Born Samuel Wilder in Austria-Hungary (now part of Poland), director and writer Billy Wilder was one of many industry professionals forced to flee Europe during the Nazi regime and seek a career in Hollywood. Wilder began as a journalist in Berlin and later became known for his excellent cinematic writing; many of his films are considered American classics. He won numerous awards, coaxed award-nominated or winning performances from 14 actors, and made a handful of the greatest American comedies and two of the best noir films, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. This is a comprehensive look at his career, with special focus on his noir films and related efforts.
Wilder got a professional start in Berlin, but fled in the early ‘30s to Paris, due to the rise of Nazism and his Jewish heritage. Nearly all of his immediate family would die during the war: his mother was murdered in a concentration camp near Krakow, his stepfather died at Belzec, the very first death camp, and his grandmother was killed during the liquidation of a ghetto in Poland. Just before Wilder’s fortunate departure, he wrote People On Sunday, a ground-breaking German film involving several key filmmakers who fled Germany for America. Noir specialist Robert Siodmak directed, noir and horror director Edgar G. Ulmer produced, Universal writer and director Curt Siodmak collaborated on the script, and Eugen Schüfftan (Metropolis) handled the cinematography.
During this period, Wilder handled a few more writing assignments, but didn’t make his directorial debut, Mauvaise Graine (1934), until his move to Paris. This first film is a French drama about a playboy who gets wrapped up with a gang of criminals. Wilder allegedly moved to Hollywood in 1933, just before its release. He got his start in Hollywood as a writer, ultimately working on nearly 80 films, including Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eight Wife (1938), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941),The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Ocean’s Eleven (1960), and Casino Royale (1967). He had a 12-year writing partnership with Algonquin Round Table member Charles Brackett, the most successful of his career. His second collaboration was with I.A.L. Diamond, which began in the late ‘50s and lasted until the end of Wilder’s career. Wilder wrote or co-wrote all the films he directed.
His first big success was the script for Ninotchka (1939), a screwball comedy from the great German director Ernst Lubitsch. Greta Garbo, known for her tragic roles at this point, was cast against type in this comedy about a communist who travels to Paris and falls in love. This ability to revitalize and reshape the career of a major star would be repeated several times by Wilder during his tenure as a director. This also marked his first nomination for an Academy Award.
Wilder’s first U.S. effort as a director was The Major and the Minor (1942), a wartime romantic comedy starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. In a somewhat uncomfortable plot decision, a young woman pretends to be a 12 year old girl to save money on a train ride and falls under the charge of a soldier. She soon falls in love with him. His second film, Five Graves to Cairo (1942), retained the war setting, but took a darker tone. This thriller stars director Erich von Stroheim. The success of these two films allowed him to branch out considerably for his third film and first classic.
Double Indemnity (1944), co-written by hardboiled novelist Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) and based on a book of the same name by James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice), began to break down the strict Hays Code and controversially portrayed adultery and two love triangles. It is part of the early wave of film noir, hitting screens the same year as Laura and Murder, My Sweet, and Wilder inevitably influenced the genre’s stark, captivating sense of style with a number of incredible nighttime shots. Phyllis, a married woman (Barbara Stanwyck), begins an affair with Walter, an insurance agent (Fred MacMurray), and the two conspire to kill her wealthy, older husband (Tom Powers). Though it first seems like they’ve committed the perfect crime, things begin to unravel thanks to the interference of Walter’s boss (Edward G. Robinson) and Phyllis’s heartbroken stepdaughter (Jean Heather). This is widely regarded as one of the greatest noir films of all time and several generations of film fans would never be able to forget Stanwyck’s performance and the appearance of her oddly seductive ankle bracelet. Marked by shadowy visuals, cutthroat characters, and one of the bleakest finales to grace Hollywood in the early ‘40s, Double Indemnity is one of Wilder’s greatest works.
Though it is not a noir film, The Lost Weekend (1945), is in keeping with similarly bleak, taboo-breaking subject matter. Ray Milland starred as a drunken writer who goes on a particularly grim weekend bender in this first serious Hollywood portrayal of alcoholism. Wilder was nominated for several awards because of this film, but it was another of his works that barely made it past the censors due to the controversial content. I can’t help but wonder if this film was inspired by Wilder’s time working with Raymond Chandler, a particularly heavy drinker with some tragic episodes later in life caused by his alcoholism.
