Directors Who Dominate: Billy Wilder
During the height of his career in the 1940s and 1950s, Billy Wilder was one of the most successful directors in the world, and his global standings on Flickchart prove that his popularity has remained strong ever since. He has ten films in the Top 1000 and three squarely in the Top 100. He made landmark films in genres as diverse as film noir, sex farce, social problem drama, romance, courtroom drama, satire, war thriller and more, and also helped forge the way for writer-directors in Hollywood.
Wilder was born Billie Wilder in Austria-Hungary (now Poland) in 1906, soon moving with his family to Vienna where he’d spend his formative years. Working as a journalist and reporter took him from Vienna to Berlin and eventually into the burgeoning German film industry as a screenwriter. When he realized that his Jewish heritage was going to be a problem, he fled Germany along with many other Jewish-German filmmakers and actors. (He was unable to get his mother and grandmother to come along – after the war he discovered they had died at Auschwitz, a fact that haunted him for the rest of his life.) He stopped off in Paris where he reluctantly directed one film in 1933, Mauvaise Graine, before making his way to Hollywood and securing a job at Paramount as a screenwriter.
Throughout the rest of the 1930s, Wilder (now “Billy”, as “Billie” tended to be a woman’s name in the United States) wrote a few now-forgotten light comedies and musicals. In 1938, the studio teamed Billy, a fast-talking working class immigrant who reveled in the seedier and sexier side of life, with Charles Brackett, a refined East Coaster with a literary background. They would prove to be a perfect match, though they certainly had more than their fair share of squabbling – in between interpersonal feuds, they wrote thirteen films together over a period of twelve years.
Their first collaboration was Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) for director Ernst Lubitsch, who Billy had idolized since Lubitsch made his mark in German cinema (he’s said to have kept a sign on his wall: “What would Lubitsch do?”). After another film for Lubitsch (Ninotchka) and a pair for Mitchell Leisen (Midnight and Hold Back the Dawn), Wilder found himself chafing at seeing other men direct his screenplays – especially Leisen, whose background in production design led Wilder to complain that he spent more time adjusting lamps than making sure dialogue was treated properly. Wilder decided he wanted to direct as well, citing Preston Sturges‘ recent jump from screenwriter to writer-director.
Billy perfected a straight-forward shooting style during the rest of his career. Though his screenplays, both with Brackett and his later partners, were filled with memorable dialogue and often groundbreaking plot elements, his directorial approach was stylish but unobtrusive. He always strove for entertainment value first, no matter the subject matter or genre, and for most of his career, audiences rewarded him for that.
The course of Wilder’s career mirrored that of Hollywood, in general, though his box office and critical success up through 1962 far exceeded that of most Hollywood directors. He started out as a studio screenwriter, paired with another writer he didn’t choose, and worked his way up in influence (and pay scale) with hit after hit until the early 1950s, when his partnership with Brackett dissolved and so did his contract with Paramount. After that, Billy was an independent writer-director-producer, coming up with his own projects and pitching them to studios. In the late 1950s through the mid-’60s, his films were largely released by the Mirisch Corporation, but Billy was in charge, often getting lucrative back-end deals as well. By 1959, he had found his second long-term writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond.
Meanwhile, Billy’s interest in challenging, cynical and often lurid content constantly got him into hot water with the Production Code of America (Hollywood’s self-censors) – essentially every one of his films pushed the envelope. Double Indemnity (1944) had two despicable people at its center and themes of adultery and murder. The Lost Weekend (1945) spotlighted alcoholism and had a detox scene the censors feared would have audiences fainting in the aisles. Sunset Boulevard (1950) featured a man kept by an older woman. A Foreign Affair (1948) had an American G.I. in an ongoing relationship with a German prostitute. Even the slight musical comedy The Emperor Waltz (1948) featured a pair of dogs blatantly getting it on, and suggested that their owners weren’t far behind. Still, he snuck everything through, and as the power of the Production Code waned in the mid-1950s, Wilder’s films got bolder and bolder.
In the 1960s, though, the progressive nature of his film’s content combined with his cynical outlook caught up with him. He’d had only two real flops before that – 1951’s caustic Ace in the Hole and 1957’s bland The Spirit of St. Louis – but after the smash hit of Irma la Douce in 1962, Wilder had a string of flops and near misses that spanned the rest of his career. Audiences weren’t ready to see American family life eviscerated in mean, dark comedies like Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and The Fortune Cookie (1966), and by 1970’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Billy’s classic Hollywood filmmaking style seemed out of touch with New Hollywood and his films failed to find either popular or critical support. Many of Wilder’s later films are now better appreciated, especially 1972’s Avanti!, but he would make his last film Buddy Buddy in 1981.
Since Wilder happens to have exactly ten films in the Flickchart Global Top 1000, it seemed fitting to go ahead and go into a bit of detail about those ten.
