Rank ‘Em: Billy Wilder

Back when I was a mere baby film buff, Billy Wilder was probably one of the very first directors I learned to know by name and seek out his films (along with Alfred Hitchcock). I can’t really explain that, other than I just happened to introduce myself to Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sabrina, and more within a relatively short period of time when I was also becoming aware of “director” as a concept. In any case, I loved Wilder’s stuff because he could do massively entertaining and witty films in almost any genre – film noir, society comedy, romantic drama, social drama, biopic, absurd comedy, etc. Perhaps the only director of the time as versatile when it comes to genre was Howard Hawks. Meanwhile, Wilder and Preston Sturges were two of the pioneers of the writer-director paradigm, which was pretty rare in studio-era Hollywood. I just watched Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair for the first time last night, and that pretty much leaves Stalag 17 as the only major Wilder film I haven’t seen. I should probably wait to do this Rank ‘Em until I’ve seen that one, but whatever. I’m a rebel.

All of these are written and directed by Wilder, except ones that have denote screenplay only. It would be wrong not to mention Wilder’s two long-term writing partners, Charles Brackett, with whom he worked on nearly every film from 1938 to 1950, and I.A.L. Diamond, who cowrote Wilder’s screenplays from 1957 through most of the rest of his career. Brackett’s departure from the team led to a bit more caustic cynicism in Wilder’s writing (see Ace in the Hole), though it had always been present. I will admit that I saw several of these a long LONG time ago and I’m going on my gut memories of them rather than specifics, so feel free to write angry comments about how wrong I am. There are at least a few perhaps surprisingly low placements.

18. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (screenplay)

This was Wilder’s first of two screenplays for Ernst Lubitsch, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the bottom of the barrel for both filmmakers. It’s become my personal exception when I talk about Lubitsch’s filmography, which is pretty stellar except for this one (seriously, if you search my writing, I probably mention this as a misfire almost every time I talk about Lubitsch; I should stop doing that). And it OUGHT to be good. I mean, Lubitsch plus Wilder plus Claudette Colbert plus Gary Cooper? But its story about millionaire Cooper marrying Colbert, his eighth wife, and her attempts to get even with him for making her the unwitting latest in such a long series of conquests gets shrill and mean-spirited quickly. It’s kind of an ugly film, and nowhere near the sparkling entertainment that both Wilder and Lubitsch are capable of producing.

17. Love in the Afternoon

Speaking of Wilder and Lubitsch, this is a Wilder film that’s meant to emulate a Lubitsch film. A lot of people like this very much, and I might on rewatch as well, but I remember finding it both rather boring and rather offputting in the casting. I’m not usually one to blink at age mismatches, and I certainly have no problem with Hepburn and Grant in Charade a few years later, but it just didn’t work for me here. When it comes to movies called “Love in the Afternoon,” I’ll stick to this one.

16. The Seven Year Itch

Truly a case where one iconic image has totally overshadowed the film where it originated. You know why? The film isn’t really all that memorable. It’s really about Tom Ewell, and I’ll give marks to Wilder for building a film around someone usually relegated to supporting and character roles thanks to less-than-leading-man looks. But I had trouble caring a lot about Ewell’s midlife crisis and dalliance with Marilyn Monroe. Of course, I was probably about fifteen when I saw this, and it’s tough to appreciate midlife crises at that age. I’ll try it again when I hit 40. 🙂

15. The Spirit of St. Louis

This is a fine biopic of Charles Lindbergh, focusing mainly on his historic solo transatlantic flight, and it is in many ways a tour-de-force performance from Jimmy Stewart, since a good chunk of the film is just him alone in the cockpit, trying to keep awake and on course. When a fly turns up and starts annoying him, it’s a major dramatic conflict. But there you go – it’s a fine film, a well-done film, but there just isn’t nearly as much crackle to it as many of Wilder’s other films.

14. A Foreign Affair

I put this one off for quite a while because I’d heard mixed things about it, and that’s pretty close to right. Jean Arthur as a stuffed-up congresswoman doesn’t quite fly, and her transformation into someone with actual emotions thanks to the attentions of a not-quite-on-the-level John Lund is a bit unbelievable. I frankly found her character so irritating in the beginning I didn’t care much about her turn, which says a lot, because I LOVE Jean Arthur. That said, all the parts with Marlene Dietrich are ace, especially the two nightclub numbers she does in her inimitable way. Arthur has some good isolated scenes, like when she breaks down telling about a past failed love affair, but they’re not enough. There’s also a Nazi spy subplot that’s intriguing but doesn’t quite go anywhere. When the ending came, it felt pretty opposite what I wanted to happen. Some really good parts, fairly unsatisfying whole.

