When Joseph McBride replied at some length to my questions about Irma la Douce and his commentary on a forthcoming Kino Lorber Bluray, I replied at length also. Here’s what I said:
“So unlike most critics, you’re not of the opinion that Billy Wilder peaked with Some Like It Hot, The Apartment and One, Two, Three? And that as a director he enjoyed two peak periods — his initial nine-year run (1944’s Double Indemnity to 1953’s Stalag 17) and then his seven-year run at the very top of his game, or between ’59 and ’66 (Some Like It Hot to The Fortune Cookie)?
“You believe, in other words, that Wilder’s decline period (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes through Buddy Buddy) wasn’t about ‘decline’ as much as a commercially downspiraling artistic growth period, or something along those lines?
“Wilder’s first peak period began with his auteurist breakthrough via Double Indemnity (’44) and The Lost Weekend (’45). He greatly strengthened his hand with Sunset Boulevard, (’50) and then was dealt a stunning commercial setback with the release of Ace in the Hole. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always believed that the commercial failure of Ace, not to mention a consensus that he’d succumbed to an overly hard-bitten, overly acidic tone, all but stopped Wilder in his tracks.
“I’m saying that Ace in the Hole either persuaded or forced Wilder to become a humorous, light-hearted, mainstream director-for-hire after Stalag 17, which ironically was quite the critical and commercial success, opened in mid ’53.
Background: “Wilder began working on Stalag 17 sometime after the original B’way play version began its run in March 1951. I don’t know the precise logline, but Wilder’s Paramount-supported involvement was probably concurrent with the opening of Ace in the Hole in July ’51. He began shooting Stalag in February of ’52 and presumably wrapped the usual eight or ten weeks later.
“According to Peter Graves ‘the film was held from release for over a year due to Paramount Pictures not believing anyone would be interested in seeing a film about prisoners of war…the 1953 release of American POWs from the Korean War led Paramount to release it on an exploitation angle.’
Back to letter: “For whatever reasons, perhaps best known by yourself and other Wilder scholars or perhaps just due to the bland mentality of the Eisenhower ’50s, Wilder’s first auteur phase ended with Stalag 17 or at least was put on hiatus for a five-year, five-film period from ’53 to ’58.
“During this time Wilder became a dutiful, well-employed commercial director of mainstream material — a proficient creator of three sophisticated adult sex comedies (Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch and Love in the Afternoon), one snap-crackling courtroom drama (Witness for the Prosecution) and one fairly longish, not wildly innovative but emotionally affecting biopic about Charles Lindbergh (The Spirit of St. Louis).
“And then somehow the fevered auteurist was re-awakened or re-born, and Wilder became the dynamo behind phase #2 with an inspired, highly-charged six-film run — Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, One, Two Three (among my personal faves), Irma la Douce, Kiss Me Stupid and The Fortune Cookie.
“Cookie was critically successful, an award-season contender (Walter Matthau won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Whiplash Willy) and a modest financial success, but in the mid ’60s the grand era of Wilder being the nervy, ahead-of-the-culture cynic came to an end.
“The tumultuous cultural upheavals of the ’60s either outflanked him or smothered his spirit or perhaps tainted his instincts (or a combination of all three), but suddenly Wilder was the older fellow whose creative vision had peaked in the ’40s and ’50s but was now losing his knack or his touch, or was generally starting to deflate and drain out.
“Wilder either went blank or couldn’t get anything going for four years, and then, with nowhere else to go, his bitter romantic period kicked in, and he wound up making five films over an 11-year period. Two of these were thematically substantial (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Fedora) but without that trademark Wilder zing.
“Avanti! (’72) was a serving of warm European froth — nostalgic, second-tier Wilder with a predictable arc. The Front Page (’74) was a tired rehash with a way-too-old Lemmon playing Hildy and Matthau as Walter Burns. And Buddy Buddy, his swan song, was just a failure all around. And that was it — Wilder was done. For the last 20 years of his life he couldn’t get anything made.”
McBride’s response: “I believe Wilder made some of his best films in his neglected late period, including The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti!, two gems that are among his most romantic films; the latter is his most Lubitschean and one of the most successful homages to Lubitsch made by any director.
“I am also wild about the much-maligned, acerbically satirical (and yet also perversely romantic) Kiss Me, Stupid, which inaugurated what most reviewers, and Hollywood, regarded as his period of decline; that is still the consensus, unfortunately.
“Among American reviewers, only Joan Didion understood Kiss Me, Stupid at the time, writing in Vogue that Wilder “is not a funnyman but a moralist, a recorder of human venality…the Wilder world is one seen at dawn through a hangover, a world of cheap double entendre and stale smoke and drinks in which the ice has melted: the true country of despair.”
“François Truffaut, who had not been much of a Wilder fan in the ’50s, liked that film a lot too, so there you are.
“There is a cult of Kiss Me, Stupid and Avanti! among hardcore Wilder enthusiasts, of whom I am one. It is shocking that the man who made so many great films was relegated to what amounted to internal exile for the last twenty-one years of his life, not allowed to make films as Hollywood collapsed around him.
“Wilder was bitter but philosophical, saying he wouldn’t want to be in touch with those times, and telling me in the final days of his career, ‘What good is it being a marvelous composer of polkas if nobody dances the polka anymore? It’s too soft, you know. Unless there is a man jumping out of the 76th floor with his ass afire, unless there is a wreck of 64 automobiles hit by a 747, they will not drop the popcorn bag.’
“That pretty much predicted not only 9/11 but also the nihilistic Michael Bay mentality that has governed mainstream American movies as a once-great industry has turned into makers of junkyard trash.”