Post image for Film Commentary: BILLY WILDER’S OEUVRE TOTAL, PART VIII

by Jason Rohrer on November 18, 2016

in Film


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[Editor’s Note: Oeuvre Total is a film-discussion series. The first exchange concerns Billy Wilder, and our contributors are producer Michael Holland and critic Jason Rohrer. Stage and Cinema republished the original seven entries begun at Bitter Lemons and offer this brand new post following Part VII by Mr. Holland.]

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To turn James Street’s sweet story into the mordant script for Nothing Sacred, David O. Selznick employed every cynic but Diogenes and Billy Wilder. Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner Jr, Budd Schulberg and Dorothy Parker made contributions (but so did Kaufman and Hart, so the comedy’s not all unleavened).

In a movie that chicken-fries institutions as tough and stringy as medicine, journalism and the Girl Scouts, Fredric March exploits tragedy to make Carole Lombard a star. Beautiful, young, stricken with incurable malady, she inspires millions to emulate her courage and resolve. Hard-boiled March hands her the keys to the city and to his broken heart before somebody tumbles him: She’s not dying. She’s a goof.

It’s a movie, so it can’t disillusion those in the story in love with Lombard, let alone those in the theater in love with Lombard in love with March. Nor, of course, can it let Lombard off the hook. It’s a movie. She’s lucky she’s in a 1938 screwball and not a 1947 noir: For profane hucksterism along Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power is sentenced to bite the heads off chickens. Nothing Sacred lets Lombard off with a good thrashing around the bedroom, followed by banishment to a South Seas honeymoon while the suckers mourn her “suicide.”

Hollywood is a byword for the fact that truth is a hard sell. Movies are not epic poems or bible verses or textbooks. They are movies. They talk about things a certain way; they do not talk about things a certain way. They are movies.

Are there things you can’t make a Hollywood movie about?

Take genocide. Please.

The first danger of setting a movie amid an historical atrocity is aesthetic: Does your story carry dramatic weight enough to avoid insignificance in the shade of enormity? No matter how “true,” can your spiel on the unspeakable justify the exploitation of real suffering to sell movie tickets?

It’s a question with lots of potential right answers. Sacred doesn’t mean untouchable or irreproachable. It means that to touch the god you’ve got to get over a very high bar. And if you fall, you fall in ignominy. Hubris, they call it.

The more a movie costs, the more it needs to turn a profit, and the more compromises are asked of it. The Academy Awards honor exactly this cost-benefit analysis, so most of the time A-list Hollywood treats the most sensitive subjects with didactic austerity. If you’re gonna win a Serious Movie statue, one of the ones that can hold open a patio door, it’s safer to be stoic about mass murder.

Even the best can go all the way oblique. To keep In Cold Blood in good taste, Richard Brooks so honors the lives of awful people that the picture has always been a seventh-period civics class to sit through. It still didn’t win a single trophy from the Academy. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, or James Cameron’s Titanic, are more typical examples: Thousands of dead people and a martyr each elevated these dumb spectacles to the top of the awards heap. They won 15 Oscars between them, mostly for keeping a straight face and making a lot of money.

With notable exceptions, movies that manage not to trivialize factual horror tend not to be movies, really, in the sense of pleasantly exercising the emotions and intellect. Serious movies don’t have to hurt, but like any art they change us in the process of comprehension. Where movie-movies like Titanic try to make us feel for the people in the story, art makes us question our world.

In this sense, 12 Years a Slave is hardly a movie at all. Steve McQueen and John Ridley offer little plot or character between them, and their film provides a cinematic reaction to injustice valuable beyond the scope of its mechanics and politics. Compare its resonance to that of Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, or Lincoln, or Schindler’s List, or Lawrence of Arabia: movie-movies engineering history as endorphin delivery system.

Big studio hitmakers can make the greatest histories. In between Matt Damon shoot-em-ups, Paul Greengrass has made a couple of political terrorism verites that illustrate the hairline between a Schindler’s List and an investigation sans string section. Bloody Sunday and United 93 certainly exploit the human cost of the Derry Massacre and of 9/11. Such movies do thrill, in the sense that it is electrifying to be swept up by question and circumstance. But they avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of propaganda and cinematic remove, and in a real sense they do not entertain. The audience is moved, perhaps to action, but never allowed to escape into sentiment or fantasy projection. 12 Years a Slave was atypical in that such movies don’t usually get Oscars.