13. Sabrina

I’m likely to take heat for putting this as low as I am, but really, everything from here on up is solid. The ones above this I like a LOT. Sabrina is down here in the middle because I have a hard time loving it as much as everyone else seems to. Yes, Audrey Hepburn is adorable. But she’s adorable in everything. Looking past her, we get a relatively bland William Holden and a painfully uncomfortable Humphrey Bogart. I’m a big Bogart fan, but he’s miscast in this. I’m sorry, but he is. I have a hard time watching him here, much less watching Hepburn try to compensate for his irascibility. It’s still a good film, don’t get me wrong, and I’ll revisit it one of these days, but it doesn’t sit perfectly with me.

12. Ninotchka (screenplay)

The second Wilder-Lubitsch collaboration is much more successful than the first, with Greta Garbo in her last great role as the dour communist Ninotchka. It’s especially interesting to see a portrayal of Russians like this so close before entering a World War with them as our allies (and made by two German refugees). But I digress. Garbo laughs here, thanks to the charms of Paris and Melvyn Douglas, and this is a charming, witty, and captivating film that succeeds as satire, romance, and social comedy.

11. Midnight (screenplay)

Weird of me to put this other film Wilder wrote but didn’t direct in 1939 higher than Ninotchka, huh? Not sure it would stay there on rewatch, but I have a real soft spot for this film and its ensemble cast. Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche, supported by John Barrymore (in one of his last roles), and Mary Astor, and a plot of double-crosses, affairs, and mistaken identity that just sparkles. Director Mitchell Leisen is barely remembered today, and this is probably his best film, but he gives a nice impression of Lubitsch crossed with My Man Godfrey here.

10. The Lost Weekend

I actually remember my very first reaction to seeing this film about an alcoholic detoxing over a very LONG weekend; it was amazement that Wilder had been able to make such a harrowing story so damned entertaining. I don’t remember too many specifics about the film, other than the trippy hallucinatory sequence when Ray Milland is going through the worst withdrawals, but I do remember that. And that’s the thing I like best about Wilder. You never know what genre he’s going to do, but 90% of the time it’s going to be entertaining, even when he’s in his most cynical and depression modes. I imagine on rewatch, the histrionics of this won’t work quite as well for me (most Golden Era addiction films don’t, on that level), but at the time I watched it, I loved it.

9. The Major and the Minor

Now this is one that probably doesn’t deserve to be nearly this high up. But it’s Ginger Rogers pretending to be twelve so she can get a half-price railway ticket and then falling in with an army officer who thinks she’s really twelve even as she’s falling in love with him. It’s a ridiculous plotline, but Ginger is really winning, and it’s much more entertaining and memorable than it has any right to be. It’s Wilder’s directorial debut, and slight though it is, it’s a witty and fun harbinger of much greater things to come.

8. One Two Three

You gotta hang on to your seats for this one, because this script is a mile a minute, and I swear Jimmy Cagney never comes up for air. He’s a PR man for Coca-Cola in West Berlin, tasked with keeping his boss’s daughter away from the Communist she’s planning to marry. It’s absurd fun, Cagney has never been better, and I’d put this right up there with Wilder’s best scripts, and he’s got a lot of really amazing scripts.

7. Witness for the Prosecution

Wilder’s foray into courtroom drama blends in plenty of double-crossing and character work, thanks to the conniving title character (played by Marlene Dietrich in one of her last roles, alternately wide-eyed innocence and smirking villainy) whose motives reveal themselves like layers in a cake as her husband (Tyrone Power) is tried for murder. Meanwhile, Charles Laughton gives one of his most memorable performances (also near the end of his career) as the judge who should by rights be retired but took this case on a whim. His interactions with his nurse (played by his wife Elsa Lanchester) are worth the whole film, but there’s a lot more here than that.

6. Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival)

This is Wilder’s cynical side in full force, and it’s a doozy. Kirk Douglas is an amoral reporter knocked down a few pegs to a remote desert town after screwing up once too often in the big city. While there, he finds out about a miner trapped in a nearby mine and, smelling story gold, contrives to keep him trapped as long as possible to wring as much out of the story as he can, all the while making it seem like he’s leading the rescue mission. The man is a piece of work, and Wilder’s satire of mass media and people’s fascination with bad news is just as relevant today as it was in 1951. The alternate title refers to the literal carnival that’s erected near the mine as people come from miles around, treating it as a spectator event.

5. Ball of Fire (screenplay)

The only non-Wilder-directed film to make my top ten, but I can’t deny the appeal of Howard Hawks and Barbara Stanwyck. Plus, Ninotchka notwithstanding, this is probably Wilder’s best script he didn’t direct. Stanwyck is Sugarpuss O’Shea (see, we’re only to the character names, and this movie is already awesome), a nightclub dancer who gets taken in by a bunch of stodgy professors who need her help on slang to finish writing their dictionary – meanwhile, she’s hiding from the mob. It’s hilarious and adorable all at the same time.

4. The Apartment

Wilder’s second Best Director Oscar came for this film (the first was for The Lost Weekend), and it actually kind of hurts me to put it fourth place, because it’s so good. Can the top four just be a four-way tie? That would be more accurate. Jack Lemmon is perfect as the put-upon clerk who lets his boss Fred MacMurray use his apartment for romantic trysts (hoping to rise in the company), even though he’s in love with MacMurray’s current flame, secretary Shirley MacLaine. There are no glamorous ballgowns or palatial penthouses here – instead, Lemmon strains spaghetti with a tennis racket and MacLaine plays gin rummy. But in place of glamour, we get one of the sweetest, warmest, and yet not the slightest bit sentimental romances of all time, with plenty of humor, but just as much melancholy to balance it out.

3. Some Like It Hot

The American Film Institute placed Some Like It Hot atop their 100 Greatest Comedies list, and they’ve certainly got a good case. Likely Wilder’s zaniest movie, with musicians Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis cross-dressing to escape the mob after witnessing a massacre, Lemmon getting romantically entangled with a elderly millionaire, and Curtis taking on a Cary Grant persona to win Marilyn Monroe. Full of absurdity, humor both verbal and physical, and one of Monroe’s strongest performances ever. It’s pretty tough to beat all around.

2. Double Indemnity

But it will be beat, because my love of film noir and Barbara Stanwyck and Barbara Stanwyck IN film noir cannot be denied. She and Fred MacMurray conspire to off her husband for the insurance, but this is all being narrated by a dying MacMurray to his dictaphone, so all can’t have gone as well as planned. A typical device for noir, and this is, in many ways, a proto-typical noir. Defeatest plot, good-guy hero turned bad, femme fatale, double-crosses, it’s all here. But with Wilder penning the script, it’s all here in some of the best dialogue ever written, and everyone delivering perfectly, including Edward G. Robinson as MacMurray’s suspicious supervisor.

1. Sunset Boulevard

Take a little film noir, a little melodrama, a little gothic drama, a little camp, and a whole lot of inside show business detail, and you’ve got just the bare bones of Sunset Boulevard. Hollywood loves to turn its narcissistic gaze on itself, and the results aren’t always very pleasant, but few films plumb the cynical depths or reach the artistic heights of this film, which glories in the faded beauty of the silent era, left to wither and rot away in overgrown palatial homes. Wilder’s brilliant script is brought to life by his brilliant casting – art imitates life with nearly forgotten silent stars playing nearly forgotten silent stars for an effect that’s almost surreal in its perfection.

Jandy Hardesty
balancing moviewatching, gaming, reading, and parenting ain't easy, but it's fun!

16 Comments

  1. I can give you my Top 3, as I have more holes in Wilder’s quite wide filmography than I care to admit:

    3. Sunset Boulevard
    2. Double Indemnity
    1. Ace in the Hole

    There is few films quite like Ace in the Hole (perhaps Dr. Strangelove? Quick Change is sort of a hybrid AitH/DogDayAfternoon hybrid, Get Low is a lighter, gentler follow-on for sure)…

    Ace in the Hole is one of the best films ever on ‘the dark soul of America’

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  2. I’ve seen far too few of his films (only your top 4), which is especially criminal since The Apartment and Some Like It Hot are two of my all time favourites. The other two I’ve seen are brilliant too, but I haven’t seen them often or recently enough to rate them quite as highly. I’ve been desperate to see Ace in the Hole, but it’s never seen a solo DVD release in the UK to my knowledge, which is crazy. We’re nowhere near as good as you fella’s over the pond for releasing the Hollywood classics.

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  3. I’ve seen less than half of his output, but so far I would recommend all of the ones I’ve seen.

