C’mon, Billy

C’mon Billy,

Come to me,

You know I’m waiting,

I love you endlessly,

C’mon Billy,

You’re the only one…

These mania-infused lyrics are from a glorious PJ Harvey paean and it’s only when she goes on to reveal ‘having his son’ that I twig she isn’t singing about the late, great Billy Wilder.

But even if she were belting out her obsessive love for the guy from the rooftops, I would’ve understood.

Shit, I’ve recorded five songs about him and I can’t sing a note.

Both as a writer and director, this Jew rocked. In fact, his immense cinematic contribution is so on the money that I reckon his legacy could even help to wipe out anti-Semitism.

Just round up any bunch of neo-Nazi bellends and instead of wagging the finger show ’em a movie marathon of Wilder’s best work. I might be grasping at straws here, but knowing a Red Sea pedestrian was behind such gob-smacking brilliance as Sunset Boulevard would surely suck all the fun out of organizing pogroms while drumming up support for a Fourth Reich.

I am big. It’s the prejudice that got small…”

Double Indemnity (1944)

There were a handful of movies before this one, but Wilder’s legendary status really got underway with a femme fatale wrapped in a bath towel, an alluring anklet and the sweet scent of honeysuckle permeating the air.

Time has been very kind to this noir classic and it remains a riveting watch, packed full of hard-bitten dialogue and racy material.

Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) seems to be coasting along OK until he bumps into bored, frustrated housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) at her home. She’s not exactly backward in coming forward and hints she’d be up for doing in her unlikable hubby.

The seemingly levelheaded Neff isn’t interested and immediately leaves, adding in a world-weary voiceover: “I knew I had hold of a red-hot poker and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand off.”

But he can’t resist her feminine wiles and it’s not long before they’re planning to ‘go straight down the line.’

The only problem is Neff’s boss, the diminutive Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). He’s a pit bull of a claims investigator with nearly thirty years of sniffing out phoniness under his belt.

“To me, a claims man is a surgeon, that desk an operating theatre and those pencils scalpels and bone chisels,” he tells Neff. “A claims man is a doctor and a bloodhound and a cop and a judge and jury and a father-confessor all in one.”

In other words, not the kind of guy you want on your tail. Neff gives him a hell of a run for his money, but is left with a plethora of bitter questions about the evil that men do rather than any satisfying answers.

Or as he muses: “How could I have known that murder sometimes smells like honeysuckle?”

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Wannabe writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland) has an aversion to ‘very dull liquids.’

Unfortunately, that’s all his good-hearted brother and exceptionally faithful girl are promising during a weekend trip to the country.

And for a fucked-up, self-loathing boozehound like Don, it simply ain’t enough.

This is not only a marvelous portrait of a disintegrating man but a significant movie that was the first to detail the horrors of alcoholism. Before Weekend I suspect drunks were little more than light comic relief, amusing audiences with their hiccupping, slurry words and stumbles.

But Don’s bone-deep love of cheap rye whiskey marks him out as a completely different animal, the natural predecessor to other hardcore drunks, such as Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses and Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Don’s a pathetic creature, boasting a full set of alcoholic tics that include dishonesty, furtiveness, wheedling, agitation and defensiveness.

And yet he’s also witty, articulate and passionate. Just listen to him wax lyrical about liquor.

“It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it? It pickles my kidneys. But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent, supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo molding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting with pure sunlight.”

(Now I’ve been known to imbibe, sometimes to excess, but I’ve never quite reached these fantastic heights. About the best I can do when I’m blotto is thinking I’ve got a chance with the girl down the chip shop).

But Don is also clear-sighted about his affliction. When his barman mate, Nat, curtly tells him to cut down his intake, he scolds him for talking like a child.

“You can’t cut it short! When you’re on that merry-go-round you gotta ride it all the way! Round and round till that blasted music wears itself out and the thing dies down and it comes to a stop.”

Another time Nat suggests he shouldn’t be drinking because it’s the morning.

