Weekly Top Five: Nobody's perfect—the best of Billy Wilder



The Major and the Minor
  • The Major and the Minor
For its series on "Foreign Americana," Doc Films has programmed a number of classic American films made by directors from different countries. Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour, Max Ophuls's Caught, and Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry, which inspired last week top five's, were the first films to screen. Next up is Billy Wilder's famous Sunset Boulevard, the native Austrian's pointed critique of American celebritism and Hollywood's lack of respect for its own history.

Despite his status as one of the most successful directors in history, Wilder isn't everyone's cup of tea. For one reason or another, auteurists never had much use for him. Aside from considering Irma La Douce one of the ten best films of 1963, the Young Turks of Cahiers du Cinema rarely sang his praises; Andrew Sarris also placed him on the lowest rung possible in his original pantheon of directors, although it's important to note he bumped Wilder up a few notches in his 1998 book You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory 1927-1949.

Personally, I've always held a fondness for Wilder, even as I find aspects of his work problematic. He didn't have much of a formal presence, for starters, and much of his famous dialogue can be accurately attributed to his longtime script collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, but there's no denying his keen understanding of human behavior. More than anything, Wilder was a great director of actors, able to draw out dynamic and deeply intricate performances from people who rarely exhibited such skill when working with other directors. Check out my five favorite Wilder films after the jump.

5. Love in the Afternoon (1957) Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, and Maurice Chevalier star in this romantic comedy, often referred to as Wilder's most Lubitschian film. I don't necessarily disagree with this assertion, but I also don't think it's quite as cut-and-dried as that. In the now-defunct Stop Smiling, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that the film was "the most obvious and explicit" of Wilder's Lubitsch homages, but also noted that it was arguably the "clunkiest." This clunkiness, I think, is Wilder's active attempt to undercut notions of Lubitschian style; Love in the Afternoon has many a point to make about high capitalism (as did the Lubitsch films Ninotchka (1939) and Trouble In Paradise (1932)), but Wilder approaches the subject from a far more vulgar, albeit pragmatic, place.

4. Ace in the Hole (1951) One of the sharpest, most unforgiving films Wilder ever made. Sure, it looks, feels, and sounds like a studio auteur film, but similar to Sunset Boulevard, it strives to condemn the public's desire for sensationalism. It uses the model of a studio film to reveal the manipulative nature of entertainment, a capricious if not alienating tactic that confused audiences at the time—the film was a critical and box office failure—but has since earned the admiration of modern audiences.

3. The Emperor Waltz (1948) A key transitional film in Wilder's oeuvre. Although it's firmly cemented in his European-minded expressionist period (all I'll say is "painted daisies"), the film marks his first legitimate foray into the postwar milieu that defined his most famous work. Also, it's rather interesting (if not a little disarming) to watch a Wilder musical—suffice it to say that it's not his genre, but there's a sort of distinct rhythm to the film that renders it a unique attempt at the form, even if doesn't always succeed. Nobody ever used Bing Crosby in the way Wilder does here.

2. The Major and the Minor (1942) A masterful romantic comedy, highly inventive and every bit the equal of the best studio works of the era. Lubitsch is the model here, obviously, but Wilder's sense for timing, satire, innuendo, and humor are all at the fore. Although it's Wilder's first American film, he's already tuned in to the country's various nuances and contradictions, more so than a number of his American-born colleagues, such as Gregory La Cava and Leo McCarey.

1. Some Like It Hot (1959) Forgive the obvious choice, but I wholeheartedly agree with Dave Kehr when he calls this the "ultimate Billy Wilder film." Fleet-footed yet deeply allegorical, it remains one of the most unique American comedies ever made, taking square sardonic aim at the relativism of sex appeal while celebrating the connaturality of sexual attraction. It also has much in the way of celebritism, in as much as its stars (no less than perhaps the most famous person at the time, Marilyn Monroe) play off their own stardom.

Honorable mentions: The Apartment (1960) remains a sentimental favorite, although I do admit that it's overrated and not nearly as successful as the aforementioned films. I also haven't seen much of his late-period stuff, but I think Avanti! (1972) is ardently joyous in a way that's unique to Wilder. I'd also mention Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend (1945), and One, Two, Three (1961)

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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