After watching my third film for Noirvember, Double Indemnity, I got pretty curious in finding out more about Billy Wilder and ended up going on a bit of a Wilder binge.
I’m missing about a dozen films by Wilder between Double Indemnity to Some Like It Hot, but even within this period of slightly more a decade, he shows true diversity as an amazing auteur.
Double Indemnity (1944)
All I can say is that Double Indemnity is the classic noir film. It’s got the femme fatale, the morally ambiguous hero on, venetian blinds, an almost perfect crime, those damn perfect shadows – everything.
Based on the novel by James M. Cain, Double Indemnity begins as a flashback told by insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). This confessing tale reveals Walter pulling off an insurance fraud and committing murder. You can truly see his pain and struggle as he spirals down towards a moral descent and into tragic doom, particularly through Wilder’s tightly-paced narrative structure.
Barbara Stanwyck gives a stunning performance as the calculating Phyllis Dietrichson (even with the wig). One of the most haunting scenes in the film is when Walter strangles Mr. Dietrichson next to her in the car, and the camera deliberately focuses on Phyllis’s face throughout the entire murder. Her subtle expressions speaks volumes – she’s doesn’t utter her word, but her eyes narrow and her chin lowers. It’s as though she seems nearly pleased that the murder’s finally happening, it’s something that she has been planning for years. Wilder forces this uneasiness to sit with the audience and also dawn with viewers just what sort of person she truly is (I’m silently screaming to Neff: “Run! She’s a crazy bitch!). Highly manipulative, Phyllis pulls Walter’s strings without letting her motivations show well till the second half of the film. But at the same time, every time we see Phyllis walking down the staircase, we’re there with Walter – completely captivated.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Recently voted as AFI’s #1 funniest movie, Some Like It Hot (1959) is about two musicians, ladykiller Joe (Tony Curtis) and his sidekick Jerry (Jack Lemmon) who witness a mob massacre in Chicago. Desperate to get out of town and way from the gangsters, they flee to Florida in an all-female band disguised as women where they meet the sultry singer/ukelele-player Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe). With any sort of screwball comedy, shenanigans ensure shortly after arriving in Florida.
The cross-dressing storyline has its origins in Shakespearean comedy (As You Like It), and Some Like It Hot boldly takes it on in regards to the contemporary context. The film has surprisingly forward views on cross-dressing and sexuality. I love how the film closes with Jerry, manically pulling off his wig, yelling to Daphne’s fiance, Oswood (Joe E. Wood), “I’m a man!” while Oswood simply smiles and replies, “Well, nobody’s perfect!” It takes Jerry completely off-guard, and it keeps audiences laughing as the screen fades to black.
The Apartment (1960)
The first time I’ve heard about The Apartment was in The Long Blondes’s You Could Have Both (which I can proudly say I know the entire lyrics of): “I feel like C. C. Baxter in Wilder’s Apartment / that particular arrangement just came out of the blue”. And I think we all have days when we feel like C. C. Baxter.
Played by the fantastic Jack Lemmon, Baxter is the archetype insecure, but likeable loser. He’s somewhat of an office drone, and rents out his apartment for senior executives in order rise up the corporate ladder. He’s miserable from this, he can’t even get his apartment to himself when he’s sick (cue Awwww’s). He befriends his office building’s elevator operator Fran (Shirley MacLaine) but much to his dismay, Fran’s in an affair with his boss (Fred MacMurray). Just a quick side note: Fred MacMurray does a complete 180 in this film. No longer the noir hero, he’s now the tactless and horrible boss, Mr. Sheldrake. Bravo to MacMurray, because I really couldn’t stand Mr. Sheldrake when I recall hopelessly sympathising with Walter Neff’s awful plight.
Also, weirdly enough, I preferred The Apartment to Some Like It Hot. I think it was mainly due to Lemmon being absolutely brilliant as C. C. Baxter – I mean, a tennis racket as a pasta sieve? Why haven’t I thought of that?! Lemmon’s probably the only loveable character in the film for me; he evokes sympathy from the viewer, instead of annoyance, by playing one of the most unassertive character ever. To me, Fran made some questionable decisions and I couldn’t root for her entirely as I cheered Baxter on. Lemmon is simply terrific.
As a 21st century viewer, watching Wilder’s films might bring a sense of deja-vu. Like, hey…wait! Haven’t I seen this generic storyline before? Especially one that involves the same exact idea of a millionaire in a beach? And The Apartment does have some Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks rom-com feel. Plus, even with Double Indemnity, one could admit there being unintentional camp moments too. There’s the cultural disconnect, obviously, when watching movies that are more than fifty years old, but the great part is also being able to spot Wilder’s deep influence in modern Hollywood. Although Wilder’s storylines and formulas (unfortunately) have been recycled endlessly, it’s hard to deny the utter brilliance of Wilder in creating something so novel. With a string of 27 films under his directorial belt, I’m nowhere near done with watching Wilder’s films. Hopefully there’ll be a “Wild About Wilder Part 2” soon, and maybe you’ll see if my opinions about him have changed!