• 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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