Within his mise-en-scène and competing thematic fronts, Wilder makes a case that true partnership – born of respect, admiration, and genuine affection – finds actual sex dispensable or, simply, fleeting. Beneath the tactile, sensual, black-and-white cinematography of his finest works, just below the initially celebratory veneer of sexual ostentation and wanton disregard of morality, Wilders uses the act of honest confession as a lynchpin to real emotions, to genuine bonding amongst characters, and a fumbling toward a kind of redemption.
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In the opening moments of writer-director Billy Wilder’s 1944 film noir Double Indemnity, the after-hours elevator operator lets insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) inside the offices of the grand Pacific Building. “They wouldn’t ever sell me any,” says the elevator man, referring to his own pursuit of health insurance. “They say I’ve got something loose in my heart. I say it’s rheumatism.”
There’s something loose in the hearts of many of the damaged and misguided souls that populate the Austrian-German émigré filmmaker’s American oeuvre, too. Actually, it’s very often the heart – the metaphoric, moral center of human empathy – whose true yearnings go unheeded. Instead, other organs often drive the proceedings, leading characters to peel back layers of their own identities to reveal darker, more primal impulses and truths. Like the elevator operator’s rheumatic smokescreen, sex masks the true meaning of things, obscures logic, and conjures a lust that, like a runaway lava flow, destroys everything in a molten heat. Notably, though, Billy Wilder – first and foremost a writer, a director only so that his characters and words were accurately realized – left behind a cinematic career whose spirit spoke to the enduring value of friendship and acceptance.
Within his mise-en-scène and competing thematic fronts, Wilder makes a case that true partnership – born of respect, admiration, and genuine affection – finds actual sex dispensable or, simply, fleeting. Beneath the tactile, sensual, black-and-white cinematography of his finest works, just below the initially celebratory veneer of sexual ostentation and wanton disregard of morality, Wilder uses the act of honest confession as a lynchpin to real emotions, to genuine bonding amongst characters, and a fumbling toward a kind of redemption. C. C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), too long a concierge to his philandering superiors, confides in a back-from-the-suicidal-brink Fran Kubilek (Shirley MacLaine) about his own failed suicide attempt – not as a stab at sympathy, but as an act of solidarity – in 1960’s elegiac The Apartment. A shamed and drained Neff confesses his sins to his mentor and father figure, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), via Dictaphone, a last-gasp effort at washing some of the literal and metaphorical blood from his hands. Lemmon again, this time as Harry Hinkle in The Fortune Cookie (1966), has to cop to his involvement in a staged injury and an eviscerating public lawsuit to the only real friend he has and desperately wants to hold on to, disgraced football player Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson (Ron Rich). In each of these instances, confession serves to clear the way for understanding, clarity of identity, forgiveness, and a hope for the future for decent characters whose most covetous trait may be an ability to navigate a world increasingly enveloped by moral decay with kindness and thoughtfulness intact. Sex is an afterthought here and not just because, as in the case of the Neff/Keyes and Hinkle/Jackson dynamics, of sexual incompatibility; if, ultimately, Baxter and Fran don’t make love to justify its palpable existence, it’s that they don’t need to. Their emerging trust of one another – something imminently missing from their lives prior where sex was not – may prove more valuable and lasting.
Compare those elements with the casual misogyny and blind allegiance to the chauvinistic soul of corporate America of Apartment’s charmless executives; the rampantly destructive lust supplanted by rampantly erosive contempt in Indemnity; and a succubus ex-wife’s deployment of duplicitous feminine wiles to cheat her ex-husband one last time in Cookie. Wilder’s films expose the act, pursuit, and implication of sex as triggers to a spiritual, sometimes physical, violence: while things get murderous in Indemnity, the less physically visceral Apartment and Cookie connect the dots between sex as currency and the fevered, empty acquisition of material success and power. Wilder doesn’t stand in judgment of these characters (on the contrary, MacMurray’s sleazy Neff and Barbara Stanwyck’s casually malevolent Phyllis Dietrichson are two of the filmmaker’s most vivid, compelling cinematic creations), but rarely does contentment shine upon them. Wilder imbues his films with that fatalistic light of karmic retribution, a sense that consequences await for one’s acts of inhumanity.
Despite a lifetime spent creating cinematic artifice, and inexorably stung by the deadly lies of the World War II fascism that claimed his family and homeland, Wilder wielded frankness and truth-telling in his scripts like the sword of Damocles. His directorial presence reflects, too, that same unsparing avoidance of sentiment: his authorial style serves only to frame and contextualize the film, is absent of instructive camera movements and angles. The Apartment’s visual starkness is due, in part, to Wilder’s insistence on tableau-like long shots where characters – cramped together, yet emotionally adrift from one another against an anonymously bureaucratic backdrop – rarely interact in close quarters. So, when the director juxtaposes these shots, sparingly, with close-up two-shots of Baxter and Fran, the audience feels the buzz of real human connection. When Harry admits his guilt to Boom Boom at Cookie’s close, Wilder cuts from long shots of the massively cavernous and empty football stadium where it all began to close-ups of the two huddling on a sideline bench. They’ll soon have to march out onto the field of play again, sore, but no worse for wear, and at least they’re together; it’s a thematic sentiment usually reserved for hetero-romantic comedies, but here it cuts to the heart of Wilder’s take on friendship trumping sexual romance. Harry and Boom Boom have genuine affection for one another and Wilder need not depict it with characters falling into bed or each other’s arms, but in the final images of the two men hiking and flipping the ball to each other in a mock football game.