10. The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Wilder spent the mid-1950s making film versions of contemporary hit Broadway plays, a security measure after the box office failure of Ace in the Hole. The fact that The Seven Year Itch got made at all spoke to the growing toothlessness of the Production Code of America, which initially claimed there was no possible way a film version of the risque play would ever pass its censorship board. A sex comedy featuring a middle-aged man tempted by the blonde upstairs while his wife and son vacation for the summer, The Seven Year Itch balances on a fine line of taste, but ultimately comes off as a clever, if repetitive, satire of stereotypical masculinity. Tom Ewell (who also played the role on the stage) is no one’s idea of a catch, but he’s quite charming when he needs to be, and carries off the character’s ridiculous monologues and fantasy sequences with aplomb. Meanwhile, The Girl (no, she’s not named) is Marilyn Monroe, in the first of her two performances for Wilder – the only director to work with the notably troubled actress twice.
- currently ranked #842
- ranked 17,325 times by 1463 users
- wins 44% of the time
9. The Lost Weekend (1945)
The Lost Weekend was Wilder’s fourth film as director, and before this he had done a slight comedy, a war/espionage thriller, and a hard-boiled film noir. What next but a bitter drama about the alcoholism of a failed writer? Today The Lost Weekend seems pretty tame, but it was quite a risky film in 1945. Prior to this, most drunks on film were comic relief, whether sophisticated lushes or lower class sots. No one had attempted to do a serious treatment of alcoholism as a disease – not only did Billy have to worry about the Production Code (concerned about sustained drunkenness, a section involving a prostitute, and “undue gruesomeness” in the detox scene), but about the liquor lobby as well. A film about the evils of alcohol might cut into profits! After all was said and done, the picture was a hit, and Billy walked away with two Oscars, for writing and directing (Ray Milland also won Best Actor, and oh, the film won Best Picture).
- currently ranked #395
- ranked 19122 times by 1181 users
- wins 46% of the time
8. Sabrina (1954)
One of Wilder’s few films to focus squarely on a woman (rather than a man, or a male buddy relationship), Sabrina also basically created Audrey Hepburn‘s persona – sophisticated but naive, worldly but innocent, Continental but wholesome. It was on this film that she started her life-long professional relationship with Givenchy, the young French designer who would dress her throughout her career, and it was with this film that Wilder and Hepburn collaborated to show the world that the buxom ideal of Marilyn Monroe was not the only way women could be alluring. Billy doesn’t seem totally comfortable in this world of uppercrust Long Island businessmen and playboys and their chauffeur’s daughters, though (it’s also based on a hot play at the time, Sabrina Fair), and Sabrina is one of his least characteristic films.
- currently ranked #389
- ranked 23525 times by 2229 users
- wins 48% of the time
7. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
By 1957, Wilder had done comedy, drama, noir, espionage, romance, even musicals. Next up, courtroom drama based on a long-running Agatha Christie play. Wilder beefed up the part of the attorney Sir Wilfrid and gave the part to Charles Laughton, who made it one of his most memorable performances in a lifetime of memorable performances. Sir Wilfred is recovering from a heart attack, but takes a particularly interesting murder case, which only gets more interesting as time goes on. There are more twists here than in the Snake River, but Laughton (ably aided by Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Elsa Lanchester) holds the center delightfully.
- currently ranked #240
- ranked 21265 times by 1294 users
- wins 50% of the time
6. Some Like It Hot (1959)
In 2000, AFI released their list of the 100 Greatest Comedies ever, and Some Like It Hot topped the list. If anything, the film’s reputation is much greater now than it was upon its original release. It was a box office hit, but critics weren’t all convinced by Tony Curtis‘ and Jack Lemmon‘s cross-dressing antics, undertaken to escape the mob by hiding out with an all-girl band. It’s a looney premise, but it works. This was Wilder’s first film with Lemmon, who he’d work with a total of seven times, his second with I.A.L. Diamond, cementing that partnership that would last the rest of their careers, and his last with Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was notorious for coming to set late, not remembering her lines, and taking dozens of takes to get the simplest line right (and Billy did not truck with improv). Working with her was exhausting, but while most directors swore her off, Billy knew the performance he would eventually get from her would be worth it: “She is a very great actress. Better Marilyn late than most of the others on time.” Indeed, Some Like It Hot is one of Monroe’s best performances, simultaneously silly and heartbreaking.
- currently ranked #191
- ranked 198,253 times by 18,671 users
- wins 51% of the time
5. Stalag 17 (1953)
After the box office failure of Ace in the Hole, Wilder retreated to the relative safety of adapting hit Broadway plays, and this was the first of a string of them. Billy latched onto the story of American POWs in a German prison camp, rewriting it extensively to fit his cynical worldview. The main character Sefton is a mercenary fellow, trading with his captors to make his life in prison more comfortable, and scoffing at his prison mates for attempting foolhardy escapes. When it’s discovered they have a mole in their midst, Sefton is the obvious suspect, and he’s just cynical enough to barely care. Despite the war-time grime and POW storyline, Stalag 17 is quite funny, with goofy supporting characters and lots of broad comedy that presages Vietnam-era war comedies like MASH. This was William Holden‘s second of four outings with Wilder, and he won an Oscar for this one.
