Billy Wilder
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes, Movies

wilder

Though it has received uncountable encomiums, the genius of BILLY WILDER (1906–2002) remains misunderstood. The overlooked Five Graves to Cairo (1943), for example, Wilder’s second American film as writer/director is — like the contemporaneous The Moon Is Down — a remarkable war movie about the psychology of occupation. If no praise exceeds Double Indemnity’s achievement, please don’t call it “film noir,” which French-invented pseudo-form didn’t exist in 1944. Non. Celebrate instead a superior crime novel made into a likewise superior film, a feat only The Friends of Eddie Coyle equals. Conversely, while Lost Weekend (1945) has its advocates, it’s both lesser Wilder and a diminution of Charles Jackson’s bleak but brilliantly nuanced novel. Far more inventive is A Foreign Affair (1948), wherein Wilder — the Austrian-Jewish exile intimate with the Holocaust dead — reenters occupied Berlin with Marlene Dietrich his post-Nazi muse; couple this with the Cold War corporate satire One, Two, Three (1961) and we’re well within rocket distance of predicting Gravity’s Rainbow’s seriocomic acuities. Though Sunset Boulevard (1950) was a deserved triumph, Wilder’s next masterpiece, Ace In The Hole (1951), flopped. Slick, febrile newspaperman Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) plots his big city comeback from stifling Albuquerque. When hard-luck gas station owner Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) gets trapped in cliff-side Indian ruins, his Tatum-choreographed rescue becomes a national sensation; a local carnival; the perfect country-western theme song:

We’re comin’, we’re comin’ Leo
So Leo don’t despair
While you’re in the cave-in hopin’
We’re up above you gropin’
And soon we’ll make an openin’, Leo…

FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO

DOUBLE INDEMNITY

ACE IN THE HOLE

ONE, TWO, THREE


***

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Green Gartside, Todd Rundgren, Octavia E. Butler, Schoolly D, Félix Fénéon, David Rees, Kris Kristofferson.

READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.