I know Billy Wilder’s birthday was yesterday but I doubt being a day late to the party will discredit my love of Wilder by much. Billy Wilder is probably one of the most iconic director/screenwriters out there who has crafted enough movies to grace every top film list in the country. You cannot be a true film fanatic and not have seen at least three of his films. The five films listed here are ones I can rewatch whenever I want to and be completely entertained. Happy birthday Billy Wilder! **I’m counting down the five films he directed, I know his writing output is more prolific. Click the links to go to my original reviews.
I reviewed Witness for the Prosecution back in February and loved it. The courtroom drama is brightly filmed and the plot never meanders. The script is filled with witty one-liners and some of the most exhausting dialogue exchanges you’ll see, especially for a courtroom procedural. I haven’t even mentioned the twists and turns this movie takes. It marks the first time I’ve seen Marlene Dietrich in a film and thought she was superb. You never know if her character is truly good or bad and Dietrich never crumbles under pressure. And I can’t forget Tyrone Power (another first of his films) who truly surprised me in the end. This is the only “serious” film of Wilder’s I included on this list, but it’s his best.
4. Sunset Blvd
It still shocks me that I haven’t reviewed Sunset Blvd yet (better get on that before summer ends). If you want a true history lesson about Hollywood in an entertaining two-hour package make sure to watch Sunset Blvd. What’s painful about watching this murder mystery is how in-depth Wilder went in showcasing the broken lives of Hollywood silent players. He originally wanted Mary Pickford for the role but she refused. Thankfully, I can’t imagine anyone else playing Norma Desmond other than Gloria Swanson (herself a fading silent star). The film tells the tale of the deranged Desmond who dreams of her motion picture comeback, and the Hollywood screenwriter (William Holden at his sexiest in my opinion) who is using her. The two work so well together and for a film of the time period, Wilder doesn’t really shy away from stating the sexual relationship between Desmond and her “kept boy.”
It was hard for me to decide between the two films Wilder directed starring Marilyn Monroe (both this and The Seven Year Itch can be found in the My Month with Marilyn section if you’d like to read the latter). Eventually, I decided that having seen Some Like It Hot over ten times gave it the edge which is not to say that I won’t be rewatching The Seven Year Itch…it just has to catch up. Either way Some Like It Hot is a comedy classic and rightfully so. The gender bending story involving Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon is amazing and who doesn’t love Marilyn as the ditzy girl just looking for love? Not to mention Tony Curtis imitating Cary Grant? Genius!
Sabrina holds a special place in my heart. It was the second Billy Wilder film I saw, but the first one I took a chance on. I had no idea what it was about or who it starred, I just wanted to see more Wilder films. Once I saw that cast list, I was hooked. Sure there’s a lot of debate over Humphrey Bogart being far too old to play a rival for Audrey Hepburn‘s affections but it’s a romance! Personally, I was rooting for William Holden who plays the playboy brother of Bogart’s character. Regardless, Sabrina is Wilder at his most romantic. The story of a chauffeur’s daughter catching the eye of two wealthy brothers is a timeless Cinderella story but it’s filled with witty banter and actually develops both men as characters and as suitors for Hepburn’s Sabrina. One is not the requisite “jerk” who obviously doesn’t deserve the girl, really you can make arguments for both men. I love Sabrina, it’s one movie I don’t get tired of.
1. The Apartment
Oddly enough my number 1 favorite Billy Wilder film is one that I haven’t seen nearly as many times as Sabrina or Some Like It Hot. I’ve seen The Apartment about three times since discovering it last year and every time I’ve been so engrossed in the story. The Apartment blends comedy and romance with a healthy dose of drama and actually inspired a sequence in Almost Famous that I won’t spoil here. The story tells of a corporate social climber named C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) who loans out his apartment to his bosses and their mistresses. Through a dark sequence of events C.C. is stuck caring for the office elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine). Lemmon is great but I personally enjoy the story of Fran Kubelik played by MacLaine. She’s a woman who finds sadness within herself but is aware that she’s the source of her unhappiness stuck in a relationship going nowhere. Fran is a modern woman taken with notions of romance but realizes that’s not going to be with the tall, dark and handsome man of power. I’m not sure if I mentioned this in my review of Double Indemnity (another Wilder film that barely made this list) but The Apartment is the reason I glower every time I watch a Fred MacMurray movie…he’s such a sleaze in this film…which is the point but still!
What’s your favorite Billy Wilder film(s)? Any movies I definitely should have included?
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.