Billy Wilder’s “Buddy Buddy” (1981)

Following the disappointing reception of what he intended as his swan song– 1978’s FEDORA— director Billy Wilder went into an unofficial retirement.  However, he continued to write new projects with his scripting partner I.A.L. Diamond, in the hopes they’d cook up an idea worth mounting one last physical effort for.  At the dawn of the 1980’s, MGM contacted the 75-year-old Wilder to develop an American remake of a 1973 French hit, L’EMMERDEUR (2).  Despite his self-imposed retirement, Wilder was hungry to direct once more, and saw in the project an opportunity to reunite with his comic partners Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau while squeezing out one more feather in his cap.  The resulting work, 1981’s BUDDY BUDDY, regrettably failed to recapture the magic of the trio’s earlier collaborations, and would ultimately become the venerated filmmaker’s final film– closing out his amazingly accomplished career on a sour, anticlimactic note.  

Set in humdrum Riverside County, California– the epitome of blandly generic locales– BUDDY BUDDY is a textbook, if unexciting, example of the comic dynamic between Lemmon and Matthau.  It tells the story of Trabucco (Matthau), a hitman for the mafia who has been sent to assassinate a fellow gangster before he can testify in a high-stakes criminal case.  Matthau is the same old sourpuss grump here that he’s always been, slipping in and out of his various hits by becoming a master of disguise and blending into the background in various mailman and priest costumes.  He stumbles into an unwitting partnership with Lemmon’s Victory Clooney– an ulcer-ridden and suicidal man who has made his own journey out to Riverside to find his wife, Celia (Paul Prentiss), suspected of running off to a sex clinic in the area.  Lemmon also doesn’t expand upon the plucky, goody-two-shoes characterization he built his career upon, but his character’s occupation as a censor for CBS– mentioned in passing but never truly explored– allows for Wilder to throw one last tomato at his lifelong nemesis: institutional censorship.  Together, these mismatched men of a certain age will have to begrudgingly work together if they’re both to achieve what they want.  

Wilder may have played an influential role in the development of black-and-white noir cinematography during Hollywood’s Golden Age, but his late-career work tended to lack that same sort of dimensionality and pop.  Indeed, BUDDY BUDDY might just be Wilder’s most visually unappealing film ever– although admittedly, I had to watch the film panned and scanned onto a bootleg VHS-to-DVD transfer since the film hasn’t been officially released to disc.  Shot on color 35mm film by cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr, BUDDY BUDDY boasts bright, naturalistic colors… but that’s about it.  The pan-and-scan transfer effectively compromises the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, obliterating any semblance of artistic composition.  Combined with sleepy, uninspired camerawork, unimaginatively broad lighting, and simplistic coverage, BUDDY BUDDY comes off as a lifeless, flabby affair suited more for the small screen than the cinema.  Wilder’s minimalistic aesthetic, so precise and muscular in his prime, is so minimal here that it’s essentially non-existent.  The only semblance of energy comes in the form of composer Lalo Schifrin’s score, which has a jazzy character that doesn’t take itself too seriously, oozing the flirtatious intrigue of a cheeky spy film.

If it seems Wilder’s unique artistry has forsaken him entirely on the visual front, the spectre of thematic inspiration lingers in the periphery like a ghost.  BUDDY BUDDY sees the director’s last usage of the iconography of uniform, building further upon the idea of uniforms co-opted for disguise.  Matthau’s character routinely escapes his crime scenes by dressing up in the ubiquitous uniforms of mailmen, priests, and even milkmen, using them as visual shorthand to manipulate the assumptions of those around him to his advantage.  BUDDY BUDDY is a comedy of very little laughs, but it does contain a few dying spasms of Wilder’s signature acid-tipped wit– like in the scene where Lemmon interrupts a suicide attempt to urinate.  By the same token, however, Wilder’s onscreen depiction of this act points to his increasingly-sophomoric attempts to remain edgy in the face of a society rapidly out-liberalizing him.  Whereas these attempts at risqué humor used to be coded with clever innuendo and sight gags, Wilder now puts it forth rather bluntly and crudely.  Just like seeing Lemmon’s bare ass in 1972’s AVANTI!, there’s something about Matthau uttering the word “fuck” on-screen in BUDDY BUDDY that feels fundamentally unsettling; sacrilegious, even.    

The final film of a venerated auteur is an inherently intriguing notion.  Most directors spend so much of their short time on earth commenting on the nature of life that it’s reasonable to assume his or her swan song holds some kind of parting wisdom or insight that eludes those in the spring of youth.  Some, like Stanley Kubrick, don’t get to choose their final film, passing on suddenly without warning– yet, their final works feel like a proper capstone anyway.  Others, like Wilder, do receive the privilege of anticipating a new project might be the last, but nevertheless fail to rise to the challenge.  BUDDY BUDDY is a stuffy, uneven, and joyless final work from one of the most delightfully mischievous filmmakers to ever live.  The toothlessness and ultimate irrelevance of the experience suggests that perhaps Wilder simply didn’t care about making movies anymore– a silly notion when considering that his love for filmmaking is the only reason he was coaxed back in the first place.  BUDDY BUDDY simply made it plain for all to see– Wilder’s magical touch was gone.  

The film was understandably a total failure at the box office, savaged by horrified critics and indifferent audiences.  Even Wilder himself detested the final product, publicly abandoning any sense of pride or ownership in it.  BUDDY BUDDY’s failure essentially ended the partnership between Wilder, Lemmon and Matthau (although the two comedians would reunite for a second run of well-received comedies some years later), but it didn’t dampen Wilder’s enthusiasm to generate new work– at least, not initially.  He continued writing with Diamond until Diamond’s death in 1988, and even then he didn’t officially retire from filmmaking until 1995.  While that decision retroactively made the then-fourteen-year old BUDDY BUDDY his final film, it did allow the cinematic community to stop agonizing over his current work and start appreciating the entirety of his contribution to the art form.  He was awarded the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986, and then the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award two years later.  

On March 27th, 2002, at the ripe old age of 95, Billy Wilder passed away from pneumonia, a complication of the cancer that had overtaken him.  He was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, where his close friends and collaborators– Lemmon, Matthau, and Marilyn Monroe– had also been laid to rest.  As an artist fundamentally shaped by the historical sweep of the twentieth century, he would not live to experience very much of the twenty-first, but he would leave behind a transgressively pioneering, bitingly funny, and deeply human body of work that will resonate for generations to come.

Credits:

Produced by: Jay Weston

Written by: Billy Wilder, IAL Diamond

Director of Photography: Harry Stradling Jr

Production Designer: Daniel A. Lamino

Edited by: Argyle Nelson

Music by: Lalo Schifrin

References:

  • IMDB Trivia Page
  • Via Wikipedia:  Chandler, Charlotte, Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster 2002. ISBN 0-743-21709-8, pp. 299–304