Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Few Random Reasons to Love Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder is one of those filmmakers I wish I knew more about. Because I have only seen six of his films (and half of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) I feel terribly inadequate trying to say anything substantial about him for the Billy Wilder Blog-a-thon that Jeff is hosting over at Filmscreed. So, I am simply going to post a few (totally random and highly personal) reasons I've come up with to love Billy Wilder.


I saw Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotuer for the first time the other day and was struck by this opening image:

The titles appear over the shot of a hangar wall as the shadow of a man wearing a trenchcoat and hat is cast on it. The credits continue and the man's shadow grows larger and larger until it is looming quite ominously over the director's name. It reminded me of the opening title sequence for Billy Widler's Double Indemnity (one of my favorites) where a silhouetted man in a hat hobbles towards the camera on a pair of crutches:

As it turns out, Hitchcock's film came out only two short years before Wilder's. Does that mean that Wilder was deliberately referencing Hitchcock? Not necessarily. It could just be a coincidence. If it is a conscious reference, though, I am sure it is an affectionate one. Just one great director paying homage to another great director.


The main titles of Sunset Blvd. also happen one of my favorite opening credit sequences, but it is the closing image (Norma Desmond, now having completely lost her mind, approaching the camera) that people tend to remember.

It's certainly very disturbing and Gloria Swanson looks incredibly creepy, but as I reveiewed the film again recently I happen to notice something, as Swanson was saying her final unforgettable lines, that escaped my attention the first time I saw it.

"And I promise you I'll never desert you again because after 'Salome' we'll make another picture and another picture. You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!... All right, Mr. DeMille. I'm ready for my close-up!"

As she says those lines to all of the newsreel cameras around her (which she imagines are film cameras) there is a moment when she actually looks into Wilder's camera and refers to us ("all those wonderful people out there in the dark"); not just in the vague sense of movie audiences in general, but quite specifically as the people watching this very film right now. In other words, she almost breaks the fourth wall.*

I say "almost" because she doesn't completely break it. She doesn't turn into Ferris Bueller and actually address the audience (in fact, I would argue that if she had, it would lose its effect; it's the ambiguity that actually contributes to the scene's eeriness). There's still an element of reality to the moment because at this point in the story her character is crazy. Within the world of Sunset Blvd. she still hasn't violated the "rules" (much like the opening shot of Godard's Contempt or a similar moment in Wolfgang Peterson's The Neverending Story) but I would imagine it was still rather unsettling to filmgoers in 1950 who saw it in the theatre... "in the dark."

I don't mean to to relate this to Hitchcock yet again but it's sort of like this moment in Rear Window:

Or perhaps this moment in Psycho:

To this day all of these shots send shivers down my spine.

*This phenomenon of "almost breaking the fourth wall" in movies may turn out to be the subject of one of my upcoming posts.


Apparently Wilder's idol and mentor was German director Ernst Lubitsch. Wilder even kept a sign hanging in his office that asked, "How would Lubitsch do it?" I just saw my first two Lubitsch films about a month ago (Trouble In Paradise and Shop Around the Corner; they were both marvelous) and can clearly see the influence he has had on Wilder's work.


Any director who can give us this shot...

..deserves our respect.


Of course we can't forget that in The Seven-Year Itch, Wilder created one of cinema's most indelible images and gave Marilyn Monroe her most iconic moment (even if it did drive the final nail into the coffin of her already dying marriage).


Given the high regard I hold for this film (and its director) and how much I know about the making of it, I can't believe I didn't discover this until yesterday.

Apparently Wilder collaborated closely with Steven Spielberg on the script for Schindler's List, and was one of several filmmakers (including Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet) being considered to direct it. Although Wilder strongly considered directing the film he felt that he was a little too old (he had already retired) and that the subject was almost too personal (both his mother and grandmother were killed in the Holocaust). Although he has said that if he had done it then it would've been his most personal film, he ultimately convinced Spielberg that he should be the one to direct it.

Billy, we ALL owe you thanks for that.


You have to love the last 60 seconds of Some Like it Hot (SPOILER obviously)

And finally...


Having seen the above clip, you gotta love this too!


Squish said...

Nice. You've seen more than I have, but I'm loving what I've seen so far!

cineboy said...

B. Wilder is one of my faves. (I also like the name Wilder as you might guess - A Wilder Rose)

I have Some Like it Hot on my list for Lily and I to watch - I've probably seen it a dozen times. I don't remember, but I may have shown Double Indemnity in that film class years ago - you know the one, I don't remeber. At least I've seen it a few times too.

The thing I find so amazing about B.W. is his virtuosity across so many genres. He really was remarkable.

Edward Copeland said...

Very nice. Now if only the person who called for this blog-a-thon in the first place would actually join in since March 1 is halfway over.

Jeff Duncanson said...

Nice essay, Damian. And a nice blog, as well. Thanks

Damian said...

I was wondering, Tuck, whether your affection for Billy had anything at all to do with Wilder's name. I suspected so but didn't want to come right out and say it. I was also wondering if the fact that so far all of your children's names have had some sort of flower/vegetation in them (Lily, Rose, Coco) was deliberate. If so, that's pretty clever. Far more so than my parents starting all our names with the same letter.

Incidentally, you did show Double Indemnity in your film class all those years ago... but (and here's a bit of irony) I didn't see it there. I missed that partcular week. I ended up watching it with my mother and father at home shortly thereafter. We all loved it but the thing I most remember was my dad kept commenting to my mom: "This is basically Body Heat" (one of my dad's favorite movies).

OKonheim said...

I'm doing that blog-a-thon thing too and i believe that's not the case about Wilder and Spielberg. Spielberg and Wilder both wanted Schindler's List and Spielberg convinced Wilder that he really wanted the picture just as badly. Wilder didn't feel that it was too personal.

Is that really written on Wilder's grave?

Damian said...

It's interesting that you should mention that, Okenheim, because I based that section of my post on this item of information I found in the Billy Wilder "trvia" section of the IMDB:

He collaborated closely with Steven Spielberg on the script for SCHINDLER'S LIST, and was one of several directors considered to direct it (Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese both turned down the project). Although Wilder strongly considered directing the film, he felt he was a little too old (he had already retired) and the subject was almost too personal (both his mother and grandmother were killed in the Holocaust). It was ultimately Wilder who told Spielberg he should direct it.

Shortly after I posted my blog I also found this little tidbit in the same trivia section:

He wanted to direct SCHINDLER'S LIST, but Steven Spielberg preferred doing it himself. Wilder has been quoted saying it would have become his most personal film.

Although I don't think the two are necessarily irreconcilable, on the surface they certainly seem contradictory. What actually transpired between Billy and Steve I guess we'll never know. At any rate, I love the film and I'm glad that Spielberg ended up directing it.

And yes, that's what it says on Wilder's tombstone.

Maya said...

I had no awareness of the "Schindler's List" connection. You can't help but wonder what he might have done with it.

I agree 100% about the beauty of Sabrina coveting the life of the upper class from her treebranch perch.

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