Something Wilder

There's a scene in Double Indemnity where Fred MacMurray ventures out on the open platform of a moving train. Disguised as the man he just murdered, Mr. Dietrichson, MacMurray's crooked insurance salesman is about to fake a fall from the train and collect double the insurance money. But his plan is interrupted by a chatty fellow passenger. The suspense is deliciously unbearable. You can't wait for MacMurray to send the passenger away on a false errand. You want this murderous antihero to get away with it.

That's what makes Double Indemnity a seminal film noir. It's also likely why the film's director and co-writer Billy Wilder was dubbed a cynic by the Hollywood press. In the wake of his recent death in March 2002, he's being reevaluated in kindlier terms. People Weekly renamed him a subversive. Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss offered up this defence: "Nearly 40 years ago, critic Andrew Sarris wrote, 'Billy Wilder is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism.' Today we can see that Wilder was less a cynic than a premature realist."

Cynic or subversive, Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde on the set, dictatorial or self-deprecating, one thing about Wilder is clear. He's one of the greats. His films are witty, dark, trailblazing, fatalistic and oddly empathetic. Detective stories like The Maltese Falcon end with the heroic detective triumphing over the evil underworld. Watching Double Indemnity, the audience identifies with the backstabbing murderers. And Gloria Swanson may play a deluded diva in Wilder's greatest film Sunset Boulevard, but her desire to be loved is not grotesque, merely human.


1906. Samuel Wilder is born to a Jewish family in Galicia, in what used to be the former Austro-Hungarian empire, now Poland. Mum Eugenia was so impressed by a Buffalo Bill show in her trip to America that she nicknamed him Billie.

When Billie is 4, the Wilders move to Vienna.

At 18, Wilder becomes a journalist in Vienna writing crime stories and interviewing stellar psychoanalysts like Alfred Adler. After showing up on Freud's (yes, Freud) doorstep, he gets the door slammed shut in his face.

1929. While working as a journalist in Berlin, Wilder moonlights as a screenwriter, collaborating with Next Big Things Fred Zinneman (director of From Here to Eternity) and Robert Siodmak (director of The Killers and Criss Cross).

1933. Hitler comes to power. Wilder leaves for Paris.

1934. Wilder arrives in America. A fellow refugee gets him a temporary writing gig with Columbia Pictures. Wilder takes English lessons with roommate Peter Lorre (The Maltese Falcon).

1937. Marries painter Judith Iribe, the mother of his only child, Victoria.

1938. Teams up with ex-theatre critic Charles Brackett and starts co-writing some hits, including Ninotchka (1939) starring Greta Garbo and Ball of Fire (1941).

1942. Makes debut directing Ginger Rogers in the hit comedy The Major and The Minor.

1944. Directs Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.

Double Indemnity earns a slew of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, for Wilder's directing and screenwriting with Raymond Chandler. But things don't go Wilder's way as he loses to the Bing Crosby flick Going My Way. Wilder trips filmmaker Leo McCarey as McCarey walks up the aisle to accept the Best Picture Oscar.

"An extraordinary woman .... Never a fault, never a mistake--just a wonderful brain she had."
--Wilder on Stanwyck

"[Working with Wilder] was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life, but I learned from it as much about screenwriting as I am capable of learning."
--co-screenwriter Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity

1945. Embarks on The Lost Weekend with Ray Milland as the alcoholic lead character. Wilder drops Milland's character's homosexuality from the final cut, because the picture is already taking heat from a defensive liquor industry. Wilder cleans up at the Oscars, bagging his first two awards for directing and co-screenwriting.

Returns to post-World War II Germany while working for the U.S. Office of War Information. Incorporates real-life footage of death camps into a film called Death Mills, shown in Germany. Wilder learns his mother, stepfather and grandmother perished at Auschwitz. He tries to locate his father's grave but fails.

1949. Divorces first wife Judith. Marries Audrey Young.

1950. Directs Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim (pictured with Wilder, below) in Sunset Boulevard. Wilder is rightly honoured with the Best Screenplay Oscar.

1957. Directs Marilyn Monroe (below) in Seven Year Itch by having her skirt blow up over her legs.

1959. Makes the cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot. Wilder hires a drag queen by the name of Barbette to teach stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon their moves. Curtis is an A student but Barbette sours on Lemmon, quitting after just three days.

Wilder flanked by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau

1960. The Apartment doesn't cramp Wilder's style. In fact, the comedy earns Wilder 3 of his 6 Oscars, for writing, directing and Best Picture.

"He was a scientist of American culture. He knew us better than we knew ourselves."
--Shirley MacLaine

1963. Makes Irma La Douce, his biggest grosser ever.

1981. Makes Buddy Buddy, his last film.

1988. Receives the Irving Thalberg Oscar.

2002. Dies on March 27. The New York Times obituary is here.

Notable Quotables

"I have a curious accent which is a mixture of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Archbishop Tutu."
--Wilder on English as his second language.

"If you've never laughed at a funny Billy Wilder picture, you have never laughed."
--President Bill Clinton, presenting the Arts and Humanities Awards medal to Wilder in October 1993.

"I'm accused of being vulgar. So much the better. That proves I'm close to life."
--Wilder on Wilder

"Billy Wilder at work is actually two people--Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde."
--unnamed Wilder collaborator

"He was constantly trying to get me to hate him. Now and then he succeeded."
--Biographer Maurice Zolotow on Wilder

"It's not really what I want."
--Wilder on abandoning his autobiography after completing 620 pages

"Because for three Wilders I can get a Spielberg."
--a "fan" who requested three autographs

"Writers do not sign autographs. Autographs are for actors. BW."
--message on preprinted cards Wilder sent to autograph-seekers

"In my day movie stars used to dress, even if they were going to the store."
--Wilder telling off a casually-dressed Tom Cruise

"I was not a guy who was writing deep-dish revelations. If people see a picture of mine and then sit down and talk about it for 15 minutes, that is a very fine reward, I think. That's good enough for me."
--Wilder on his craft and his art


Double Indemnity (1944)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Ace in the Whole (a.k.a., "The Big Carnival") (1951)


The German-Hollywood Connection site profile on Wilder
El mundo de Billy Wilder en Espanol!
IMDB page on Billy Wilder

(April 18, 2002)

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