Billy Wilder: A Debriefing

Like many people my age, my first brush with the work of director Billy Wilder happened within the institution of education.  My college’s film history class screened his 1944 classic DOUBLE INDEMNITY to illustrate the conventions of the noir genre, my professor taking great pains to hammer home the fact that the images and ideas we associate with noir– fedora hats, Venetian blinds, femme fatales– originated from this film almost singularly.  Billy Wilder was held up to us as a preeminent director of Hollywood’s Golden Age, helping to shape the art form’s evolution in the decades following World War 2.  Due to the sheer breadth of cinematic history that needs to be covered in a semester, Wilder’s innovations in chiaroscuro and moral ambiguity were duly, yet briefly, noted as we moved on to the next bullet point on the syllabus.  This afforded a serviceable overview of Wilder’s contribution to one genre in particular, but created a severe deficit in the understanding of Wilder as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time.    

Beyond the marquee names of world leaders and cultural figures from the last 116 years, it’s a challenge to think of a singular person so fundamentally and intimately shaped by the grand sweep of the 20th Century than Wilder, to the point that its major social movements are an inherent part of his artistic aesthetic.  Having been born in 1906 and died in 2002, Wilder saw nearly the entirety of the 20th century with his own eyes.  If the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 could be thought of as the inciting event that sparked World War 1, causing a cascading tumble of events ultimately culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall, then Wilder was born right into the epicenter: Austria-Hungary.  His formative years were spent in other history-soaked locales like Vienna and Berlin, where he worked as a journalist and drew inspiration from filmmakers like Ernst Lubitsch in his initial forays into screenwriting.  His experiences there gave him an appreciation for the working world, gifting him with a set of richly thematic ideas about occupational identity that he’d draw from for the rest of his life.  After making his first feature– 1934’s MAUVAISE GRAINE— in Paris, he’d journey to America to work in Hollywood.  This move also made him something of a refugee, having fled Europe to escape an ascendant Nazi regime that would eventually ensnare members of his own immediate family during the Holocaust a decade later.  Within five years of his immigration to America, Wilder had already scored himself an Oscar nomination for his writing with 1939’s NINOTCHKA.  This led to his breakout directing effort, 1942’s THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR— the success of which kicked Wilder’s filmmaking career into overdrive.  

Great comedy can sometimes stem from a place of profound tragedy and anguish, and it wasn’t until Wilder lost family members to a genocide that he himself only narrowly escaped that he found his most effective artistic voice.  The tragedy added an edge to his sense of humor, imbuing him with something of a vindictiveness during his early career that manifested itself most plainly in his cinematic depictions of German characters (especially Nazis) during that time.  Whereas conventional Hollywood comedies preferred to play it safe and widely-accessible, Wilder’s unique edge made him one of the most incisive and biting satirists of his day; able to straddle the line between drama comedy with effortless ease.  

The years following World War 2– the 1950’s in particular– were Wilder’s boomtimes, seeing him deliver a nearly-unbroken string of classics like DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), STALAG 17 (1953), SABRINA (1954), THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and THE APARTMENT (1960).  He became one of the leading directors of his generation, playing a hugely influential role in the establishment of mid-century cinematic values and ideals.  As an artist who took great pleasure in dancing around censorship as well as great pains to continually push the envelope in regards to sexuality, Wilder spent a great deal of his career doing battle with the restrictive Hays Motion Production Code.  He ultimately succeeded in vanquishing this great dragon, but just as any hero needs a good villain in order to be compelling, the sudden absence of a serious challenger to his creative expression diminished his directorial power to the point of near-irrelevance.  Soon enough, society’s acceptance of liberal attitudes began to outpace his own, and as such, the tone of his films took on an increasingly geriatric, crusty tenor.  The protracted twilight of his accomplished career was a steady downward spiral of one heartbreaking misfire after another: KISS ME, STUPID (1964), THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970), FEDORA (1978), and BUDDY BUDDY (1981), amongst others.  Despite these disappointments, Wilder had built up enough goodwill with audiences over the decades that his legacy as one of the greatest and most influential American directors was secure.

Serving both as a writer and a director on all of his films, Wilder was an auteur in the truest sense of the word, but he knew he couldn’t do it alone.  Judging by the names that pop up several times over the course of twenty-six features and forty-seven years, Wilder was a man who valued his collaborators, and kept them around.  He was fond of re-using his leading men and ladies, forging lasting bonds with iconic Golden Age stars like Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Ray Milland, Erich Von Stroheim, Fred MacMurray, Audrey Hepburn, and Shirley MacLaine.  He was an active participant in the formation of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau’s comic partnership– one of the most influential comedy duos in cinematic history.  With a total of seven leading performances for Wilder, Lemmon in particular came to be something of an avatar for the comic side of the director’s artistic personality, while William Holden’s four appearances made him the embodiment of Wilder’s darkly serious side.  Understandably, these are a lot of names– and these are just the performers.  

Wilder frequently turned to the same department heads to help him realize his vision.  While he always directed solo, he preferred to write with a partner– routinely collaborating with Charles Brackett during the first half of his career and I.A.L. Diamond during the second.  Cinematographers John Seitz, Charles Lang, and Joseph LaShelle were frequent and familiar faces on Wilder’s sets, each one helping to shape the director’s uniquely minimalist aesthetic in his own individual way.  Alexandre Trauner often served as the production designer, working in concert with legendary costume designer Edith Head to give Wilder’s films a polished elegance.  Doane Harrison, initially something of a mentor figure for Wilder in the art of direction, would later become both an editing and producing partner, succeeded on the Steenbeck by Arthur P. Schmidt and Daniel Mandell.  Finally, Miklos Rosza, Franz Waxman, and Andre Previn all served several tours of musical duty, supplementing Wilder’s witty dialogue with the swells of lush Old Hollywood orchestration.  

As a director who valued the craft of story over technical pyrotechnics, Wilder’s visual aesthetic was characterized by a muscular kind of minimalism, embracing a calculated economy of mine-en-scene that endeavored to tell the maximum amount of story with a minimum of coverage.  He used close-ups the way they should be used: sparingly, for effect.  Oftentimes, he’d incorporate his reverse shot into the primary setup, using compositional elements like mirrors or window reflections.  As a member of the Golden Age club of filmmakers, he almost exclusively used classical camera movement techniques like dollies and cranes, and most likely thought of New Hollywood-style handheld camerawork as undisciplined, perhaps even vulgar.  His lighting schemes were always polished and glamorous in that quintessentially Old Hollywood way, although they tended to have a diminishing effect in his late-career color works.  

Like many directors, Wilder’s artistic aesthetic coalesced around a small set of distinct themes that he’d explore time and time again.  These themes were: characters who are defined almost solely by their occupations, the iconography of uniform, and class conflict.  The typical Wilder protagonist was a man (and almost exclusively, at that) whose primary sense of purpose was derived from his job, leaving little time for family or a social life.  Oftentimes, his plots were defined by his protagonists’ desire to achieve something for the sake of his career.  A prime example of this was Kirk Douglas’ muckraking journalist in ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), a man so hellbent on scooping The Big Story that he paid the ultimate cost.  In this sense, Wilder was very much a man of his time– the idea of having a “career” instead of a job, especially in the white-collar sense, was a notion that gained popularity because of the postwar prosperity of the 1950’s.  This theme is so prevalent throughout Wilder’s work because the man himself tended to identify his character through his profession, to the extent that his tombstone would read, in his signature biting wit: “I’m a writer, but then nobody’s perfect”.  

Explorations of class conflict were a natural tangent from Wilder’s default paradigm, with his earlier work comparing and contrasting the social dynamics between the poor and the rich.  Many films, like THE EMPEROR WALTZ (1948), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and SABRINA (1954), were structured in this way, reflecting the Old World’s institutional inequality of wealth.  As the middle class’s economic influence grew following World War 2, Wilder would tailor his approach by using their desire for upward mobility as a narrative engine.  In later works like THE APARTMENT (1960), ONE, TWO, THREE (1961) and BUDDY BUDDY (1981), the characters live comfortable lives but possess a drive for more, simply because it is within reach.  Wilder used the iconography of uniform as a kind of visual shorthand for these conceits, oftentimes choosing professions and class positions for his characters that were able to be quickly conveyed in a sartorial sense: military officers, cops, chauffeurs, nurses, priests, etc.  While not exactly uniforms per se, Wilder’s middle-class heroes almost always wore neutral-colored suits to signify their socioeconomic status, while he often depicted the privileged sector in the standardized evening attire of tuxedos or white dinner jackets.  In later works, Wilder would explore the usage of uniform as manipulation, with characters wearing these functional outfits as a kind of costume or disguise.  In a sense, he had imbued his characters with the lessons he learned exploring this topic, giving them a strategic advantage that made accomplishing their narrative objectives all the easier.

In studying the entirety of Wilder’s output, his legacy to the art of cinema is apparent with crystal clarity.  He may not have been a supreme visual stylist, but he was a narrative trailblazer who succeeded in expanding the range of socially-acceptable subject matter and the types of stories filmmakers were allowed to tell.  His contributions to the development of the noir genre are a crucial player in that legacy, but are ultimately little more than a supporting role.  He may have gained a reputation as an acid-tipped misanthropist, but that doesn’t mean he was necessarily a cynic at heart.  He ultimately believed in the intellect of his audience, and his writing reflected that, with its subtle shading and winking references that never stooped to patronize the lowest common denominator.  His status as one of the best filmmakers to ever live is ironclad, reinforced by his position as one of the Academy’s most-celebrated artists.  With a total of 21 Oscar nominations under his belt, he’s tied with Martin Scorsese as the second most-nominated director in Academy history, just behind William Wyler.  Twelve of those nominations were for his screenwriting, leaving him with a record that went unbroken until Woody Allen surpassed it with 1997’s DECONSTRUCTING HARRY.  He would win a total of six Oscars, two of them for directing THE LOST WEEKEND and THE APARTMENT.  

Those films, along with DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SUNSET BOULEVARD, THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH, SABRINA, and SOME LIKE IT HOT, are the bedrock of Wilder’s legacy.  They have a timelessness to them that has transcended their mid-century origins, and continues to inspire generation after generation of directors– from the Coen Brothers, to Fernando Trueba, to Michael Hazanvicious, who’s Oscar-winning breakout film THE ARTIST (2011) is as much a love letter to Wilder in particular as it is to the Golden Age of Hollywood.  He may not be a fixture of mainstream American culture anymore, but Wilder nevertheless continues to shape and inform it, perpetually influencing the influencers who look to him as a role model and silent mentor.  As long we continue to recognize and show the absurdity of human nature, Billy Wilder will always live on, laughing right along with us.