While I’m not entirely sure who is solely responsible for Death Mills (1945), a short documentary about the liberation of a concentration camp, Wilder was credited on the English-language version and had returned to Germany at this time with the U.S. Army. This grim, affecting film was meant to educate civilians – particularly Germans – about what occurred at the death camps. Wilder seems to have had his home on the brain during the period, as he made two films concerned with Germany and Austria in 1948. On a completely opposite note from Death Mills, Wilder’s only musical is the mediocre The Emperor Waltz (1948), featuring Bing Crosby as an American salesman visiting the Austrian court during the turn of the century. Joan Fontaine costars as an aristocrat who falls in love with him.
The superior second films is the Marlene Dietrich-vehicle, A Foreign Affair (1948), one of Wilder’s only films that directly addresses his home country during wartime. A congresswoman (Jean Arthur) travels to Berlin during the war to investigate a cabaret singer (Dietrich), having an affair with an Army Captain (John Lund). The singer also has ties with the Nazis and the black market underground of Berlin. Banned in Germany, the film’s moral gray areas made post-war audiences squirm and the film was sadly forgotten.
Next, Wilder made the film that is generally regarded as his classic: Sunset Boulevard (1950). This second noir film is one of the classics of the genre and is also a scathing indictment of Hollywood and the American dream. William Holden stars as Joe, a down and out screenwriter who gets a flat tire on Sunset Boulevard at the front gate of an aged film star, Norma Desmond (played by silent film star Gloria Holden). Determined to restart her career, Desmond careens into madness and takes Joe with her when she persuades him to agree to an affair (in exchange for money and gifts) and to write a script for her. Her ex-husband and butler (silent film director Erich von Stroheim) who discovered her years ago, tries to keep things status quo for Desmond, resulting in insanity and murder. Bravely playing a caricature of herself (or what she could have been), Gloria Holden gives one of the finest performances of classic Hollywood and maybe the single best in any noir film. Barbara Stanwyck allegedly kissed the bottom of her dress after the film’s premier. Wilder also takes one of noir’s most beloved conventions – voice over from the protagonist – and gives it a vicious twist, as the film’s narrator is already dead.
Wilder’s third noir film is another bitter look at America culture. Turning away from Hollywood and towards its sibling, the media, Ace in the Hole (1951) is so black, nasty, and claustrophobic that audiences of the period were simply not ready for it. Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) convinces a little Albuquerque newspaper to hire him after he has been fired from several big name papers on the east coast. On an assignment, he comes across a man (Richard Benedict) trapped in a cave allegedly haunted by long-dead Native Americans. Sensing an opportunity, Chuck turns it into the biggest news story in the country and the site turns into a literal carnival. He also keeps the man trapped in the cave to prolong the story, leading to some unexpected results. Though not always regarded as a noir film thanks to its desert setting and lack of immediate crime or murder, Ace in the Hole is yet another of Wilder’s masterpieces that betray the director’s cynical view of humanity. Though initially ignored or disliked by audiences, Ace in the Hole’s reputation has improved with age and is not considered a classic. And while it has a brightly-lit, desert setting, it remains another fine example of Wilder’s work in the noir genre.
Based on a Broadway play, the war film Stalag 17 (1953) featured William Holden again as a particularly bitter and unlikable protagonist. Though more acclaimed than Ace in the Hole, this film has a similarly unlikable, unsympathetic protagonist. Director Otto von Preminger played a Nazi and there are some comic elements, but this has become one of the most beloved prisoner-of-war films ever made.
After this film, Wilder turned his attention almost solely to comedies. First is the relatively lighthearted Sabrina (1954). Audrey Hepburn starred as the titular daughter of the chauffeur to the Larrabee film. She has long been in love with the attractive playboy David (William Holden), though he doesn’t notice her. Her father pays for her to go off to Paris, where she develops into a beautiful, sophisticated young woman. On her return, David falls for her, though his older brother (Humphrey Bogart, playing completely against type) is determined to keep Sabrina from ruining David’s impending marriage, which will benefit the family business. Though well-loved, Sabrina is another film with some particularly cruel, cynical elements.
Though it’s considered one of Wilder’s lesser comedies from the period, The Seven Year Itch (1955) is remembered for a great performance by Marilyn Monroe, one of the best in her career. Again rankling with cynicism, a family man (Tom Ewell) falls for his sexy neighbor (Monroe) when his family goes out of town. Another mediocre effort is The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), a drama starring James Stewart as Charles Lindbergh. Though it relates Lindbergh’s legendary flight across the Atlantic, he’s a much blander figure that most of Wilder’s protagonists. It’s surprising that the director didn’t take more advantage of some of Lindbergh’s more flagrant character elements, which were public knowledge by the late ‘50s (namely the fact that he was a Nazi sympathizer).