“That’s when you need it most. Haven’t you learned that yet? At night this stuff is a drink. In the morning, it’s medicine.”

Don’s girl is pretty, compassionate and loyal, but no match for his love of the bottle. Her ample breasts will never compare to two shots of whiskey sitting on a bar. At one point after he’s escaped her nagging, stultifying clutches he’s alone in his apartment with his beloved bottles. Everything takes on a near-sexual air. Look at the way he pours a healthy dose, seductively shucks off his jacket and loosens his tie before sitting alongside the glass with a giddy smile. There’s a palpable sense of impending consummation.

Lost Weekend is not peak Wilder (the girlfriend is ridiculously stoic and devoted, there’s a lack of his trademark barbed humor, the less said about those rubbery bats the better, and the ending’s betrays its grim subject matter), but it still boasts a great Oscar-winning turn from Ray Milland. Like Double Indemnity, it’s way ahead of its time and overflowing with piercing insight.

If you can’t be bothered to track down a near-eighty-year-old movie and just want the concise version of an alcoholic’s self-deceit and pitiable attempts to keep up a respectable front, I recommend this funny, terribly sad British TV sketch instead.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

This withering look at the movie business gets my vote for peak Wilder, knocking similar modern-day efforts, such as The Player and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, into a cocked hat.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a struggling writer in Tinseltown, his luck so threadbare he’s on the verge of a humiliating return to his old newspaper job in Ohio. With the finance men keen to repossess his car, he staggers from one humiliating encounter to the next desperately trying to drum up some work or cash. He stops in on a producer to see about a script only to hear an intern dismiss it as flat and trite.

“I heard you had some talent,” she says.

“That was last year,” he replies. “This year I’m trying to earn a living.”

His agent is equally unsympathetic, his subsequent refusal to lend any money tinged with apparent selflessness. “The finest things in the world are written on an empty stomach,” he says.  

Then the repo men spot Joe driving around, the ensuing chase resulting in a blowout that forces him into the driveway of an abandoned mansion.

Or at least it appears that way.

“A neglected house gets an unhappy look,” he muses. “This one had it in spades.”

It’s here he meets faded silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), one of the greatest characters in Twentieth Century cinema. With her wide-eyed stare, tilted back head, clipped tones and theatrically posed hands, she belongs in an old Universal horror pic. Straightaway Joe pegs her as a ‘bundle of raw nerves’ living in a ‘grim sunset castle’ and it’s a pretty accurate description. She’s presumptuous, insistent, demanding, lonely, paranoid, needy and delusional.

And these are her lesser faults.

The woman’s a loaded gun and virtually anything can set her off, especially if a word like ‘comeback’ is mentioned. “I hate that word!” she rants. “It’s ‘return’, a return to the millions of people who’ve never forgiven me for deserting the screen.”

But Joe’s hardly an angel and decides her colossal neuroses are just the ticket when it comes to his ailing finances.

And what’s up with that sycophantic, organ-playing butler?

Once seen, Boulevard is never forgotten. It’s full of the most brilliant, unexpected developments. Sure, it casts one hell of a jaundiced eye on everything, but it also retains a heartbreaking sense of humanity.

Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival) (1951)

These days we all know newspaper journalists are about as trustworthy as secondhand car salesmen, but back in the early fifties people probably still gobbled up all the spin, bias, embellishment, half-truths, ignorance, and flat out lies without a second thought.

That’s why hard-nosed but broke reporter Chuck Tatum (the superb Kirk Douglas) is so amused by the quaint, framed needlework adorning the wall of his prospective place of employment, the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin.

And what does it say?

Tell the truth.

But a cynical newshound like Chuck knows such a simple, admirable statement has little to do with the business of selling papers. As he tells his potential boss in an impromptu interview after barreling in off the street: “I know newspapers backwards, forwards and sideways. I can write ’em, I can print ’em, I can wrap ’em and I can sell ’em. If there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.”

