I’m always astonished when directors can make movie after movie with hardly any breaks. That’s very rare these days, with development often taking many years and pre- and post-production getting longer and longer. Even people like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, who make movies left and right, can usually do only one every 18-24 months. But back in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, some filmmakers, auteurs even, were churning out movies at an incredible clip. Two filmmakers, who made completely different types of movies, but made over a movie per year each for a 15 year span, were Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. It was neck and neck for them during the ’50s. And who did it better? Well, that’s for another day.
I’ve already talked about Hitchcock, but I love Wilder almost as much, and narrowing down a list of seven favorites was nearly as hard. But here, friends, are my Top 7 Billy Wilder movies.
7) One, Two, Three (1961)
This is one that’s not as well-remembered as some of his others, but I’ve seen One, Two, Three a few times now and above all, it cracks me right up. Wilder did most of his writing with a partner, and a lot of his comedies, this one included, were done with the partnership of I.A.L. Diamond. The two of them wrote some of the fastest, wittiest, and razor-sharpest dialogue scenes in film history. This movie finds the great James Cagney as the Coca-Cola representative in East Germany during the Cold War. He’s tasked with keeping the company president’s daughter happy and safe, but she happens to meet and fall in love with an angry, militant Bolshevik (Horst Buchholz). Zaniness, guess what, ensues. Wilder, being a Polish expat, had a lot to say about Europe following World War II, and the U.S. for that matter, and this movie is a perfect outlet for that.
6) Ace in the Hole (1951)
Completely shifting gears, this is a drama about a seedy, out-for-glory newspaper reporter (played by Kirk Douglas) who was once a big shot in the city but has since fallen on hard times and is stuck working for a paper in Albuquerque. He sees his chance to get fame again when a miner is stuck in a cave collapse and he fudges events and even hinders attempts to get the man out so he can milk the ordeal for all its worth. But it gets out of hand, as so many of these things do. Wilder was able to shift his directing style to fit the movies he was telling, which is a rare gift. Whereas his comedies were usually shot and staged like plays, his dramas had all kinds of camera tricks and interesting angles. And when you have a main character this shady, it’s easy to cover him in shadow too.
5) Stalag 17 (1953)
Speaking of movies being like plays, this one was based on a play, one with a large cast, but Wilder managed to shoot it very cinematically and turned it into one of the best P.O.W. movies ever made, along with John Sturges’ The Great Escape a decade later. Unlike that movie, this one is half comedy/half mystery. The comedy bits are very big and broad, the way Wilder liked them, feeling a lot like a Hogan’s Heroes episode, but the mystery is a lot more interesting. When two of the captured Air Force pilots attempt to escape, they’re found immediately and killed. But the plan was fool proof? Someone must have dropped the dime on them, and all signs point to the camp’s getter of contraband, Sgt. Sefton (William Holden, in a role that won him an Oscar). Also, look out for a young Peter Graves and Richard Erdman (you know, Leonard from Community) as other prisoners in the camp.
4) Sunset Blvd. (1950)
This was the movie William Holden and most other people THOUGHT he should have won the Oscar for. One of the best Films-Noir ever made, Wilder and his writers have the film an interesting convention, even for the narratively complex genre: Holden’s lead character, and this isn’t a spoiler because you know it at the beginning of the movie, is shot dead and he narrates for us from beyond the grave just how he got there. He was a struggling screenwriter who takes a job by eccentric former silent film starlet Norma Desmond to bring her back into the spotlight she’s convinced has never gone dim on her. But, she’s out of her mind, which makes things more difficult. Still, the writer needs the money so he continues, and gets pulled further and further into her sick and twister world of living in the past. Desmond is played by actual silent film star Gloria Swanson, in horrifyingly wonderful manner, and her butler Max is is played by German silent film director Erich Von Stroheim. This is a brilliant movie.
3) Some Like It Hot (1959)
Few comedies are as raucous as this one, nor are rom-coms, at which Wilder excelled, quite this romantic. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play a couple of jazz musicians who witness a murder carried out by a notorious gangster, played by ’40s crime picture icon George Raft. In order to escape getting the same fate (since witnesses are bad for business), the two musicians decide to dress as women and get jobs playing in an all-female traveling revue. Curtis’ character begins to fall in love with the bubbly Marilyn Monroe, because who wouldn’t, and he has to invent a rich yachtsman persona to try and woo her. Meanwhile, Lemmon’s female counterpart begins to be courted by an actual millionaire, played by ’30s sex comedy star Joe E. Brown. It’s one of the funniest of Wilder’s movies, and has a killer of a third act.
2) The Lost Weekend (1945)
This is a movie that’s sort of tough to watch, especially if you know anyone with a drinking problem. It’s easily Wilder’s heaviest drama, and one that required a perfect lead performance to be pulled off. It got one. Ray Milland plays Don Birnham, a seemingly jovial drinker who sinks deeper and deeper into despair during four days of boozing, womanizing, ruining relationships, and getting the crap kicked out of him. Wilder has him start out the movie being like that guy who’s fun at parties and end up being that guy nobody wants around. There’s also a particularly wonderful sequence toward the end of the movie when Birnham is forced to sober up and Wilder visually represents the horrors and agony of the DTs. This is a harrowing movie, but one that absolutely deserved the Oscars it won for Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture.
There’s quite a few other great Billy Wilder movies that I do love that didn’t make this list. Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, Witness for the Prosecution, and The Fortune Cookie are all really terrific films. And the movie you’re probably angry at me for not including is 1960’s The Apartment, which won Wilder another set of Best Screenplay, Director, and Picture Oscars, but I find it really mean-spirited, and while it’s impossible to argue with its quality, if I’m talking about my favorites, it wouldn’t make it. What DOES make it, with a bullet (or a few) is…
1) Double Indemnity (1944)
I think this is a perfect movie, and Wilder’s best film, in my opinion. It’s got everything that makes a great Film Noir: a killer plot, fantastic characters, a lot of tension, and murder out the yin yang. Fred MacMurray plays insurance salesman Walter Neff who becomes infatuated with Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck in a weird wig. She’s married to an old, rich bastard and the two of them cook up a scheme to bump him off for insurance money by signing him up for a big new policy that pays DOUBLE in the event of death by strange accident. Now all they have to do is stage that strange accident. It’s the perfect plan, but things get complicated when Neff’s best friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a doggedly persistent investigator with the company, can’t shake the gut feeling that something isn’t quite right. And it gets even worse when Neff and Phyllis start to grow suspicious of each other trying to take all the money. This is a brilliant and wonderful film with some superb hardboiled dialogue, courtesy of Wilder and co-writer Raymond Chandler who adapted James M. Cain’s short story. That’s some hefty Noir pedigree and, for me, it’s the best in the genre.
And there you have it, friends! My favorite Billy Wilder movies. Let me know yours in the comments below, try not to yell at me too much, and check these seven out if you haven’t yet seen them.