Wilder film: a wholly good person. In this case, that person is Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson, the football player who accidentally injures Harry and experiences a spiral of guilt as a result. Boom Boom is the heart of the film, his growing friendship with Harry being both moving and mildly excruciating to watch. Harry’s exaggeration of his concussion to the point of fraudulent confinement to a wheelchair causes Boom Boom to spend all his time unnecessarily helping Harry with his daily existence, with his burgeoning football career suffering as a result. As the first major black character in a Wilder film, it feels significant that the result of the machinations of the white characters result in Boom Boom being forced out of a lucrative career and into the role of a servant. If these racial themes are largely secondary to those of manipulative greed, Wilder and Diamond leave us in no doubt that they are intentional when a climactic scene brings discrimination to the forefront.

The Fortune Cookie is perhaps best remembered for being the first film to pair future comedy partners Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. While the two work well together, it’s fair to say that Matthau’s Oscar-winning turn as the grasping lawyer easily walks away with the picture. His immoral wheelings and dealings dominate the film’s first half and his iconic hangdog face exquisitely wraps itself round the deliciously slick dialogue. Matthau is particularly great in a scene where he negotiates a payoff based on a figure he has written on a piece of paper. Despite him being a detestable character, his gleeful lauding of the power he holds is a joy to watch. Another grandstanding moment is Matthau’s climactic scene in which he draws on all his legal expertise to try and talk his way out of trouble, an ambiguous climax which convinces the viewer that he may just manage it. By contrast, Lemmon is more understated, his initially aggressive defensiveness in the early scenes giving way to a quiet contrition. The film slows down a little after it accompanies Harry from the hospital back to his apartment but this is where Wilder layers in the heart. There are also some nice comedic scenes involving private investigators Purkey and Max who are stationed across the street from Harry’s apartment, where they have placed bugs in the radiators. Cliff Osmond, who had supporting roles in Irma la Douce and Kiss Me, Stupid, gets a chance to better show off his comedy chops as Purkey. Only Judi West as Harry’s ex-wife Sandy is failed by weak material. Another opportunistic hanger-on used as bait to secure Harry’s cooperation, Sandy feels underwritten and largely superfluous once she has served as the inspiration to tempt a good man into terrible deeds.

The Fortune Cookie is perhaps a little too long for its repetitive premise but its mixture of biting satirical comedy and moralistic human drama works rather beautifully, its comparative restraint helping the more broadly farcical scene where everything comes to a head hit with a harder comedic and dramatic punch. The final scene is often written off as a concession to feelgood expectations but it ties the film together well and leaves room for doubt as to its hero’s fate in the same way that Matthau’s speech seems to glimpse a possible escape for its villain. After a handful of more abrasive works, The Fortune Cookie is a warmer, if no less cutting, corner of Wilder’s filmography.

8. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION

After a couple of box office failures in a row, Billy Wilder achieved widespread acclaim once more with his adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1953 play The Witness for the Prosecution. The story is ingeniously plotted in a way that allowed for an eye-catching publicity campaign begging viewers not to reveal its secrets to those who had not yet seen it. The twists and turns of the plot are indeed captivating but the major appeal of the film is the fact that Wilder has got back to the integral depth of character that defines his best work but which had been missing from his films since The Seven Year Itch. The first forty minutes of Witness for the Prosecution are particularly instructive in this regard. Ostensibly the portion of the film in which Tyrone Power’s accused man lays out the details of the central crime to his defence lawyers, Wilder seasons this exposition with an ongoing comedic battle between Charles Laughton’s ailing barrister Sir Wilfred and Elsa Lanchester’s authoritarian nurse Miss Plimsoll. While the plot set-up could’ve been a dry necessity, Wilder places the emphasis on Sir Wilfred’s stubborn insistence on indulging his worst habits as Miss Plimsoll hovers and tries to cajole him away from work. These obstacles mean that the main plot has to vie for attention and the information about the suspected murder is drip fed to the audience between details about the defence counsel’s surreptitious cigars. While the case itself necessarily asserts dominance once we reach the courtroom, the subplot about Sir Wilfred’s health and Miss Plimsoll’s watchful eye continues throughout. The fact that it was Laughton and Lanchester who were selected for Oscar nominations above the nominal leads Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich is testament to the effectiveness of Wilder’s bold comedic gambit.

While Laughton and Lanchester have a ball with their larger-than-life performances, Power and Dietrich offset them beautifully as the dramatic centre of the film, the suspected murderer and his coldly calculating wife. The characters are introduced separately in the early scenes in Sir Wilfred’s office before an excellent flashback scene fills in some of the blanks about how they met and why they are together. It is an interesting scene to revisit after the climactic revelations, its warmth and humanity being cast in an entirely new light. As is usually the case, Dietrich easily claims the spotlight whenever she is on screen, looking about half of her 55 years of age and utilising the weight of her reputation for roguish roles in order to create a fascinating air of moral ambiguity. It’s one of Dietrich’s most complex roles and, as was her wont, she makes it impossible to imagine anyone else playing it. But Power is not to be overlooked either. Better known for heroic roles in Adventure films, he makes the amusingly named Leonard Vole almost as interesting as Dietrich. The full effectiveness of Power’s performance is revealed after the final twist, when we realise his convincing protestations of innocence and his faux-bewilderment have totally thrown us off the scent. The excellent screenplay by Wilder, Larry Marcus and Harry Kurnitz also furnishes its minor characters with relishable moments. John Williams is enjoyably anxious as the junior defence counsel, Francis Compton gets off some impishly dry zingers as the laidback judge and Norma Varden is delightfully dotty as the murder victim with a penchant for ostentatious hats. The real scene stealer though is Una O’Connor, the woman who memorably shrieked her way through a couple of the best Universal Horror films, as the grumpy housekeeper whose appearance for the prosecution seems entirely vindictive and personal. The scene is brilliantly written, once again mining comedy from tragedy, and momentarily introducing an unexpected power shift.

