Films directed by Billy Wilder on the TSPDT Top 1000 films:
#22: Some Like It Hot
#31: Sunset Blvd.
#59: The Apartment
#97: Double Indemnity
#669: Ace in the Hole
#742: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
#991: One, Two, Three
Billy Wilder’s Screenwriting Tips
As told to Cameron Crowe:
1. The audience is fickle.
2. Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
4. Know where you’re going.
5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’’e seeing.
9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.
– Reported by Nitesh Patel, NPR
Almost all the 25 films Mr. Wilder made as a writer-director displayed his slashing wit and stinging social satire. Yet no other major filmmaker slipped so easily into so many genres.
Vincent Canby, the longtime chief film critic of The New York Times, once wrote: “Wilder is often called cynical, mostly, I think, because his movies seldom offer us helpful hints to better lives. There are few people in his movies one could model one’s behavior on. He doesn’t deal in redeeming social values. Instead, he sees the demeaning ones.”
Mr. Wilder was a director who protected his scripts. The look of a movie was less important to him than its language. “I don’t like the audience to be aware of camera tricks,” he told one interviewer. “Why shoot a scene from a bird’s-eye view, or a bug’s? It’s all done to astonish the bourgeois, to amaze the middle-class critic.”
In postwar Germany, Mr. Wilder was a colonel in the United States Army who oversaw a program that prevented former Nazis from working on films or in the theater. When asked by the director of the traditional Passion play in the town of Oberammergau if a former Nazi, Anton Lang, could play Jesus, Mr. Wilder responded, “Permission granted, but the nails have to be real.”
Diamond, who wrote the unforgettable “Nobody’s perfect” last line in “Some Like It Hot,” described his partner’s approach to movie making as “a Middle-European attitude, a combination of cynicism and romanticism.” The cynicism, he said, “is sort of disappointed romanticism at heart – someone once described it as whipped cream that’s gotten slightly curdled.”
– Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, March 29, 2002
The biographical details of Wilder’s life are as vibrant as his film scripts. Wilder was born Samuel Wilder in 1906 in Sucha, a village in Galicia, an Austro-Hungarian province that is now part of Poland. It is well documented that his mother loved all things American and nicknamed her son ‘Billie’ after Buffalo Bill. The young Billy briefly tried to fulfill his parents’ other dreams by studying law. But he very quickly changed vocations and started working for a tabloid newspaper. Stories from this period in his life abound. Wilder was a big jazz fan as well as a dance gigolo. Both these pursuits found their way into his writing, as well as motivating his subsequent relocation to Berlin. From 1927 through to 1929, he learnt his craft by ‘ghostwriting’ on an estimated 200 scripts. His first official screenwriting credit was for The Devil’s Reporter (Ernst Laemmle, 1929), and this was followed by writing and collaboration credits on a number of early sound films. In 1933 the Nazi ascendancy caused him to flee from Germany to Paris, and finally to emigrate to America in 1934. Wilder was the last surviving member of a group of similarly exiled ‘magicians of the cinema’ that included Fritz Lang, Max Ophüls, Otto Preminger, Douglas Sirk, Edgar Ulmer, Robert Siodmak and Fred Zinnemann.
Wilder’s work has also received much criticism over the years, including the suggestion that his reputation would have been greater had he been more of a film stylist. But Wilder was intent on developing the classical principles of transparency and invisibility:
I would like to give the impression that the best mise en scène is the one you don’t notice. You have to make the public forget that there’s a screen. You have to lead them into the screen, until they forget the image only has two dimensions. If you try to be artistic or affected you miss everything. Richard Armstrong, in his excellent book, Billy Wilder, American Film Realist, emphasizes Wilder’s use of real locations, real streets and actual urban settings – a practice not common at the time. Armstrong finds a poetic edge in this quest for a realistic mise en scène. He singles out sequences like the “dumping of Dietrichson’s body at the railroad tracks” in Double Indemnity “shot ‘night-for-night’ for maximum gloom” as an example of poetic realism reminiscent of the work of Zola or Renoir. Wilder’s realist aesthetic, his deep shadows, gritty hard-edged streets, railway tracks, baroque houses, dramatic staircases and barren desertscapes offered startling, moody, and evocative images. While always in the service of his story, they also describe a powerful expressive film style that we now appreciate as his own.