This big city hotshot, who’s already been fired from eleven papers for everything from libel suits to banging the publisher’s wife, gets the job. A year later he’s bored out of his mind, pinning all his hopes of returning to the East Coast limelight on uncovering a scoop in Albuquerque. “When they need you, they’ll forgive and forget,” he confidently says.

Sent out on a routine story, this ‘top man’ smells a much bigger one when he hears of a goodhearted WW2 veteran called Leo Minosa trapped in the bowels of a supposedly haunted Indian mountain. After grabbing a flashlight from a hesitant cop, he barges past and starts clambering down into the perilous collapse to find the pinioned man.

And does Chuck tell him the truth?

“Don’t worry, Leo,” he manages. “I’m your pal.”

From here he starts manipulating everyone involved. There’s nothing he isn’t prepared to do, whether it’s guaranteeing the election-minded sheriff favorable publicity to keep other reporters away or ensuring the story has legs by convincing the engineers to undertake a much lengthier rescue attempt.

Meanwhile, an ever-growing flock of rubberneckers have set up camp to gossip and feed off Leo’s distress.

Chuck’s happy, though. “Bad news sells best coz good news is no news.”

Ace in the Hole paints an awful picture of human behavior with its smorgasbord of greed, self-interest and lack of compassion. The overbearing Chuck stands at its pessimistic centre, his hypocrisy and refusal to take responsibility for his actions bordering on the wince-inducing.

Or as he says: “I don’t make things happen, I just write about ’em.”

He’s also supported by Leo’s bored, disloyal wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling). Early on she wants to abandon her trapped hubby and flee the stultifying desert surroundings, but is instead convinced by Chuck of an imminent gold rush. Watch out for the wonderful Eden-like moment when she bites into an apple and grasps the truth.

The Apartment (1960)

Wilder’s last great movie provides us with a revealing window into corporate America.

Hypocrisy, sexism and entitlement are rampant in this man’s world with promotion based on back scratching rather than merit.

Doormat inputter C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), who works in the human equivalent of a beehive, is a case in point. He lends his apartment to a bunch of two-timing superiors in the hope of becoming an executive, sometimes even being kicked out late at night so they can get drunkenly laid.

These glib adulterers remain oblivious to their shortcomings as illustrated by one na├»ve girl asking if others are brought to the apartment. “Certainly not,” the apparently offended boss replies. “I’m a happily married man.”

It’s a miserable arrangement for the drone-like Baxter, but at least he’s doing better than the company’s elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (the perky Shirley MacLaine). Representative of a woman’s lowly status in the workplace, her awful job involves standing in a moving cubicle all day, jabbing buttons and routinely enduring sexual assault. “The characters you meet,” she complains to Baxter. “Something happens to men in elevators. Must be the change of altitude. The blood rushes to their head or something. I could tell you stories.”

At the top of the food chain is the two-faced Mr Sheldrake (the vaguely chilling Fred MacMurray). Once he gets wind of Baxter’s scheme, he talks disapprovingly of ‘rotten apples’ and the need to protect the company’s public image before demanding a piece of the action, too. And just like the rest, he sees women only in terms of his convenience.

“You see a girl a couple of times a week just for laughs and right away they think you’re gonna divorce your wife,” he tells Baxter. “Now I ask you: Is that fair?”

The Apartment is an intricately plotted, bitter-sweet, Oscar-winning triumph with its knowing dialogue and blunt depiction of cheating. Sadly, it brought Wilder’s sixteen-year run of brilliance to an end.

Dave Franklin also tries his hand at crime stuff such as Riders on the Storm and Other Killer Songs, although obviously with a good deal less delicacy

About Dave Franklin

Dismayed by the state of post-2000 cinema, Dave Franklin hasn't visited a movie house in more than a decade. He can usually be found in a dingy room dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, pining for the lost days of 70's cinema. Saying that, he will visit you for an appropriate fee to read excruciating excerpts from his novels.