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Some Like It Cynical

In a way, Billy Wilder’s decline was as inspirational as his ascendance. Just two years after using his screenwriting clout to get a directing job, Wilder made his first classic, the enduring film noir Double Indemnity (1944). He made a movie almost each year from 1942 to 1966, along the way forming an unmistakable aesthetic with his urbane wit, downbeat subject matter and cynical take on the human condition.

His muse began to fail him in the late 1960s, and latter-day pictures such as his final effort, the 1981 comedy Buddy, Buddy, were failures at best and embarrassments at worst. But even as the quality of his movies wavered, Wilder’s tenacity never did. For years after the release of Buddy, Buddy, the filmmaker talked about trying to launch one more movie. With the same impressive work ethic and resilience he brought to filmmaking during his glory years, Wilder sought opportunities to carve a more fitting epitaph than a turgid flop.

Though he never was given that one last chance to redeem himself creatively, it’s not as if his legacy will suffer for the lack of a glorious final accomplishment. When Wilder succumbed to pneumonia on March 27 at the formidable age of 95, he left behind a body of work impressive enough to fill any writer-director with envy. After all, he’s the man behind some of the finest performances by Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Shirley MacLaine, Marilyn Monroe, Kirk Douglas, Audrey Hepburn, William Holden and many others; his résumé is crowded with such titanic movies as Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment; and he was the recipient of six Academy Awards, the Irving Thalberg Award and the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award.

Some Wilder scenes are burned into the collective memory of movie buffs: An aged movie star descending a staircase for her appearance in a movie no one will ever see, cooing “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille”; Joe E. Brown remarking that “Nobody’s perfect” after learning that his girlfriend is a man in Some Like It Hot; and, of course, Marilyn Monroe standing atop a subway grate while her white skirt billows above her knees in The Seven Year Itch.

But not every great Wilder movie has become a part of Hollywood iconography. Consider Ace in the Hole, also known as The Big Carnival, which Wilder made in 1951. One of the most incendiary films ever made about journalism, the movie stars Kirk Douglas as a washed-up reporter who stumbles across a classic “human interest” story: A man has gotten stuck in a mine from which it will take days to extract him. Douglas’ character pounces on the poor wretch’s predicament like a shark leaping out of the water for a mouthful of chum, but he’s not the only opportunist in town: Both a media circus and an actual circus develop around the entrance to the mine, and the reporter helps derail an expeditious rescue effort in favor of one that will take longer, thereby extending the life of his lucrative story.

Ace in the Hole was attacked by critics and pundits upon its release, because the film’s detractors thought Wilder painted too unflinchingly dark a picture of the media’s appetites. Were the picture to be released today, it would seem like a documentary.

Wilder’s ability to craft such acidic movies as Ace in the Hole and Sunset Boulevard during the sunny 1950s probably had a great deal to do with his background. The Austrian native fled Europe in the mid-’30s while the Nazis were rising to power, then had to translate the filmmaking experience he had accrued on the continent to a career in American pictures. Wilder quickly mastered Hollywood screenwriting, contributing to the Greta Garbo comedy Ninotchka (1939) and the Barbara Stanwyck-Gary Cooper romp Ball of Fire (1941), among numerous other pictures. He probably would have cringed at such pop-psychology analysis, but it seems that watching Europe fall to fascism made it impossible for Wilder to sentimentalize his adoptive homeland, thereby enabling him to comment on the vagaries of American life with the distance of an outsider and the intimacy of an insider.

Conversations With Wilder, a 2000 book authored by contemporary writer-director Cameron Crowe, offers a vivid snapshot of how the great man perceived his career: Wilder derailed inquiries about films that tanked, revived rusty cocktail-party anecdotes about films that soared, and dodged personal questions whenever possible. Wilder seemed resigned to having long ago slipped into legend. A cynical stance, perhaps—but if so, a fitting one.

—Peter Hanson

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