Critical study of the oeuvre of Billy Wilder is still surprisingly scant almost a decade following his death. Rather than cogent analysis that reaches beyond the director’s often self-deprecating commentary, staple biographies still hold sway. This new collection by Karen McNally which relegates the director to “Movie-Maker” (as opposed to filmmaker – Wilder’s own description of himself) seems at first glance to be a study that takes the director on face value. What emerges, however, is nothing short of several revelations and some of the freshest and most insightfully written examinations on Billy Wilder to date.
Continuing the thread of Gerd Gemünden’s recent examination of the Central European sociocultural values and anxieties that simmer under the containment of being Hollywood’s “cynical realist” (1), this collection moves even further into a re-evaluation of Wilder’s cinema, obliterating the easy labels and focusing on his art as complex semiotic communication; a sophisticated game of masking played with the spectator, and against the director’s own denial of deeper meanings. While his Austrian-Hungarian and German colleagues in Hollywood (Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Fred Zinnemann, Michael Curtiz) understood the reconstruction of identity and style that was necessary to succeed in the American studio factory, it seems only Wilder had rehearsed it to the point of a self-conscious cinematic philosophy. His experiences as an Austro-Pole in imperial Vienna, an Austrian in Weimar-era Berlin, a Jew in an increasingly anti-Semitic Europe, and a Central European refugee in Hollywood, were a training ground in the comprehension of identity and its slippage. His early career as a journalist in both Vienna and Berlin made him a shrewd judge of the illusions of society and, in particular, the follies and foibles of the bourgeoisie attempting to maintain control and even privilege. As both a survivor and an observer, Wilder learned what to show of himself and what to hide – or rather what to “overwrite” with his significant gift of wit. Critics Rolf Aurich, Andreas Hutter, Wolfgang Jacobsen, and Günter Krenn in “Billie”: Billy Wilders Wiener journalistische Arbeiten present Wilder the picaro, climbing up and down the social ladder for stories and even disseminating fashion and beauty tips as “Aunt Billie” (2). Little wonder that transvestism and the questioning of traditional gender representation hold such a unique place in his work. As McNally’s fascinating collection reveals, Wilder’s title as “America’s cynical realist” is itself filmic masking.
Andrew Sarris’ myopic “less than meets the eye” judgement of Wilder’s work (which he eventually recanted) has long been accepted by other film writers who considered his endings “diluted” and his patterns “overwrought” (Pauline Kael). McNally’s collection targets a basic ambivalence in his films as an intentional lack of moralistic judgment. One is what one can be, the director discovers early on. And Wilder became a Hollywood studio creature who did not play fair; his often self-deluding America suggests cultural directions and anxieties that can never be resolved by either the censor or the happy ending. Despite his keen comprehension of what was expected of him and how he might manipulate this, Wilder was an unrepentant European spy in the House of Paramount (or any of the companies he worked for) and hardly recognised studio style. McNally’s intent to look beneath the Golden and Silver Age Hollywood facades and tease out Wilder’s importance to transnational film is an exceptionally valuable undertaking and finally breaks the critical “block” surrounding Wilder’s work.
Examining Wilder’s auteurism through genre, Lance Duerfahrd unmasks the director’s re-vision of the noir film in the underappreciated Ace in the Hole (1951). His shift of the noir locale to the desert, visual counter-texts to the previous Sunset Boulevard (1950), and “allegorical” editing style (p. 19) – those “visual deficiencies” Sarris complained of — are read by Duerfahrd as shrewd metafilmic choices that motivate the spectator to engage with the central character in a challenging manner. “The film is all about deception, the trap-nature, of the accident” (p. 18) posits Duerfahrd, and his consideration that “Wilder has set up a situation that only seems objective, and has done so in order to have us commit ourselves, to act, to transgress, like the felon exposed by approaching an undercover officer” (p. 18) points to Wilder as experimentalist in mainstream clothing and his counter-formulaic spectatorial destinations. We might well be discussing Stanley Kubrick or even Michael Haneke, but Wilder’s realism, according to Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, has always been trompe l’oeil: “Wilder conceals the sign, undermining the verisimilitude in the very art of enabling it” (p. 178). Further, she posits that Wilder is a semiotician (going “underground” since his arrival in Hollywood) whose works are always palimpsests. The slip of Nikita Khrushchev’s official portrait from its picture frame revealing the Joseph Stalin portrait behind it in One, Two, Three (1961) comes to mind as a key that Wilder gives his audiences, but Steffen-Fluhr fascinatingly locates vital examples of this artistic ideology. His overwriting of the projected Holocaust in Wilder’s personally disregarded The Emperor Waltz (1948) with a quasi-heroic “shaggy dog story, reality being literally unspeakable” (p. 187), provides one answer to the questions regarding Wilder’s filmic neglect of Vienna for Berlin and what seems now as his unconvincing desire to film Schindler’s List. Steffen-Fluhr’s boldly written chapter also traces the thread of “cryptic-contamination” which flows through his films (represented in the virus of corruption, Nazism, self-delusion, immorality) and the undead image of Nosferatu, who is reinvented by Wilder in the characters of Norma Desmond, Erika von Schluetow, and Emperor Franz Joseph.
Reflecting Steffen-Fluhr’s reading of Wilder’s “fun in the hunted house” dystopic cinema, Mark Jancovich examines the terror of losing face and control in Wilder’s darker films. While noir has long been understood as the suturing of German expressionism, the American gangster film, and the pessimistic Weltanschauung of a Nazi-overrun Europe, Jancovich credits Wilder for transposing “gothic fantasy to contemporary realism” (p. 67) and thus, along with Alfred Hitchcock, inventing the Hollywood thriller. This new genre also required a redefinition of what was understood as realism in Hollywood film and forced the Production Code to adapt rather than to attack. Dale M. Pollock’s look at Five Graves to Cairo (1943), the “war film that wasn’t a war film” (p. 28), is equally absorbing in its crystallisation of the director’s concepts of overwriting, disguising, and deceiving in theory and practice. Rejecting the formula of the propaganda film, Pollock suggests that for Wilder, conviction can only be shown by underscoring the unfathomability of life. Here Erich von Stroheim looks nothing like Field Marshal Rommel and the twisting of representational identities and narrative signifiers break from the “usual Allies-hero/Axis-villain dynamic” (p. 35). Pollock’s examination of the deceptive layers of “realism” and Wilder’s questioning of role-playing makes for an entertainment that is more about the making of a war film than representing the war. Pollock finds this particular work to be an essential moment in the director finding his “auteurial voice” (p. 40). Phillip Sipiora approaches Wilder’s interest in role-playing (and its slippage) through Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of masking, and examines the ethical perspectives in the director’s work through a detailed look at Double Indemnity (1944):
What is infectiously engaging about Wilder’s work is his introduction of complex exempla of masking or face masking […] Character representation (including multi-representation and misrepresentation) is a driving motif in Wilder’s vision and versions of noir […] Wilder’s cinematic schema, reinforced by a sustained emphasis on masks and masking, is integrally related to fundamental principles of phenomenology, the philosophical home of perception and personal relationships for the last century (p. 104).
In exploring Wilder’s noir as phenomenological encounter, Sipiora supports the proposition that Wilder transformed the genre at its inception and embedded ethical perspectives in its language coding.
Dina Smith extends the European imprint below the “realist movie sign” in Wilder’s postwar films which “wrestle with issues of internationalism, linking American cultural production to Cold War foreign relations” (p. 195), and allegorise Western European complicity in its own Americanisation, particularly in Sabrina (1954) and Love in the Afternoon (1957). Smith keenly insists that these Wilder films no longer suit the Hollywood notion of saving Europe from itself, but instead invoke a clear cultural and economic imperialism. Corporate capitalism absorbs Sabrina’s unstable Cinderella figure (Western Europe as protectorate; Paris as inert utopian playground), but Smith’s look at Wilder’s geopolitical lovemaking also underscores that America is “still awed by European culture capital” (p. 207). The pre-war Paris of Wilder’s Mauvaise graine (1934), as examined by Leila Wimmer, is a semiotic grid of migration, exile and reinvention. Wimmer details why the émigré-influenced Parisian film of the 1930s counted Wilder among its important transnational influences, and how his German sense of constructivism and detached New Objectivity opened the acting spectacle of French cinema to values of space and mise en scène. Wilder’s movement across urban landscapes signifies both alienation and hope – an uncertainty that would be repeated throughout his career.
Both Ken Feil and Daniel Biltereyst examine the various aspects of controversy Wilder courted with his films and the reactions of censorship pundits at home and abroad. In doing so, both distill the nervously progressive nature of films like Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) (Feil) and Double Indemnity or Some Like it Hot (1959) (Biltereyst), which were not only large steps beyond Hollywood’s sensibilities but were found surprisingly too rich for a Europe that had celebrated Italian neorealism and the adult qualities of the French New Wave. Feil sees Kiss Me, Stupid as the stumbling block to middle-brow audiences that had long embraced a director whose sophisticated philosophical or psychological undercurrents were tempered with sympathetic comedic types. As the 1960s dawned, Wilder’s work approached the intellectual vacuity of his general audience in The Apartment (1960) and most adventurously in Kiss Me, Stupid, where television culture, celebrity, and small-town morality were stingingly dissected. Feil posits that it was this film that critics used to damage his auteur status. It was condemned as vulgar and sexually exploitative just a year shy of the mod bedroom farce What’s New Pussycat (Clive Donner and Richard Talmadge, 1965) with Peter Sellers (who was to have been in Wilder’s film), which had none of the social critical verve of Wilder’s work, but would help do away with the Hays Code. Examining the mostly unfamiliar problems of censorship regarding Some Like it Hot abroad, Biltereyst points to Wilder’s uncomfortable fit between European art films and Hollywood studio creations. Ironically, the European contretemps over Wilder’s transvestite comedy mirrors the American critical damnation of Kiss Me, Stupid as an example of “unhealthy” film sexuality. Biltereyst describes how Wilder had first learned to deal with studio content control in the wake of problems with Double Indemnity and that he would from then on only submit the script to censors after a film was completed – “censorship was a vital part of Wilder’s art of transgression.” (p. 157).
Alison R. Hoffman’s chapter “Shame and the Single Girl” dares to link The Apartment with Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and does so in a most compelling manner. Produced in the same year and “caught between the neo-Victorianism of the 1950s and the coming sexual revolution of the late 1960s” (p. 71), both take on illicit sex and death in what is now considered representational in the obliteration of classic Hollywood style. According to Hoffman, Wilder’s pre-feminist project succeeds in humanising the still ambiguous value of the single girl in films of the era and detaching the newly sexualised image from the traditional notion of female shame in cinema by “counter-shaming” (p. 82). In its transference of the “contagion” of shame from the female (Fran, played by Shirley MacLaine) to the enabler male (C.C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon), Wilder manages to question traditional masculine and feminine role-playing with a catharsis brought on by the “embrace of misfit difference and rejection of patriarchal normativity” (p. 84). Although outmoded gender-role traditions may be deemed Wilder’s bête noir, Karen McNally sweeps across his filmic landscape to investigate why the director nevertheless remained fascinated with the concept of the movie star. Wilder often used the actor’s public image as an intertext to the character in his films and McNally articulates how the brilliant doubling of Dean Martin with the image-character of “Dino” works as vitriolic criticism of celebrity worship in Kiss Me, Stupid. The author points to the frisson of James Cagney’s image-as-America in One, Two, Three (1961), and how both Sunset Boulevard and Fedora (1978) play with the de/construction of a constructed identity. Also intriguing is McNally’s look at the director’s use of Marlene Dietrich as a floating signifier of Hollywood glamour, émigré identity, and the imagined wartime/occupied Germany.
On the subject of stars and star makers, Paul Kerr asks if Wilder’s progressiveness was encouraged by the Mirisch Company’s package-unit system of the late 1950s and 1960s. With no studio or contract stars, the firm desired to load films with as many “attractions” as it could handle – star names, mixed genres, and entertainment aimed at various audiences. It also wanted to “challenge the censors” and adapt properties “often exploring class, race, and gender with sexually provocative themes” (p. 124). Kerr’s unique analysis of the symbiotic relationship between Mirisch and Wilder demonstrates how Some Like it Hot easily fit into the company’s strategy. The comparison between Sunset Boulevard as “an allegory for the studio which produced it” (p. 130) and Some Like it Hot as an allegory of Mirisch strategy and “differentiation” from traditional studio demands provides an unusual take on the popular film, suggesting that the director’s auteurial quality can be more solidly located in his concepts of characterisation.
Among the most unexpected chapters in this engrossing collection is the examination of Wilder’s influence on Hindi cinema by Sunny Singh. The worship of Wilder by Mumbai’s mogul, Manmohan Desai, opens this analysis of the adaptation of Western urban anxiety and transculturalism (Some Like it Hot for Narend Bedi’s 1975 Rafoo Chakkar and The Apartment for Anurag Basus’s 2007 A Life in the Metro) to “postcolonial mythologies of indigeneity and rejection of urbanity as sites of anti-colonial resistance” (p. 221). Wilder’s de/masking and overwriting is found to contain the threat of “the modern” in India and is successfully applied to the multivalence of Bollywood formalism. Katherine Arens’ look at The Emperor Waltz and Irma La Douce (1963) avoids their history as Wilder’s “orphan films” (p. 41), and examines them as sophisticated experiments based on European stage and cinematic traditions, particularly Viennese operetta. Judging Emperor Waltz a wholly allegorical work to the point of emphasising Wilder’s painstaking manipulation of Technicolor values (long misunderstood as his seeming difficulty with colour), Arens posits that the film was an attempt to bridge American sensibilities and European conventions, and that Wilder structured it to “move beyond the traditional genres, convinced that art and commerce could come together for the audience” (p. 46). Although he would openly dismiss its value, Arens locates intriguing intertexts with the Austrian Volksstück, operetta, and the UFA Berlin film musicals of the 1920s and early ’30s. In transcending such genre structures again with Irma La Douce, Wilder apparently intended to push the Hollywood musical in a new direction between other experiments of the era, such as Gene Kelly’s Invitation to the Dance (1956) and Jacques Demy’s Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964). Arens concludes that Wilder wanted to “take his audience beyond the conventional” (p. 54) by replicating his own émigré mix of cultures as a significant transnational filmmaker.
It would take two more decades beyond Wilder’s final experiments, the demise of the studio system, and the cultural mutiny of several new waves before transnational cinema would be seriously considered by critics. It would require the start of another century and the norming of international independent film to make it a popular paradigm. Engaging and thought provoking, this collection will certainly contribute to original points of entry for the films that are not approached here. Its successful interdisciplinary angle should also persuade film study of the theoretical complexity yet to be examined in the work of Billy Wilder.
Billy Wilder, Movie-Maker: Critical Essays on the Films, edited by Karen McNally, McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina and London, 2011.