Mauvaise graine

Billy Wilder in Paris, co-directing with Alexander Esway a Billy Wilder film careening through the city and down to Marseilles for the boat to Casablanca, all about a gang of car thieves with a pretty girl who spots for them (she’s the siren the young hero must have in his spiffy roadster just before Dr. Pasquier sells the car out from under him) and fast paint jobs and new license plates and phony papers and a young kleptomaniac (her brother) who names every tie he swaps for, “this one’s Marceline, I stole it from Marcel Pagnol.”


The Major and the Minor

The Fall of France, two months before Curtiz’ Casablanca, is the entire theme, except that Lubitsch’s screenwriter makes it into a comedy with the express intention that “it can’t happen here”, Maginot Line, Sedan, Paris (even Benghazi), German Panzer divisions are like moths to the City of Light, who is a girl not playing ball with the New York boys, a girl of twelve “next week” so she can ride cheap, etc.

The Major is stuck like Ford & LeRoy’s Mister Roberts (cp. Hopper’s The Private War of Major Benson), far from the fray. From tadpole to frog is the Koh-i-noor, he says. Capra borrows a few items for It’s a Wonderful Life.

The point was delightedly missed by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, and Variety, and Tom Milne in Time Out Film Guide. Halliwell’s Film Guide, “moderately smart comedy”.

One of Wilder’s “best films”, says Sarris, all of them “marred by the director’s penchant for gross caricature”.


Five Graves to Cairo

Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review illustrates in the last degree the faults of criticism blinded by its apprehension, he was so terrified by Stroheim as Rommel that all the rest of the film, he tells us, was an impertinence, whereas the successful point is made throughout that Rommel is not to be feared but understood, the Field Marshal describes his plan to captured British officers and leaves out only the essentials, the five graves.

Stroheim achieves a complete representation of Rommel not by mimesis but rather by accumulation of details. A Milanese general (Fortunio Bonanova) with operatic tendencies accompanies him out of Rome. The waiter and double agent impersonated by a straggler from the Eighth Army in retreat (Franchot Tone, an actor of supreme intelligence in the part) makes a surprise appearance after a bombing raid by the RAF. Anne Baxter is completely Mouche, a French maid. Peter van Eyck is effectively deployed early on as Lt. Schwegler, the strategizing subaltern. Akim Tamiroff as the hotel manager floats his lines incomparably, with a stammer.

Everywhere critics have noted the exemplary skill of screenplay and direction, not quite perceiving the whole point of the film.


Double Indemnity

A simple morality play on the present and future evils of insurance. Its grandeur lies in the placement of structural details in an incidental position. After the death of his wife by exposure, the victim marries the nurse and sinks his fortune into Long Beach oil wells with nothing left over for new hats. Lola and Nino are nearly consumed in the murder scheme.

The sketch of Keyes is further elaborated in the barrister of Witness for the Prosecution, who also just manages to miss the boat a mile wide or so it seems, as it happens.


The Lost Weekend

The saving analysis is by Polanski in Repulsion. Otherwise, the critics have a horror ride they can’t explain and “a flatly hopeful ending”, as TIME’s reviewer put it, rather than a writer who can’t finish anything because, as Brackett & Wilder put it, he doesn’t know what the ending is.

A good woman, who works for TIME, imparts that wisdom to him.


Death Mills

Wilder’s arrangement of official footage for the U.S. War Office. Marks of “the Nazi beast”.

How “the German murder trust standardized the procedure of slaughter”. How the human slaughterhouses were “made to pay in many ways”. The Beast of Belsen.

Guards, torturers, “Amazons”. The Allied tour. The Weimar tour. “Criminals and lunatics”.

A film for Germans to watch, “will not be shown to the general public without permission of the War Department”.


The Emperor Waltz

A fairy tale about Franz Joseph I, the one about the Austrian countess and the traveling Victrola salesman, the romance of a Viennese poodle and a mutt from Newark, a Technicolor musical. The dreamlike quotient is a function of these and the effect sought, the madness of love takes over the film at the midpoint, Brackett & Wilder treat the same material rather differently in A Foreign Affair, a satirical arrangement of Der Rosenkavalier if you like.

The precision of a dream, a definition of surrealism, but count the sendup of psychoanalysis in as obstructionist highfalutin’ nonsense out with the rest, Wilder works from bedrock, he’s just come from the war (Death Mills), he’s in no mood to argue, his wit and sense of humor are unfazed.

“Even Lubitsch would have thrown up,” says Time Out Film Guide, Variety and the New York Times (Bosley Crowther) having admired the film without having understood it, some sort of pastry. Critical errors multiply...


A Foreign Affair

“The bitch that bore him” is still in heat, an American captain squires her, there you have the comic position.

“You gorgeous booby-trap!”

It is not enough that Berlin is bombed-out, not enough even that Wilder should satirize the famous opening of Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens with the shadow of a plane, nor yet enough to call the tune of Reed’s The Third Man, there must be five MPs guarding the moll in the end.

Lund, Dietrich, Arthur, add Mitchell and you have a comedy to be reckoned with on any level. Bosley Crowther, of all people, did just that.

Wilder didn’t take any chances but produced a finished masterpiece. Seaton’s The Big Lift picks up the note a while later.

The most beautiful expression of postwar Berlin because Hollander is there again, at the piano with Dietrich singing of illusions and ruins and everything else, in several languages. A profound comedy, as much the last word as anything going, not to be taken lightly. And it is the war again, played over in fancy-shmancy Dietrich vs. Arthur the congresswoman from Iowa.

With One, Two, Three, according to Sarris in The American Cinema, one of “the director’s irresponsible Berlin films.”


Sunset Blvd.

Norma Desmond and Max von Mayerling are understood to be artists who “defend a form”, as Webern says, who know Nabokov’s “secret of durable pigments”. The tyros, Joseph C. Gillis and Betty Schaefer, do not know their ABCs. Even watching Queen Kelly, Gillis knows nothing, he recognizes Desmond, that’s all. Her Salome script is all “hallucinations” to him, he doctors it for a living. De Mille recognizes the finished screenplay as worthless.

Kafka supplies the opening, two ball-and-chains attach Gillis’s automobile, he hides it away while he struggles with an outline for Bases Loaded, about a corrupt ballplayer. Dark Windows is fished out of the files by Schaefer, a reader whose office used to be Mayerling’s.

Even the glimmers of creation glimpsed by Gillis and Schaefer as they turn a flashback about a teacher into a Cox and Box on the travails of educators (cf. Pinter’s Night School), even these happy first steps are overshadowed by the art unknown to the two but dimly filtered up as remake and rehash. Gillis gives up his talent for a swimming pool built by those who understand the business, he dies in it.

Fellini’s Intervista is the most acute analysis among many examining various angles, Fellini benefiting from the labors of Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon), Rod Serling (for The Twilight Zone Mitchell Leisen’s “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”, John Brahm’s “Young Man’s Fancy”) and others.

Gillis does not recognize Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera, nor see himself in Welles’ Citizen Kane after Desmond slits her wrists. The magical technique of Wilder is essentially founded on a main device, as Kubrick in The Shining never reveals his hotel is a set, in exactly the same way Gloria Swanson is a prodigy from the start, finishing in a blaze of monstrosity and never the actress playing a part. An intensity of pictures is cumulatively achieved by Kubrick, a fury of desperation by Wilder.

What is also remarkable about Sunset Boulevard, like The Lost Weekend, Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, and so forth, is Wilder’s virtuosic ability to play actors in unaccustomed registers, even to the point of uncongeniality and beyond, apart from the technical excellence and its power of influence (Richard Brooks’ Sweet Bird of Youth, Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s, etc.). That is probably clearest in Stalag 17, the point of tension at which face values crack (to employ a Wilderism) under the torsion of dramatic exercise and give you art, in a manner of speaking.

