Critiquing and analysing Billy Wilder films is a fool's errand for two reasons. The first is that so much has already been written assessing the intricacies of his work. The second is that Wilder wrote it all better the first time around. Further revisits only serve to dilute the purity of the work. But, I have been watching (and, in some cases, re-watching) selections from his library with my wife in an effort to bring her up to speed on (and to reacquaint myself with) the classics.
When we sat down to watch The Apartment (the first in our ongoing film history course), she confessed that she'd never set aside an evening to watch a black and white film on account of the fact that "they look boring". I assured her that The Apartment was anything but, and after two hours of rapt attention, she turned to me and breathlessly said, "You have to make movies that good".
After a pause, she added "and well".
She nailed it with that comment. The magic of Wilder is that he made good movies. And he made them well. If studying them can make us better at our job and the only price we have to pay is a bit of redundancy between essays, we're operating at a profit.
Wilder's mastery of the craft is never so explicitly on display as it is in Sunset Boulevard, our latest choice for a Wilder date. Some Like It Hot and The Apartment are crowd-pleasers top-to-bottom, but you get something deeper in Sunset Boulevard than you get in his other films. That ingredient is unfiltered, unapologetic commentary from Wilder himself.
The meta-textual nature of Sunset runs deep—deeper than anyone could hope to untangle in a single essay (indeed, there are entire books). The movie is a funhouse full of mirrors, simultaneously reflecting and warping life in Los Angeles. Reality almost seems to bend around the characters as they contend with the myth of Hollywood and eventually succumb, helpless victims to its impossibly glossy versions of success, love and fame.
On the surface, there's the story about Joe Gillis (William Holden), a down and out writer in desperate need of a buck or several hundred. He takes on a job with Norma (Gloria Swanson), a faded star of the silent era trapped in bitter denial of a retirement imposed on her by a fickle industry that had long since moved to talkies. Norma has scrawled out stacks of notes that she is convinced will mark her triumphant return to the screen and Joe positions himself as the writer who will help her pare it down into something saleable. This task finds him taking up residence with Norma and her butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim). From there, we learn that nothing is quite what it seems, and the depths of her reluctance to fade from the spotlight are boundless.
Underneath the surface film, there is another web of ideas that comes in endless callbacks to the silent era. Sunset keeps one foot firmly in the past, a necessary side-effect of Norma's insistence in doing the same. The movie that Norma and Joe watch is one of Swanson's silent era films, directed by von Stroheim. The photos that litter the mansion are Swanson's actual photos. Sometimes, the callbacks teeter into outright cynicism, like when he refers to Norma's small group of friends as "the waxworks" (included among them, Buster Keaton).
Wilder doesn't stop at old Hollywood. He also has a go at New Hollywood, the living breathing industry that Wilder was a highly respected member of. We see this most explicitly when Norma Desmond visits the Paramount lot and is either greeted as a saint or a kook, all depending on the age of the person she interacts with. Or when Gillis visits a producer buddy and listens to his secretary lambast the mediocrity of Joe's work, not even realising who the man is.
The layer that struck me as boldest though, even more than the story being told on the surface, is that of open hostility. Joe Gillis is pulling double duty throughout the film. He is at all times a surrogate for the audience, a dopey broke schlub in desperate need of a buck. He's also on screen representing everyone who's ever dreamed of a life of glamour and fame in Tinsel Town. Wilder is emphatic and explicit in his efforts to dash those dreams, to great effect.
This double-duty turn might be one of the cleverest in Wilder's career. The dialog in any great Wilder film positively crackles. Conversations move at a clip, with all characters displaying wit and presence of mind uncommon. Fun though it may be, it is peculiar, for example in The Apartment, to see an accountant and an elevator girl exchange barbs with the surgical precision of New York literary luminaries.
When Joe Gillis drops a perfectly penned quip, it makes perfect sense. Not only is he a writer, but all his friends are writers and it's only natural that he'd be deep in the habit of verbal one-upmanship. Joe lands as Wilder's most believable character, not just in this film but in any of his major hits. Most of the characters in his films play more like caricatures than people. However, Gillis is grounded in world-weary cynicism, a jaded crank hoping his dry wit is enough to cover the years of acerbic self-loathing.
That is not to say that there's a terrible amount of subtlety to Gillis, or anyone in the cast. The film is a large one, even though it mostly stays confined to a run-down mansion. From the plucky young writer who looks up to Gillis to the emotionally decaying (and decayed) Norma Desmond, everyone is larger than life. Ironically, Wilder finds the quietest complications in the loudest scenes.
The standout example of this is the scene in which Gillis breaks the tenderest heart in the film. The starry-eyed writer who admires Gillis (and is engaged to Gillis' writer friend) falls for him over their time together in the writing room. We-the-audience are rooting for him and the young writer Betty to find any sliver of happiness that they can hold onto in such a brutal town. If they can hold onto it together, all the better. Gillis knows he's too rotten to love the young writer, and that the industry is too rotten to make their relationship sustainable.
When he lets her down though, he doesn't do it gently. He uses every tool in his arsenal to devastate the girl. And he does so while Norma watches. It's a brilliant ploy that gives we-the-audience a choice - we can hate Gillis for being so heartless or we can praise him for being so clever. Through all the melodramatic fireworks, Gillis is doing more than breaking a heart. He's consciously giving the girl a villain to abhor. If they end up together, Gillis' cynicism will surely wear down her wide-eyed sense of wonder, not the other way around. If he rejects her, she can loathe him with every fibre of her body, and she might be able to stay her idealistic course and avoid the life of selfish compromises that Joe has come to embody.
It's all very subtle intellectual and emotional ju-jitsu playing out just beneath the surface while characters splash and thrash through the mansion in the broadest strokes of acting in a film full of such theatrical gestures.
All this adds up to what we already knew: Wilder is one of the greatest. His films are enduring classics, particularly fascinating to view from the current era of cinema. The landscape now is dominated by Transformers and Avengers, none of which would have been possible without the template set by Spielberg in the 80's and 90's. Of course, Spielberg is nothing if not a modern and more commercial version of Hitchcock who in turn was nothing more than a modern and more commercial version of Wilder. Gillis might be too bitter to respect the legacy that surrounds him—Wilder clearly isn't, though he is devious in the ways he pays homage to the 'waxworks'.
While I'm watching his films, I always imagine Wilder as a gap-tooth grinning, curly haired moppet poking his head out from behind the camera asking "Ain't I a stinker?" He is. His films were scandalous when they came out, perhaps because they were so forward thinking. His work is honest first and edgy second, and that alchemy leads to work that is, half a century later, more subversive than seems appropriate or even possible. His work feels revolutionary. He was on the edge of cinema then and is somehow still miles ahead of the competition.
By that measure, maybe he is worth studying and dissecting and analysing. Sure, there might be some redundancy, but if it gets us closer to making films at Wilder's level, then not only is a bit of redundancy a good thing, but it is also a good thing.