Audiences love a good twist and Witness for the Prosecution’s numerous reveals have seen its popularity endure for decades. The convoluted ploy executed by Dietrich’s Christine Vole, however, does lead to one of the film’s few flaws. Part of her plan involves her disguising herself as an old cockney crone in order to introduce new evidence at a crucial stage. The makeup job for this transformation is terrific, completely obscuring Dietrich’s identity from the audience on a visual level. However, her rather odd cockney accent is unable to cover up the distinctive rhythms of Dietrich’s speech patterns and fans of the actress in particular will likely spot the secret. There are further reveals to come but if you get ahead of the plot at this stage it does reduce the impact of at least one subsequent scene. Fortunately, Witness for the Prosecution is far more than just its twists. It is a very rewatchable film because Wilder’s writing and direction leans heavily into compelling character work and witty dialogue, serving up the revelations as more of a bonus than a crux. The machinations of the murderers are overshadowed by the filmmaking tricks employed by the director. Agatha Christie’s ingenious play may have provided the basis for Witness for the Prosecution but it feels like a Billy Wilder film through and through.

7. FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO

For his second Hollywood film as director, Billy Wilder followed his light Romantic Comedy debut The Major and the Minor with a War film. Five Graves to Cairo isn’t one of Wilder’s better-known films but it received some attention after Quentin Tarantino listed it amongst his top ten films of all time. With its historically revisionist approach, you can see how Five Graves to Cairo would appeal to Tarantino, although Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett don’t go as far as killing off Hitler, or in this case Rommel. Instead, they imagine a small but significant series of events that take place in the North African desert hotel The Empress of Britain. The contained setting makes for plenty of tense moments as Franchot Tone’s Corporal John Bramble, a British officer and the sole survivor of an unfortunate tank crew, finds himself impersonating a recently-killed waiter who turns out to be an undetected German spy. With the hotel besieged by German soldiers and with the unexpected arrival of Field Marshal Rommel himself, Bramble takes matters into his own hands.

Five Graves to Cairo was based on the 1917 play Hotel Imperial by Lajos Bírós which was adapted for the screen several times. As well as being packed with low-key thrills, Wilder and Brackett’s interpretation is dripping with the lively wit that always distinguishes their scripts. It’s easy to imagine this material being played completely straight and taking itself very seriously but Wilder’s film adds all sorts of comedy wrinkles that beautifully offset the tension. Akim Tamiroff is excellent as the jittery hotel owner Farid, whose overwhelming anxiety at being dragged into a potentially deadly situation is a source of ongoing humour. Wilder and Brackett also drop in a jovial but volatile Italian General with a penchant for bursting into boisterous song. Apparently neither of the writers were happy with the casting of this role, finding Fortunio Bonanova too over the top, but it is this excessive caricaturing that makes the part such a successful comedic counterpart. Bonanova is hilarious, devouring the scenery every time he pops up and adding another obstacle in the path of the already beleaguered Bramble. Wilder and Brackett also reportedly disliked Tone in the heroic role (Wilder had wanted Cary Grant, a lifelong friend who for some reason consistently refused to appear in Wilder’s films) but he does fine, driving the story forward while regularly and graciously ceding the focus to his co-stars. Among them are Anne Baxter, who brings some of the same ambiguous tension to French maid Mouche that she would later deploy so effectively in All About Eve, and director Erich von Stroheim as Rommel. Wilder would later direct von Stroheim to an Oscar nomination for his more famous turn in Sunset Boulevard but he is every bit as great here, imbuing Rommel with the necessary historical magnitude but tempering that with a plethora of more personal quirks that make him a menacingly intimate figurehead. Of all the good performances here, it is von Stroheim’s that justifiably tends to be the most remembered.

Despite being based on a play, Five Graves to Cairo does not feel stagebound or uncinematic for a second. Wilder shoots the hotel corridors as a labyrinthine collection of potentially booby-trapped gauntlets to be run by the characters, a set-up which mirrors the duplicity of almost everyone here. Secrets and personal agendas abound, complicating the notion of good vs. evil as members of the same side clash in their approaches to dealing with the enemy. There are a handful of moments outside of the hotel that also manage to suggest the enormity of the world outside and the implications the events in that little enclosed space could have. Particularly memorable is an opening scene of a lone tank trundling through the desert, its inhabitants all apparently dead. The film also uses a climactic montage in order to avert its gaze from a final horror which would clash too conspicuously with the fleet, adventurous and comedic tone but is too important a side of this story to omit. 

I remember the first time I watched Five Graves to Cairo, I was shocked by how such a brilliant film could’ve been comparatively lost in the shuffle rather than hailed as one of Wilder’s best. But then you start looking through the filmography and realise just how many huge classics there are in there. Five Graves to Cairo’s reputation was probably not helped by the fact that it was overshadowed immediately by Wilder’s next film, the stone-cold classic Double Indemnity, the enduring brilliance of which leads many people to adopt it as their starting point in Wilder’s catalogue while foolishly ignoring his earlier work. I myself waited a long time to see Five Graves to Cairo, assuming I’d find a curio. What I found instead was a genuine hidden gem.

6. SABRINA

By 1954, Billy Wilder’s films had established a very dark edge. With the exception of the featherlight Musical The Emperor Waltz, a failed experiment, Wilder’s films for the last decade had been mired in murder and madness, set in war-torn cities and prisoner-of-war camps, featuring opportunistic and amoral protagonists. The films rarely became overwhelmingly bleak though, partly because of Wilder’s prominent sense of humour and partly because, while the characters were frequently cynical, the outlook was not. Wilder is often slapped with the label of a cynic by critics but if you’re paying attention to the films, they actually spend more time exposing cynicism with the aim of eradicating it. If Wilder believed that a character like Ace in the Hole’s Chuck Tatum was an unbeatable force then he probably wouldn’t have bothered making the film. Because they sidestep overt preaching, Wilder’s films are frequently mischaracterised as not having a moral centre. Sabrina is often seen as an anomaly, a light, whimsical Rom-Com after a barrage of downbeat satires. On the surface, this might seem to be the case. Sabrina is so eloquently written and elegantly directed that it’s easy to mistake it for a champagne bubble. In fact, it has a sting in its tail as sharp as the broken champagne glasses that puncture one of its character’s buttocks.

