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The Reactionary Utopian (classic)
September 2, 2010

Wilder and His Betters
A classic by Joseph Sobran
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ARLINGTON, VA — Billy Wilder's death at 95 summoned generous eulogies, and most of them rang true. He was an excellent writer-director, one of Hollywood's rare originals. At his best — in perhaps a dozen of his many films — he displayed a caustic wit unusual in that sentimental, formulaic medium. And who else in the film industry could have produced movies as different as DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE APARTMENT?

I use these two movies as illustrations for a specific reason: both of them cast the same comic actor as a villain, to brilliant effect. His name, of course, is Fred MacMurray, best remembered for the warm sitcom MY THREE SONS. In DOUBLE INDEMNITY he plots with Barbara Stanwyck to murder her husband in order to collect on a phony insurance policy; if there is anything implausible about this red-hot plot, it's the idea that a man could even imagine living happily ever after with Stanwyck. But the plot twists make you overlook that; anyway, the irresistible desirability of a wicked dame is a given of the film noir genre, which Wilder never returned to despite this great success.

In THE APARTMENT, a bittersweet comedy more in keeping with Wilder's other work, MacMurray plays a philandering business executive who cynically uses his mistress, played by Shirley MacLaine, and breaks her heart. Would anyone but Wilder have had the insight to see how perfect this light comedian could be in both these heavy roles?

Wilder's other successes show his versatility: THE LOST WEEKEND, SUNSET BOULEVARD, STALAG 17, SOME LIKE IT HOT, and THE FORTUNE COOKIE. But his failures could also leave a bad taste. IRMA LA DOUCE, an attempt at a "sophisticated" European-style sex farce, is disgusting in conception and made worse by Jack Lemmon's foolish performance. Wilder, a European Jewish refugee, was refreshing in his wry disdain for Hollywood banality, yet he could sometimes combine cynicism with his own kind of bathos — an unhappy mixture.

Like most people I love movies; but just because they are so popular we make too much of them as an art form. We tend to forget that the very nature of the genre is inhospitable to genius. The greatest painter needs only a canvas and paint; the greatest poet needs only a pen and paper. But a movie requires, in the first place, a lot of money and so many talents that it's not altogether clear who deserves chief credit for the final result — actors, director, writer, producer?

The public usually goes to see the actors, the "stars." But among intellectuals, the fashion is to credit the director, the "auteur." And some directors do put their stamp on their films: Renoir, Welles, Hitchcock, Capra, Lean, Kurosawa, Kubrick, and Spielberg, to name the most obvious. But the writer may be even more important, yet few screenwriters are known to the public. The producer is the one who assembles all these diverse talents, but he is regarded as a mere businessman, of no artistic significance.

Wilder made the question of credit fairly simple: he was usually producer, director, and co-author of the script. That's as close to total control of the project as one man usually gets.

He leaves no successor, as they say, but I like to think there is one comparable talent in the American movie industry: the Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan Coen, a pair of Jews from Minnesota, write their own scripts, Ethan produces, and Joel directs.

Their first film (nearly two decades ago already!) was BLOOD SIMPLE, which was quickly hailed as the most brilliant debut in ages. Debut or not, it's a terrific thriller, done in a distinctive style of eerie wit, about a man who hires a detective to kill his wife and her lover. You don't know where it's coming from until the very end; meanwhile, it delivers several shocking plot twists. Despite its low budget and lowlife Texas setting, the color cinematography is rich, verging on gorgeous.

RAISING ARIZONA, their second movie, is a comedy about a childless couple who kidnap a quintuplet. Given that premise, it's hardly necessary to add that the comedy is offbeat. It's also hilarious and surprisingly warm, full of funny menace and witty dialogue — two regular Coen touches.

My favorite remains their third film, MILLER'S CROSSING, a neo-noir job roughly based on THE GLASS KEY. Albert Finney is tops as a lovably growling gangster betrayed but ultimately saved by his best friend. The movie abounds in funny nostalgia, eccentric characters, and period slang, none of which dissipate the electric tension of the plot.

Since then the Coens have produced a half-dozen films, diverse in genre and atmosphere, but all of them bearing their unique style. BARTON FINK and FARGO have been the most successful, but nearly all of them are beautiful to watch and — the rarer thing in movies — delightful to listen to. It's far too early to sum up the Coens' work, but for my money they have already surpassed Wilder's lifetime achievement.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 2002 edition of Sobran's: The Real News of the Month.

Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

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