photo & text by nacrowe
there is so much to be impressed by with the life and career trajectory of legendary screenwriter / director BILLY WILDER whose singular filmography includes the likes of SOME LIKE IT HOT (UNITED ARTISTS, 1959), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (PARAMOUNT, 1944), THE APARTMENT (UNITED ARTISTS, 1960), STALAG 17 (PARAMOUNT, 1953), SABRINA (PARAMOUNT, 1954), ACE IN THE HOLE (PARAMOUNT, 1951), THE LOST WEEKEND (PARAMOUNT, 1945), THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (20TH CENTURY FOX, 1955) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (PARAMOUNT, 1950). towering of his achievements in my opinion was his preternatural capacity as an GERMAN-speaking AUSTRIAN emigre to pick up on the cultural nuances and subtle inflections of the AMERICAN DIALECT and seamlessly spit them back out at us, all within a decade of arriving on stateside shores in the early 1930s.
in his definitive biography ON SUNSET BOULEVARD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BILLY WILDER (HYPERION, 1998), film scholar ED SIKOV very much digs into the creative and linguistic marvel that was WILDER, especially with his early run of hard-nosed films that take together made a sober, unblinking assessment of AMERICAN culture and society in the post-WWII period. it really is quite the achievement considering he was essentially passing judgement on his new home when he was still very much an OUTSIDER. and it is that unique mix of unmatched talent (of which he put to use beforehand when collaborating with the likes of GERMAN directors ERNST LUBITSCH and ROBERT WIENE) which allowed him write and direct with authority, as well as his status as an IMMIGRANT that makes his films so unique. he is in essence able to assess our culture so accurately in part because of his OUTSIDER status.
i read ON SUNSET BOULEVARD and several other books on WILDER (and FILM NOIR in general) back in my undergraduate years as part of a senior thesis on his early cycle of noir films which included DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE LOST WEEKEND, SUNSET BOULEVARD and ACE IN THE HOLE. in my opinion, ACE IN THE HOLE is his masterpiece as it caustically and unflinchingly calls out a then-nascent media culture that sought to exploit human suffering by creating media events that would garner media exposure and thus profits. it is a prescient film that is beyond relevant to today and has not lost its edge in the last 70s years. it was also a commercial flop and the last film he made with any sort of imbedded conceit or claim about AMERICAN culture and society writ large. it was the last film he made that had any real stakes.
as someone who after completing this undergrad project went on to teach overseas for several years, experiencing cultures as an outsider, it was the example of WILDER that i largely took to heart. i believe that when AMERICANS move overseas they feel an understandable need to impart judgement on their new unfamiliar surroundings. my thought was always to gather as much information as possible and engage with the local community. only after gaining their trust and understanding would i ever voice an opinion on states of affairs. i choose to believe that WILDER did not assimilate like he did without a genuine sense of innate curiosity and wonder about his new home. its very much an expanding of one's consciousness as anything else.
the example of WILDER showed that such a seamless ASSIMILATION could be done and at the very least, my experience as a newcomer is valid and gives me a unique PERSPECTIVE. not the only perspective, but a unique one.
artwork by nacrowe
first full disclosure: my senior honors thesis in college was on this guy. so i'm biased. like really biased when it comes to film director BILLY WILDER.
the guy had a gift for dialogue, specifically his ability to portray the rhythms, cadences and spoken vernacular of the era, which was unrivaled and utterly baffling as he was an emigre who came to the america speaking german. the man who wrote DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) had barely a decade of speaking english under his belt when he began directing his english language scripts. that accomplishment alone is astonishing.
i love all of his early films and some of his later comedies, think films like STALAG 17 (1953), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and THE APARTMENT (1960), but what i really appreciate about the man was his edge.
being a displaced austrian jew that watched the dismantling of his childhood when europe fell under the spell of the nazis and their anti-Semitic sycophants, WILDER had an instinct for calling out injustice, even in his new homeland. at the early peak of his career he created two films that i hold in the highest regard, SUNSET BOULEVARD and ACE IN THE HOLE. both provided a mirror to a growing celebrity-obsessed media culture that favored gross spectacle over human decency. both went after two aspects of mass culture goliath: film and newspapers.
SUNSET BOULEVARD is a case study of the corrosive effects of celebrity-culture, from those attempting to maintain relevancy to those attempting to achieve it. in a total master-stroke, WILDER casted silent-film era siren GLORIA SWANSON as essentially herself in NORMA DESMOND, with her butler/man-servant played by german silent-era director ERICH VON STROHEIM. not trying to spoil this film, but essentially using a has-been to play a has-been to make a commentary on an industry that both worships and discards its icons in equal measure was utterly brilliant and biting at the same time. pure wilder.
while SUNSET BOULEVARD goes after the film industry, ACE IN THE HOLE focuses its ire on that of the general public in the age of a burgeoning mass media culture. this film is essentially the first to question the responsibility of the media in producing a mass spectacle for ratings. a washed-up east coast beat reporter played by the iconic KIRK DOUGLAS finds himself reassigned to new mexico when he comes across the story of a local man that gets caught in the cave. rather than assist the victim or provide help, he milks the story for all that its worth with week's of exclusives designed to gain him relevancy and a shot back at regaining his reputation as a journalist. much like SUNSET BOULEVARD goes into the toxic horse-trading aspects of celebrity-culture, ACE IN THE HOLE digs deeper and exposes how we are all accomplices to the process. by following coverage we are tacitly responsible for the methods and means by which that information was acquired.
nothing has changed. at all. ACE IN THE HOLE was a flop, but in my mind it was WILDER's greatest moment made only the more incredible given his emigre status in the united states.