Based on a play by Samuel A. Taylor and co-written by Wilder, Taylor and one of the great screenwriters of the next few decades, Ernest Lehman, Sabrina is the tale of a chauffeur’s daughter who lives with her father above the garage of the wealthy Larrabee family. In love with the irresponsible playboy brother David Larrabee since she was a girl, Sabrina is sent away to Paris on a two year cooking course in an attempt to quell her all-consuming crush. When she returns two years older, decked out in the latest Parisian fashions and full of the culture, the once oblivious David begins to pay attention. This looks bad for David’s older brother Linus and their father, who are in the process of forcing David into a marriage to the daughter of another wealthy business owner in order to secure a profitable merger with their own company. And so Linus decides to romance Sabrina himself, taking advantage of a freak injury sustained by David in order to pretend he is helping to facilitate their relationship when really he intends to have Sabrina fall for him to dupe her into boarding a boat back to Paris which she will later discover he is not on. 

Given that the premise is so cruel on paper, it’s hard to believe that Sabrina is seen as a light alternative to Wilder’s more acerbic work. But displaying once again the impressive directorial range that the overused term “cynical” fails to acknowledge, Wilder has created a film here that is notably different in style to its immediate predecessors. Its gentle pacing, sweet characterisations, Charles Lang’s captivatingly soft black and white cinematography and Frederick Hollander’s rousing, sweepingly romantic score all work a spell on the senses before the plot’s reprehensible manipulations even begin. Perhaps even more than these elements, Audrey Hepburn’s central performance as the titular Sabrina is utterly captivating. Fresh off her Oscar win for Roman Holiday, the 25 year old Hepburn found herself nominated once again for her impeccable essaying of a naïve girl who grows into a sharp, sophisticated woman whose resilience helps to soften what could’ve been an irreconcilably mean-spirited plot. Hepburn displays these pivotal abilities in microcosm during an early scene in which a suicide attempt (albeit abortive) is rendered funny and cute thanks to her performance.

One divisive issue regarding Sabrina is whether Humphrey Bogart was miscast in the role of Linus, the thirty year age discrepancy between him and his leading lady placing Bogart second after Fred Astaire in the list of inappropriately aged romantic pairings that dogged Hepburn throughout her career. Bogart himself constantly worried about his suitability for the role, reportedly making a nuisance of himself on set with his misgivings. The key to accepting Bogart in the part of Linus lies in Wilder’s original intention to cast Cary Grant (only 25 years Hepburn’s senior. Perfect!). It’s easy to picture Grant in the role and, having read this titbit before watching the film, I could even hear some of the dialogue in his distinctive accent and rhythm. But Grant seems too suave and charming for the awkward Linus, increasing the likelihood of his charming Sabrina away from David in a way that would make the romance far less interesting or comedically viable. Unlike the egregious Funny Face, which seemed to pair the older Astaire with Hepburn without a second thought, Sabrina acknowledges the age difference in its dialogue and is careful to give Sabrina herself the agency required to not make it feel exploitative. The film crucially becomes Linus’s redemption story, with Sabrina proving how much she has grown up much earlier in the narrative.

Unlike the boisterous comedy in Stalag 17, Sabrina opts for a much gentler wit. There are a couple of bigger psychical jokes including two characters accidentally sitting on glass receptacles and a hilarious visual gag about Linus’s delight in demonstrating the resilience of a new type of plastic by having people bounce up and down on it. But overall Sabrina eschews big laughs in favour of a sustained charm and relishably smart dialogue. There are also interesting asides about class, in particular the subplot about Sabrina’s father disapproving of her crossing the class divide, and a genuine sense of melancholy that is beautifully folded into the production so as not to overwhelm the lighter scenes but not be jarring when it bobs to the surface, as it does in an absolutely wonderful sequence in which Linus and Sabrina share an impromptu evening date in the offices of Larrabee Industries. Those who have characterised Wilder as a cynical director and are looking for that hard edge may find Sabrina disappointing but those who see Wilder’s style for the more complex, multifaceted thing it is will delight in this beautiful film and recognise the touch of its director.

5. SUNSET BOULEVARD

Sunset Boulevard remains not only one of Billy Wilder’s most famous films but one of the most famous in all of cinema, to the extent that Donald Trump, who probably thinks it is a comment on how all women over 29 are disgusting, is able to cite it as a preferable alternative to a film he definitely hasn’t seen but wants to denounce on grounds of racism. It is a little surprising that such a caustic satire of Hollywood has gained so much favour within the industry or that such a bitter film has consistently delighted audiences for decades. It wasn’t as if Wilder didn’t have form in this respect though. Anyone who had seen Double Indemnity or A Foreign Affair prior to Sunset Boulevard’s release were probably not quite so taken aback by the dark corners it probes or the viciously black comedic edge that protrudes throughout. The final scene, however, is such a jaw-dropping combination of Noirish tragedy, psychological horror and Grand Guignol absurdity that it’s hard to find a precedent. It is also such a perfect ending, so effective in pulling together the film’s themes and moods, that it’s hard to believe that only the first third of the screenplay was written when filming began.