Billy Wilder got six of them with his name engraved; his movies won a lot more. He was a big studio hitmaker who didn’t do a lot of historical epics, and those he made (Spirit of St Louis and Emperor Waltz) were not very good. He won his statues making personal stories about characters, not bigger-than-life roadshows about events. Wilder never treated the Holocaust directly. He was smarter than that. In Double Indemnity and The Apartment he explores the themes of fascist prejudice with nary a helmet or jackboot.

For decades
, Wilder fans have gnashed their teeth over his lost opportunity to direct Schindler’s List. Spelunking that rabbit hole of what-ifs requires a big shovel or a small dog.

Every examination of an artist’s work should consider what he didn’t do, too, and we can only get to that by looking at what he did. Since its ostensible protagonist is a war profiteer operating within a Nazi prison, Stalag 17 is as near as Wilder came to shooting a Schindler’s List-type epic, and only on these grounds, I think, is it worth investigating.

Stalag 17 congratulates itself in the opening voiceover for being a movie about POWs. The narrator tells us that such movies are rare, but this is no endorsement. Movies about plumbers also are uncommon. But I’ll give Stalag 17 one prop: It’s not The Great Escape.

And yet it is. Just like John Sturges’ Escape ten years later, and Hogan’s Heroes on CBS a couple years after that, Stalag 17 is a Hollywood heist story using Nazi guards as comic relief. In the Wilder version as in the sitcom, the prisoners too deliver constant Werner Klemperer-level character bits to stir a claustrophobic closed system in which Nazis are fun to outsmart. You know what? Give me back The Great Escape. Insulting, tedious, at least it has exciting bits. And it ends with Nazis killing all the interesting people, which is the truest thing a thriller can say about Nazism.

The bulk of Stalag 17 is so tangential that you can chart the plot entire from the first twenty minutes and the final twenty – those parts are a “who’s the traitor” mole hunt. For the other eighty minutes Stalag doesn’t know whether it’s Buck Privates or They Were Expendable or It’s a Wonderful Life. I love a good Christmas movie but, though he can be intensely human, Wilder is no good at schmaltz. He tries often to pull off sentimentalism. He always merely condescends. Lacking the sympathy of Capra or Wyler, he has no ear for it.

Stalag‘s hijinks fall flat under the weight of actual Nazism, too. The gravity of inhumanity is repeatedly undercut to lighten the mood in a sloppy script by Wilder and Edwin Blum that retains most of Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski’s play. After a mess of episodic digressions, to which Wilder and Blum add an awkward structural framework (periodically the narrator says “I guess I should tell you about X”), there’s suddenly some synchronize-your-watches action when Holden realizes at minute ninety what was announced at the beginning: These Nazis are pretty serious. We’d better fight the war.

Slapstick that might have been poignant does not land in this realist universe. Wilder’s famous antipathy for style is a canard – Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot are packed with flourishes emulated to this day. Wilder the director was competent within the bounds of realism, a style he foisted on several scripts – including Stalag 17‘s – that would have been better served otherwise. His direction is limited to two speeds, breathless and boring, and a Wilder movie is never more or less energetic than its script.

Stalag 17 wasn’t the kind of thing Wilder was good at. In twenty-five American pictures, Wilder shot three or four marvels as good as Hollywood gets at tendering human frailty. His most profound films are not idiosyncratic or difficult. They are Hollywood movies. They work as entertainments.

By 1983, Billy Wilder would never make another movie. Dumped like Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim before him, he hadn’t had a hit in ten years, a big one in fifteen. Hollywood wasn’t calling back anymore. He was selling off million-dollar paintings for something to do. And then he read Thomas Keneally’s Oscar-bait based-on-a-true-story potboiler Schindler’s List.

A slick schemer whose moral crisis saves a thousand Jews? Jesus Christ, Schindler was born for the Billy Wilder treatment. Wilder was very good at Hollywood’s favorite moral nuance, the redemption of good guys who do basically evil things until they just can’t anymore. Stalag 17 had that, but he had better source material this time. Plus, of course, Wilder’s family was decimated by the very hangman Schindler cheats. He’d really have to screw up not to get back in the game with this one.

The poetry of double revenge against Berlin and Los Angeles must have appealed to his broken-gimlet heart. Wilder grabbed his wallet and headed straight for the film rights, but Spielberg got there first. MCA had bought the story for the hotter hitmaker back when it was called Schindler’s Ark.

The book
had been Universal property for a year by the time Wilder tried to buy it, and over the next decade it fidgeted in Spielberg’s off hand. For quite awhile Spielberg thought he would produce it and hire a director. Wilder was rebuffed, then had to watch Roman Polanski turn down the job. Martin Scorsese and Sidney Pollack came in and out. Wilder seems never to have been considered a realistic option.

And finally Spielberg decided to make a really serious movie himself. The Color Purple was 7 years old, and what lavish Eastmancolor production values could do for the stark imagery of Alice Walker, Spielberg had done, and won no Oscar. An older, more practiced Spielberg would now apply the same machinery to Schindler, only in black and white – for European Jewry, a seriously serious movie.

How serious? Spielberg warns us by substituting place cards for expositional action:

September 1939, the German forces defeated the Polish Army in two weeks.

Jews were ordered to register all family members and relocate to major cities. More than
10,000 Jews from the countryside arrive in Krakow daily.

Immediately the movie pays lax attention to punctuation and verb tense, and the exposition cards remain casually ungrammatical throughout. Moral ground is lost one clod at a time.

A bigger warning is the very presence of place cards. Remember the one at the beginning of Jaws:

Amity, New York. 1975.

And the exposition cards throughout:

The shark ate a beautiful girl.

The mayor opposed closing the beaches.

The town hired a fisherman.

No? You don’t remember those?


Notice what else is missing from the story of Nazis killing 3 million Jews in Poland: Nazis killing 3 million non-Jews in Poland. True, those 3 million aren’t in the story Spielberg’s telling. That’s a moral and an artistic choice.

Spielberg’s moments are crafted with one of the biggest tool boxes in directing history. The man knows all about what to put in a shot. But when’s the last time he made an entire movie as of-a-piece, as artistically honest, as morally uncompromised, as spiritually open, as nuanced, as forgiving, as efficient, as generous to our intelligence as, say, Sunset Boulevard? 1987? 1977? Ever?

But structurally, Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is solid work. And for an hour, Spielberg’s direction is sumptuously right. In the character-study first half, in our intimacy with a jaded carpetbagger and a blasé executioner and the political machine in which they function, the movie realizes almost as much human truth as the Mission:Impossible second half can negate. If the rest of the movie were this sharp in detail, this deft and elliptical in its tones, it could boast what Roger Ebert felt compelled to ascribe: “a single-mindedness to the enterprise that is awesome.”

Michael Holland and I like to quote Ebert as a common standard in critical thinking on popular culture. It’s much the same standard that holds Billy Wilder in higher regard than, say, I do: Roger Ebert liked Wilder, and he really liked Schindler’s List. He called it “a series of incidents, seen clearly and without artificial manipulation.”

It’s hard to know what to do with a statement like that about a movie.

A Sturm und Drang of symbolic reverie juxtaposes a child’s corpse in a blood-red coat against black-and-white Nazi carnage, a motif within which the hero undergoes a grand mal seizure of personal transformation. Underscored by John Williams in THX, this motif divides character and story with a line in livid color between Evil and Good: Before, a corrupt sensualist; after, an Orpheus descending into Auschwitz to rescue slaves under a ticking clock.

“Without the tricks of his trade, the directorial and dramatic contrivances that would inspire the usual melodramatic payoffs, Spielberg is not visible in this film.” Jackbooted into comprehension, Ebert sees an invisible man. Shown exactly why Schindler changed his ways – the very date and hour of his beatification – Ebert says it’s a question Spielberg “does not even attempt to answer.”

Ebert uses the word “melodrama” several times too to prove melodrama isn’t what he’s talking about. It’s especially pathetic because he got the whole thing backward. The test of historical art is not whether events happened as presented but whether a truth is presented in these details. It is not Spielberg who confuses fact with truth. He knows what he’s doing by putting Schindler front-and-center, gathering children in his arms to keep them from the dogs and guns. These are conscious choices of what to put in the frame. It’s Ebert who perversely uses history to deny the artifice in Spielberg’s lens.

This is most people’s highest aspiration to philosophy: Successful avoidance of critical thinking in order to win a point. America’s critic once praised a four-year-old for being able to follow E.T. while praising E.T. for being accessible to a four-year-old. Some people will say anything.

By 1993 – by 1983 – Spielberg does not trust us to see outside the frame of dogma, and with critics like Ebert I can’t entirely blame him. Restraint is not what I see in Spielberg’s denouement. Watching real Schindler legatees posed at Schindler’s grave, I do feel an “enormous emotional impact,” but on me it is as a bag of gold teeth flung from a speeding Mercedes.

Can you call it fascism, if Spielberg and Ebert and the Hollywood they serve all just happen to prefer the aesthetics of coercion? Artistic fascism = propaganda = that overwhelming enforcement of vision you find in Thomas Kinkade and Nicholas Sparks and Steven Spielberg? Call it what you like. Most of the biggest hits have it. The Bible has it: We may disagree about interpretation, but not about the Word. Fascism is a mandate born of fear. It’s a lack of confidence that makes politicians of poets, that disallows wriggle room, that slaps us across the face and forces us over the bed. We may go along with it. We may like it. But it didn’t give us any choice. Free will will always be the test of truth.

So: What if the anarchist Billy Wilder had got the gig instead?

Imagine that
back in 1990 Michael Crichton drew a picture of a robot on a paper towel, or Spielberg decided he was just too young to spend a year in Eastern Europe. Or maybe he got worried the Polish government would give Universal a hard time about hosting a bunch of Jews (it didn’t; the official Polish attitude toward the chosen people has probably never been less ambivalent than when Universal was spending all that money in Krakow).

Let’s say Wilder phoned Spielberg for the thirty-fifth time on an afternoon when he was a soft target. He’d had the day to himself and he’d been thinking about his dad, and the greatest generation, and he got nostalgic and silly and screened 1941 just for himself. And it didn’t work; stuff he remembered being happy with, he now wished he could do again; the tone was all wrong; Jesus, he really let down on that one. He wanted to go see his dad and take him to a movie. And the phone rings and Billy Wilder is on the phone, and in a gush of paternal transference he gives him Schindler’s List.

To direct.

Because with the full bankroll of a Spielberg production behind it, Schindler would not have been written by Wilder and partners entirely of his choosing. Besides being dead, I.A.L. Diamond wasn’t a hot writer anymore. Wilder certainly would have been allowed to massage Steven Zaillian’s Spielberg script, with its down-to-the-wire angst-action sequences. Possibly Zaillian or Amistad’s David Franzoni would have been hired to massage Wilder’s…but Wilder didn’t write alone. Regardless, by 1990 the story and plot would have had parameters not necessarily Wilder’s.

How would he have handled it? What Wilder wrote with one-off collaborators usually fails basic tests. None of the pace, therefore none of the comedy or drama, of Wilder’s best efforts is in the madcap of Stalag 17, for instance, because the script just lies there devoid of progressive action for most of the running time. We aren’t intimate enough with any active character to afford a study or an arc. And as in many Wilder efforts the physical derring-do is inexpert, neither gripping nor interesting. Advantage Spielberg.

Wilder’s ace in the hole is exactly that clumsiness with in-camera style and trickery. He had the ability in his frustration sometimes to transcend his shortcomings through purity of vision, a trick that Spielberg, in his great facility, lost early.

Fuck it. Let’s say that circa 1990, after ten years of nobody talking to him, out of practice, 85 years old, Wilder got along as famously with Zaillian (writing as producer Spielberg’s proxy; how unenviable to be caught between behemoths!) as he ever did with Diamond or Charles Brackett. Let’s say they wrote exactly the script Wilder would have written with Diamond.

Fuck it all: Let’s say Spielberg let Wilder make a Wilder movie. Producer Spielberg tends to make his directors all look alike – Tobe Hooper went from Texas Chain Saw‘s drive-in grit to Poltergeist‘s multiplex gloss in one giant leap of budget and oversight. But let’s say producer Spielberg had too much respect for Billy Wilder to give him the Robert Zemeckis treatment.

Let’s say that instead of the guy who made E.T., the guy who made Sunset Boulevard had written and directed a Schindler’s List as good as his best films.

  1. Wilder would have made a more personal and human movie than Spielberg trusted himself to make. For starters, it would not use exposition cards because Wilder would know that’s a thing for stupid audiences that can’t be trusted to follow a James Bond movie. It’s a device that could make it into a Wilder movie only as an irony. No Wilder movie types words across the concurrent imagery it describes. Wilder’s Schindler would be more conscious of its responsibilities.
  1. And it would reflect Wilder’s mistrust of the sacrosanct. A character who undergoes a sea change is always suspect. Wilder’s Schindler would not be limited to Thomas Keneally’s Schindler nor to Schindler himself. Wilder’s Schindler would remain complex and conflicted even at the end. He would still carouse between attempts to stop the bodies burning. After spending all his money rescuing Jews from hell he would resent the necessary curtailing of his drinking and womanizing. He would not be a saint, because Wilder never met one.
  1. Wilder would have made a movie less self-conscious about good and evil, less concerned with dramatic schism, more interested in its people. Aware of his stylistic limitations, he would relegate the girl in the red coat to a single appearance, alive, and the impact on Schindler would play outside a theatrical motif, slowly, in a realistic psychological build paying off in a surprise instead of a foregone conclusion.
  1. Wilder’s movie would be funnier than Spielberg’s, not just gallows humor but a recognition of the situation’s inherent absurdity. Fearless humanity would get Wilder over the moral mountain Spielberg built a road around.
  1. But Wilder’s individual scenes would not be any better than most of Spielberg’s. Spielberg knows everything Wilder ever knew about camera and scene and composition, more about timing, at least as much about actors.
  1. And Wilder’s movie would be no scarier; nobody’s better at in-the-moment peril than Spielberg. But Wilder would have none of the shocking violence Spielberg employs to get his point across. Wilder famously couldn’t imagine how to photograph Linda Blair peeing in The Exorcist, so, no close-ups of people getting shot in the head for his Schindler. He would shoot the Auschwitz shower sequence with the same menace Spielberg achieves, but it wouldn’t occur to him to brutalize the audience by dehumanizing beautiful nude women. It’s not in his moviemaking wheelhouse. Wilder learned a very different lesson from editing concentration-camp Jews than Spielberg did from watching them.
  1. Wilder on his best day would have made a less pompous movie, less impressed with itself. It would not feature footage of its true story’s grateful inheritors gathered at a grave in Israel. Wilder’s best movies have no roadshow distemper; their bookends encompass tight stories. His Schindler’s List would be an hour shorter than Spielberg’s, despite the three-and-change he turned in on Sherlock Holmes. He would be sharper than that, on his best day.
  1. Wilder would show Schindler failing at business after the war, falling action Spielberg types on a card. I think Wilder would end with Schindler thirty years on, an aged alcoholic swindler living in one room on contributions from the Jews whose lives he’d saved. That’s more the truth and it’s more the fact, too, than pictures of a real grave in the rocky soil of the Promised Land.
  1. But Wilder the writer still would not be able to resist framing the book’s inherent melodrama as a ticking-clock entertainment.
  1. Wilder the director still would limit himself to cold, flat realism. And his Schindler’s List still would still be a gauche gesture in that it still would be a thriller about the Holocaust.

Less patronizing, more restrained, more impactful perhaps, it still would have been just a movie.

It’s very
well to say, as Michael Holland does in Part III of our series, that Spielberg and Wilder are working artists, that you can’t paint the Giaconda every time. Very well and true. But count historical value in terms of history. Most of Billy Wilder’s history went into making technically proficient entertainments of better-than-average intelligence, which is one qualification more than can be paid to Spielberg. To say that Wilder is no mediocrity is not to say that his work is uniformly great, or even a quarter of it.

It means something to elevate a body of work with the highest praise; it means something not to the artist but to the rest of us, to our clear vision of the world around. We have to know why we like what we like, what roles personality and circumstance play in our tastes. We have to identify and isolate the trick from the trade.

I don’t fault Wilder for not being anybody else. I’m grateful he’s not Spielberg.

In fact
let’s say Wilder got to Keneally first. It’s not such a stretch; if not as well-connected as he had been, Wilder was enormously rich. Money talks. Let’s say a 75 year old Wilder was Johnny-on-the-spot with the rights, beating out all of Spielberg’s agents. Let’s say he propped I.A.L. Diamond at a typewriter while he barked. Let’s say Wilder still had his best day writing, producing and directing Schindler’s List as his own boss in the early 1980s:

Same movie.

Diamond would have agreed, as he did so many times, that lively melodrama like The Apartment was the right tone for Wilder to direct with earnest realism. Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger mode as the Nazi industrialist, Walter Matthau a la Fail-Safe as the Nazi butcher. Gripping, heroic. Only it’s still a melodrama about the Holocaust, with thriller elements.

Let’s say Wilder and Diamond heard about Schindler from the same Beverly Hills Schindler Jew who later told Keneally, only back in 1960 when Wilder and Diamond were hot properties and the Schindler story belonged to MGM, with Casablanca‘s Howard Koch attached to write. Wilder and Diamond and Koch at the top of their game:

Same movie. Lemmon as Schindler the scumbag hero, Fred MacMurray as Göth the greedy villain. It’s probably funnier with Koch onboard. It’s still a melodramatic thriller about the Holocaust.

Hitchcock would have been a better choice.

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Oeuvres Total, to date:

Part I by Michael Holland
Part II by Jason Rohrer
Part III by Michael Holland
Part IV by Jason Rohrer
Part V by Michael Holland
Part VI by Jason Rohrer
Part VII by Mr. Holland

Part IX coming soon…

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