Film Commentary: BILLY WILDER’S OEUVRE TOTAL, PART IV

by Jason Rohrer on October 24, 2016

in Film

Post image for Film Commentary: BILLY WILDER’S OEUVRE TOTAL, PART IV

THE WORLD AFLAME

[Editor’s Note: Oeuvre Total is a film-discussion series between producer Michael Holland and critic Jason Rohrer, begun at Bitter Lemons and continuing here at Stage and Cinema. The first ten-part Oeuvre Total exchange concerns Billy Wilder. After we run the previously-published seven original entries (Part III by Mr. Holland last week; Part IV by Mr. Rohrer below) new posts will appear in the coming weeks.]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Nobody’s perfect.”

It’s one of the great European last lines, and it hangs on one of the great American movies. But it’s not the end of the picture.

As Michael Holland nimbly illustrated in Part III, that last line transports Some Like It Hot. Seconds ago, in the same shot, Joe E Brown’s smitten Osgood was finally on the getaway with the object of his affection when he got slapped with the news that Jack Lemmon wasn’t Daphne but Jerry in drag.

And after all Osgood and Jerry have gone through! This assumed-identity story has ten times the drama of Spielberg’s Oscarjerker Schindler’s List; at least as delirious a moral gravity as Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast; at least as much danger and suspense as Hitchcock’s Vertigo. For two hours, every event adds to obstacle. You can climb every mountain but sometimes, like Jerry, you’re just gonna lose.

Jerry isn’t a bad guy. He has led Osgood on, but while Daphne is an awesome creation, she isn’t a very good woman. Jerry’s heart isn’t in her, because he knows the thing can’t work. He’s not in love with Osgood; he’s in love with Sugar. If Jerry were really a woman, and if this were an American comedy by anyone but Billy Wilder, Osgood would be the man of Daphne’s dreams: sweet, devoted, rich.

It hurts Jerry to give up that make-believe, and it can’t feel good to look over his shoulder into the back seat, where Tony Curtis makes love to Marilyn Monroe. Good God. No matter how great a catch, Joe E Brown’s no Marilyn Monroe. Well, Lemmon’s no Curtis in the square-jaw department. He gets to stop being the fairy princess when he says “I’m a man,” but he loses Prince Osgood, his only consolation prize.

This penultimate moment hurts even more because up to now Osgood’s primary character trait has been an adorable implacability – surely this revelation will destroy him – and because he’s almost ancillary to the main action. Osgood’s going to be left holding the wig while the pretty stars sail under the Southern Cross, with Lemmon as ballast? It’s a cruel world, unjust and bitter, that punishes the undeserving; Osgood’s given his heart to a lie, for Christ’s sake. His fianceé is a man!

Without missing a heartbeat: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

But that’s not the end.

For a couple of seconds before The End, Jerry’s reaction fills half the frame next to Osgood’s blithe, rubbery grin: He’s flummoxed. For half the picture Jerry’s been able to turn away Osgood’s kiss by the skin of his teeth, but now, by fadeout, he still hasn’t come up with a retort. Jerry’s going to lose this argument, just past the bounds of the movie in ever-after territory. Holy shit.

  • Did Osgood know all along? Is that why he’s so smug all the time? (the Catholics condemned the picture, to Wilder’s delight)
  • Is Osgood insane?
  • Is he just a happy guy? This one brings the most madcap. What a metaphysical loop we loop: a) Osgood, as the genuinely idle rich (vs Tony Curtis’s faux playboy), simply isn’t bothered by a currency as fluid as gender? All the problems in the movie stem from hunger… b) Osgood’s blithe facade isn’t just a pose? Nothing really matters in this world except attitude? Posing, after all, led Jerry and Joe to their fortunes: a drunken floozy, a divorcé who likes men in drag…hey, wait a minute! c) d)…z) a.1)

Is it only a Billy Wilder movie that could attend so strictly to story, could for two solid hours remain so technically meticulous and tonally single-minded and then, in the very last shot, reinvent itself from satire to farce? Yes, Wilder’s mentor Ernst Lubitsch ends Trouble in Paradise on an almost nonsensically silly sight gag, but that whole movie is farce. “Nobody’s perfect” is perfectly Wilderian, sexually sophisticated high comedy tainted by cold chaos: The Lubitsch touch with the fingerprints burnt off.

“Nobody’s perfect” is an anarchic decision, and it works because a damn-the-torpedoes fatalism runs through all of Some Like It Hot – the good guys are liars and their antagonists are deadly earnest – as it runs through much of Wilder. Wilder was, temperamentally, the right guy to darken the incipient noir of Huston’s Maltese Falcon into the pitch black of Double Indemnity. As Michael says, we still talk about him for a reason.