Sunset Boulevard was one of the dominant films in one of the greatest Oscar years, with nominees from this film and All About Eve accounting for nearly half of the twenty acting nominations. That fact is perhaps surprising, given that Sunset Boulevard is a film that hinges so prominently on one iconic performance. The rest of the cast are good, with William Holden’s washed-up writer-turned-gigolo Joe Gillis rivalling Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff in the morally-ambiguous narrator stakes. Erich von Stroheim shows his range as an actor by giving a markedly different performance from that he gave in Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo, while Nancy Olson works hard to make the potentially dull role of Betty into a charismatic human being. But it is undoubtedly Gloria Swanson as former superstar Norma Desmond who devours Sunset Boulevard without even a glass of water. That’s not meant as an insult. That’s how Norma Desmond is written on the page. She’s big, it’s the pictures that got small. She’s always giving a performance. Swanson understands that and knows how to make it both funny and tragic. But she also absolutely nails the handful of moments when the mask slips. Having attempted suicide in order to get the attention of Joe, she responds to his confrontation with a flamboyant cry of “I’ll do it again.” It’s a line she repeats thrice. The first time it’s a spur-of-the-moment threat in the heat of an argument. The second time it is a dramatic performance, once more with feeling for emphasis. The third time it is a quiet, strangled declaration, riddled with fear at the possibility that she really means it and resignation that she might actually see death as preferable to life at this point. It would be easy to portray Norma as a cruel caricature for easy laughs but that is not the case either on the page or in the performance. The writing of Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. is not afraid to make her ridiculous but it also portrays the mental exhaustion of being a proud person who has begun to sense their own ludicrousness and Swanson’s performance astutely leans into that.

Sunset Boulevard is a notoriously tricky film to categorise. It’s a Comedy of sorts but it doesn’t have the physical or verbal gags of A Foreign Affair or The Major and the Minor, favouring instead a frosty absurdity and bleakly satirical sting. Some of the jokes are so oblique as to be easily missed, such as when a literal spotlight is briefly shone on Desmond and the crew member responsible for it is told “turn that light back where it belongs.” The line is spoken by a cameoing Cecil B. DeMille who is portraying himself as a sympathetic and protective contemporary of Desmond. And yet, as an ageing man who is still working successfully in the business, the double standard is clear as he patronisingly humours Desmond and dances around a misunderstanding that has caused her to prepare for a comeback. DeMille is excellent in his cameo but, given his well-documented conservatism, one has to wonder whether he fully understood the implications of the script. The other genre in which Sunset Boulevard is regularly classed is Noir and it certainly qualifies in several ways for that notoriously slippery categorisation, but it is not the instantly recognisable “pure Noir” (to borrow a horrible term from cinema snobs) of Double Indemnity and the fact that it is narrated by a corpse simultaneously ups its fatalistic Noir credentials and adds a supernatural edge that seems to categorise it as something else completely. There’s a looming air of Gothic Horror in Desmond’s sprawling mansion and the Havishamesque way she has cloistered herself within. 

Sunset Boulevard is a riveting classic which contains multitudes but, despite its numerous identities, it would be a misnomer to call it a genre-hopping film. It doesn’t move from one genre to the next so much as blend them all into a poisonous smoothie right before our eyes, and it certainly doesn’t hop. Such a sprightly descriptor has no place being even tangentially associated with a film that so indelibly mirrors the slow, funereal march of the ageing process. Wilder once again manages to make a film that is compassionate at heart without resorting to one-note moralising or mirroring the condescending tone of its own pseudo-DeMille. Its commentary on the film industry’s monstrous mistreatment of women is still sadly relevant today. Did you get all that, Donald?

4. ACE IN THE HOLE

The story of an unscrupulous newspaperman who deliberately escalates a potentially tragic situation for the sake of his own personal exposure, Ace in the Hole was Billy Wilder’s first critical and commercial flop. Given its relentlessly grim satirical takedown of media sensationalism, one might find its lack of success with audiences unsurprising. But it was on this sort of unflinching commentary that Wilder had partially built his reputation so this tone, even as extreme as it is here, can hardly have been a surprise. A likely cause of initial hostility towards Ace in the Hole was that Wilder’s latest film turned its attention to the complicity of the public themselves in a national epidemic of detrimental and dangerous dumbing-down. 

If a beat-for-beat modern equivalent of Ace in the Hole were made today, it would likely be seen as heavy-handed and obvious, with decades of cinematic cynicism as a precedent. But in 1951 the average cinemagoer took less kindly to attending a movie and being made to feel bad about themselves. Even the critics didn’t seem to be able to set aside their personal feelings, with The Hollywood Reporter declaring the film “a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions – democratic government and the free press.” Such conservatively protective attitudes over the depiction of entire institutions are an argument for films like Ace in the Hole being a necessity rather than an aberration. Meanwhile, Bosley Crowther’s contention was that “There isn’t any denying that there are vicious newspaper men and that one might conceivably take advantage of a disaster for his own private gain. But to reckon that one could so tie up and maneuver a story of any size, while other reporters chew their fingers, is simply incredible.” Crowther’s seems like a problem with realism more than anything but the way it misunderstands the notion of taking a narrative idea to its logical conclusion poses the question of whether Crowther was as butthurt, subconsciously or otherwise, as everyone else. Filmgoers and critics devoured Sunset Boulevard because the audience’s complicity in Hollywood’s misogyny and ageism was subtextual in comparison to its dismantling of the industry itself. But Ace in the Hole dares to put representations of the general public themselves up on the screen and the initial response was akin to Cecil B. DeMille’s cry from Wilder’s previous film: “Turn that light back where it belongs!”

