ACMI had a Billy Wilder film festival over January 2019. I saw three films, The Seven Year Itch, Love In The Afternoon and Sunset Boulevard; none of which I’d seen before. I’d seen a third, Double Indemnity last year at Cinematique.
A great film maker. According to the article online accompanying the festival, able to see American culture – all its successes, idiosyncrasies and ills clearly because he was an outsider. An Austrian emigre fleeing Hitler’s Germany, where a number of his family were killed in the Holocaust, he was formerly a tabloid journalist. He had a continuing and overwhelming interest in the human condition which unites all his films across the different genres. This crossing over between comedy and drama was unusual at the time, demonstrating how well Wilder managed the studio system.
In his films, we’re told, he relentlessly poked holes in the ideals of American exceptionalism through his cynical beliefs that humans are consumed by the ego, that we lack the ability to love authentically, that we aren’t as smart as we think. That’s certainly the case in the films mentioned here.
It’s interesting looking back at these films via their trailers, funny old-fashioned things that they are, at the commonalities between them. There are the tabloid introductions, the use of voice-overs, how he frames people within the sets – sort of distancing them from themselves. In all of them the audience is plunged right into the story from the get-go.
I’d never seen this, although the story was completely familiar. How have I absorbed that over the years? So I was pleased to do so now. And I loved it. Such a young – and dashing – William Holden; but so weak. Such a monstrous, but all too believable Norma Desmond as played by Gloria Swanson. Amazingly you feel sorry for her as she comes down the stairs to face the cameras at the end. It’s described as a testament to the American obsession with beauty, stardom and ego. A good description. And a great setting in that amazing house. Apparently Wilder was determined to start with William Holden’s body floating in the pool face down but with the face seen. Achieved by the use of a mirror on the bottom of the pool. It takes a brave director to have the action narrated by a dead man and you’d think this would be disconcerting. But it works. It’s also an acerbic look at film making and has been described as still the nest Hollywood movie ever made about Hollywood. We see the work that goes into a good scripts by writers who are at the bottom of the studios pecking order. We interrupt Cecil B DeMille on the set of his blockbuster Egyptian movie (Samson and Delilah I think – I saw the peacock dress and cape at the Bendigo Art Gallery last year!)and so get a glimpse of the artificiality of the film making process. And over it all is the soul destroying impact that fame can have on a person. Norma is imprisoned in her glory days, and succeeds in imprisoning William Holden’s dashing young screenwriter Joe. It’s quite a harrowing experience to sit through it all. Here’s the trailer.
Seven Year Itch
This is another film I was keen to see given I’ve never seen Marilyn Monroe on the big screen before. She was fantastic and it’s sad knowing the impact fame had on her life. One of the best known scenes in this movie is when her skirts are blown up over a subway cover. (I’ve seen the actual dress at the NGV – it had a tiny waist!). I’ve read that she became quite distressed during the filming as a crowd gathered. She really lifts this fairly trite story to another level. It’s all about how people are imprisoned in their own fantasies. It certainly highlights the fact that most of us are not as smart as we think we are. In particular Tom Ewell’s businessman staying behind in New York while his wife and son holiday on the beach. Marilyn plays the ingenue who interrupts his bachelor sojourn. Both actors, and all the supporting ones were great. There’s a lot of slapstick comedy and witty repartee. Lots of farcical door openings and other interruptions. it up. I loved it – despite the old fashioned tropes about the roles of, and relationships between, women and men. At least Marilyn doesn’t get punished for her obvious sexuality. Apparently Wilder was cross that he couldn’t make the two main characters have sex, because of the Hays Production Code. But I think the fact that they are thwarted in doing so makes the movie better. I loved the saturated colour. Here’s the trailer.
The ACMI online essay, quoting Senses of Cinema, tells us that this movie throbs with the values and imagery of American capitalism. And from the ACMI note on the film it’s; exemplary of the genre that birthed hardboiled crime, bad decisions and so many femme fatales with murder on their mind . It’s incredibly atmospheric, full of morally and aesthetically shadowy framesthat are quintessential symbols of film noir. Great performances; Fred MacMurray as the decent sort lured into murder, and Barbara Stanwyck convincing as the woman who lured him in. There’s also a very young Edward G Robinson playing a good guy instead of a hardbitten gangster. The execution scened is full of pathos. No pathos allowed when Barbara met her end! The Hollywood Production Code required murderers not get away with their dastardly crimes. As with Sunset Boulevard, all of that dramatic intensity leaves you exhausted at the end of it. Here’s the trailer.
Love In The Afternoon
I wasn’t so keen on this one. Gary Cooper as the ageing roue, Frank Flanagan (strange name) who loves to seduce ’em and leave ’em hasn’t kept pace with today’s mores. Audrey Hepburn as the young ingenue, Ariane, who captures him is gorgeous. But you really don’t want her to end up with such a depraved fellow. The accompanying notes allege that Wilder sets up a world of cads, men who admire cads and innocent women who get used by cads – but soon turns the tables. Problem is, you don’t want Ariane to be left in this world of cads! At least I didn’t. Which is the critical thing in a romantic comedy. Alas, not in this movie. Maurice Chevalier as her father is pretty good; he’s the narrator in this film. Although it was a step too far to see him waving his beloved daughter off with Cooper’s philanderer. I did like the Paris setting. Here’s the trailer.