Without any doubt, Billy Wilder was one of the finest filmmakers to ever work in Hollywood. His body of work puts him among the greatest directors who have ever lived. Here’s 10 of his best.Billy Wilder was born in Austria on June 22nd 1906 and, after starting out his career as a journalist, by 1929 he was working as a screenwriter in Berlin. With the rise of fascism in Germany, Wilder, who was Jewish, had to leave the country and first relocated to Paris, where he made his directorial debut. It wasn’t long before he had to relocate to the United States, where he moved in with Peter Lorre, another silver screen legend who had to leave Germany on account of the situation in Europe.
Wilder soon started writing screenplays in Hollywood and had his big break when he co-wrote Ninotchka, a Greta Garbo vehicle, which turned out to be highly successful. In 1942 he delivered his American directorial debut with The Major and the Minor but it wasn’t until his third film, 1944’s Double Indemnity, that he struck gold and made his first bona fide classic and one of the ultimate film noirs, which he co-wrote the screenplay for in collaboration with Raymond Chandler.
From there on in, Wilder made various noirish-infused dark edged dramas with an occasional black comedy thrown in until he changed pace in the mid fifties when his output started to consist of primarily comedies. Considered one of the greatest and most versatile directors of Hollywood’s golden age, Billy Wilder was the first of only five people to ever receive Academy Awards as producer, director and screenwriter for the same film and he collected six of the coveted statues over the course of his career. In 1986 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, followed by the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, an “honorary” Oscar, in 1988. He died, aged 95, on March 27th 2002, leaving behind a brilliant filmography. Here are ten of his best.
10. The Fortune Cookie (1966)
The Fortune Cookie is a 1966 comedy which is particularly notable as the first on-screen collaboration of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, who would of course continue to make many comedies together. As he is covering a football game, cameraman Harry Hinkle (Lemmon) is injured when he is accidentally trampled by football player Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson. Although his injuries are pretty minor, his brother-in-law and dodgy lawyer William H. “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich (Matthau) convinces him to exaggerate them in order to score a huge insurance settlement. A great cynical comedy by Billy Wilder, who already had made three earlier comedies with Jack Lemmon, the best part of The Fortune Cookie is the addition of Walter Matthau, who steals the show as the opportunistic lawyer, out to squeeze every cent possible from his brother-in-law’s accident. Lemmon and Matthau would soon find even greater success with The Odd Couple. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, taking home one for Best Supporting Actor for Matthau.
9. Sabrina (1954)
Adapted for the screen from Samuel A. Taylor’s play Sabrina Fair, Sabrina is a classic romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. Sabrina (Hepburn) is the daughter of a chauffeur and lives on the estate of the wealthy Larrabee family with its two sons: Linus, a serious workaholic businessman (Bogart) and David, a younger debonair playboy (Holden). Sabrina only has eyes for David but he is already engaged to the daughter from a very wealthy family. Linus steps in as the marriage is of the utmost importance to the family business and in order to do so he tries to charm Sabrina himself, causing him to actually fall for her. Lighter and not as cutting edge as some of Wilder’s other comedies, Sabrina is nonetheless a lovely romantic gem which is miles ahead of most other films in its genre. The outstanding cast contribute to this fact greatly and all three leads seem to be enjoying themselves in their respective parts. The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards but ultimately only won one for Best Costume Design. The film was also remade in 1995 with Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear but didn’t come close to capturing the charm of this Wilder original.
8. Stalag 17 (1953)
Based on a play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, Stalag 17 is the precursor to the TV series Hogan’s Heroes (Paramount Pictures was in fact sued for copyright infringement over the series by the writers of the original play but the plaintiffs lost). The film deals with a POW camp populated by American sergeants and the fact that there appears to be a German spy amongst the prisoners. All suspicions fall wrongfully upon Sefton (William Holden) as he seems to be able to get his hands on just about everything he wants in the camp. A unique war film, especially at the time, the movie depicted a gritty, far more realistic view of the life inside a POW camp whilst simultaneously still managing to also be a drama as well as a damn funny comedy. Holden won the Academy Award for Best Actor whilst Billy Wilder was nominated for Best Director and Robert Strauss for Best Supporting Actor. Fellow director Otto Preminger appears as the sadistic German camp commander.
7. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Witness for the Prosecution is a fantastic courtroom drama based on the stage play by Agatha Christie (in turn based on her own short story), starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power (in his last role) and Marlene Dietrich. Master Barrister Sir Wilfred Robards (Laughton), who has just recovered from a heart attack and has been advised to stay away from all stress, takes on Leonard (Power), a man accused of murdering an old rich widow, as a client. Things complicate quickly as Leonard’s wife (Dietrich) suddenly announces that they really aren’t married at all and that she will act as a witness for the prosecution instead of the defense. Full of twists and turns and with a healthy dose of humour to boot, Witness for the Prosecution is an undisputed classic of the courtroom film genre. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards but as David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai ruled the Oscars that year, it ended up winning none.
6. The Lost Weekend (1945)
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Charles R. Jackson, The Lost Weekend is an early masterpiece by Wilder about alcoholism, long before such a topic was commonplace in Hollywood. Don Birnham (Ray Milland) and his brother Wick (Philip Terry) are packing their bags in Don’s New York apartment for a country weekend getaway in an attempt to help Don stop drinking. When Don’s girlfriend arrives, she reveals she has tickets for a concert that night and Don convinces his brother to go along with her instead. As soon as the two leave, Don does everything he can to get his hands on a drink and so begins the titular weekend in which he goes through denial, lies to friends and family, steals from strangers and tries to pawn his typewriter, all to go on a four-day drinking binge. A remarkably honest depiction of addiction, especially for its time, The Long Weekend turned out to be a critical as well as financial success with a great central performance by Ray Milland, who might very well have given the best performance in his entire career here. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning four of them, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor. The film also won the Grand Prix as well as Best Actor for Milland at Cannes, thereby becoming one of only two films to win both highest honours at the Oscars as well as at the Cannes Film Festival.
