By Charles Winecoff
Updated December 01, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Hoping to do for Billy Wilder what François Truffaut did for the Master of Suspense in his 1967 ”Hitchcock,” writer-director Cameron Crowe (”Jerry Maguire”) found himself interviewing a far less loquacious auteur. Still, his gentle persistence with the testy 93-year-old Austrian director of such classics as ”The Apartment,” ”Double Indemnity,” and ”Sunset Boulevard” paid off. Though there have been several Wilder biographies in recent years, Conversations With Wilder is probably the best book about his work to date, since Crowe is able to extract so much new behind-the-scenes detail from the notoriously reticent filmmaker.

True, his subject’s evasiveness occasionally prompts Crowe to awkwardly switch gears or toss out silly questions. But when Wilder reminisces — on Ernst Lubitsch (for whom he scripted ”Ninotchka”), Marilyn Monroe (”a continuous puzzle, without any solution”), Marlene Dietrich (”Mother Teresa with better legs”), or his thwarted wish to direct ”Schindler’s List” as a memorial to his family, murdered at Auschwitz — he reveals the humanity beneath his much-vaunted cynicism.