In selecting a title for their month-long retrospective on the films of Billy Wilder, Take-Up Productions made an inspired choice with Nobody’s Perfect. Not only does the phrase reference one of Wilder’s most quotable closing lines (from Some Like It Hot), but the sentiment also reflects the hesitant appreciation toward his work that exists in some critical quarters. For despite his enormous influence, Wilder’s restrained directorial style has made him an easy target for short-sighted film critics that dismissively label his approach as pedestrian. Countering such claims, the cinematic stewards at Take-Up Productions have assembled a versatile showcase of Wilder’s work that testifies to the skills of a consummate craftsman who emphasized story above all else.
Co-hosted by the Heights Theater and Trylon microcinema, Nobody’s Perfect offers nine films, each of which convey Wilder’s exceptional grasp of narrative technique. Most renowned, of course, is Wilder’s finesse as a screenwriter. Frequently collaborative creations, Wilder scripts are distinguished by precision plotting, layered characters, and memorable dialogue. Even the zaniest Wilder comedies are built around empathetic characters with recognizably human quirks – just as his noirish thrillers produce pathos not through sinister caricatures, but by suggesting otherwise sympathetic figures ensnared by their own blinding desires.
Gifted with such adroit literary skill, perhaps it’s no wonder that some critics tend to laud the substance but not the style of Wilder’s films. Such skeptics, however, would do well to reconsider Wilder’s motives. Unlike directors celebrated for virtuoso verve, Wilder seldom attempted to impress with grandiose camerawork, insisting that such stylistic flaunting distracted from the narrative. In a profession known for possessing its fair share of egotists, Wilder’s humble philosophy of filmmaking is all the more refreshing.
The combination of refined narrative with invigorating (and sometimes controversial) subject matter has ensured a timelessness to Wilder’s greatest works. Nobody’s perfect, but Billy Wilder’s work continues to confirm his place as one of the finest storytellers in the history of cinema.
07.31 @ the Heights Theater: The Apartment (1960)
Taking inspiration from adulterous tales (including Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter) in which an acquaintance’s dwelling became a rendezvous spot for licentious trysts, The Apartment is Wilder at the top of his game, wrapping a poignant romantic comedy around a scathing social satire. Played by Jack Lemmon with modest amiability, C.C. “Bud” Baxter is an insurance agent whose climb up the corporate ladder is expedited by the nightly loaning of his bachelor pad to his married managers for their adulterous flings. Armed with Lemmon’s flustered geniality, Wilder sets a farcical tone early on, but pushes for a deeper connection with the introduction of the wonderfully winsome Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, elevator operator and girl of Baxter’s dreams. With cruel irony, however, Fran happens to be suffering through her own affair with Mr. Sheldrake (played with wonderfully obtuse sliminess by Fred MacMurray), who just happens to be Baxter’s new boss.
Choosing between professional “success” and personal contentment has seldom been depicted in such an unforgettable fashion. Co-written with frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, the script isn’t afraid to visit dark psychological corners, ruminating on the loneliness and longing of those trapped in an alienating routine. When released, The Apartment gambled on public sympathies to prevail over the inevitable moral watchdogs objecting to the theme of infidelity. The filmmakers needn’t have worried. The Apartment proved a commercial and critical hit, scoring three Academy Awards for Wilder (as producer, director, and writer). To this day The Apartment remains the essential romantic comedy; uproariously funny, painfully yearning, and undeniably heartfelt.
08.05 – 08.07 @ Trylon microcinema: Sabrina (1954)
If there’s one glaring improbability in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, it’s the notion that Audrey Hepburn could be considered anything but irresistible. Her second feature role after 1953’s Roman Holiday, Sabrina furthered Hepburn’s reputation as one of the screen’s most captivating figures by spotlighting her incomparable wit, poise, and beauty. Known for tailoring parts to the performer, Billy Wilder couldn’t have selected a better match for the title role. As Sabrina Fairchild (adapted from playwright Samuel A. Taylor’s Sabrina Fair), Hepburn is the daughter of a chauffeur and, as such, has grown up surrounded by luxury on the palatial estate of the Larrabee family. Sabrina isn’t seeking wealth, however, but the affections of David (William Holden), the younger of two Larrabee sons for whom she has long harbored an unrequited childhood crush. Sent away to a Parisian culinary school, Sabrina returns with enough newly discovered confidence, style, and refinement to capture the womanizing David’s eye – much to the chagrin of his workaholic older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), who had already planned his brother’s wedding as part of a larger corporate merger. Faced with the prospect of losing the deal, Linus schemes to divert Sabrina’s passion away from David by offering himself as a romantic alternative. Of course, it isn’t long before those artificial emotions begin to feel like something far more genuine…
Like Hepburn, William Holden is instantly identifiable in his role, playing the rakish seducer with an innocence of intent that makes him impossible to dislike. The Bogart persona, on the other hand, is a little harder to reconcile with a romantic leading man. Nevertheless, Bogart proves up to the challenge, allowing his cynicism to grudgingly erode in subtly observed scenes. Through such well-defined characterizations, Wilder is able to avoid soap opera clichés or melodramatic declarations of love. Like Hepburn singing La Vie En Rose to Bogart before fixing his hat, the finest moments in Sabrina play like a spellbinding flirtation that continues to leave viewers helplessly enamored.
