What other Hollywood artisan better endured and represented the tumult and cynical narrative of the 20th century than Billy Wilder? Succumbing late last week to pneumonia at the age of 95, Wilder was never less than an avuncular oracle of social iniquity, a pop Voltaire negotiating the tides of American taste. His voice was a consistent chortle of bitter bemusement, and it’s bracing to consider the countercharge to studio schmaltz that Wilder and fellow émigré Fritz Lang constituted for three decades running. He may have been the best memoirist and quipping critic the movie industry ever had. Like his mutant stepbrother Sam Fuller (and like him an ex-crime reporter), Wilder loved to gab, and so the last garrulous 20 years have only front-loaded his already auspicious reputation.
Indeed, his bio is familiar but riddled with the contradictory details Wilder has conjured in decades of tale-telling. Born an Austrian Jew in 1906 (in what would become a Polish county after WW I), Wilder survived the war to become a law student in Vienna, a journalist in Germany, and eventually a scriptwriter, collecting with Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, Eugen Schufftan, and Robert Siodmak for 1929’s Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday). All five men escaped Germany by 1933, Wilder stopping over in France long enough to co-direct (with Alexander Esway) Mauvaise Graine (Bad Seed, 1933), and then moving on to sunny L.A. and studio writing contracts at Columbia and Fox. He hooked up with Charles Brackett in 1937 at Paramount (Wilder’s faith in his own English was always shaky, and he always felt the need for a sophisticated co-writer) for what would be a 13-year collaboration. After a few hits—Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), Hawks’s Ball of Fire (1941)—Wilder began as a director in 1942, with the inoffensive softball The Major and the Minor.
Wilder is renowned for his mordant wit and interest in the ubiquity of guile, and yet, some of his most widely beloved films—Sabrina (1954), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960)—are unsubtle, relatively timid, and strainingly romantic. (After 1957, Wilder swapped script henchmen, partnering with I.A.L. Diamond for the next 20 years.) While still amusing, Some Like It Hot may be the most overpraised movie in the American canon, notable predominantly for the exploration of Marilyn Monroe’s public identity as utopian whore-kitten. Wilder’s ideas were rarely visual, and he has always been embraced for keeping his meanings verbally plain and his performers in fourth gear.
His genuine significance revolves around the stealthy application of a stoutly sardonic worldview: P.O.W. camps as situation comedy, posh California suburbs as predator zones, Hollywood as an absurd oasis of zombies, war-torn European cities as mulched gardens of larceny and exploitation. (Recall when watching 1948’s A Foreign Affair or 1961’s One, Two, Three that Wilder served in the U.S. Army as a colonel in the Berlin-based Psychological Warfare Division.) His darker films are dauntingly eloquent about the moral failure of midcentury America. Double Indemnity (1944) is Cain by way of Chandler, and although the film’s popular slickness and sexy attitude nudged it too often into a soon-to-be-fashionable coolness (and away from the raw despair of other noirs), it’s a pioneering bath in mercenary bile. For the first time in a Hollywood film, we root for the bottom-feeders, and envy them their venality.
Of Wilder’s critical favorites, The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) bristle with particular discomfiture. The first, an unwavering alcoholic wail, didn’t merely explore addiction but introduced wartime moviegoers to the spectacle of selfless misery. Ray Milland’s performance still hurts, just as William Holden’s portrait of sickened opportunism slyly injects a queasy sexual distaste into the palpably camphorous Sunset Boulevard.
Wilder’s freshest movie may be the one he was review-lynched for in 1951: Ace in the Hole, a corrosive essay on amorality in the badlands that has Kirk Douglas sacrificing a trapped miner for the betterment of his newspaper career. Here, Douglas is the ultimate hot-diggity carpetbagger, and the depths of viciousness the film excavates remain shocking, right down to the scissors in the belly. (It must’ve seemed apt to Wilder that he’d be excoriated as a pessimist—for a movie about journalists—just one year after Boulevard‘s wicked industry slur got universal praise.) Happy to expect the abject worst of his fellow man in his films, Wilder was never cynical about his audience. “Every single person out there is an idiot,” he once said, “but collectively they’re a genius.” The contradiction couldn’t have ever disturbed such a cheerful misanthrope.