Wilder than you think

Aug 8, 2001 at 12:00 am

If any director deserves a major DVD box set, it’s Billy Wilder. Equally adept at comedy and drama, Wilder embraces contradictions, often creating loathsome characters and cynically observing the hypocrisy of American society, then allowing for a ray of optimistic light to shine upon the seemingly irredeemable. But instead of a torrent of Wilder films, DVD aficionados must be content with the occasional trickle from his impressive library. His influential films Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Stalag 17 (1953) and Sabrina (1954) are already on DVD, with Irma La Douce (1963) and that great dissection of Hollywood glamour, Sunset Blvd. (1950), coming soon.

The recent release of the films Wilder made with Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch (1955) — which transformed her from sex symbol into American icon — and the marvelously subversive, gender-bending screwball comedy Some Like It Hot (1959), have received a great deal of attention, overshadowing two films which actually better define the Wilder style: The Apartment (1960) and The Fortune Cookie (1966).

These two DVDs, part of MGM’s Vintage Classics series, come in a stunningly bare-bones presentation. Even though they do have the standard scene selection option, neither box contains the usual insert which lists these scenes. That’s pretty cheap, particularly for a milestone such as The Apartment, which earned the Best Picture Oscar along with Academy Awards for director and screenplay. But what MGM did remarkably right is to transfer these black-and-white marvels onto DVD in their full wide-screen versions, allowing television viewers to fully appreciate Wilder’s crisp and insightful compositions.

Both films showcase the late Jack Lemmon (the latter featuring his first teaming with his great comic foil, Walter Matthau) and prove why he was one of the cinema’s great good guys. In The Apartment, Lemmon is C.C. Baxter, an insurance company functionary anxious to climb up the executive ladder. He loans out the key to his modest (but conveniently located) Manhattan apartment to his firm’s married bigwigs for their amorous rendezvous with the single women who keep the company afloat (secretaries, switchboard operators), but only in supporting roles. The stakes are raised when the powerful head of personnel, J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), secures the pad for his ongoing dalliance with elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the object of Baxter’s unrequited affections.

On one level, The Apartment is a marvelous relic of white, male, big-business America (and a potent reminder of the glass ceiling and why sexual harassment legislation is necessary), but it’s also a very smart, serious comedy about the price of getting ahead.

Wilder’s screenplays (with collaborator I.A.L. Diamond) express the duality of the characters, and as a director, he elicits performances which paint the starkly black and white in muted shades of gray. Baxter’s inherent ruthlessness is softened by Lemmon’s underlying decency, and his overt ambition is tempered by an eager-to-please innocence. MacLaine makes Fran sweet and slightly ditzy, someone whose expectations are so diminished that she runs straight into the arms of slick predators like Sheldrake.

While allowing some characters to discover their inherent goodness, Wilder also let villains be truly loathsome. MacMurray hadn’t been this venal since Wilder’s great film noir, Double Indemnity, and never would be again. But his Sheldrake demonstrates the filmmaker’s ability to bring out the glorious worst in his performers — like Matthau in The Fortune Cookie, as a lawyer so unrepentantly conniving and weasely he could “find loopholes in the Ten Commandments.”

It’s amazing to watch Matthau as Willie Gingrich (a name which would have resonated well during the last presidential administration) in his only Oscar-winning role. Not only could you already see in the fortysomething actor’s body language what he would look like as an old man, but observe his performance closely and see Matthau metamorphose into his soon-to-be stock character: the articulate curmudgeon who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and has little patience for the problems of others.

In The Fortune Cookie, Lemmon is television cameraman Harry Hinkle, who covers the Cleveland Browns and is injured during a game when football player Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson (Ron Rich) collides with him on the sidelines. Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on your perspective — Hinkle is Gingrich’s brother-in-law, and Whiplash Willie soon sees dollar signs. The subsequent scam quickly involves a guilt-ridden “Boom Boom,” who cares for the injured Harry, along with the well-choreographed return of Hinkle’s fame-hungry ex-wife.

There’s a gleeful viciousness here which also crops up in Wilder’s other great overlooked comedies, One, Two, Three (1961) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), films which are so intricately a part of their era that they can serve as both time capsules and satires which blast apart preconceived notions about American culture (especially James Cagney’s West Berlin Coca-Cola executive in One, Two, Three).

Wilder has constructed a kind of blueprint for comedy with The Fortune Cookie, slyly calling attention to its structure with scene titles (“The Snake Pit,” “The Gravy Train”) and allowing the increasingly complex motivations of his characters to comically snowball before engineering the final meltdown. And like The Apartment, it also shows just how much warmth can come from a filmmaker with ice in his veins.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]