08.07 @ the Heights Theater: The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Most remembered for the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate as the draft from a passing train causes her white dress to lift, The Seven Year Itch finds Wilder in a playfully suggestive mode. Based on a play by George Axelrod, The Seven Year Itch recounts the psychological turmoil of a married man (Tom Ewell) who faces near impossible temptation when his wife and young son depart on a vacation, leaving him home alone just as The Girl (Marilyn Monroe) enters his life. Renting the apartment upstairs, Monroe is the prototypical blonde bombshell, eliciting delirious desire with a simple glance. Making Ewell’s predicament even harder to control is the scholarly notion, planted from a recently read manuscript, that monogamous relationships reach a breaking point in the seventh year.
While less ambitious filmmakers could easily dash out a mildly risqué comedy around The Seven Year Itch’s premise, Wilder aims for something more provocative. As a work centered on temptation, The Seven Year Itch wittily provokes the differences between fantasy and reality, allowing one of the most desired women in the history of cinema to step into an average married man’s apartment on a hot summer evening for a few drinks. “Would you open the door to that kind of temptation?” Wilder seems to be asking with a mischievous grin that suggests he already knows the answer.
08.12 – 08.14 @ Trylon microcinema: One, Two, Three (1961)
A frenetic slapstick satire set in Cold War era West Berlin? You better believe it. James Cagney is a comedic tour-de-force as C.R. “Mac” MacNamara, an indefatigable executive for Coca-Cola devoted to one goal: getting himself promoted out of the West Berlin office. His ticket to advancement emerges when he is charged with watching over a corporate manager’s vivacious seventeen-year-old daughter. What initially seems a slight annoyance threatens to become a career derailing disaster when the young lady vanishes, only to reemerge married to a hardline Communist. Frantic to rectify the situation, Cagney grows increasingly entangled in complications as each successive scheme backfires, even as the clock ticks down to his manager’s arrival.
Speckled with clever allusions to his typecast past as a Hollywood gangster, Cagney seems to relish the opportunity of cutting lose with manic energy. And while the supporting cast can’t be expected to keep up with Cagney, each gives memorably quirky turns, especially Horst Buchholz as the ridiculously bitter young Communist Otto Ludwig Piffl and Liselotte Pulver as Cagney’s shamelessly saucy secretary, Fräulein Ingeborg. While Cold War comedies might seem a hard sell to contemporary audiences, Wilder’s energetic pacing achieves a slap-stick rhythm that requires no political background. Which is not to say that One, Two, Three ignores the political era, but that ideological stances on both side of the divide are skewered with equal opportunity absurdity.
08.14 @ the Heights Theater: Double Indemnity (1944)
First released as a novella in 1935, James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity was long considered unfilmable due to its upfront depictions of immorality, including adultery and murder. Moral posturing of the Hays Code aside, Wilder anticipated public fascination with the sordid tale and pressed forward with a screenplay co-written with crime novelist Raymond Chandler. The resultant film proved one of the most influential works in the emerging noir genre. Cast against type, Fred MacMurray is superb as the insurance agent whose lust for Barbara Stanwyck leads to a nefarious plot to murder her husband and collect on the double indemnity clause. Even in the midst of such depraved deeds, however, Double Indemnity provides both conspirators with moments of conscience, if fleeting and belated. Of course, such anxieties cannot be eased by the knowledge that Edward G. Robinson, playing a dogged insurance investigator, is hot on their trail.
With an atmospheric tension conjured by cinematographer John Seitz’s innovative use of light (including the famed “venetian blind” approach that would become a noir staple), Double Indemnity wears its seediness with leering defiance. The claustrophobic accumulation of tension, as the initial carnality inevitably leads to cold-blooded crimes with no end in sight, remains Wilder’s masterpiece of anxiety-inducing storytelling.
08.19 – 08.21 @ Trylon microcinema: The Fortune Cookie (1966)
The first pairing of frequent co-stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie is something of a minor classic, arguably not as accomplished as Wilder’s more renowned work, but well-deserving of renewed appreciation. Playing another good-hearted everyman, Lemmon is Harry Hinkle, a pro football cameraman who is injured on the job when Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson, star player for the Cleveland Browns, collides into him on the sidelines. Recognizing an opportunity to exploit the situation, Hinkle’s disreputable brother-in-law, a shyster lawyer nicknamed “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich (portrayed with charismatic shamelessness by Matthau) wages a punitive lawsuit on Hinkle’s behalf, claiming debilitating injuries. Though Hinkle has no interest in the monetary payout, he goes along with the scheme in hopes to win back Sandy, his blatantly adulterous ex-wife.