5. Ace in the Hole (1951)
Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival) is a cynical satire of media sensationalism as well as its audience. Despite the fact that the movie starred Kirk Douglas and Wilder had delivered one of his greatest commercial hits the year previously, Ace in the Hole was both a critical and financial failure at the time. But the film has grown tremendously in stature over the years and is now considered amongst his greatest works. Chuck Tatum (Douglas) is a reporter who has lost his job at various major newspapers due to his rebellious character. Now working for a small paper in Albuquerque, he comes across a story that he thinks might propel him back into the big time. A man has been trapped in a mine shaft and Chuck manipulates the situation (going as far as to ensure the less effective rescue method is used in order to prolong the situation) and distorts the facts in order to spice up the story. A bitter indictment of the way the press handles and portrays the news, Ace in the Hole was probably way ahead of its time as audiences weren’t interested in such cynical fare at the time. Just like Sidney Lumet’s Network, a film which Ace in the Hole shares a clear thematic theme with, the movie was way ahead of its time and is still completely relevant today.
4. Some Like it Hot (1959)
The second collaboration between Monroe and Wilder, Some Like It Hot can truly be considered as one of the greatest timeless comedies. The story deals with Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), two musicians who witness the Saint Valentine’s Massacre in gangster-ruled 1920’s Chicago and end up disguising themselves as women in order to escape being knocked off by the mob. Taking on the personas of Josephine and Daphne, they join Sweet Sue’s all-girl orchestra and head off to Florida to do a gig. En route, they meet the orchestra’s lead singer and ukulele player Sugar Kane (Monroe) and both fall for her head over heels but are unable to really do anything about it due to their female disguises. Some Like It Hot is as funny today as when it was first released in 1959 and one might in fact argue that the timelessness of the film only has made it better over the years. Both Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are in fine form here, whilst Monroe completely holds her own and is as sexy as ever. The American Film Institute labelled Some Like It Hot the greatest American Comedy of All Time when it revealed its list on June 13th 2000. Nobody might be perfect but Some Like It Hot sure comes close.
3. Double Indemnity (1944)
The film that really put Billy Wilder on the map as a director in Hollywood, Double Indemnity is not only one of the director’s greatest achievements but also one of the best film noirs ever made. Barbara Stanwyck plays one of the silver screen’s ultimate femme fatales as she seduces insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray in arguably his greatest role) to help her kill her husband in order to collect his substantial accident insurance policy. The murder succeeds but things of course get complicated when Walter’s boss (Edward G. Robinson) starts looking into the case and the two get increasingly paranoid about each other as the pressure mounts. Another cynical entry into Wilder’s filmography, the tone perfectly complemented noir sensibilities and the film almost defined what film noir was all about. Extremely hard-boiled, a sharp-talking lead, a devilish and sexy femme fatale, high contrast black and white photography and a killer screenplay dealing with murder, all make Double Indemnity a true classic of the genre. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards but ended up winning none. Throughout the years however, it has endured as one of the most beloved films of its era and genre.
2. The Apartment (1960)
Fantastic comedy-drama and one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films, The Apartment might not be as controversial as it was when it was first released but has withstood the test of time wonderfully. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is an office-worker who has figured out he can get ahead in the company by lending his apartment to his supervisors for their extramarital romantic escapades. But things take a turn for the worse when his slimy boss J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) sets his sights on elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), whom Baxter also has had his eye on. It’s remarkable how funny Billy Wilder manages to make a story that is so cynical and even borders on tragedy at times (there’s even a serious suicide attempt) but he succeeds brilliantly. Just like in Some Like It Hot the previous year, Jack Lemmon gives another great comedic performance whilst MacLaine has never been cuter in her career. The Apartment ended up receiving ten Oscar nominations and took home five, including Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay. A must-see gem for lovers of Wilder or simply comedy in general, The Apartment is fantastic.
1. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Another of the best Film Noirs ever made, Sunset Boulevard is also Billy Wilder’s finest film, which is quite an honour, considering all the other entries on this list. William Holden plays Joe, a down on his luck and broke screenwriter, who by chance enters Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) dilapidated mansion as he tries to run from debt collectors. Norma used to be one of the greatest stars in Hollywood’s silent era but has become a forgotten artifact of an era gone by. Ever since she has been living a sheltered life with her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) in her Hollywood villa. As she learns about Joe’s profession, Norma hires him to polish her great come-back screenplay. Joe realises that the script is a disaster but agrees to take the job as he has nothing to lose and within no time he becomes Norma’s kept man with tragic consequences. Not only one of the greatest Film Noirs ever made, Sunset Boulevard is also one of the best satires about Hollywood and the fickleness of stardom. Greatly adding to the authentic feel of the film are the many cameos by real-life movie greats and the fact Swanson herself was a silent movie star and von Stroheim a legendary silent era director. During the film it is revealed that Max used to be a director before he became Norma’s butler and that it was him who discovered her back in the silent era. In one poignant scene the three leads watch a scene from one of Norma’s old films directed by Max. The scene was taken from the real-life film Queen Kelly, which was in fact directed by von Stroheim and starred Swanson. Even though the movie was a pretty scathing attack on Hollywood, the film was nominated for eleven Oscars, ultimately winning three of them. Additionally it won four Golden Globes, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress, and a string of other awards. A masterpiece.
Written and compiled by Emilio Santoni
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