The renowned finale (Stroheim “directing” Swanson down the staircase) might be the large-scale inspiration of Fellini’s .


Ace in the Hole

The story of a plain murder, “only it didn’t start out that way”, and because the title has more than one meaning, a suicide as well.

The protagonist describes the method used, “pile it on”, which is what Wilder does from start to finish, incessantly, monstrously, imperturbably, until the monster falls dead in front of the camera just before the end credits.

Bosley Crowther was shocked, shocked to hear of such goings-on. Variety took a more stoical view. It’s easy to see how the film’s structure is akin to Double Indemnity, and it’s acknowledged now that Ace in the Hole was ahead of its time, even though the style is a deliberate throwback to the smartalecky Thirties until the murder is announced and the Mountain of the Seven Vultures claims its victim.

A man trapped in a cave-in while collecting Indian curios for his tourist trading post is seized upon by a former New York reporter on the skids at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, rescue is delayed to create a literal circus and win the reporter’s job back.

Costa-Gavras has a time with this in Mad City. Wilder’s style is the tour de force that swamps the pirate craft in every respect, hardly a trace is left visible of the national craze that gains the reporter’s purpose for a time.

The county sheriff is bribed with an “ace in the hole” for re-election. The trapped man’s wife is a Baltimore B-girl who just wants free of the schnook, she stays to collect from the hundreds and hundreds of customers who turn up out of nowhere as the reporter’s story is picked up around the country.

The rule is fish or cut bait, a week is needed to land the story, after five days the victim is dying of pneumonia, twelve hours might have been enough to get him out but not enough for the reporter’s exclusive and the sheriff’s re-election.

The innocent staff and genial editor of the Sun-Bulletin are accustomed to covering the soapbox derby, in the last scene they are Keyes and his insurance colleagues landing the big fish.

Wilder’s resources on the set are as grandiose as all outdoor delusions, the level of abstraction is raised at the first in a certain stylization pertaining to the musical, almost, advancing toward the sheriff’s pet baby rattlesnake kept in an open cardboard box beside the lunch or dinner plate from which it is fed its meals right off the fork.

Wellman’s Magic Town is a very useful precedent on the great public. “What’d you study in that journalism school,” the reporter asks the paper’s young photographer, “advertising?”


Stalag 17

Sefton’s comfortably out of the war, dealing with the Krauts and betting against the compromised action of his fellow prisoners, they have a German agent in their midst. Naturally, Sefton is suspected, beaten, and robbed (a second time). He sees the light, a central image of chessboard and bare light-bulb, the agent puts a kink in the cord to signal a message hidden in the hollow Black queen. The Valéry joke of small Christmas trees from Father Murray by prayer (“if you want decorations, pray for them yourselves”) is the bellwether of a general effort to expound a series of lines.

Sefton isn’t Dr. Johnson’s blockhead. “Everything is gesundheit, kaput, und verboten,” according to the leader of the Hitler pageant.



The chauffeur’s daughter, who threatens to spoil a business arrangement like a marriage between two great houses.

Who goes to Paris to learn cooking there, and how to live.

The arrangement proceeds, the heedless young scion takes his place in the family affairs, duty bound, conscientious, rich.

The Yale man tied to business at every limb, older scion of the firm, a very vast concern with New York headquarters, books passage on the Liberté for France, where twenty years further on Jean-Luc Godard made Numéro deux.

It rather went by all the critics, even with William Holden from Robert Wise’s Executive Suite, and Humphrey Bogart, and Audrey Hepburn.

Sydney Pollack’s version can probably be understood as an artist’s copy, especially in view of Wilder’s exertions (with Taylor and Lehman) to pivot his turn of mind in the direction of comedy amid some delicate maneuverings of great dramatic interest.


The Seven Year Itch

The great analysis is by Neil Simon in The Odd Couple (dir. Gene Saks) and The Prisoner of Second Avenue (dir. Melvin Frank). The key is perhaps from Bergman, A Lesson in Love.