Which brings up a point with which I hope we can dispense. Last week, Michael neatly kicked the crutch of my auteur argument by denying Auteurism. I am happy to agree to disagree, since I think he’s so impossibly wrong about how wrong Andrew Sarris (and Godard and Truffaut) are.

Michael has worked on a lot more movies than I have (I acted in one he wrote and produced, which I wrote a nasty review about, and he still talks to me!) and I dig his message that a whole lotta heads go into making a picture. Stagecoach wouldn’t be quite as John Fordy – nor would William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, which badly needs all the Ford it can get – without stunt rigger and chief horsekiller Yakima Canutt. The qualitative difference between what were, on paper, the very similar conceits of Inglourious Basterds (edited by Sally Menke) and Django Unchained (edited by Fred Raskin) make it impossible to overstate the influence of a good film editor on Quentin Tarantino.

Filmed entertainments are indeed the most collaborative of arts. But we don’t call Stagecoach a Yakima Canutt film. Reservoir Dogs isn’t a Sally Menke film. True Romance, for that matter, isn’t a Tarantino film, though he wrote it. Because he didn’t direct it.

It’s not necessary to stamp film as a director’s or even a writer’s medium. Like television, films are often marked for good or ill by producers. Look at the RKO stable that Val Lewton put together, and tell me how talents as disparate as Robert Wise and Jacques Tourneur and Mark Robson managed to do their most interesting work directing unmistakable Val Lewton movies with a variety of writers (Lewton usually among them) and editors (sometimes each other).

But film is most definitely an auteur’s medium. Scope demands shape. Whether David Lean employs a thousand people on a given day in Arabia or Shane Carruth makes all of Primer with a crew of eleven (including post-production), there are too many moving parts to the motion picture-making machine for it to run itself. Somebody’s got to say yes and no to all the department heads. And if, through all those layers of contribution, I can still make out commonalities among films written or produced or directed by the same people, I call it authorship. Technicians who deny the auteur theory because they’ve put in their own 2 cents are overvaluing 2 cents by a factor of 98 cents.

More than most studio giants, Wilder fits the auteur bill. From look to tone to tempo to jaundiced view of the human comedy, a story as black as Sunset Boulevard and a story as whimsical as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes can be identified as products of the same artist who made Some Like It Hot.

Not everybody leaves as noticeable an imprint. Michael Curtiz could direct any genre from screwball comedy (Four’s a Crowd) to melodrama (Four Sisters) to crime drama (Angels with Dirty Faces) to religious parable (We’re No Angels) to swashbuckler (Captain Blood) to war recruitment poster (Captains of the Clouds),but other than extreme competence and good taste, there’s not much of a personal stamp. Curtiz could apply the Lubitsch Touch and he could see through Ford’s eyepatch too; he was proud of that.

William Wellman, for another instance, was a studio technician who got it right (The Ox-Bow Incident, Nothing Sacred) or got it wrong (The Next Voice You Hear) but never really got inspired after the naughty Barbara Stanwycks of the early 30s (Night Nurse, The Purchase Price). As with Curtiz I can’t find a connecting authorial thread among the relative competence of most Wellman movies; in Yellow Sky he shoots desert almost as well as Ford does in My Darling Clementine; in Public Enemy he shoots up Chicago almost as well as Hawks does in Scarface. But Wellman understood style and its uses, and he put various tropes together to make a lot of solid movies. That’s authorship too.

But we don’t talk about Wellman the way we talk about Wilder, for the same reason Spielberg calls Curtiz the best director you’ve never heard of: The director of Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy disappears into his work. Wilder doesn’t. Wilder is the show. That star quality is also called authorial voice. Cahiers du Cinéma didn’t invent that conversation. Aristotle beat Godard and Truffaut by two thousand years.

To address another of Michael’s important points: Is Andrew Sarris really a less valuable film critic because he never made a movie? You may as well tell the dead Toyota drivers that they shouldn’t complain unless they’ve designed their own anti-lock braking system.

Professional bona fides are no patent to authority. Jay Cocks, as film critic for Time, had the misfortune to sneer that, in The Long Goodbye, Altman’s Philip Marlowe was a weak sister to Hawks’s – talk about missing the point – and went on to write the two worst Scorsese movies (you’ll have to tell me how the third turns out when it’s released this year).

But maybe Cocks was ruined by being a critic first? Here’s another cart and another horse:

In calling Schindler’s List “pathetically self-congratulatory” for turning genocide into a maudlin Mission: Impossible, Andrew Sarris showed that he knew a lot more about, at least, watching movies than (pardon the expression) Roger Ebert. Despite the experience of writing a Russ Meyer picture, America’s most beloved critic (think about that phrase) managed to call Schindler’s List the “greatest film” by the director of, ahem, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Jesus Christ. Sugarland Express and Duel have more humanity in their up-with-people car chases than Schindler has in its opportunistic little red coat.