In accusing the public of being averse to Ace in the Hole’s overt criticism, it’s easy for the viewer to fall into a smug reading of the film that places themselves above those being satirised rather than among them. Certainly, for a long stretch I found myself feeling righteously angry at the revellers so easily duped into becoming part of the three-ring-circus at the centre of Ace in the Hole before I even made the connection with all the viciously harmful clickbait I’ve idly consumed in the last few days alone. Once you feel implicated, it’s easy to dart behind accusations of preachiness aimed at Wilder and his co-writers Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels, but, though it is often described as cynical, I think the script they crafted is actually morally aspirational. In showing us a worst case scenario it is aiming to help us recognise and avoid such manipulations in future. I don’t think that Wilder is suggesting he is better than his audience in this respect either. It seems significant that one of the few points of entry for viewers is Robert Arthur’s photographer Herbie Cook, a likeable but easily corrupted character who tellingly spends most of his time behind a camera. 

There’s a certain repetitiveness to Ace in the Hole that might put off some viewers. Once we become aware of the monstrous plot concocted by Kirk Douglas’s Chuck Tatum, it’s just a matter of watching numerous examples of venal duplicity seasoned with outbursts of brutality play out towards an inevitable end. If that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, it’s important to remember who the writer/director is. Just as he made reprehensible protagonists utterly compelling in Double Indemnity, so Wilder once again makes ugliness entertaining in his most loathsome creation yet. Chuck Tatum is the proverbial car crash of a human being, impossible to root for but impossible to look away from as well. The screenplay is filled with the fantastic turns of phrase and acid-tinged witticisms that had become Wilder’s stock in trade but they are filtered through a bludgeoning bluntness that is notably different from the hardbitten eloquence of Double Indemnity, the rat-a-tat Screwball rhythms of A Foreign Affair or the clipped, ironic utterances of Sunset Boulevard. On paper, Ace in the Hole probably reads as a Black Comedy but any lingering whimsy is thoroughly eradicated by the dense atmosphere of self-serving evil and corruption that hangs over the film. Wilder’s ability to change gears so subtly between films was perhaps facilitated here by his split from long-term writing partner Charles Brackett. Brackett apparently never received any explanation about why Wilder abruptly dissolved their extraordinary partnership, although Brackett had already temporarily bailed once when he found the subject matter of Double Indemnity too lurid. Perhaps Wilder foresaw similar complications in his future, given that Ace in the Hole sometimes makes Double Indemnity look like dinner theatre.

There’s very little else that’s subtle about Ace in the Hole but that seems like a deliberate choice, mirroring the blunt object that is media sensationalism with a relentless approach of its own that ensures no-one will miss the intended message. Like Sunset Boulevard before it, Ace in the Hole hinges on one performance in particular, with Kirk Douglas crushing everyone around him under his heel as the steamroller that is Chuck Tatum. Critics of the time found him over-the-top but Douglas plays the role exactly as it needs to be played: that is, like the personification of a particularly obnoxious tabloid headline. He berates, mocks, manipulates, bribes and brutalises all those around him, his eloquence betraying a latent wit but his manner showing a complete lack of charm with which to complement it. Douglas is superb, dominating the film with his domineering but mesmerising command of every scene. He makes Chuck seem grotesquely amoral for most of the runtime, then when his conscience does eventually get unexpectedly pricked he becomes even more revolting, wallowing in drunken self-pity and lashing out at others in order to try and absolve himself. The final string of scenes spiral out of control until that unforgettable final shot. The moment plays like a variation on Sunset Boulevard’s finale only with the level of horror elevated to the point that it is almost a jump scare. It’s a brilliant way to end the film, condensing every negative emotion into a moment of grim finality that is literally in your face.

It’s probably clear from the above review just why so many people struggle with Ace in the Hole. If initial audiences were unwilling to validate the observations it made about them and the toxic culture perpetuated by their complicity, some latter day audiences have been put off by just how unforgiving, relentless and bleak it is. But in an age when such savagely biting satire (much of it inspired by this film) is more common, Ace in the Hole plays as a pioneering masterpiece. 

3. DOUBLE INDEMNITY

Billy Wilder’s career as both a writer and director is long and varied but, due to the dominance of Some Like It Hot in his legend, he is often thought of as primarily a director of Comedies. Double Indemnity was Wilder’s third Hollywood film as director and Comedy had not yet become dominant in his directorial filmography. His next film would be the bleak examination of alcoholism The Lost Weekend, followed by Death Mills, a short Documentary about the Holocaust. Even when the Wilder catalogue shifted prominently towards Comedy, these were usually Comedies with a decidedly dark edge. Themes such as suicide, adultery, prostitution, drug dependency and war permeate Wilder’s Comedies, making them some of the most substantial of their era. Even Some Like It Hot kicks off with a Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre inspired murder. But if Wilder’s Comedies are shot through with dramatic subject matter, it’s notable that his Dramas are also laced with a blackly comedic wit that makes them stand out amongst the more earnest fare of their contemporaries. It is this ear for the absurdity of the deadly serious that helps the likes of Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole assert themselves as among the best films ever made. And it’s what makes Wilder the perfect choice to helm Double Indemnity.

Double Indemnity is based on James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, which the Hayes Office had twice deemed too seedy to adapt for the screen. Wilder knew he could make it work and he and his regular writing partner Charles Brackett wrote a treatment that convinced the censors that it was possible. Unfortunately, in the process Brackett convinced himself that they’d been right in the first place and bailed on the project. Left with the task of writing a screenplay alone, Wilder wisely sought a writing partner who would be more familiar with the sort of hard-boiled dialogue that this story demanded. His choice was Raymond Chandler, a contemporary of Cain’s in the detective novel genre, and while their collaboration was far from a happy one, it resulted in one of the most remarkable screenplays of the 40s. Wilder’s natural wit is filtered through Chandler’s hard-faced style by way of Cain’s sordid characters to create the perfect combination. Had Wilder attempted this difficult mix alone, it probably would’ve emerged as pastiche. With Chandler’s input, the screenplay solidifies into a thing of brilliance. If there is still sometimes an inclination towards laughter from the modern viewer, that is only because this specific example of the genre is so indispensable that it has become the subject of copious parodies across the decades.

