Pacific Film Archive Salutes Billy Wilder

by Sura Wood

Pacific Film Archive highlights the works of Hollywood icon Billy Wilder; over his multi-faceted 50-year career, Wilder was associated with 60-plus films and wrote and directed more than two dozen.

“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” says washed-up, deluded silent movie star
Norma Desmond as she descends the grand staircase of her mansion in the closing minutes
of “Sunset Boulevard.”

This is but one of many sharp, eminently quotable lines by Billy Wilder, the screenwriter and director noted for his whip-smart, snappy dialogue and sardonic worldview. During his multi-faceted 50-year career, Wilder was associated with over 60 films and wrote and directed more than two dozen. “Ready for His Close-up,” a sampler of his oeuvre at the Pacific Film Archive, showcases his versatility, gift with actors, evolving comic timing and uncanny ability to jump genres. That impressive range is on full display here in biting, risqué comedies such as “Some Like it Hot” and “The Seven Year Itch” (both gleeful send-ups of traditional gender roles with Marilyn Monroe); “Sabrina,” a fairy tale with artfully constructed romantic maneuvering and class undertones; “The Lost Weekend,” a stark, fatalistic tale of an alcoholic New York writer who hits bottom; and in sordid noirs loaded with witty, sexually charged verbal foreplay, like the heated exchange between the temptress (played by Barbara Stan-wyck) and the smitten insurance agent (Fred MacMurray) she enlists to murder her husband and take the fall in “Double Indemnity,” the 1944 film co-written with crime novelist Raymond Chandler.

“Wilder was a true storyteller,” observes series curator Steve Seid. “His films are not notable as extravaganzas of cinematic flair, but they excel as beautifully paced narratives, bubbling with repartee, nimble scene-making and very nuanced and focused performances. Wilder wrote terrific dialogue that naturally propelled his films forward and he coaxed exquisite portrayals from actors often playing against type.” The usually pugilistic Jimmy Cagney, for instance, was cast in a hyper-comic role in “One, Two, Three,” an unsparing slapstick assault on the absurdity of Cold War politics, and Fred MacMurray, instead of portraying the decent everyman the public had embraced in his previous films, was uncharacteristically devious in “Double Indemnity.”

While it’s easy to think of Wilder as a quintessential American director in his themes and subject matter, his remarkable facility for language and his raucous, sometimes ribald sense of humor, he was, in fact, an Austrian-born Jew who worked as a newspaper reporter in Vienna before moving to Berlin, where he got his start as a screenwriter. In the late 1920s, he left Germany, landed in Paris for a brief period and then made his way to Hollywood in 1933 at the age of 26. He co-wrote 10 screenplays in English prior to getting his big break in 1939 with the release of “Ninotchka,” which launched his fortunes in Hollywood. The screwball comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch and co-written with Charles Brackett, his collaborator on 13 films between 1936 and 1950, stars Greta Garbo as a hard-line Soviet envoy. Sent to Paris, she’s seduced by the West and a man (Melvyn Douglas) who represents the antithesis of her values; the self-parodying role was a departure for the actress who was better known for playing tragic heroines and elusive women of mystery.

The turmoil Wilder fled, and his first-hand experience of the horrors of World War II—his mother died in Auschwitz—helped shape an artistic sensibility free of sentimentality and with a cynical edge that ran deep, qualities that have kept his work relevant and made his characters authentic. “It is perhaps Wilder’s background as a journalist that gave him the gift of knowing what truth looks and sounds like,” writes Cameron Crowe in his book “Conversations with Wilder.” “More than that of any of his contemporaries, his work stands today as portrait of the way people are…. There are few
filmmakers who don’t crave to be compared to him.”

“He could invent stories about yearning, love, misunderstanding, camaraderie and affection, but Wilder never discarded his skepticism,” notes Seid. “It underlies [all] the ill-conceived betrayals, the glowingly lit looks of love and the best-laid plans of industry,” whether he’s taking a misanthropic view of tabloid journalism and skewering an ambitious, self-serving reporter in “Ace in the Hole,” a lacerating piece of work starring Kirk Douglas, or mocking the morally corrupting influence of corporate life in “The Apartment,” in which Jack Lemmon, as an underling who loans out his abode to adulterous mid-level managers, effectively sells his soul for professional advancement.

In an acknowledgement of Wilder’s less heralded movies, the program is bracketed by two lesser-known titles. “Five Graves to Cairo” (1943), set in North Africa during World War II with Erich von Stroheim as the swaggering Nazi general Erwin Rommel, was Wilder’s second turn at helming an American movie, and it reveals a relatively inexperienced director experimenting with the medium and getting his footing. Concluding the series is the amusing mystery “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (1970), which Wilder made almost 30 years later. One of the first revisionist treatments of the legendary detective, it probes the sleuth’s addiction to opiates and features a story cluttered with false clues, spies, Trappist monks, Queen Victoria and the Loch Ness monster.

Given the technological advancements in the industry and the proliferation of entertainment options, why do Wilder’s films continue to engage audiences decades after they were made? Simmering underneath the propulsive plot-lines and crackling prose of his best work is a timeless yearning for reinvention that many can relate to, explains Seid. “His principal characters always want to reinvent themselves, sometimes to horrific and brutal effect, sometimes in ways that are hilarious and a little uncouth,” he says. “[For Wilder] altering one’s possibilities, changing one’s course or one’s fate, is a paramount concern. And what could be more universal than wanting to be out of the skin you’re in?”

Through Feb. 28

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley