Tag Archives: Billy Wilder

Actor Profiles & Reviews

Ace in the Hole (1951) 4.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85.2
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 111 mins
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur

Billy Wilder shows that film-noir can be done just as well outside the traditional confines of murky streets and shadowy cities by giving us a dry and dusty noir that has all the punch of the more famed classics. Kirk Douglas is the professionally exiled newspaper man who takes up with a small town paper hoping for a big story that’ll propel him back into favour with the big city papers. And when a cave-in traps an average schmuck who had been looting a local Indian burial chamber, he seizes his chance with both hands. There’s just one problem: the schmuck may be rescued too soon for the story to get enough traction. Using all his wiles to co-opt the sheriff and rescuers, the driven reporter orchestrates a slower rescue while, outside the cave, the public interest reaches fever pitch.

Ace in the Hole makes for a rather picturesque film even if you don’t immediately notice it. The sun bleached New Mexican landscape contrasted with the dust and darkness of the cave harnesses the mood of Wilder’s perceptive screenplay to create a rather impressive canvas for his critique of media sensationalism. Chomping down on some outright seminal dialogue, Douglas is arguably in the form of his career and his boisterous presence is the centre of the film. As the money craving wife of the trapped man, Jan Sterling is a streak of caustic self-regard, an underrated triumph in the femme fatale stakes. But Ace in the Hole remains a vehicle for Douglas and his director. The latter peppers more languid moments of contemplation with a litany of amusing carnival type set pieces involving grandiose crane shots and wide contrasts. All framed around Douglas’ arch manipulator buzzing about somewhere within. And on top of all this, they go and give us one of the great noir endings too.

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The Apartment (1960) 4.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 88.4
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Duration: 125 mins
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray

Classic comedy drama starring Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter, a beleaguered insurance man who has to make his apartment available for his various superiors who are looking for a quiet place to take their lady friends. Things get sticky when he discovers that the girl he’s sweet on (a radiant Shirley MacClaine) is being taken there by the head honcho (Fred MacMurray) and they come to a head when she tries to kill herself in his bed after being jilted by the self serving boss man. Wilder always had a commanding grasp on the comedy knowing how to massage a story so that life’s inherent quandaries were incidentally examined, their ludicrousness stripped naked. Of course, it’s in that type of humour that a certain realism is also extracted and the poignancy of the story elevated. The Apartment is a glowing example of this approach made even better by the fact the it had two leads who faultlessly walked the fine line between comedy and drama, charming the audience in disparate manner. Laid out on a wide canvass of clean monochrome, Wilder does honour to the genre by gracing it with the visual class of a noir classic. On the writing front, he and I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay is rich with lyrical wordplay and above all intelligence. The comedic riffs and onscreen dynamics are delicious and with Lemmon’s panache, MacClaine’s split second timing, and MacMurray’s egotistical brio, the scenes are made truly immortal. However, when all is said and done, the real key to The Apartment is that aforementioned juggling act. It tugs on the heartstrings but the manipulation and narcissism are constantly outdone by the whimsical optimism and rapier pragmatism of the comedy. There’s something irresistible about that.

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The Lost Weekend (1945) 4.65/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.8
Genre: Drama
Duration: 101 mins
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry

Billy Wilder takes us on a rather perceptive journey into the soul of alcoholism with the help of Charles R. Jackson’s semi-autobiographical account of a three day rockbottom-bound bender. Ray Milland takes the lead as Don Birnham, a struggling alcoholic writer living with his moidered brother (Phillip Terry) who together with Birnham’s patient and dedicated girl (Jane Wynham) strives to keep him away from the drink by cutting off his credit and blacklisting him with the local bars and liqueur stores.

In addition to setting up the characters and relationships, the first part of the film amounts to an expose of the strategies and general cunning which a man in Birnham’s shoes has learned in order to secure and (if worse comes to worse) scrounge one last drink. There’s not much humour here but Milland’s charm is what we invest in as he plays the loveable rogue card as far as it’ll take him. Of course, that was never going to last and it’s not long before Miklos Rozsa’s strange warbling score (the type of which normally accompanies a flying saucer sighting in a b-movie) begins ringing in our protagonist’s ear, an aural manifestation of his urge for his forbidden fruit. This ushers in the darker half of the film which charts his spiral into desperate delirium and petty thievery.

As Wilder was to later do again in Sunset Blvd (only with a touch more delicacy), he spins a visual and auditory web of despair full of nightmarish images and sounds which give rich texture to Birnham’s descent. Unflinchingly and deliberately, he shows no temptation to ease off and let the audience reset their resolve. The result is an uneasy final act that one must persist through rather than savour. But it’s all very real. From the self-justifications of the articulate drunk to the arm’s length concern of onlookers when it doesn’t affect them and their crashing impatience when it does, it’s all deeply perceptive and astute. But where Wilder, Jackson, and Milland really nail it is in Birnham’s deep down fear and self-loathing. But this perceptiveness is not born of judgemental disdain. Quite the contrary. The finger pointing may be unflinching but in their interest in getting it right and calling it what it is, there lies some compassion. And it’s that genuine sentiment which allows all concerned to ultimately shift the tone towards resolution and make The Lost Weekend a peculiarly rewarding experience.

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Double Indemnity (1944) 4.93/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.5
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 107 mins
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson

One of the most defining movies of its genre, Double Indeminty taught generations of film-makers how to tell stories. Barbara Stanwyk plays the femme fatale like it had never been done before, darker and more seductive. Fred MacMurray plays the killer (revealed in the first scene and thus turning the typical murder mystery convention on its head), the charmed insurance salesman whom Stanwyk convinces to kill her husband for the big pay-off. Stanwyk and MacMurray are perfectly in tune with each other and in retrospect, both performances seem to embody the very essence of what we’ve come to expect from a female and male lead in a film noir. Of course, one shouldn’t forget Edward G Robinson’s endearing turn as the wily insurance investigator, the man MacMurray is attempting to outsmart. Behind the camera, Billy Wilder gives a masterclass in the use of light and shadows but more than anything it is the technique and style of Wilder’s and Raymond Chandler’s story-telling that blazed such a magnificent cinematic trail. The structure of the story opened up all sorts of new and fascinating exposition while the dialogue is outright sizzling. The barrage of quick and slick back and forths seems to almost hypnotise the audience and like the very best film-noir, it carries the audience through the picture at a unrelenting pace. Unmissable.

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Stalag 17 (1953)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85.8
Genre: War, Comedy
Duration: 120 mins
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger

It’s not easy to combine comedy with drama, especially drama tinted with dark themes but with films like The Apartment and Stalag 17, Billy Wilder did it with ease. Stalag 17 focuses on the American POW’s of a German WWII prison camp, as they attempt to make the best of their squalor in between escape attempts. William Holden’s Sgt Sefton is the black sheep of the bunch, a man whose shrewd and self-motivated trading has allowed him to live in relative luxury only to garner the envy of the other men and even suspicion of being an informer.

Wilder and co-writer Edwin Bloom find much humour in the tribulations of the men with the excellently realised buffoonery of Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck’s double act being their primary source. Stalag 17 progresses as a series of loosely connected but amusing episodes until retribution against Sefton’s perceived treachery sets him on a road to revenge. Holden gets his enigmatic character just right and in doing so becomes Wilder’s reflective surface for some well weighted commentary. It’s through Sefton that Wilder reveals his interesting take on the hero construct within the context of restrictions typical to the scenario. While the other prisoners both poke and have fun with their German captors and while the latter are portrayed as a bunch of near genial but harsh taskmasters, it’s Sefton’s cold cynicism which laterally reminds us of the darker tones to WWII. This is subtle and by no means the main thematic thrust to a movie that is more interested in the camaraderie of men at war. Instead, Wilder frames this classic around the touching and peaceful acceptance of life in harsh circumstances but thanks to its confidently handled humour and Holden’s crucible, it’s never smothered by those more positive observations. The result is a multi-layered comedy drama that steels the soul as much as tends to it.

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