Love in the Afternoon (1957) is a sweet, if subdued love story about a young girl (Audrey Hepburn) who falls in love with an older rake (Gary Cooper) and pretends she is far more worldly and experienced than she actually is in order to get his attention. Not one of Wilder’s most loved works; this is still a pleasing, effective comedy with a solid cast and deserves a second look.
Wilder briefly returned to some of his earlier noir stylings with Witness for the Prosecution (1957) based on an Agatha Christie mystery. A famous lawyer (Charles Laughton) is on the mend from a heart attack, but takes the case of an inventor (Tyrone Power) accused of murdering a lonely, but rich old woman (Norma Varden). His wife (Marlene Dietrich) tries to pin the murder on him, but she has hidden motivations. Though this is set in England, it has some noir elements, such as a femme fatale, an ineffectual hero, and a murder mystery. Witness for the Prosecution is mostly worth watching for two great performances from the husband and wife team of Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein) and Charles Laughton (Island of Lost Souls). Marlene Dietrich nearly steals the film out from under Laughton and is truly incredible as the duplicitous wife. This was one of her final film roles and it was the last role for Tyrone Power, who died of a heart attack shortly after filming.
Some Like it Hot (1959) is easily his best comedy and was certainly not short of satire or cynicism. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two down on their luck Chicago musicians obsessed with women and booze. They accidentally witness mobsters use machine guns to mow down some men and have to go on the run. They hear about a job for female musicians in Florida and dressing in drag seems like an obvious disguise, so they board the train and hope for the best. The plan is complicated when they meet Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), a beautiful musician with a penchant for drinking, partying, and getting in trouble, and when Jerry (Lemmon) is pursued by a millionaire.
One of Wilder’s best films is undoubtedly The Apartment (1960), which remains among the finest American satire films. Essentially dark in tone, the film concerns Jack Lemmon as an insurance agent hoping to raise his position in the world. He allows several of his bosses to bring their mistresses back to his apartment, though this begins to take its toll on the agent and he accidentally falls in love with the head executive’s mistress (Shirley MacLaine). Covering everything from infidelity to suicide, this is one of Wilder’s most accomplished and enduring works. He also won three Academy Awards for Best Director, Writer, and Producer.
After The Apartment, Wilder’s career began to slow down and he was no longer a critical darling, though he continued to make comedies. One Two Three (1961) saw James Cagney cast against type as an executive whose boss’s daughter marries a communist. Like all of Wilder’s films, this comedy is apolitical, despite its overt theme of capitalism vs communism, but benefits from his trademark comic gags and rapid fire dialogue. Next, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine reunited in the romantic comedy Irma La Douce (1963), about a cop who is fired for busting up a prostitution ring. He soon finds a new job: as unlikely pimp and boyfriend for one of the prostitutes (MacLaine), replacing her abusive former pimp. Though the leading role was intended for Marilyn Monroe, she died before casting began.
Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) paired Dean Martin and Kim Novak in a predictable romantic comedy about a famous musician waylaid by two song writers trying to sell him some tunes. They use everything from car sabotage to a prostitute to keep him in their reach. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau teamed up for one of their first films together in The Fortune Cookie (1966), one of Wilder’s last films of note. A lawyer and his brother-in-law join forces for an insurance scam, but things don’t turn out quite as they expected.
One of my favorite Wilder films is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), which was cut to ribbons by the studio and has not yet been fully restored. Fortunately, a Blu-ray release from Kino will put that to rights later this year and maybe it will finally get some of the recognition it deserves. Holmes’ (Robert Stephens) many vices are the focus of this film, where he takes a difficult new case: protecting a mysterious woman (Genevieve Paige) whose husband has disappeared. Watson (Colin Blakely) assists, and their adventure comes to include spies, the British government, and much more.
His final films, made in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, were all comedies and several starred Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathau, including Avanti! (1972). He also made The Front Page (1974), Fedora (1978), and his last film, Buddy, Buddy (1981). All of these suffered from poor reviews. Though they aren’t great films, the critics seem especially harsh and I think Wilder’s later work is worth revisiting for younger audiences.
One of Hollywood’s most memorable filmmakers, Billy Wilder’s work as a writer, producer, and director stands as some of the greatest in the golden age of Hollywood. He was able to find a compelling balance between romantic idealism and a scathing criticism of mankind. Wilder tells a story about how, when writing a script, you can make a man go through a door, but if he goes through a window, it’s far more interesting. His films are full of these memorable, captivating, and writerly flourishes. They are also marked by a pronounced pessimism, whether in terms of the noir films or comedies – characters are morally ambiguous, duplicitous, and self-motivated.
He died of pneumonia and other health issues at age 95. On his grave it says, “I’m a writer, but no one’s perfect.” He's buried near his long-time friends and collaborators Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.