With such a dynamite script in place, casting was crucial. The unpleasant characters at the centre of Double Indemnity were not the sort of roles the image-conscious stars of the day actively pursued and many big names turned down the lead role of Walter Neff, the insurance salesman drawn into a murder plot. Neff wasn’t only problematic because of his villainy; he is also a weak, easily manipulated and not especially bright character. Wilder was asking actors used to playing squeaky-clean heroes to take on a complex and unpleasant role. But Neff starts out as a relatively normal man who allows his worst qualities to be drawn out by his attraction to a client. Wilder knew he needed someone who audiences could see as a nice guy for the corruption to have full effect. Fred MacMurray, a square-jawed star of light Comedies, was persuaded to take the role even though he thought it beyond his abilities. As it turned out, it was one of his greatest roles, emerging as a sort of variation on the traditional good guy, delivering voiceover narration and providing the film with a viewpoint but saying and doing things that characters playing that narrative role very rarely said or did. MacMurray is good, trading on his clean-cut image in a way that makes Neff appear even more sleazy than he does on the page.

If Neff was a hard role to cast, the quintessential femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson ought to have been nigh on impossible. Fortunately, Wilder’s extremely shrewd first choice for the part overcame her initial misgivings and accepted. One of the biggest box office draws of the era, Barbara Stanwyck adored the script but feared for what it would do to her reputation. Wilder challenged her, asking whether she was a mouse or an actress, and Stanwyck went all out to prove she was the latter, bagging an Oscar nomination in the process. Phyllis is an iconic film figure but not in a glamorous way. Though she captivates Neff from the off, Wilder and Stanwyck deliberately make Phyllis more repugnant than alluring. This was no mean feat, given Stanwyck’s dazzling unconventional beauty and charisma. But by crowning her with an unflattering but memorably trashy blonde wig and having Neff’s instantaneous captivation with her centre around a tacky anklet, Phyllis is immediately and indelibly grotesque. Stanwyck knows exactly how to play up this unglamorous angle and she does so with a fearless dedication. Her take on Phyllis feels like a vice personified, the human version of smoking, a disgusting addiction that you can’t get out of your hair and clothes afterwards.

Though he is a much less morally compromised creation, the third lead, claims adjuster Barton Keyes, is my favourite character in Double Indemnity and he is played superbly by Edward G. Robinson, who I’ve always felt should’ve been Oscar nominated too (like MacMurray, Robinson never got nominated despite a long, iconic career). While Keyes is generally a decent man, actors of the day may have objected to taking the role based on how the friendship between Keyes and Neff is blatantly positioned as the film’s central romance, a wholesome tonic to its sordid, lustful alternative. The screenplay has both characters all but openly admit their love for each other, at first in a subtext-loaded moment of jocularity but eventually in a deeply moving echo of that scene in which the subtext becomes the text. To his credit, Robinson’s only objection to the role was that it was smaller than that of his co-stars but he certainly doesn’t make it feel that way, with many of the best scenes involving Keyes. Robinson ultimately said he accepted that at his age it was time to start settling into character roles, although the fact he was paid the same as his co-stars probably helped too.

Double Indemnity’s tale of murder, adultery and insurance policies is twisty enough to please but not difficult to follow. There’s ample suspense and oodles of moral ambiguity to keep first time viewers riveted and Wilder directs with a keen eye for atmosphere, evoking the grimy feel that so many lower-budget Noirs stumbled on accidentally. For those who have seen Double Indemnity before, there’s always the incentive to come back again in those performances and particularly that screenplay, which you can listen to with the same rhythmic pleasure you’d usually associate with music.

2. A FOREIGN AFFAIR

A Foreign Affair is regularly referred to as “second tier Wilder”, if it’s even afforded that much respect, but with each viewing I become convinced that this is one of Wilder’s finest, bravest and most acerbic films. After Wilder had attempted to exorcise the demons awakened during his short Holocaust documentary Death Mills by making lighthearted Musical The Emperor Waltz, with A Foreign Affair he faced his past head on with a return to Berlin, where he would capture the stunning location shots of the war-ravaged city. One of Wilder’s main takeaways from the artistic failure of The Emperor Waltz had been that, for him, it was impossible to return to a comforting notion of his childhood when he was cursed with the knowledge of what was to come afterwards. The Emperor Waltz felt like a lie and one chiefly directed at himself. By contrast, A Foreign Affair proved to be too truthful for some, with its depiction of opportunistic, womanising American soldiers getting it banned in the American zone of Berlin. The idea of attempting a Romantic Comedy in which one of the members of the love triangle is a Nazi sympathiser, especially when that character is afforded the respect of being explored as a real person rather than just a monstrous plot device, sounds like a risky approach even now, let alone in 1948. Nevertheless, the screenplay by Wilder, Charles Brackett and Richard L. Breen received some well deserved Academy attention with an Oscar nomination. The subsequent sweeping under the carpet of A Foreign Affair, however, feels at least partially the result of the discomfort its refreshingly candid and complex subject matter still inspires.

A Foreign Affair focuses on American troops stationed in post-War Berlin, where they regularly comb the streets looking for fräuleins they can impress with stockings and candy bars. Amongst these roguish soldiers is Captain John Pringle, who is conducting an illicit affair with Erika von Schlütow, a German cabaret singer who is suspected of being the ex-mistress of several high-ranking war criminals. The arrival of a US congressional committee, including the prim, headstrong Republican congresswoman Phoebe Frost, creates problems for Pringle when Frost becomes determined to discover the identity of the American soldier allegedly protecting this suspected collaborator. “Assisting” Frost with her investigation, Pringle becomes romantically entangled with her also, setting up a potentially combustible situation should the paths of the lovestruck Frost and the desperate von Schütow ever cross. This dynamite premise requires careful but bold handling in order to work and Wilder is perhaps the only director of the era who could have plausibly pulled it off, at either the writing or directing stages. You can feel his personal connection to the material, with several gags probing into tragic subject matter but retaining the appropriate emphasis to work as biting satire rather than cheap shock. Many of the jokes really sting, partly thanks to the exquisite crafting and deployment readily associated with a Brackett and Wilder screenplay, but also due to the dramatic weight that underscores every inch of the film, even at its most hilarious. 