The other main criticism that has been directed against his films is that they are deeply cynical and bleak. Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951) is the film that has most often been singled out in this way. A down-on-his-luck newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum sees his chance to get back to the big city newspapers when he stumbles across a man trapped in a desert cave-in. He unnecessarily prolongs the rescue operations, in order to build the story and his own fame, only to end up resulting in the death of the cave-in victim. The story is brutally tragic and the representation of media and society is vicious. Yet, it is also a powerfully entertaining film full of wit and sparkling dialogue with lines like “I never go to church; kneeling bags my nylons” or “I’ve met some hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you, you’re twenty minutes”. Wilder’s vision is certainly dark. However through the darkness we also discover, as Cameron Crowe says, “a clear eyed view of life in all its humour, and pain…”
I think Sikov says it best in his Wilder biography:
…not even Wilder, the master cynic, could foresee the kicker. The big joke is, with each passing decade Wilder’s acerbic tales only seem more tender. At the end of our vicious and exhausted century, Wilder’s nastiness has taken on a kind of romantic poignance. His movies are shockingly delicate…There was always decency there, even if no one could ever quite grasp it for good. There was love, however uncertain or tentative.
– Anna Dzenis, Senses of Cinema
First and foremost a writer, Billy Wilder, by his own admission, became a director to protect his scripts, having frequently bounced onto a set to express his fury at their misinterpretation in other hands. Sometimes criticized for tempering the harshness of his vision in deference to the box office, he operated with assurance across genre boundaries, compiling an impressive body of work featuring language over character, its wit and astringent bite setting his oeuvre refreshingly apart from mainstream Hollywood fare. With the help of co-writer Raymond Chandler, he produced a masterpiece of film noir, “Double Indemnity” (1944), which he followed with “The Lost Weekend” (1945), a social problem play that despite its unconvincing, upbeat ending delivers a brutally uncompromising look at an alcoholic. Wilder, who created a variation on the comedy of manners and seduction of his mentor Ernst Lubitsch in films such as “Sabrina” (1954) and “Love in the Afternoon” (1957), mixed black comedy with farce for “Some Like It Hot” (1959), his most purely entertaining movie, and alienated Hollywood with arguably the greatest Tinseltown insider’s tale, the cruel and haunting “Sunset Boulevard” (1950).
The string of box-office failures forced Wilder reluctantly into retirement, but he remained a vibrant link to Old Hollywood, always ready to oblige with a trademark quip, especially when accepting the many lifetime achievement awards that came his way. A marvelous director of actors, he coaxed career performances out of Milland, Swanson, Holden, Curtis, Lemmon, Monroe and Rogers, to name only a few, and who can’t love a guy that at one time or another infuriated almost every segment of the movie-going population. He brought to the screen an outsider’s sharp satirical eye for American absurdity and cruelty, and a master scenarist’s skill at rendering those absurdities within a dozen variations. Some were bitter, some sweet, but all were marked by intelligence, clarity and even affection, with just a touch of innocence. Whether you prefer the earlier darker version (“Double Indemnity”, “Sunset Boulevard”) or the more free-wheeling later one (“Some Like It Hot”, “The Apartment”), there can be no denying Wilder was a master storyteller with a great ear for a memorable line.
Wilder’s work is an amazing string of hits. From sarcastic and cynical social commentary to outrageous sex farce, Wilder pushed his audiences to look at their own values and morals. He was an outsider who wasn’t afraid to point out the hypocrisy of his adopted home.
– Jeremy Geltzer, Turner Classic Movies
“My father told me once, nobody’s an alchemist,” added Wilder with a wink. “But if I was, I’d make a thriller. There was never one kind of picture I made. I went from ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ to ‘One, Two, Three.’ Mr. Hitchcock, he made only thrillers, and magnificently. But you know what a thriller is to me? It’s the movie where the boss chases the secretary around the desk. . . . That’s a thriller–and that’s alchemy!”
– Wilder, interviewed by Paul Harnisch, The Los Angeles Times, March 2, 1986
During the course of his directorial career, Billy Wilder succeeded in offending just about everybody. He offended the public, who shunned several of his movies as decisively as they flocked to others; he offended the press with Ace in the Hole, the U.S. Congress with A Foreign Affair, the Hollywood establishment with Sunset Boulevard (“This Wilder should be horsewhipped!” fumed Louis B. Mayer), and religious leaders with Kiss Me, Stupid; he offended the critics, both those who found him too cynical and those who found him not cynical enough. And he himself, in the end, seems to have taken offence at the lukewarm reception of his last two films, and retired into morose silence.
Themes of impersonation and deception, especially emotional deception, pervade Wilder’s work. People disguise themselves as others, or feign passions they do not feel, to gain some ulterior end. Frequently, though—all too frequently, perhaps—the counterfeit turns genuine, masquerade love conveniently developing into the real thing. For all his much-flaunted cynicism, Wilder often seems to lose the courage of his own disenchantment, resorting to unconvincing changes of heart to bring about a slick last-reel resolution. Some critics have seen this as blatant opportunism. “Billy Wilder,” Andrew Sarris remarked, “is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism.” Others have detected a sentimental undertow, one which surfaces in the unexpectedly mellow, almost benign late films like Avanti! andThe Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. But although, by comparison with a true moral subversive like Buñuel, Wilder can seem shallow and even facile, the best of his work retains a wit and astringent bite that sets it refreshingly off from the pieties of the Hollywood mainstream. When it comes to black comedy, he ranks at least the equal of his mentor, Lubitsch, whose audacity in wringing laughs out of concentration camps (To Be or Not to Be) is matched by Wilder’s in pivoting Some Like It Hot around the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
By his own admission, Wilder became a director only to protect his scripts, and his shooting style is essentially functional. But though short on intricate camerawork and stunning compositions, his films are by no means visually drab. Several of them contain scenes that lodge indelibly in the mind: Swanson as the deranged Norma Desmond, regally descending her final staircase; Jack Lemmon dwarfed by the monstrous perspectives of a vast open-plan office; Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend) trudging the parched length of Third Avenue in search of an open pawn-shop; Lemmon again, tangoing deliriously with Joe E. Brown, in full drag with a rose between his teeth. No filmmaker capable of creating images as potent—and as cinematic—as these can readily be written off.
– Philip Kemp, Film Reference.com
Wilder learned to forge compelling stories about a brutal world in the inflation-riddled Vienna of the ’20s. Rejecting the preferred vocation of middle-class Jewish parents, he dropped law and became a reporter. Dispensing with the flowery feuilletons of traditional Viennese reportage, Wilder wrote tough, realistic pieces on sporting personalities, local celebrities, and visiting jazz musicians. According to biographer Maurice Zolotow, he introduced sports writing into Austria single-handed.
In 1926, bandleader Paul Whiteman invited Wilder to be his guide on a tour of Berlin. Wilder never returned to Vienna and became a dapper Americaphile, driving a Chrysler and, reputedly, learning English by memorizing song lyrics. Drifting into screenwriting, his career will emulate that twentieth-century paradigm: the European Jew emigrates, buys into the American Dream, resells the dream in Europe.
Andrew Sarris, the American critic, dismissed Wilder in his 1968 American Cinema as a director who “is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism.” He made reference to the scene in Stalag 17 in which Holden’s character “bids a properly cynical adieu to his prison-camp buddies. He ducks into the escape tunnel for a second, then quickly pops up, out of character, with a boyish smile and a friendly wave, and then ducks down for good. Holden’s sentimental waste motion in a tensely timed melodrama demonstrates the cancellation principle in Wilder’s cinema.” He charged that Wilder’s “conception of political sophistication” added up to “a series of tasteless gags, half anti-Left and half anti-Right.” Sarris further asserted that even Wilder’s best films “are marred by the director’s penchant for gross caricature, especially with peripheral characters. All of Wilder’s films decline in retrospect because of visual and structural deficiencies.” Sarris later famously reversed his opinion, and, in his most recent work, apologetically paid tribute to Wilder, observing that he had “grossly under-rated Billy Wilder, perhaps more so than any other American director.” It is my view that Sarris underrated Wilder in 1968 and overrates his work now.
Millar comments: “The truth is that no one comes comfortably out of a Wilder picture. This refusal to betray sympathy or award moral marks has been reproved as coldness, bitterness, contempt for the audience, or, more generally, for humanity, and his critics have usually managed to indict Wilder at the same time on the grounds of bad taste…. More often he is simply abused for having told the truth about an unpleasant area of human behavior.”
While true in a general sense, this may be a little too generous, as is Sarris’s critical volte-face. There is no question that some of those who leveled criticisms at Wilder’s supposed cynicism simply did not care to take a hard look at the institutions or practices at which the filmmaker was taking satirical aim. That is to Wilder’s credit. There is no need to pull one’s punches in regard to the state of American life or morals.
That does not settle the issue, however. There are missing elements in nearly all of his films. Compassion, for example, and the sense of an alternative to existing reality, even a moral or emotional one. At times his targets seem a trifle obvious, the work as a whole a little brittle, like a bright and shiny object in the water that remains near or close to the surface. The films, by and large, lack extraordinary resonance, texture and depth, at least when compared with the greatest films.
Perhaps in the end one should not concern oneself so much with what is lacking in Wilder’s work, and appreciate what is present. Within the bounds of the commercial film industry, he represented the principle of satire and irony, legitimate tendencies, and ones that are sorely lacking in the contemporary cinema world. He is a giant when compared to nearly everyone involved in American filmmaking today.
– David Walsh, World Socialist Website
Playboy: Are you conscious of any kinship in your films or your philosophy, as several critics have suggested, with the savage satire of Bertolt Brecht, or with the intellectual cynicism he articulated for his generation?
Billy Wilder: I knew him in Germany, and I knew him when he lived for a time here in Hollywood, and I regard him with Mr. Shaw – George Bernard, not Irwin — as one of the monumental dramatists of this first half-century, but I was never aware that he influenced me. Brecht was dealing with enormous subjects of the hungry, exploited masses which neither my brain nor my attention-span can cope with. His was a much vaster canvas than mine. After all, was Mickey Spillane influenced by Tolstoy? That’s Leo Nikolaevich, not Irwin. If there was any influence on me in those days, it must have come more from American books and plays I read. One of the most popular writers was Upton Sinclair. I read him, and Sinclair Lewis, Bret Harte, Mark Twain. I was also influenced by Erich von Stroheim and by Ernst Lubitsch, with whom I first worked on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. But I don’t believe I have been influenced by the cynicism of the times or even shown any of it on the screen. When they say that I have, they could be referring to, say, Double Indemnity, but this was done from a short story by James M. Cain, an American. It is not sugar-coated, my work, but I certainly don’t sit down and say, “Now I am going to make a vicious, unsentimental picture.”
Playboy: A friend of yours once said “Billy’s collaborators are $50,000 secretaries.” Is your creative hand really that authoritative in writing a scenario?
Do you remember my telling you earlier about that rooming house I lived in when I first was trying to get into the movies in Berlin? Well, next to my room was the can, and in it was a toilet that was on the blink. The water kept running all night long. I would lie there and listen to it, and since I was young and romantic, I’d imagine it was a beautiful waterfall – just to get my mind off the monotony of it and the thought of its being a can. Now we dissolve to 25 years later and I am finally rich enough to take a cure at Badgastein, the Austrian spa, where there is the most beautiful waterfall in the whole world. There I am in bed, listening to the waterfall. And after all I have been through, all the trouble and all the money I’ve made, all the awards and everything else, there I am in that resort, and all I can think of is that goddamned toilet. That, like the man says, is the story of my life.
Wilder: First of all, whoever said that is no friend of mine. If that were the case I would hire my relatives and make the money I give them tax-deductible, at least. But my collaborator, Iz Diamond, and I work together from the word go, and after it’s done it cannot be said that this was his idea, this was mine, this was my joke, this was his. It all occurs together, like playing a piano piece four-handed.
Playboy: Many moviemakers claim to have found an intellectual stimulation and creative freedom in Europe that’s unattainable in Hollywood. Have you?
Wilder: Remember, the movie scripts that Hollywood people go to Europe to shoot are still written in Hollywood, don’t forget. So they make La Dolce Vita in Rome; but they also make Hercules and the Seven Dwarfs. As for freedom, all the Mirisch Company asks me is the name of my picture, a vague outline of the story, and who’s going to be in it. The rest is up to me; can you get more freedom than that? And as for there being more intellectual stimulation in Europe, some of my best friends have gone to Europe and then to seed intellectually. I don’t believe any of that “intellectual stimulus” crap. Take Confucius – he said some pretty stimulating things, but he never got to Paris in his life.
Playboy: Hollywoodians often speak enviously of you as a man of uncompromising standards. How is it that you and a few other filmmakers have managed to resist the pressures of compromise?
Wilder: To me, it is a matter of dollars and cents. It doesn’t have only to do with Hollywood, it has to do with a man’s approach to the problem of making those dollars and cents. Some compromise, some do not. Look at Fellini. He cleaned up with La Dolce Vita. When I saw it I couldn’t decide if it was the greatest or dreariest picture I’d ever seen, and finally I decided it was both. A remarkable film, excellent because he had stuck to his own principles.But the worst thing that can happen to us in this business is if a dog picture makes a hit, then we all have to make dog pictures because the people with the money trust dogs. But if one like Fellini’s makes a hit, it is the greatest thing – as long as it is not loaded with the stars who are always advertising themselves in the trades.
It’s a question of money, and yet it is not a question of money anymore in Hollywood. The beauty of our capitalist system is that you can’t keep what you make even if you make a lousy picture that’s a hit; so why not try to make something good? Today’s capitalist system is for those who already have the money, not for those who are making it. There is really very little use in my working, since I can’t keep the money. I can never get richer than I am. So why am I beating my brains out? I go to the studio because I can’t stand listening to my wife’s vacuum cleaner at home, and also because I can’t find three bridge partners or somebody to go to the ball game with. Also I work to waylay some of the phonies from getting Academy Awards.
Playboy: Isn’t it true that when you’re between pictures you’ve been known to volunteer your services to other producers and directors?
Wilder: Only when asked. I enjoy making movies, I enjoy the problems. If I’m not working on something of my own and someone calls me up and says, “Look here, Billy, I have a problem,” I will try to do what I can to help out. I’m restless. My stomach hurts when I’m working, but it also hurts when I’m not. It’s exasperating – I should get into something else. But that’s the way it is, and I’m stuck with it. After 30 years of making films I’m used to trouble and well-acquainted with grief.
– Interviewed by Richard German, Playboy, June 1 1963