    1. The Apartment
    2. Double Indemnity
    3. Sunset Blvd.
    4. Ace in the Hole
    5. Some Like it Hot
    6. One, Two, Three (very underrated)
    7. The Lost Weekend
    8. Kiss Me, Stupid
    9. Witness for the Prosecution
    10. The Fortune Cookie

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  4. You put me to shame, Jandy 😉 I have some MAJOR Billy Wilder catching up to do. Here’s my list anyways:

    4. Double Indemnity
    3. Sunset Boulevard
    2. The Apartment
    1. Some Like It Hot

    But on a different day that list might be in a different order, all of them are so damn good. Thanks for the wake-up call, Jandy!

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  5. I have only seen Double Indemnity (amazing), The Front Page (amazing) and Some Like It Hot (amazing), but this is one of my favorite americans 😀

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  6. 1. Double Indemnity
    2. One Two Three
    3. Ball Of Fire
    4. Ninotchka
    5. Sunset Boulevard
    6. The Apartment
    7. Ace In The Hole
    8. Midnight
    9. Some Like It Hot
    10. The Major And The Minor
    11. Witness For The Prosecution
    12. The Front Page
    13. Sabrina
    14. Stalag 17
    15. The Fortune Cookie

    Except for the top 3, my top 10 can pretty much be shuffled around. It feels odd putting Some Like It Hot in 9th position, but the 8 above it are pretty damn great (I think Wilder thought that director Mitchell Leisen ruined his script for Midnight, but I think that’s a zippy fun film).

    I pretty much agree with you about Sabrina – don’t hate it, but it doesn’t add up to much for me. I diverge mostly in putting One Two Three so high (it’s too madcap and ADD for some) and ranking Stalag 17 so low (I simply found little to entertain me in Stalag 17 – either the humour or the drama).

    I definitely need to catch up with The Lost Weekend, A Foreign Affair (I forgot Jean Arthur was in this – that bumps it up the list a few notches for sure) and Irma La Douce. The others aren’t as high priority for me at the moment…

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  7. So far the top four or five are pretty solid among all of us. 🙂 It’s hard to compete with them, and yeah, Ross, I could easily switch the top four around. They’re basically all tied, and all among the best of the best in their respective genres.

    Kurt, I thought I remembered you saying you were a big fan of Ace in the Hole. About the only thing that matches it for Old Hollywood cynicism is possibly Sweet Smell of Success, but the plot Ace in the Hole is still so incredibly relevant. When I was looking up images for it, one hit was a site talking about Ace in the Hole in light of last year’s Chilean miners disaster.

    David, Criterion just did a release of Ace in the Hole not too long ago – seems like Masters of Cinema often has similar films to Criterion; do they release a lot of Old Hollywood stuff?

    Toro, exactly – of all the 18 I’ve seen (including screenplays he wrote and didn’t direct), there are only a couple I don’t care for. The others are all definitely worth watching. That’s a pretty good track record!

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  8. Henrik, we agree on something?! *faints* Hehe. I’m curious about his version of The Front Page; I’m a HUGE fan of His Girl Friday and haven’t brought myself to see any of the other versions of it yet. But Wilder’s is worth it, huh? Doesn’t really surprise me.

    Bob, I love seeing One Two Three so high on your list! When I watched that, I expected it to be a mildly amusing little one-off or something, because I hadn’t really heard it talked about much, especially compared with Wilder’s other heavy-hitters. It blew me away – so much better than I expected. Toro’s right, it’s incredibly underrated. I at least got it in my top ten, but I love all those other films too much. 🙂 I’m glad you like Midnight, too – it’s been a while since I watched it, but I remember enjoying it immensely. On Sabrina, I think people (some people) fetishize Audrey Hepburn a bit too much – don’t get me wrong, I love her and will watch her in anything, but just because she’s in something doesn’t make it automatically amazing. And I feel like I’ve seen Irma la Douce, but I can’t remember it AT ALL, so I didn’t include it.

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  9. Henrik, this is because you are often a contrarian in these parts.

    As to GET LOW, I’m not saying that Billy Wilder would have made a film like GET LOW, but only that the film owes a large debt to Wilder, for the idea alone, and some of the execution, although both films have entirely different intentions…

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  10. Masters of Cinema don’t do many Hollywood classics no, mainly foreign films and lesser known films from big directors (like The Iron Horse). They do share a lot of titles with Criterion though so fingers crossed!

    Reply

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