When you’re a teenager, there’s nothing like discovering a new writer or a new movie director – new toyou, that is. The experience has a powerful, magical quality to it, one that you can easily spend the rest of your life trying to recapture. When I look back to that time in my own life I have what I now regard as a personal line-up of usual suspects – Chandler, Heller, Flann O’Brien, J.G. Ballard, Woody Allen (early, funny) and Alan J. Pakula, he of the great creepy, resonant conspiracy thrillers. But watching TV late one night recently I was reminded of another likely perp for the line-up – Billy Wilder.
Back then, in the late 1970s – pre-streaming, pre-cable, pre-VHS– the only access anyone really had to old movies was regular, blink-and-you-missed-it TV. This wasn’t great, but if you were lucky enough to receive BBC 2 – and were young, and voracious – the riches on offer could be downright astonishing. I have vivid memories of sitting down late on Sunday nights to watch for the first time – and with no commercial breaks, remember – any number of amazing movies. Naturally, certain ones stick out – Citizen Kane, The Big Sleep, Notorious. But there are three others in particular, three that together now seem to me to be a major achievement, and not just of twentieth century cinema, but of what we might call the noir canon – Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Ace in the Hole (1951).
These movies were – and are – appealing on so many levels, their crisp black-and-white cinematography, their muscular, sequence-driven narrative structures, and their unflinching, unsentimental deconstructions of the mid-century American Dream. In each one there is a lead character who is a veritable essay on American maleness, Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff, William Holden’s Joe Gillis and Kirk Douglas’s Chuck Tatum. One is an affable, guy-next-door insurance salesman, one is a slightly effete, jobbing screenwriter and one is a tough, world-weary but fast-talking newspaperman. All of them – via sex, money or ambition – are on the look-out for a fast-track to the high life, a short-cut to the business end of the post-war American Dream.
The irony, of course, is that Billy Wilder’s perspective on this subject was pungently un-American, and not in any supposedly treacherous political sense, but temperamentally, aesthetically. He saw that dream, that set of aspirations, as shallow and venal and doomed to failure. He was also ahead of his time in this, because the immediate post-war period was really only the starting point for an economic paradigm that we ourselves may have just reached the outer limits of, the bursting point of – this great, delusional, late-twentieth century paradigm of infinite consumer growth. What was regarded back then as deeply cynical has now become something of a default position.
Wilder was ahead of his time in other ways, too. It’s hard to appreciate now, for example, just how shocking James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity was when it first appeared in Liberty magazine in 1936. Quickly deemed unfilmable by the Hays Office, this sensational tale of lust and murder had to wait eight years before anyone would consider bringing it to the screen. But even then, Wilder’s writing partner, Charles Brackett, was so affronted by the material that he told the director he’d have to go it alone. And Fred MacMurray – up to that point a light comedian and song-and-dance man – was repeatedly warned not to take the part on the grounds that it would knock his career stone dead.
So for many people – audiences across America included – the movie was clearly a game-changer.
Then, in 1950, Wilder wrote and directed Sunset Boulevard. At the time, not surprisingly, this dark, blistering commentary on the ephemeral and inescapably mediated nature of celebrity was greeted with bewilderment and horror. More than sixty years later, however, the story of Norma Desmond seems to address us directly, and with equal or even greater eloquence than in anything we have so far managed to say about ourselves.
As for Ace in the Hole and its evisceration of what would later be termed a ‘media circus’ – well, Wilder certainly nailed that one, and he suffered for it, too. The least well-known of the three films, Ace in the Hole was perhaps the one closest to Wilder’s heart. He wrote, produced and directed it, and with less interference than on any other film he ever made, but it was also one of his very few commercial failures. (In fact, nearly ten years were to pass before he’d make another film based on an original story of his own. This was his magnificent The Apartment, a comedy, but arguably, in its story of lonely organization man C.C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon, a more than worthy addition to Wilder’s ongoing and very dark study of the American male).
The problem in 1951 with Ace in the Hole was that people rejected as unrealistic and unforgivably cynical its vitriolic portrayal both of the newspaperman and of his readership. To boost circulation figures, and his reputation, Chuck Tatum risks the life of a man trapped inside a remote New Mexico mine by needlessly prolonging the rescue operation. In response, the general public – represented, for handy perspective, by the all-American Federber family – lap it up and bay for more. For us today, however, saturated as we are in a tabloid culture of phone hacking and grief porn, Wilder’s attack seems – okay, not tame, it’s certainly not that – but it seems perfectly reasonable, closer almost to a documentary than a savage satire.
Of course, seeing these movies for the first time wasn’t about placing them in any context or tradition, it was about the sheer enjoyment of Wilder’s narrative brilliance. This was storytelling that didn’t have an ounce of fat on it and that carried you along in a delirious trance. And whether it’s thanks to the BBC 2 schedule back then, or to the Criterion Collection today, that spell for me remains unbroken.