Now, sure, this is fun, but I don’t just want to throw rocks at anyone’s Sphinx. We all need our noses.

It is good for Michael and me to establish the boundaries of our ideals, but let us not continue by saying, for instance, that if Sarris doesn’t like David Lean, he’s unworthy of consideration on any score. I don’t always agree with Sarris – he liked Kathryn Bigelow – but I too have serious reservations about David Lean. I’ll happily put up Guy Hamilton’s Battle of Britain as a gripping, efficient, large-scale epic about the English character, against the hour of unexamined Arab pageant padding what’s undeniably fine in Lawrence ad nauseam.

And Kubrick…Christ, I have my problems with Kubrick. But if Michael thinks Kubrick’s untouchable, that Barry Lyndon is a lot more than a series of shockingly pretty pictures, and that Kubrick didn’t winnow Thackeray’s funniest novel into a dour technical exercise, that doesn’t mean I think Michael Holland knows nothing about movies. It means now I can see a little better where he’s coming from. I don’t have to agree that certain bodies of work are untouchable, but our differences do help me to agree that we should really be talking about Billy Wilder movies.

In Part II, I put Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives against Wilder’s The Lost Weekend for the reason that they’re both earnest social issue dramas. Also because, though temperamentally far more like Wilder than I am like Wyler, I am more inclined to appreciate Wyler’s taste. I agree with Michael that The Apartment is an issue drama too, and that it is (in addition) a wildly more successful study of the human condition than Lost Weekend, and a better comparison to Best Years. It was sloppy on my part, unfair. I’ll try harder.

Nobody’s perfect.

So far, Michael and I have addressed one Wilder movie head-on; on his lovely Holland Imaginarium blog, he praised Witness for the Prosecution on pretty much all levels, and I glibly dismissed the film as fluff, not among anyone’s best work with the exception of Agatha Christie, which…um…Agatha Christie? Who cares?

And what do we get from that? He says it is, I say it isn’t. There’s no yes/and here. I certainly agree that a working director can’t be expected to make a masterpiece every time. I don’t have a problem with anybody making movies for a living as long as he’s trying to make them as best he can. I believe Wilder did that, mostly.

Wilder’s best movies are his best for the same reasons that spoil some of his worst. The reasons are what make Wilder Wilder. This doesn’t make his best worse nor the worst better. It makes his “oeuvre total” a little more total. For me, the news that Wilder’s toughest crowd was his slow-to-laugh mother, and that the Nazis killed her as one of six million punchlines to a tasteless joke, is only news. It is the work itself which shows me that Ace in the Hole (even the title is a smash-and-grab) and The Apartment (its bleak brilliance is not subtle) were expelled on the acids of the same sour stomach.

A throwaway assignment like Witness for the Prosecution appealed to Wilder from a very specific point of view, one that angles on our darker angels. What Wilder found to excite him in this genre exercise was its (accidental and inattentive, I think, on Christie’s part; at least unintentional) central denial of human goodness. It is Wilder and his writing team who highlight the sick barrister’s hesitance to save a man’s life unless the job allows him to drink and smoke. It is Wilder who shoots a closeup of the woman’s scarred cheek, Wilder who casts perennial good guy Tyrone Power as a murderous fortune-hunter (Power’s other conspicuous bad-guy turn ten years earlier hurt his image and made a flop of Nightmare Alley, but Wilder hadn’t forgotten how good he was).

Wilder is a canny and principled-enough filmmaker to have Raymond Chandler bookend Double Indemnity to bring the murderer’s guilty blood front-and-center, rather than letting James M Cain’s suicide-by-shark bleed into the falling action, as in the novel. Yet Wilder does nothing to fix Christie’s ending in Witness, in which a cynical surprise takes the place of a hero’s rise or fall.

Instead Wilder abets Christie, allowing a supporting character to solve, neatly, the central moral problem while the protagonist literally sits and watches. Instead of dying, crushed by the moral weight of his undoing, the lawyer bounces up and announces that he will defend the new murderer too. This is bad writing, deliberately chosen in preference to an obvious alternative in which the dying barrister murders his own client to right the wrong he has done in getting him off the gallows. That would be a fucking movie.

Why does Wilder make this choice? Well, Christie probably wouldn’t have let him do what I’ve suggested. Also because, in the words of a lesser writer in a less cynical genre film, some men just want to watch the world burn.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Oeuvres Total, to date:

Part I by Michael Holland
Part II by Jason Rohrer
Part III by Michael Holland

Part V coming soon…

Leave a Comment