- currently ranked #160
- ranked 24,944 times by 1673 users
- wins 52% of the time
4. Ace in the Hole (1951)
I’ve mentioned two or three times that Ace in the Hole was a tremendous box office failure – Billy’s eighth film would be his first unsuccessful one, with critics as well as with audiences. However, as you can tell by its ranking on Flickchart, Ace in the Hole has undergone an incredible resurgence in critical acclaim and popularity. His first film after breaking up with the more conservative and genteel Charles Brackett, Wilder took the opportunity to made a truly mean and deeply cynical picture. Reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), banished from New York to Albuquerque, tries to find a big enough story to get back to the big city, and stumbles upon a man trapped in a mine shaft. Tatum milks the story for all its worth, eventually turning it into a giant circus of gawkers, all ostensibly there to support the dying man, but really there for the entertainment value. Wilder had always been a cynical filmmaker, shining a light on the dark side of humanity, but here he spun the light around on the audience – YOU are the reason media circuses exist, he says. Ace in the Hole was ahead of its time in 1951. It seems utterly prescient today.
- currently ranked #134
- ranked 16,348 times by 821 users
- wins 63% of the time
3. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
If audiences had a problem with Billy’s indictment of them in 1951’s Ace in the Hole, they’d had no such issues with his indictment of Hollywood in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard (even Hollywood had little problem with it, aside from the ultra-conservative Louis B. Mayer, who felt the film was a betrayal of the industry). A gothic film noir featuring a faded silent star Norma Desmond (played by faded silent star Gloria Swanson) trying to make a delusional comeback, Sunset Boulevard has a cynical romanticism that few others have managed to capture. Screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden’s first role with Wilder and probably his best, his Stalag 17 Oscar notwithstanding) is desperate enough to act as Norma’s script doctor/kept man and has plenty of pointed barbs for a Hollywood that chews up and discards both screenwriters and actresses when it has no more use for them. Fresh-faced Nancy Olson provides hope for Hollywood, if ultimately not for Joe, as an aspiring screenwriter who might actually make it.
- currently ranked #80
- ranked 135,815 times by 10,375 users
- wins 55% of the time
2. The Apartment (1960)
Wilder’s last truly great film is also one of the greatest films of all time. Touching on subjects as weighty as suicide, as broad as corporate anonymity, and as intimate as friendship blossoming into potential romance, The Apartment is perfect expression of Wilder’s cynicism, his light comedic touch, and his surprisingly tender heart. When he started collaborating with I.A.L. Diamond in the late 1950s (this was his third film with Diamond), it seemed to free him to be more tender and less cynical, and his ongoing artistic partnership with Jack Lemmon had a similar effect in their films together. The Apartment casts Lemmon as C.C. Baxter, the ultimate nebbish, a nice guy who lets his bosses use him as almost a literal doormat by lending them his apartment for their extramarital trysts (the Production Code was basically dead by 1960). He’s shyly attracted to elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine is a breath of fresh air in the film) – but she’s seeing the head of HR, who could get him that corner office.
- currently ranked #33
- ranked 86,552 times by 5301 users
- wins 57% of the time
1. Double Indemnity (1944)
Billy Wilder didn’t invent film noir (no one did, actually, but that’s a different topic), but he certainly stuffed the majority of the tropes associated with it into Double Indemnity. Doomed voiceover? Check. Fatalistic narrative? Check. Crime based on pure avarice and lust? Check. Double crosses? Check. Feeling of ennui? Check. Femme fatale? Double check. This was a pretty risky film to make at the time – so focused on the depravity of human beings that refined Charles Brackett refused to work on it. Wilder instead collaborated with novelist Raymond Chandler, who was then trying his hand at screenwriting. You can feel the sickly sweetness of Chandler’s novelistic contributions in the screenplay, but the rat a tat tat flirtatious yet deadly dialogue is quintessential Billy. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck both had wholesome on-screen personas at this time, and were nervous about appearing as such despicable people; thankfully Wilder talked them into it, and the film remains among their most iconic.
- currently ranked #32
- ranked 90,078 times by 5763 users
- wins 57% of the time
A Few Hidden Gems
Billy Wilder had a few flops in his career, but not that many on average, and many of them still have their charms. For anyone who wants to venture past his Top Ten into lower-charted territory (almost nothing is really uncharted in Flickchart-world, is it?), here are my favorite hidden gems among Wilder’s filmography: