Monday, July 18, 2005

Billy Wilder's Golden Age

Billy Wilder is one of my all time favourite screenwriters and directors. Indeed, I doubt very many critics and film buffs would disagree with me when I say that he was one of the greatest directors of all time. By 1957 he had already co-written and directed a number of films now considered classics: Double Indemity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, and Sabrina. By that time he already had a clutch of Oscars for The Lost Weekend (Best Director and Best Screenplay) and Sunset Blvd. Even so, I believe that in 1957 Wilder entered his best period, when every single movie he co-wrote and directed was a classic.

Nineteen fifty seven saw the release of the first film which Wilder co-wrote with I. A. L. Diamond, Love in the Afternoon. Love in the Afternoon was a romantic comedy featuring Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn. Set in Paris, it centred on a rich playboy (Gary Cooper) who falls in love with the daughter (Audrey Hepburn) of the private eye hired to investigate him. Love in the Afternoon had all the hallmarks of Wilder and Diamond's comedies: sharp, witty dialogue; realistic characters; and impeccable timing. And Cooper and Hepburn's performances were great.

Although well known for his comedies, Wilder's next film would be a courtroom thriller. Released in 1958, Witness for the Prosecution was based on the Agatha Christie play of the same name. The movie was Tyrone Powers' last film, in which he played the alleged murderer whose only alibi is his wife. Witness for the Prosecution has one of the best casts for a film of its type, with Marlene Dietrich as the wife of Power's character, Charles Laughton as the defence attorney, and Elsa Lancaster as the nurse.

It would be with his next film, however, that Billy Wilder would reach the peak of his career. Released in 1959, Some Like It Hot was a comedy set in the Roaring Twenties, co-written by I. A. L. Diamond. It centred on two musicians (played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who have the bad luck to witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. To avoid being killed, the duo dress in drag and join an all-girl band with a performance scheduled in Miami. Quite simply, Some Like It Hot is one of the funniest movies ever made. The comedy does not have a slow moment, with some of the best dialogue Wilder and Diamond had ever written. Curtis and Lemmon's performances are priceless, assisted quite well by one of the best casts ever assembled for a comedy. Indeed, Some Like It Hot topped the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest Comedies in American film.

Some Like It Hot would seem to be a difficult movie to top, but somehow Wilder and Diamond did it. Released in 1960, The Apartment featured Jack Lemmon as C. C. Baxter, an insurance company employee who loans his apartment to the company's executives for their various romantic rendevous. Unfortunately for Baxter, this set up (which had naturally gotten him in good with the higher ups) is complicated when he falls in love with elevator girl Miss Kublik (played by Shirley Maclaine). In m humble opinion, The Apartment is not only one of the funniest movies of all time, but one of the most romantic as well. Lemmon and Maclaine have a great rapport as Baxter and Kublik. and Fred Macmurray plays one of his few bad guys, the older, oily head of the company, Mr. Sheldrake. The Apartment boasts great dialogue, convincing performances, and a realistic plot that mixes comedy and drama. It's no wonder that it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and so on.

Wilder's next film, One, Two, Three, released in 1961, would not match The Apartment, but it was inspired nonetheless. It featured James Cagney (in his last role until Ragtime) as a Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin who winds up taking care of the company president's daughter. The comedy came at a rapid pace, with more and more outrageous situations developing one on top of the other. The dialogue is some of Wilder and Diamond's best, with great lines coming almost non-stop and plenty of pop culture references. I have always thought that One, Two, Three was one of the funniest films of the Sixties.

With One, Two, Three, Wilder's streak of classic films came to an end. His next film, Irma La Douce, was released in 1963. An adaptation of the Broadway musical without the music, it is not equal to the films he had made in the previous years. Even reteaming Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine didn't spark the ususal Wilder magic.

Billy Wilder would create a few more classic films in his career, among them Avanti! and the 1974 version of The Front Page, but it seems to me that his career peaked from 1957 to 1961. It was during that period that he created five of his greatest films, all in a row. To me this was a most remarkable feat, perhaps matched only by Alfred Hitchcock in the Fifties and Stanley Kubrick in the Sixties. It is perhaps all the more remarkable given that Wilder co-wrote nearly all of his films (not that many screenwriters have written five classics in a row either...). I very seriously doubt that any director will match the run of classic films Billy Wilder made from 1957 to 1961 any time soon.

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