The Wilder Touch
After escaping fascist Germany, filmmaker Billy Wilder shaped the golden era of Hollywood with barbed satire and fizzy comedies.
by Joseph McBride (Columbia University Press, 680 pp., $37.99)
In many ways, Billy Wilder lived life on the run. Born into a family of Galician Jews (his mother nicknamed him after seeing movies about Buffalo Bill) Wilder grew up as an ethnic minority within hotly disputed territory. Seeking refuge in the relatively safer havens of 1920’s era Vienna, Berlin, and Paris, Wilder hustled his way through those glittering cosmopolitan capitals just as the political walls began to close in. But with tenacity and talent, he would come to write and direct a diverse body of cinematic work. His colorful life is the subject of a lengthy, engaging new biography cum critical study, Dancing on the Edge, by film scholar Joseph McBride.
Wilder’s films have sometimes been critiqued as mere cleverness for its own sake; critic Andrew Sarris once denigrated his films for containing “less than meets the eye.” Sarris eventually improved his estimation of Wilder: Not many directors can switch genres as often or as capably as Wilder did without sacrificing style or depth. Such versatility tended to be a trait of the old-school Hollywood directors who often had to get their work done quickly, cheaply, and well.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Over the course of his long career, Wilder didn’t always hit the mark; when he did hit the mark, though, there was much more than initially meets the eye. His Double Indemnity is widely considered the greatest of noir films. Sunset Blvd. and The Lost Weekend, which he both wrote and directed, elegantly combine elements of noir, horror, and a ruthless satirization of Tinseltown’s delusions and vanities. The sadly still relevant Ace in the Hole parodies how the media sensationalizes authentic tragedy. Some Like It Hot and Kiss Me Stupid are screwball comedies that relentlessly scald midcentury social mores. The Apartment and Sabrina tell genuinely romantic stories for adults.
Wilder strove for, and when at his best, achieved a quality typified by his fellow German expat director Ernst Lubitsch, known as “the Lubitsch touch.” The “Lubitsch touch” mixes worldly cynicism with a sly, sophisticated wit. For example, in an early scene in the superb 1939 film Ninotchka, which Lubitsch directed and Wilder co-wrote with Charles Brackett, Greta Garbo’s dour communist character expresses outrage at how a Parisian train station porter scrabbles together his living. She promptly declares it to be a “social injustice.” The porter matter-of-factly replies: “Depends on the tip.” That’s the Lubitsch touch—as is the way a Parisian playboy ends up gradually winning Garbo’s heart while suavely ascertaining the combination to her hotel safe. Wilder always kept a sign above his typewriter, asking how Lubitsch would do it.
Wilder and Lubitsch were key members of a generation of gifted émigré German artists, many of whom were Jewish, who had been lucky enough to have gotten out of fascist Germany while the getting was still good. They had every right to cast a sarcastic, jaundiced eye at the world in their work. In one of those rich and strange historical twists, august eminences like Thomas Mann, Theodor Adorno, Fritz Lang, and many others fled the crepuscular old world only to wind up in sunny California, playing tennis with Charlie Chaplin amid the orange groves.
During the war years and after, Europe’s exiled talent observed American culture up close. They held the mirror up to the New World’s fizzy mix of optimism and opportunism. Insightfully, McBride explains that for all his voluble streetwise humor, Wilder (like many of his peers) knew full well that whatever people liked to tell themselves, at the end of the day, necessity ruled. Especially in a winner-take-all society, everybody has got to do what they’ve got to do to get by. Those world-weary European writers and filmmakers had few illusions left about how the world really worked.
Clever Wilder had learned the rules of the game well before coming to America. McBride’s emphasis on Wilder’s formative time as a nightclub gigolo in Berlin, and how he was forced to live in perpetual exile, proves that Wilder didn’t learn how life worked exclusively from watching movies. In those bustling fin de siècle nightclubs, young Billy did the Charleston for hire to the beat of his beloved jazz bands, writing sarcastic feuilleton for local newspapers, always keeping one step ahead of destitution or disaster. He realized, as too few did at the time, that an utter catastrophe was lurking around the corner. Despite being a loquacious fellow, Wilder never talked much about the family he lost in the Holocaust—Wilder’s pleading with his stubborn mother to get out before it was too late is one of the most poignant moments in McBride’s book. For the rest of his life, Wilder used a picture of Hitler’s face as a dartboard.
Another poignant moment in McBride’s narrative occurs in the late 1930’s, when Wilder has safely made it to North America but has not yet established US residency. Anxiously holed up in Mexicali, living rough with awkward English, Wilder is desperately trying to get the necessary emigration papers in order. A government clerk was informed that Wilder had made some movies back home, including the (still interesting) 1930 collaborative project People On Sunday. Happening to have some family in the entertainment industry himself, the sympathetic clerk promptly stamped Wilder’s papers and told the desperate emigre to “go make some good ones.” Wilder never learned the man’s name, but he never forgot his kindness. We shouldn’t either–our film culture would have been poorer without such generosity.
Wilder’s films are imbued with a keen understanding of how loftier concepts of the good, the true, and the beautiful tend to crumble under the pressure of having to make it in a world where everyone is on the take. It’s no accident that in Wilder’s films everyone is constantly using each other, or that they respond to this raw fact with either comedy or tragedy, depending on the genre of film they’re in. While hustling to make it in Tinseltown, Wilder saw up close the inner workings of the Hollywood dream machine.
