In Cameron Crowe’s 1999 book Conversations with Wilder, there’s a photo of Billy Wilder as a toddler: bald as Elmer Fudd, head cocked to one side, staring with peevish resignation through the lens at the world. ”This is it?” the child Wilder could be thinking, and if he looks remarkably like the Yellow Kid of early comic-strip fame, the jaundice that would course through his films would be of a much higher order.
When Wilder, still cagey at 95, died in Beverly Hills of pneumonia on March 27, the era of the great above-the-title studio directors finally came to a close. There is, simply, no one around to tell us how it was anymore. All that is left are the movies. They are enough.
He made every type of film except a Western, once shrugging, ”I am afraid of horses.” That was a dodge: The Western is the most instinctively American of genres, and the Austrian-born Wilder was, instead, an unparalleled outside observer of his adopted country. His greatest films as a writer-director — Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment — look at America through the amused, sweet-and-sour filter of European fatalism, and at his best he was almost a Nabokov with sight gags. Not counting the films he wrote both in Germany and, after fleeing the Nazis, for Ernst Lubitsch (including Ninotchka, which won him the first of an astonishing 21 Oscar nominations) and the underrated Mitchell Leisen in Hollywood, Wilder directed 26 movies. Of the 15 that follow, we can say: This is it.
Double Indemnity 1944 His third film as director — and the first true Billy Wilder movie — Indemnity remains shockingly, gleefully mean. He had help from novelist James M. Cain, coscripter Raymond Chandler, and, as the bored, murderous suburban housewife leading the local insurance salesman down to hell, Barbara Stanwyck, of whom Wilder later said, ”I wanted her to look as sleazy as possible.”
The Lost Weekend 1945 Hollywood’s first serious study of alcoholism — and Wilder’s first Oscar for direction — is still a hard thing to watch (despite an ending many find incongruously rosy). The scene where Ray Milland staggers up Third Avenue trying to pawn his typewriter for a bottle is enough to give you cotton mouth.
A Foreign Affair 1948 Wilder returned to find his beloved Berlin a bombed-out ruin—then had the gall to cue ”Isn’t It Romantic?” over shots of the rubble. The movie’s a delightful dark comedy in which prissy America (in the form of Jean Arthur) meets its match in a battered, jaded Europe (personified by Marlene Dietrich croaking ”Black Market”).
Sunset Boulevard 1950 ”You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” MGM head Louis B. Mayer is said to have shrieked at Wilder after an industry screening of this notorious Tinseltown freak show, and, really, isn’t that the highest recommendation? Playing has-been silent star Norma Desmond, has-been silent star Gloria Swanson descends the stairs into madness and an eternal close-up.