The characters of A Foreign Affair begin as stock types – the roguish GI, the sultry, manipulative club singer, the prissy conservative – but all of them open out into recognisable human beings of considerable complexity and vulnerability. The bravest performance comes from the legendarily fearless Marlene Dietrich, one of the few performers of the era I can imagine having accepted the role of a Nazi and played it with such impeccable balance. Dietrich gives Erika a heartrending vulnerability, her post-war activities driven by the same apolitical survival instinct that would see her align herself with any atrocity in the name of self-preservation. Wilder and Dietrich are careful not to go as far as making Erika sympathetic but they do make her understandable, with Dietrich absolutely nailing a dramatic monologue towards the end of the film which contextualises her reprehensible choices. For the other leading role, Wilder managed to get a retired Jean Arthur to return to the screen. Reportedly having struggled with anxiety that would sometimes make her throw up between takes, Arthur‘s tendency to shun the spotlight had led to her leaving the movie business four years earlier. Whether it was Wilder’s growing reputation or the strength of the screenplay itself that tempted her back, Arthur is the absolute making of A Foreign Affair. Phoebe Frost is one of her greatest roles and she runs the gamut from poised precision to creeping vulnerability, lovesick girlishness to blunt authoritarianism, and tops it all off with a fabulous drunk act. The inherent differences in Dietrich and Arthur’s screen personas and performance styles makes them a fascinating pairing, absolutely perfect for the juxtaposition for which Wilder is aiming.

Wilder rightly keeps the spotlight on his two leading ladies for most of A Foreign Affair’s runtime but the rest of the cast do a good job too. I have often seen John Lund criticised for his performance as Captain Pringle, with the consensus being he is not charming enough to pull off the role. For me, this is exactly why Lund does work in the role. Pringle isn’t a charmer, he is a heel. He obtains sexual favours in exchange for exploiting one woman’s descent into poverty, while the other woman he obtains by pressing his excessively forceful attentions. The latter scene, in which he backs Phoebe into a corner as she tries to filibuster her way out of the situation, is probably harder to laugh at for many than it once seemed, but it works because Pringle’s behaviour is consistent with his unpleasantness. If this had been Cary Grant, the scene would have played as if we were meant to root for his sexual aggression to emerge victorious. With Lund, there’s a distinct sense of danger that underscores the comedy in a manner consistent with the overall tone. Pringle doesn’t get these women through charm. One of them is attracted to the passionate challenge of their differences, as highlighted in a wonderful speech by Phoebe about her past yearning for a Southern Democrat, while the other woman, despite repeatedly declaring her love, sees him as a mere resource. As the level-headed grandfather-to-be Colonel Plummer, the wonderful Millard Mitchell provides the film with a much needed anchor of sanity, his droll commentary on the fallout from the war providing one of the film’s wittiest scenes. Stanley Prager and William Murphy also provide good support as a pair of skirt-chasing soldiers with a classic Golden Age comedy duo dynamic.

Another notable element of A Foreign Affair is its musical interludes. Making the most of having secured Dietrich, Wilder brought in composer Friedrich Hollaender to write three numbers for her to perform. Hollaender had previously co-written the iconic See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have which Dietrich performed unforgettably in Destry Rides Again nearly a decade earlier. Sprinkled throughout the film, Hollaender’s excellent compositions make A Foreign Affair a more effective Musical than The Emperor Waltz had been. These are atmospheric, woozy little songs that reflect the downbeat uncertainty of life in war-torn Germany. The Ruins of Berlin is perhaps the choice cut, although the most unusual is the partially-spoken Black Market which sounds like a precursor to Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones album. There is so much going on in A Foreign Affair that the songs could easily have been cut for time but they enhance an already brilliant film by adding yet another flavour to the mix.

With its exquisite screenplay, smart, focused direction, striking location work, immaculate casting and evocative music, A Foreign Affair easily stands as Wilder’s most underrated film. Perhaps there is just so much going on and the tone is so unusual that it takes a few viewings for it to really click. I must confess I severely underrated the film on first viewing. But the more I see it, the more I’m convinced that A Foreign Affair is one of Wilder’s greatest and one of the finest films of its era. 

1. THE APARTMENT

In David Lean’s classic 1945 romantic drama Brief Encounter, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard meet in the apartment of Howard’s friend for an ultimately thwarted extramarital affair. Sitting in the audience and regarding Brief Encounter with his typical eye for unusual angles, Billy Wilder found himself more interested in the unexplored story of the friend who had to vacate his apartment than he was in the romantic leads. Wilder’s desire to explore this idea further was temporarily thwarted by the rigid Hays Code of the 40s and its rules on the depiction of adultery, but he kept it in his back pocket and when rules inevitably began to slacken a little with changing times, he leapt on the opportunity to make the masterpiece that is The Apartment

Though it is now often to be found in TV schedules in the middle of the day, The Apartment was once regarded as a very controversial film: “a dirty fairy tale”, as critic Hollis Alpert put it at the time. Although he meant it pejoratively, Alpert pretty much hit the nail on the head with his description, with The Apartment also being based on a salacious Hollywood scandal involving agent Jennings Lang, actress Joan Bennett and producer Walter Wanger, and a tragic personal story from co-writer I.A.L. Diamond’s friend, who returned home after breaking up with a woman to find she had committed suicide in his bed. If you’re thinking none of this sounds like the ideal inspiration for your typical comedy, you’d be right. Though The Apartment is often classed as a comedy, its abundant humour is mixed with a bleak streak which pushes its way to the forefront as the film progresses. After the cross-dressing hijinks of Some Like It Hot, this may not have been the sort of film audiences were expecting from Wilder but the precedents are clearly there in his other work. I’ve always thought the fact that the broad antics of Some Like It Hot have somehow become enshrined as Wilder’s best film do the director a huge disservice. There are so many better, funnier and more interesting films amongst his body of work. But with its St. Valentine’s Day Massacre plot, even Some Like It Hot had its dark side. Wilder has been both celebrated and criticised for his penchant for combining deadly serious themes with a comedic approach but it is one of the things that really makes him stand out as a writer/director and with The Apartment he reached the apex of that approach. 