In Sunset Blvd., William Holden’s broke screenwriter isn’t especially proud of becoming the kept man of Gloria Swanson’s fabulously delusional Norma Desmond. Forced to watch the aged ex-starlet’s silent pictures (that were actually Swanson’s own) night after smoke-filled night, he nonetheless settles into the role of kept man because at least it keeps him off the street. Jack Lemmon, Wilder’s go-to for an everyman character, is a hapless office jockey inThe Apartment who really would prefer that his boss not use his apartment to boff the secretary—but he nevertheless tries to make the best of things. The titular Irma La Douce doesn’t fret for a minute about her lot as a Parisian sex worker; if anything she rather enjoys playing her johns for the fools they are. Ditto for Marlene Dietrich’s louche nightclub singer in the underrated A Foreign Affair, who has had both American and German lovers during the war—an amoral character only a consummate pro like Dietrich could make sympathetic and even seductive, especially for postwar audiences.
The lethal lovers of Double Indemnity are almost as turned on by their hairbrained scheme to bump off the jerk husband and abscond with his money as they are by their crackling lust for one another, which is sublimated through their banter. Kirk Douglas’ satanically ambitious reporter in Ace in the Hole and Ray Milland’s sozzled wannabe writer in The Lost Weekend both dream of breaking into the big time. They both ultimately discover that sometimes it’s better to accept the very un-American wisdom that getting what you think you want isn’t enough. Wilder’s films show us that the ingrained fear of failing—of being just another shmuck—can drive people to decide that honesty and scruples are for suckers.
McBride gives a thorough account of several of Wilder’s collaborators, particularly his co-screenwriters like the All-American Charles Brackett. Brackett’s collaboration was crucial for Wilder in no small part because of his struggle to master English on the fly, doggedly picking up slang and idioms by ear. Unfortunately, McBride passes over Wilder’s most interesting collaborators. For instance, there’s very little mentioned about Wilder’s fraught but fruitful collaboration with the great noir novelist Raymond Chandler. Wilder’s opposite aesthetically and temperamentally, Chandler and Wilder nonetheless managed to create Double Indemnity.
Wilder, when hashing out a script, would pace back and forth, swinging a cane, energetically talking through every detail in his German accent while the sullen, drink-sodden Chandler chain-smoked, adding darkly poetic touches. I’ve always thought that this scenario would make for an interesting film in and of itself about the creative process. It’s surprising that McBride, who can vividly set a scene, doesn’t explore Chandler and Wilder’s relationship in much detail, especially given that Chandler might have had more of an impact on Wilder than he realized: It’s rumored that Wilder made The Lost Weekend, a genuinely harrowing portrait of writerly alcoholism, as a response to observing Chandler’s boozy self-destruction up close.
Wilder’s scripts can be barbed, but McBride explores whether the perpetually wisecracking Wilder in fact secretly harbored a deep sentimentality. Wilder could have protected himself with sarcasm and snarky charm, as many often do, presenting himself as a brusque wisenheimer with no time for the syrupy stuff. Whether or not a teenage girlfriend had actually started doing sex work behind his back, (which given the evidence McBride presents, seems possible), Wilder internalized early the emotional and physical risks that come with letting one’s guard drop long enough to be vulnerable.
As nutty as she is, there’s a pathos to Sunset Blvd.’s Norma Desmond. Norma Desmond possesses a kind of fabulousness precisely because of her grand self-delusion, and Wilder shows us the quietly desperate way in which she clings to the mirage of her former glamor. The pathos is in the self-delusion about wanting to be still a part of a glamorous world that has long since passed her by. Wilder gives her all the immortal lines (“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!”) and sends her off with a grand finale for the ages, that ultimately places the ultimate responsibility on the capriciousness of “those wonderful people out there in the dark.”
Rarely, and only when the story’s situation calls for it, does Wilder choose openly to pull at the heartstrings. There’s a scene in The Apartment when Shirley MacLaine’s charming elevator operator discovers, by chance, the true integrity of Lemmon’s character by reading between the lines of her callous bosses’ casual remark. Touchingly, Wilder just lets the moment unfold. The sudden dawning of recognition of real love that fills her face is one of the most beautifully subtle moments in his filmography.
At the end of the many zany twists and turns of Some Like It Hot—the BBC once voted it the greatest comedy of all time—Jack Lemmon’s cross-dressing jazz musician Jerry has found himself inexplicably engaged to a merrily creepy old millionaire. As they ride off on a speedboat, an increasingly frantic Lemmon pleads with his unexpected husband-to-be. The marriage can never work, he pleads. He’s not even a natural blond! He smokes! He hangs out with saxophone players! The millionaire blithely responds that he doesn’t care. Lemmon explains that he can’t have children. Well, then, the millionaire retorts, we’ll adopt. “But I’m a man!” cries an exasperated Lemmon. “Well, nobody’s perfect!” chirps the rich old creep, grinning like the cat that ate the canary.
While we can’t know with certainty, McBride makes a convincing case that for all his wisecracks and moxie, Wilder was ultimately laughing to keep from crying. The humor in Wilder’s films is not just to amuse or distract the audience. It’s a reckoning with the ultimate unfairness of the human predicament, a wry catharsis when the bad guys keep winning. Despite the fact that we’re probably all screwed in the end, there’s no reason why we can’t go out with cockeyed smiles, staying ahead of the game that way. Maybe that’s the Wilder touch.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor of American Purpose and The Arts Fuse, Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine. His work has appeared in The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and Three Quarks Daily.
Image: Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson) and Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Blvd. (IMDB).
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