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Six definitive films: A beginner's guide to Billy Wilder's best films

Austrian-born American filmmaker Billy Wilder is considered by many to be one of the finest filmmakers from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Over a career spanning 50 years, Wilder produced many masterpieces like Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. For his pioneering efforts with the cinematic medium, Wilder received several accolades including multiple Academy Awards and a lifetime achievement award from the AFI in 1986.

Born in a small town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1906, Wilder started his career as a journalist who covered crime and sports stories for various newspapers. Along the way, he developed an interest in films and tried his hand at screenwriting. Due to the rise of fascism in Germany at the time, Wilder relocated to Hollywood in 1933 and the rest is history. From film noir to comedy, Wilder experimented with different genres and ended up producing vastly influential pieces of cinematic brilliance.

In an interview, Wilder explained his approach to comedy: “I do the joke if the joke is germane to the whole story, to the picture. But not if I have to squeeze it in artificially, with a shoehorn. I don’t do that. I never overestimate the audience, nor do I underestimate them,” he said, before adding: “I just have a very rational idea as to who we’re dealing with, and that we’re not making a picture for Harvard Law School, we’re making a picture for middle-class people, the people that you see on the subway, or the people that you see in a restaurant. Just normal people. And I hope they’re gonna like it.”

He continued, “The director is just another guy that helps with the making of the picture. I have a little louder voice, I’ve got a little more freedom, the choice is mine, and it’s fun. But many people make the movie. It’s fun to make pictures because you live, actually you live five, ten, or fifteen, or twenty different lives. Because you’re moving in different backgrounds.”

On the 19th anniversary of his death, we revisit Billy Wilder’s illustrious filmography as a celebration of his invaluable contribution to the world of cinema.  

Billy Wilder’s 6 definitive films:

Double Indemnity (1944)

A brilliant psychological thriller that showed glimpses of Wilder’s genius early on in his career, Double Indemnity tells the story of a love affair between an insurance salesman and the disgruntled wife of an oligarch. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and became the definitive standard for the film noir genre.

While talking about Raymond Chandler, Wilder said, “The funny thing is, Chandler would come up with a good image, pictorial, and like I said I would come up with a Chandlerism, as it were. It’s very strange, you know, that’s the way it always happens. He was not a young man, when we worked together on Double Indemnity for ten or twelve weeks, so he never quite learned it…the craft.

“And then he was on his own, with John Houseman barely looking over his shoulder. A screenwriter is a bum poet, a third-rate dramatist, a kind of a half-assed engineer. You got to build that bridge, so it will carry the traffic, everything else, the acting, the drama, happens on the set. Screenwriting is a mixture of techniques, and a little literary talent, sure; but also a sense of how to manage it, so that they will not fall asleep. You can’t bore the actors or the audience.”

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Probably the most famous film by Wilder, Sunset Boulevard remains a stunning critique of Hollywood culture even after 70 years. Set in Hollywood of the 1950s, the film follows the story of an obscure screenplay writer who gets caught up in a dangerous relationship with a faded film star. Sunset Boulevard won three out of 11 Academy Award nominations and is now considered to be among the best films ever made.

Speaking about the movie, the filmmaker once said: “For a long time I wanted to do a comedy about Hollywood. God forgive me, I wanted to have Mae West and Marlon Brando. Look what became of that idea! Instead, it became a tragedy of a silent-picture actress, still rich, but fallen down into the abyss after talkies. ‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.’ I had that line early on. Someplace else I had the idea for a writer who is down on his luck. It didn’t quite fall into place until we got Gloria Swanson.”

Ace in the Hole (1951)

One of the most memorable cinematic critiques of American culture, Wilder’s 1951 film noir starred Kirk Douglas as a newspaper reporter who is cynical enough to do anything in order to get his career back on track. Although critics dismissed it at the time of its release for being too ruthless in its vision, time has proven that Ace in the Hole was one of Wilder’s best works.

It was the first time that Wilder was attached to a project as writer, director and producer. Ace in the Hole was a commercial failure but Wilder picked up the Best Director award at the Venice Film Festival for his uncompromising artistic sensibilities. The screenplay also earned an Academy Award nomination.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Set in 1920s Chicago, Some Like It Hot was produced during a period in Wilder’s career when he was gravitating from film noir to comedy. The film revolves around two musicians who go into hiding after witnessing a mob hit. It also starred Marilyn Monroe as a chanteuse named Sugar Kane. The combination of Wilder and Monroe ensured that the film was an unprecedented critical and commercial success.

Wilder explained the origin of the project, stating: “The genesis of the idea was a very low-budget, very third-class German picture [Fanfares of Love, 1932] where two guys who need a job go into blackface to get into a band…they also dress up to go into a female band. But there was not one other thing that came from this terrible picture. We had to find, I thought, the key to why they go into that band and what keeps them there.

“If the gangsters who are chasing them see them as women, only as women, then…once they are seen as men, they are dead. It’s life and death. They cannot come out into the open. It’s a question of life and death. That triggered everything. So we began to have a picture. But that German film was absolutely terrible, absolutely terrible. Deliriously bad.”

The Apartment (1960)

Undoubtedly one of the best films Wilder ever made, The Apartment launches a fascinating investigation of modern relations. Set during Christmas time, it follows a lower level clerk who tries to climb the ranks by letting his bosses use his apartment to cheat on their spouses. Although the film’s subject matter sparked controversy, it was a major success and won five Oscars (out of ten nominations) including the coveted Best Picture prize.

The filmmaker recalled, “The origin of The Apartment was my seeing the very fine picture by David Lean, Brief Encounter [1945]. It was the story of a man who is having an affair with a married woman and comes by train to London. They go to the apartment of a friend of his. I saw it and I said, ‘What about the guy who has to crawl into the warm bed?'”

He added, “That’s an interesting character. Then I put that down, and put down some other things in my notebook. The hero of that thing was the guy who endured this, who was introduced to it all by a lie. One guy in his company needed to change his clothes, he said, and used the apartment…and that was it.”

Fedora (1978)

Based on Tom Tyron’s novella, Fedora was one of the final films Wilder ever made in his distinguished career. Starring William Holden and Marthe Keller, the film features a washed-up writer who tries to convince a retired actress to work with him again but she mysteriously ends up killing herself.

Fedora was the manifestation of an aging auteur’s frustrations and disillusionment with the film industry and the world in general. It came after a period of decline in Wilder’s Hollywood career and is now recognised as one of the finest additions to his brilliant filmography.