The tonal balancing act of The Apartment is incredibly deft. The first hour, which explores low-level office worker C.C. Baxter’s attempts to climb the corporate ladder by lending out his apartment to his managers for their extramarital affairs, is largely comedic but it has a darker tone than some of Wilder’s more screwball takes on downbeat subjects, like A Foreign Affair or the subsequent One, Two, Three. Though there is a farcical element to Baxter being hauled out of his apartment in the middle of the night by horny, entitled executives, there’s also a chilly cynicism to Wilder’s exploration of widespread adultery amongst highflying businessmen and Baxter’s willingness to essentially prostitute himself to reach that same level. But the cynicism of which Wilder is so often accused is almost always undercut by an opposing idealism that ties his films together rather than let them drift into nihilistic despair. It is this that makes Hollis Alpert’s “dirty fairy tale” comment so apt. We have our heroes to root for, our villains to despise, lessons are learned and happy endings, albeit sometimes unconventional ones, are reached.

Like any good fairy tale, to get to its happy ending The Apartment must first send its heroes into the deepest, darkest forest. The second half of the film quickly becomes extremely bleak, with an attempted suicide and the subsequent fallout. But the bleakness is balanced by a disarming tenderness as Baxter’s best side is brought out by his attempts to care for the heartbroken elevator operator he adores. The tonal switch is somewhat unexpected the first time you see The Apartment, to the extent that I found it quite unnerving. But the balancing act between comedy and drama has rarely been more skilfully executed than it is here, with the trademark Wilder wit never disappearing even as the full pathos of human frailty is examined. The deft screenplay appreciates that in life the deadly serious often coincides with the ridiculous, so when a comedic subplot involving Baxter’s own run-in with a married woman suddenly smashes into the suicide attempt, Hope Holiday’s comedically self-pitying Margie MacDougall doesn’t just stop being funny. As Baxter emerges in a panic from finding the unconscious Fran overdosed on his bed, Margie tells him “I broke a nail trying to get the ice-tray out. You ought to buy yourself a new refrigerator.” The frantic Baxter races out the front door to get help, to which she responds “I didn’t mean right now!”

As well as an exceptional, Oscar-winning screenplay, The Apartment benefits from a wonderful, small core cast supplemented by colourful supporting turns. It’s hard to imagine The Apartment having worked at all without the innately lovable Jack Lemmon in the central role of Baxter. A typically morally-compromised Wilder hero, Baxter’s willing implication in his bosses’ reprehensible carryings-on could’ve made him unlikeable but Lemmon makes clear that this seems like Baxter’s only option to achieve his dreams, and that one impulsive decision has trapped him in an endless cycle of immoral and inconvenient actions. Though he allows himself to be seduced by a romanticised image of professional success, this corrupting influence is balanced by the purity of his love for Fran, who is also trapped by her more literal seduction at the hands of corporate entitlement. Shirley MacLaine has rarely been better than in her heartbreaking turn as the jilted elevator operator and her chemistry with Lemmon, which is largely platonic for the majority of the runtime, is never sullied by the lascivious tendencies of the era, a deliberate decision in order to differentiate Baxter from his licentious superiors. Completing the central trio of leads is Fred MacMurray, who boldly takes on the thankless role of heartless adulterer Sheldrake and underplays to perfection. It is often noted that MacMurray was better known for playing more likeable characters, although his previous association with Wilder had seen him cast as the murderous Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. It is testament to the skill of both writer/director and performer that they somehow made the murderer the more likeable character of the two.

The Apartment’s supporting cast is also superb, including the aforementioned Hope Holiday, Edie Adams as a vindictive secretary and Ray Walston and David Lewis as frequent users of Baxter’s apartment. But best of all is Jack Kruschen as Dr. Dreyfuss, Baxter’s neighbour. The relationship between Baxter and Dreyfuss is based around a farcical misunderstanding in which Dreyfuss believes every tryst happening in the apartment involves Baxter himself. At first this plot strand is played for broad laughs but when Dreyfuss’s medical skills are urgently required, the misunderstanding is exploited in a dramatic and moving manner which I never saw coming. It is perhaps the best illustration of The Apartment’s exquisite ability to switch tones abruptly but convincingly. Dreyfuss goes from comedy sitcom neighbour to the moral core of the film.

There’s an incredible sense of place to The Apartment, which brings an evocative claustrophobia to its seamy world. Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography and Alexandre Trauner and Edward G. Boyle’s Oscar-winning art direction help to make the titular space into a realistic, insalubrious little flat rather than the cavernous spaces that stood in for TV apartments. The insurance company office, meanwhile, is a triumph of forced perspective, using progressively smaller furniture and actors to create the illusion of a very long room. In another example of The Apartment’s impeccable inspirations, the office scenes were based on King Vidor’s silent classic The Crowd in order to make a similar point about one worker lost amongst a dehumanising environment. With such a well-realised picture of dehumanisation, The Apartment becomes a gently rousing story of two employees sullied by their surroundings who help each other reclaim their humanity. The phrase “Shut up and deal” may generally be used by those unsympathetic to the problems of others but here, in a different context, it becomes one of the greatest and most subtly romantic lines in cinema history.

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