Avildsen has Neighbors, but most importantly Nichols has Wolf, for the muse who descendeth and the publishing executive. The sequence of dissolves and superimpositions is one of the rarest, all a lesson in keeping the books.


The Spirit of St. Louis

Wilder shows you how he got the name “Lucky Lindy”, self-taught mostly, barnstormer, Army air cadet, air mail pilot, first to fly the Atlantic, by the grace of God.

1900 miles over open water, and the hundreds before and after.

The peculiar genius is amply elucidated in flashbacks that left critics terribly confused, then and now.

The Spirit of St. Louis is shown in construction by courtesy of Charles Eames, lucky stunt pilots and even Paul Mantz it must be assumed fly it.

Artists and fliers understand the ardor and skill and foolishness and grace, critics not.

Now, the whole point is to get up in the air (the flashbacks show this) and stay there.


Love in the Afternoon

A long, delicate expression to suit the nature of the problem.

It’s related to Lubitsch by way of Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, which is about something else.

It’s always defied the critics, who haven’t anything to spend. It’s aimed at those who have money to burn and do so.

The little theme is so tiny, you wouldn’t even notice it. Here is money not for burning.

The little cellist spends her afternoons at the Ritz because that’s where the American millionaire is, he of the four-piece gypsy orchestra and caviar and champagne.

Her father’s a private detective, his files teach her the ways of the world, the millionaire is piqued by her imaginative life.

This is the ancient poem addressed to the emperor in the form of a mistress’s plaint, it is two hours long, filmed in France, and has a precaution against triflers that is really the point.


Witness for the Prosecution

Wilder’s film is an invention altogether like the defendant’s as advertised, it beats and separates eggs and also whips cream, by consideration of “specific gravity”. Having done so, it is perfectly equitable.

Variety thought the ending “tricked-up” and Laughton “a scenery-chewer”, because it quite forgot itself in all the spice of life and felt badly used.

Three writers fashioned the screenplay from Christie’s drama. It is tough, wiry and a marvel. Pleasant it is as well to see Griffith’s Those Awful Hats cited with so much authority.


Some Like It Hot

From “coffee” in a hearse-borne coffin delivering refreshment at “the old lady’s funeral” during a very cold Chicago February to champagne and cold pheasant aboard Fielding’s motor yacht anchored off the Seminole Ritz, by way of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

This Mozartean comedy ends in the famous quartet of revelation and forgiveness. Love is proverbially akin to war, marriage is a form of absolution. Shakespeare’s actresses have their finest hour in satirical pouts and flounces. Orry-Kelly harbors the McCoy.


The Apartment

It literally rains on C.C. Baxter in the park, and it freezes into snow around Christmas. A shower that reveals itself as the consummate snow job cushily ensconced at Consolidated Life is where Wilder & Diamond draw the line.

A shnook with a pad for the higher-ups lets his own girl take Seconal for the Promises, Promises and the “same back booth at the Chinese restaurant” that recedes into office lore.

The bitter steps of the stooge into absolute vacancy on the twenty-seventh floor, right-hand man to an executive aptly described by a critic as Walter Neff with a new lease on life, from which Baxter saves himself by a timely ride in an elevator.


One, Two, Three

An unsurpassable farce on East and West.

The philandering executive in charge of Coca-Cola West Berlin fights the Cold War single-handedly.

Abundant satire of postwar Deutschland. “Herr Kapellmeister, more rock ‘n’ roll!”

In Ost-Berlin, the Grand Hotel Potemkin (formerly Great Hotel Goering, formerly Great Hotel Bismarck) is very plainly Orwell’s Chestnut Tree Cafe unto the troika of Lubitsch’s Ninotchka. The sandaled unshortsed revolutionary (That Uncertain Feeling) is an amerikanischer Spion once he’s married the boss’s daughter out of Atlanta, nothing for it but to be made an aristocrat by virtue of a nominal payment.

