Wilder and His Betters

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Billy
Wilder’s death at 95 summoned generous eulogies, and most of them
rang true. He was an excellent writer-director, one of Hollywood’s
rare originals. At his best – in perhaps a dozen of his many
films – he displayed a caustic wit unusual in that sentimental,
formulaic medium. And who else in the film industry could have produced
movies as different as Double
Indemnity
and The
Apartment
?

I use these
two movies as illustrations for a specific reason: both of them
cast the same comic actor as a villain, to brilliant effect. His
name, of course, is Fred MacMurray, best remembered for the warm
sitcom My
Three Sons
. In Double Indemnity he plots with Barbara
Stanwyck to murder her husband in order to collect on a phony insurance
policy; if there is anything implausible about this red-hot plot,
it’s the idea that a man could even imagine living happily ever
after with Stanwyck. But the plot twists make you overlook that;
anyway, the irresistible desirability of a wicked dame is a given
of the film noir genre, which Wilder never returned to despite this
great success.

In The Apartment,
a bittersweet comedy more in keeping with Wilder’s other work, MacMurray
plays a philandering business executive who cynically uses his mistress,
played by Shirley MacLaine, and breaks her heart. Would anyone but
Wilder have had the insight to see how perfect this light comedian
could be in both these heavy roles?

Wilder’s other
successes show his versatility: The
Lost Weekend
, Sunset
Boulevard
, Stalag
17
, Some
Like It Hot
, and The
Fortune Cookie
. But his failures could also leave a bad taste.
Irma
La Douce
, an attempt at a "sophisticated" European-style
sex farce, is disgusting in conception and made worse by Jack Lemmon’s
foolish performance. Wilder, a European Jewish refugee, was refreshing
in his wry disdain for Hollywood banality, yet he could sometimes
combine cynicism with his own kind of bathos – an unhappy mixture.

Like most people
I love movies; but just because they are so popular we make too
much of them as an art form. We tend to forget that the very nature
of the genre is inhospitable to genius. The greatest painter needs
only a canvas and paint; the greatest poet needs only a pen and
paper. But a movie requires, in the first place, a lot of money
and so many talents that it’s not altogether clear who deserves
chief credit for the final result – actors, director, writer,
producer?

Read
the rest of the article

Joseph
Sobran (1946–2010), conservative turned libertarian, was one
of the most significant American writers of his time. See his
website
and his
intellectual journey
.

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