Saturday, December 19, 2009
A (BILLY) WILD(ER) WEEKEND
Billy Wilder was one of the greatest film directors ever. He had an insight into the American mind that produced some memorable movies. I spent the last three nights watching Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment (a forerunner of Mad Men), and The Fortune Cookie. I did not watch Sunset Boulevard as I save my annual viewing of that movie for Christmas Eve. What made Wilder a fascinating figure was his heritage. A German Jew who emigrated to Paris in the early 1930's from Hitler’s Germany and then to America a few years later before WWII, he arrived here not able to speak a word of English. His first big hit was Double Indemnity in 1944. But what set him apart was his uncanny sense of America as told from the dark side. The film noir genre was popular in the late 40's and into the 50's. It put a heavy emphasis on cynicism and reminded audiences that human beings are by and large not necessarily nice people. I always liked the femme fatale, whether she be Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice or Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy. The American male had to realize that beneath the veneer of domestic bliss, his lovely wife waiting at home at night was just as likely thinking about putting a dagger in his back as she was mixing him a high ball. But what set Wilder apart was his ability to mix tears and laughter. Anyone watching The Apartment or The Fortune Cookie cannot help but feel sorry for the women who end up miserable and taken advantage of. I have watched Some Like It Hot about ten times and between all the laughs always end of crying inside over the way Sugar is mistreated as a sexy bimbo. Ditto with Judi West in The Fortune Cookie. Monroe’s role was a fitting metaphor for her life. Wilder took a slice of the American psyche and weaved a tale of tragicomedy that seemed to reflect something about human nature that was larger than the lives of his characters. The focus was never grand or sweeping: it was the small stuff that made it intriguing. Whether a shyster PI lawyer in The Fortune Cookie, or philandering advertising executives in The Apartment, or a conniving wife in Double Indemnity, there were never overriding social or political issues. Human beings and their inherent moral weaknesses were the focal point of the films. What I could never understand was how a foreigner could so quickly assimilate into our society and acquire such a keen appreciation of American life. His talent was not in understanding the Hollywood hotshots he probably knew best but the mind of average Americans with whom he most likely had very little contact. So here is a salute to Billy Wilder. If you have spare time on your hands for the rest of this year and your wife/kids/girlfriend are not pestering you, go Wild(er).