So our new man in Berlin goes to London, by virtue of the washroom Count’s resemblance to Stroheim in moustaches (Der letzte Mann, dir. F.W. Murnau).

The best criticism was offered by the Soviets themselves, who hampered production by erecting the Berlin Wall in the middle of it.

It fell, belatedly, like Capra’s walls of Jericho. The crowning jest is reserved for the very last shot of all, it fairly knocks the whole business into a cocked hat by promoting the notion of a Cold Drinks War and thus advancing the cause of Leslie H. Martinson’s Batman.

The critics (Bosley Crowther and Variety) did the best they could, really. Geoff Andrew (Time Out Film Guide), “coarse Cold War satire... rather too obvious”. J. Hoberman (Village Voice), “the movie may be manic, but it lacks the sustained velocity to be a great farce”.


Irma la Douce

There was a touching rebuke by Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who first acclaimed the film in these words, “who would have dreamed that Billy Wilder could make a bright yet acceptable film” etc. Wait for it! Here’s the rebuke, the last bit. “The only fault I can find is that the whole thing is somewhat one-tracked and overlong. Mr. Wilder worked harder than was needed with the readily available Irma la Douce.”

In other words, as the hooker said reading Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, “honestly, mister, I’d rather fuck,” cf. Douglas Sirk’s Slightly French.


Kiss Me, Stupid

The farce style raised to such a pitch is a regular technique favored by Wilder because the rapidity of its delivery and the enormous artificiality encompass burlesque and vaudeville and topical allusions with perfect aptness. The style is rich, and repays study. It allows, as here, for invention on the set, conscious work by the actor in shaping a scene or a shot, and much precision work from the director.

This is a virtuosity peculiar to Wilder. The working materials are carried over in various ways from one to the next (from One, Two, Three to Kiss Me, Stupid in one way, and from there to Buddy Buddy in another). Other relationships are broadly thematic, Wilder has pointed out The Apartment in this instance. Irma La Douce...

The Seven Year Itch is quite visible as well. The infinitely extendable farce structure boils down to a treatise on artistic success, one sleeps with a whore, he sleeps with your wife, but how the intricate debits and assets are calculated is Wilder’s secret. Certainly the critics howled with indignation.


The Fortune Cookie

It stems directly from Welles’ The Hearts of Age, is all Walter Matthau, earned him an Academy Award, and is one of the most brilliant comedies ever made.

The technique is very close to The Apartment, the material is further worked out in Buddy Buddy.

“Billy Wilder is a cranky, perhaps even dangerous, man. That is, he is an unregenerate moralist...” (Vincent Canby of the New York Times).

Another bittersweet comedy commentary on contemporary US mores. Generally amusing (often wildly so) but overlong...” (Variety).

And generally so forth.


The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

The regrettably truncated work now consists of two parts, a relatively brief number in which the detective is offered a Stradivarius by the prima ballerina of the Imperial Russian Ballet to father her child during the week in Venice she has planned (cf. Walter Lang’s The Marriage Go Round), and the great case of the foreign lady brought to 221B Baker Street sopping wet in a horse blanket one night, an amnesia victim.

The complete film is said to have previewed unfavorably at 210 minutes for a planned roadshow release of 165 minutes. Thus (at 125 minutes) a third at least is missing, nearly one-half. A director ought to invest in a print for himself (Hitchcock once spirited away a film to his Bel-Air garage while negotiations were being conducted).

Holmes rebuffs the Russian, thoroughly confusing Vincent Canby. The great ithyphallic joke of the second part rises majestically out of Loch Ness by way of a dead Belgian and two midgets, Queen Victoria herself brings this chapter of Dr. Watson’s unpublished memoirs to a close in a most fabulously complicated Wilder & Diamond, though the continuation and conclusion is lacking, a kyogen farce (one gathers) having to do with “Naked Honeymooners” and an attempted solution from the doctor.

