09 July 2009

You Know You Really Like A Director If... (Part Eight)

Yes it's true, proof positive that you really like a director is the fact that you can create a list of ten films of his that you really like. I have proved this in the past with lists of top ten films from: Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, William Wellman, Martin Scorsese, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra. This week's honoree is Billy Wilder.

When various actors for the same director keep getting nominated for Oscars or are otherwise recognized for their work it ain't no coincidence. The likes of Wiliam Holden, Jack Lemmon, Ray Milland, Gloria Swanson, Shirley MacClaine and even character actors like Robert Strauss were honored for work in Wilder films. Surely much credit must go to Wilder the writer who provided or tinkered with the screenplays for most of Wilder the director's films. Indeed Wilder started as a screenwriter with such classics as Ninothcka and Ball of Fire to his credit.

The relationship with Ninothcka's director is significant. The man was Ernest Lubitcsh who was Wilder's idol. Both came to the U.S. via Germany. Wilder was one of Adolph Hitler's unintentional gifts to Hollywood. When Der Fuhrer came to power a veritable who's who of German cinema hightailed out of the the Fatherland. Wilder may have been the greatest among them.

Though many of his films were comedies and many others were cynical (and some both) Wilder directed a wide variety of film. He made films dealing with Alcoholism, World War II, romance, newspapers, Sherlock Holmes, murder plots, courtroom drama and however you'd classify Sunset Boulevard.

Wilder was a daring director. While avoiding elaborate camera work or sets, he focused on subject matter that pushed the boundaries of what Hollywood would allow and he maintained his focus on character and plot. The results were some of the best films of his era and any other era for that matter. I believe the list bellow will illustrate this point.

1. Sunset Boulevard (1950). My fourth favorite all time American film, which is my way of saying I think it's a masterpiece. Not like any film made before or even since.

2. The Lost Weekend (1945). Take it from one who knows, Ray Milland's portrayal of the alcoholic Don Birnahm is spot on. Wilder and Milland created a compelling look at the depths to which a drunkard can and will sink.

3. Some Like it Hot (1959). One of the greatest comedies of all time. Marylin Monroe jiggles and giggles, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag are fast talking and funny. Surely you've seen it.

4. Double Indemnity (1944). Barbara Stanwyck, silly wig and all, is sexy and evil. Fred MacMurray is a slick talking sap but Edward G. Robinson steals the picture. Film noir at its absolute best, indeed a highly influential film in the genre.

5. The Major and the Minor (1942). The premise is ridiculous. Ginger Rogers could no more have passed for a 12 year old girl than I could, but that does little to diminish the laughs which are plentiful in Wilder's directorial debut. He wanted to start with a sure fire hit and he did.

6. Stalag 17 (1953). William Holden won the Best Actor Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of a cynical wheeler dealer who's suspected of being a Nazi plant. The setting is a German POW camp during World War II and the drama is deep but cut nicely by moments of humor.

7. Witness For the Prosecution (1957). An interesting twist on the usual stuff of courtroom dramas what with Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich heading the cast. Has the requisite plot twist at the end but mostly enjoyable for the performances.

8. The Apartment (1960). That it was overly lavished at the Oscars reflects on the quality of what Hollywood was producing back then and in no way detracts from what a fine film this is. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacClaine couldn't be more watchable, which makes the film worthy of repeat viewings.

9. Fortune Cookie (1966). Walter Matthua and Lemon together for the first time and what a winning note they started on. Matthau is positively brilliant as the prototypical shyster lawyer and Lemon does a whole lot more with an rather ordinary part than most anyone else would or could have.

10. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). I know you can't believe this made my top ten but I really love this irreverent look at the legend of the great detective. He's a druggie and his sexuality is subject to debate. Wilder wisely cast unknowns as Holmes and Watson (they remain so today) and created an oddly effective film, never mind the somewhat silly case they're on.

Honorable Mention: Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Ace in the Hole (1951).up for a little Nazi hating. Stewart and and Morgan are together again but this is no comedy. See my post from last Winter.


Scott said...

Billy Wilder is my favorite director. Of the 13 films you mentioned, I've seen 10 and loved them all.

R. D. Finch said...

All of your choices so far have been apt ones, and Wilder fits right in with the rest of them. I once heard him say in an interview that when he started writing a movie, he never knew if it would be a comedy or a drama--a comment that gives one pause to think, especially when considering movies like "Sunset Boulevard" and "The Major and the Minor" (in which he takes the old drag premise of "Twelfth Night" and "Sylvia Scarlett," where a main character wonders if he's going gay, and substitutes pedophilia--how did he manage to get this made in the early 40s?). Two underappreciated Wilder movies I would add are "A Foreign Affair" (a sort of comic version of "The Third Man" and Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich together in the same movie) and "Love in the Afternoon" (one of my very favorite Audrey Hepburn performances, one of his slyest movies about sex, and considered by some a hommage to Lubitsch). And even though it's not quite in the same league as most of the ones you mentioned, I found "Irma la Douce" most enjoyable.