Like the best of Wilder’s films, The Fortune Cookie features an engaging storyline, snappy dialogue, and first-rate performances from the entire cast. Lemon and Matthau, in particular, display their celebrated chemistry from the start, as the former’s nice guy persona comically clashes with the latter’s gruff pragmatism. The plot construction, however, feels less refined than usual for Wilder, almost as if the filmmaker experienced an uncharacteristic reluctance to edit the narrative. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with spending more time with Lemmon and Matthau, especially in a comedy where fraud and duplicity open the doors to outrageous fortune.
08.21 @ the Heights Theater: Some Like It Hot (1959)
A riotous comic caper, Some Like It Hot trails two musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) who, after witnessing a mob murder, escape by disguising themselves as women, joining a travelling female band, and journeying to a gig at a luxury Florida resort. Maintaining such disguises would be difficult enough without one of their bandmates being Marilyn Monroe (as the ukulele playing Sugar Kane). Things get even more complicated when Curtis, in an attempt to seduce Monroe, takes on yet another guise as a vacationing heir to the Shell Oil fortune. Lemmon, still disguised as his female alter ego, similarly finds himself (or, rather, herself) thrown into the courting arms of an overly amorous millionaire who won’t take no for an answer.
An inexhaustibly inspired piece of comic havoc, Some Like It Hot subverts expectations at every turn while doling out an unforgettable stream of verbal quips and situational mishaps. Wilder’s writing was never so witty, nor was his dialogue ever bantered about by a better trio than Curtis, Lemmon, and Monroe. Funny in drag, Curtis is even better as Junior, the Shell Oil heir who speaks in a suspicious imitation of Cary Grant. Lemmon is the film’s comic relief, playing up his increasing gender confusion with unabashed abandon. But perhaps the greatest surprise is Monroe who expands her sex siren image with enough colorful eccentricities to keep up with the guys. Though moral watchdogs decried the film’s gender bending antics, audiences responded by making Some Like It Hot an enormous success, in the process rendering a fatal blow to the film industry’s censorship codes.
08.26 – 08.28 @ Trylon microcinema: Ace in the Hole (1951)
Generally considered Wilder’s most scathing work, Ace in the Hole casts Kirk Douglas as an unscrupulous newspaper reporter whose unethical antics have left him scrambling for a job. Exiled from the major cities, Douglas finds employment with a small newspaper in Albuquerque, New Mexico and immediately begins the search for a story sensational enough to restore him to the ranks of the nation’s loftiest publications. When a local man is trapped in a nearby cave, Douglas quickly seizes the opportunity to exploit the situation. But writing hyperbolic accounts, partnering with an equally disreputable local sheriff, and shutting out rival journalists isn’t enough to ensure his success. With abject contempt for the truth, Douglas shifts from simple exaggerations to outright manipulations.
A critical and commercial failure upon its release, Ace in the Hole has since been rediscovered as a devastating examination of exploitative journalism. The cold pragmatism and ruthless ambition evinced by Douglas continues to hit like a bracing slap, defining an antihero so removed from human compassion that he is willing to risk a man’s life for the sake of his selfish goals. But Wilder doesn’t stop with Douglas, populating the town with an array of characters in various states of moral compromise, none more so than the trapped man’s own wife, who sees her husband’s misfortune only as a profitable opportunity. Redemption isn’t altogether absent from Ace in the Hole, but Wilder insists that such deliverance doesn’t come cheap.
08.28 @ the Heights Theater: Sunset Boulevard (1950)
There’s something rotten at the core of Sunset Boulevard, a film in which decadence rots in a tomb of decomposing memories. Though commonly classified as a noir, horror pervades this dark tale of a former Hollywood starlet shut away in a once gilded mansion that has aged like a mausoleum. In one of the most eerily acute casting decisions in cinema history, former silent film star Gloria Swanson plays the role of Norma Desmond, a long forgotten actress detached from reality, desperately clinging to delusional echoes of faded silver screen glory. As an aspiring screenwriter who initially flatters Swanson only to become grimly dependent upon her favor, William Holden leads the film through a world as disquieting and distorted as any feverish nightmare.
Part of Sunset Boulevard’s effectiveness is due to the uncannily assembled cast. While Holden makes for a solid lead, the film really belongs to Gloria Swanson whose role as Norma Desmond ranks amongst the most disturbing portrayals in screen history. Wilder went even further in provoking nodes to Hollywood’s bygone era, stocking the cast with Erich von Storheim, Cecil B. DeMille and cameos from Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilssen. Cinematographer John Seitz is also on hand to amplify the unsettling visuals, contrasting California sunshine with the cavernous darkness of the deteriorating mansion. After all these years, the tormented spirits Billy Wilder unleashed in Sunset Boulevard remain as haunting as ever.
Nobody’s Perfect: The Films of Billy Wilder runs every Sunday at the Heights Theater July 31st – August 28th and every weekend at Trylon microcinema August 5th – August 28th. For complete schedules and ticket information, see Take-Up Productionsor call 612-424-5468.
Take-Up Productions (Trylon microcinema)