That bottle of champagne in Notorious has now swollen to magnum-size, Mycroft Holmes of the Diogenes Club and Her Majesty’s Government at Whitehall fetches it off to christen his secret new submersible HMS Jonah, Her Majesty finds the idea repugnant, attack without warning? “Unsportsmanlike, unenglish,” and she’ll send “a sharp note to the Kaiser” (her grandson Willy) about his dirigible, too. Nothing for it but to let German spies dressed as Trappist monks have the thing with the bolts loosened so it sinks. The wet lady is a German spy, too, she dies later on at the hands of the Japanese.

The unalleviated sense of tragedy is shortly rescued by Gene Wilder in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, it being evident only to Wilder & Diamond’s Mycroft that the lady is not Belgian and what she seems.

Amid the many superlative examples of Wilder’s art as a director one may cite (as he does) a classic nude delicately draped by Holmes shortly before her arrest at The Caledonian Hotel, and a suite of Degas ballerinas achieved by dint of the Swan Lake pas de quatre joined by Dr. Watson.

Out of the Jonah disaster only two items rise to the surface, a magnum of champagne formerly affixed to the hull, and a Bible previously seen on the Highland Express opened to the book in question.

The famous attire was invented by a Strand illustrator, Holmes must wear it, the public expects. Mrs. Hudson is a Cockney, in much the same way.



The world is just a pile of bullshit, Wilder heaps it up to the sky with everything including the kitchen sink. Nothing of antagonism there necessarily, but come on.

The aspersions are all left behind with the rest of it, at least for the duration of the movie. The world is too much with us, e fango è il mondo, and the whole thing’s topsy-turvy. A politician is a dead man covered by the flag, where is the man with soul so dead he cannot find himself at Ischia with a pleasant mistress wiggling her toes, it’s absurd.

“Let us return to the Old Masters,” Verdi said, “and that will be progress.”


The Front Page

Wilder & Diamond take the play to town, Hollywood, and the instructions are Burns’ to Johnson, “gimme everything you’ve got.Absolutely everything goes into it, each feature and aspect of the terrible story presented to the gentlemen of Chicago’s press, the sheriff is out, the mayor is up when it’s all over, the fruitcake is free, the poet of the Tribune is on Cape Cod with the new Examiner man, and the “unseen power” is in Springfield, thank God, shepherding a reprieve.

Critics were shocked, really shocked, to say the least. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called for “the wrath of the Gay Activists Alliance”, Geoff Andrew (Time Out Film Guide) called it “quite simply vulgar”, Variety said “sure looks good on paper”, Halliwell found it “disappointing”.

Wilder is content to see the work magnified in all its dimensions.



A late work not so much as a prophecy. Many, many films go into the construction, Welles’ Citizen Kane, Ken Russell’s Valentino, Mankiewicz’ The Barefoot Contessa, and others including Sunset Blvd., to which this is a companion piece.

An experimental procedure destroys her film career, the daughter is molded into a replica to sustain it.

“Acting is for the Old Vic,” says the one and only Fedora, who had a face the camera could love.

An independent producer is instantly identified by anyone however slightly connected with the film business as having no expense account.

Bogdanovich asked Welles why they weren’t making films like they used to, Welles told him the Renaissance didn’t last that long, either.


Buddy Buddy

At first it’s a question of liquidating three mob witnesses to “a $50,000,000 Palm Springs land fraud”.

Secondly, it’s “the Iron Duke” of CBS Standards & Practices (Los Angeles) vs. East Germany’s Institute for Sexual Fulfillment (Elsinore, Calif.).

Thirdly, it’s whether or not the mob hit man has the Iron Duke dropped into an island volcano.

The most obscure and complicated of Wilder’s great comedies, and naturally the least understood. Walter Matthau’s makeup resembles Lon Chaney, Jr., Jack Lemmon plays the exec whose suicidal fondness for an unfaithful wife drives most of the action.