Friday, August 8, 2008

How would Wilder do it?


The greatness of Billy Wilder seemed unique and unprecedented by the time he made The Apartment (1960) and Irma La Douce (1963), but only because all those from whom he inherited it and with whom he shared it - Lubitsch, Leisen, Mamoulian, De Mille (think of the Swanson silents, not of Chuck Heston) - were either long retired or dead.
Wilder was not so much an innovator as a great synthesiser of a particular tradition in Hollywood comedy and light drama: the European-influenced style typical of Paramount under Lubitsch in the early thirties. He may have brought this style to perfection but it was not his alone. (He kept a sign in his office that read 'How Would Lubitsch Do It?')

What is unique about him, however, is that he not only enjoyed longevity but remained a vital force, producing popular works that added more than just bulk to his filmography well into the nineteen-seventies. Whatever one thinks of late works like Avanti or Buddy Buddy, Wilder never seemed indulged in these final films, never a novelty in the way that the Cukor who directed Rich and Famous or the Hitchcock who directed Family Plot were novelties.
Yet the European sophistication, running jokes, sharp dialogue, brilliantly unsentimental female characterisations and tightly effective narrative construction in which he traded were exactly the qualities with which he had set up his stall at the end of the thirties.

The Apartment and Irma have been thrown together for me by repeated circumstance: one is perhaps my favourite of all Wilder's movies, the other is perhaps a lesser work. Were I picking a double-bill of Wilder at his very best I would be forced to team The Apartment with Double Indemnity, which would also offer the incidental advantage of displaying Wilder's gifts in two very different moods.
But a double-bill of these comedies at my local this weekend took me back to my first encounter with them as a Saturday night double-bill on BBC-2 in the early nineteen-eighties. Back then I preferred Irma La Douce because for some reason they showed it first and I was too tired to get the most from The Apartment. It was several years later that I saw it again and recognised it as Wilder's masterpiece, which is to say the masterpiece of sophisticated American comedy, and perhaps the last perfect, entirely faultless comedy Hollywood made.
I have called it the best film ever made before, though that's always a mug's game. If it is, then it is in the slightly lopsided sense that it is really the best screenplay, cast to perfection and always shot in the most effective, least ostentatious way. To me that amounts to the same thing, but many will rebel at this basically literary conception of cinema. For most film buffs, understandably enough, film is a visual medium, and the great directors are those who come up with the great images: Welles or Hitchcock or whoever.
But I tend to feel that perfection does not draw attention to itself, only excellence does that, and excellence can be isolated: the excellent film can be reduced to a list of constituent parts. Perfection, by contrast is seamless, an organic whole, and if any ingredient announces itself or distracts us from any other, perfection has not been achieved. It is in this sense that The Apartment is perfect.
There are great visual touches for sure: the opening scenes, reminiscent of Vidor's The Crowd, of Lemmon's inhumanly mechanical office existence, for instance, or the amazing romantic shot of Maclaine running through the nocturnal streets at the climax. But they are not gratuitous visual flourishes: their existence is dictated by narrative necessity, the camera itself is invisible.
This, for me, defines greatness far more than the delightful but shallow effects of the great Hollywood showmen. Hats must be tipped, nonetheless, to the beautiful black and white photography of Arthur La Shelle and the immaculate set design: the apartment itself not only looks lived in, and lived in by the character who is supposed to be living there, but it produces - in me at least - the overwhelming desire to clamber into the film and make myself at home in it.
It's also a true crowd pleaser; it was obvious watching it with a live audience that it still grips and delights, and still has the power to make people laugh out loud and fall in love with the characters.
It is, along with Jaws, one of the best jobs of ensemble acting I have ever seen in the movies, in which a brilliant script is delivered with just the right touch seemingly without effort. Jack Lemmon's junior executive C.C. Baxter and Shirley Maclaine's lift operator Miss Kublelik are both incredibly endearing, the latter the definitive incarnation of her trademark quirkily sympathetic losers, the former a pitch-perfect update of the kind of wistful ordinary-joes at which Fred MacMurray used to excel. And MacMurray, of course, is present too, as the reptilian Mr Sheldrake: only Wilder sensed the actor's potential for playing conniving lowlife. In Double Indemnity we caught a glimpse here and there of the traditional MacMurray, made mercenary by temptation, but Sheldrake is beyond redemption: the embodiment of the mechanistic, inhumane world in which Baxter and Kubelik are stranded, to both of them a malignant Faust who almost succeeds in distracting them from the realisation that their only hope of salvation is each other.
It still surprises audiences, I think, with its sharpness and penetrating characterisation: though romantic, it is far from bland. A 1980 review in The New Yorker notes that "Billy Wilder directed this acrid story as if it were a comedy, which is a cheat, considering that it involves pimping and a suicide attempt and many shades of craven ethics." It still feels modern in its essential attitudes and the lack of naivety in its character motivation; the only thing that dates it, really, is its fundamental decency and belief that it is possible to find personal contentment so long as luck prevails.
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Irma La Douce is broader, more frankly bawdy, rich coloured, rambling where its predecessor was tight and set in a postcard fantasy Paris rather than a sharply realistic New York. It is ten minutes longer than The Apartment and perhaps half an hour too long overall.
It was Halliwell who perceptively noted that while Some Like It Hot never quite taxes the patience, it frequently threatens to, dragging each idea to the limit before saving the day with something surprising and new. The only element of Wilder's craft that seemed to desert him as he and the golden age parted company, actually, was his mastery of pace and editing: despite their many and varied merits, Love in the Afternoon, The Fortune Cookie, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Avanti and Irma La Douce would all benefit from pruning.
But once adjusted to its lesisurely tempo, Irma is enormous fun in an uncharacteristically whimsical vein, with a pleasing sense of wacky farce. In particular it contains one of Wilder's zaniest trademark endings, and a rare case of the fastidious Wilder sacrificing narrative consistency for a gag. The last line of The Apartment remains his finest curtain-closer, so, so much better than Some Like It Hot's more celebrated "nobody's perfect", because it is moving as well as just funny. But this one - a ridiculous invalidating of the entire plot topped by a reprise of the film's running-line "that's another story" - should be enough to bring down any house. If you love absurd, plot-ruining joke endings, you'll find this one second in greatness only to that of After the Fox (1966). Overall it is Wilder's lighest, least sharply observant comedy since The Seven Year Itch.
It also more or less pulls off the potentially hazardous ploy of reteaming Maclaine and Lemmon, both excellent in roles very different from their characters in The Apartment. They were to have been joined by Charles Laughton as Moustache, the wine bar owner and narrator of the story. Wilder had directed Laughton to magnificent effect as the cantankerous elderly barrister in Witness For The Prosecution (1957), ably drawing on the actor's considerable gift for impish humour, by that time rusty from disuse after two and a half decades of villains and misfits. Alas Laughton died, still sporting the large moustache he had grown for the role, before shooting began.
Though a little lumpy by comparison with Wilder's own earlier work, alongside other Hollywood comedies of its time it still seems pretty nimble: compare it with the contemporaneous work of Blake Edwards, for example. Anyone coming fresh to Breakfast at Tiffany's on the strength of its reputation will see - and no doubt be surprised by - the difference almost immediately. Hollywood comedy in the sixties was a pretty flabby beast, all exotic location photography in glossy colour, and toothy stars on big wide screens. Lubitsch-style precision is a tricky thing to pull off in such conditions. Wilder was not at liberty to abandon these new imperatives, but he, perhaps alone among directors at work in these years, retained the skills needed to transcend them. Both of these films, and The Apartment in majestic particular, remain testament to those skills.