More vital evidence that Wilder favors the warmth and security attached to satisfying unions is what he tags the audience with as they leave the movie theater: stunning, searingly honest last lines of dialogue that hint at the possibility of love enduring after all, commentary made all the more powerful because of the characters’ self-reflection and transformation within each film’s diegesis. The dying Neff spits out “I love you, too” to his beloved Keyes in the final moments of Indemnity, the second such time he’s told this to him, and as honest a statement as he’s ever made considering he’s losing blood rapidly. Baxter declares his love and adoration for Fran at the close of The Apartment; Fran, stung and exhausted by a recently terminated but soul-sucking affair (yet, in spite of this, most probably falling for Baxter, too), takes a more cautious approach. “Shut up and deal,” she beams, referring to the playing cards Baxter shuffles, but also manifesting a kind of personal mantra, and putting to bed any notion of going to bed … for now, anyway.
But perhaps the most resonant last line in the Wilder filmography belongs to 1959’s jazzy, recalcitrant Some Like It Hot: in response to Jerry’s (Lemmon) reveal that he is, in fact, a man dressed as a woman, paramour Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) utters, with cool matter-of-factness, “Nobody’s perfect.” A bond has been forged and, doggone it, Osgood isn’t gonna let a little thing like gender get in the way. Wilder also suggests, as he will throughout his cinematic career, that the male of the species is somehow inherently imperfect and in need of acceptance.
While Wilder’s screenplays (written with partners I. A. L. Diamond, mostly, or Charles Brackett and, in the case of Indemnity, Raymond Chandler) routinely deal with the vagaries and few triumphs of sexual gamesmanship – and make no mistake, sex and intimacy underscore even these immortal ending notes of dialogue – Hot’s last line hints at something far more important to his characters’ transformations. His characters don’t always consciously know that what they’re truly seeking is genuine companionship, but since any actual healthy, carefree sex ends up hard to come by, they’re left with a connection much more of the soul than of the body. “Nobody’s perfect” rings true, for those who subscribe to a half-blissed/half-gritty acceptance of the inherent messiness of relationships will be the best equipped to dodge discontent.
What of the bodies and souls of Wilder’s film characters? For one thing, those who use their bodies in the tenuous pursuit of personal liberty often find their souls untethered. It could be argued that alluring, broken screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), from 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, has been running on nothing but Hollywood vapor, long ago exhausting body and soul in the pursuit of cinematic immortality and financial independence. His vision is both creatively strained (his recent baseball spec script is by the numbers, among other uninspired work) and physically wracked right from the story’s start. The gathering storm Gillis can’t see is that this is the closest he’ll actually get to being a free man from here on out, or as corporally sound as he’ll ever be. When he checks into fading silent film star Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) desiccated mansion, on “contract” to help her finish a long-gestating Salomé script, he even fails to actually see: the ordinarily visible Catalina Islands are shrouded by a haze that cuts off not only the mansion from the rest of Los Angeles, but Gillis from his bodily faculties.
Although Wilder sidestepped any direct nods to a sexual relationship between Norma and Gillis, as he frequently did in his perpetual dance with the censorship boards, Boulevard acknowledges the inherent seediness of Gillis’ recession into the role of boy-toy plaything, hired as much to keep Norma’s inside fires burning as he is to keep her unwieldy script afloat.1 When he uneasily, but passively, allows Desmond to move him onto her estate and pay off his lingering debts, her Rasputin-like claws are sunk. For a guy who’s made a life of navigating the psychic pugilism of Hollywood, he’s quickly defeated by his current hunger for money and stability, the “gravy train” he says they’re all ultimately waiting for. It is this doomed acceptance (think of Gillis perched on the arm of Norma’s chair as she deals cards with fellow Hollywood relics, watching her play and emptying ashtrays instead of playing himself, or her penchant for grabbing and pawing at his limbs during movie nights) and willful self-ignorance (Gillis doesn’t want to wake “sleepwalker” Norma from her self-mythologizing stupor; he’s actually attempting to impose artful, thoughtful “coherence” on her unwieldy script) that sends him on an irreversible road to his own demise. Self-disgust, like a pinching membrane coalescing on his skin, chokes Gillis into believing he doesn’t deserve the things he’s been chasing. Norma, for her part, is not overtly pursuing sex, but instead feeding her lust for attention and relevancy; perhaps it’s that small distinction that actually keeps her alive at the film’s close, along with a complete slide into a fantasy world where she’s still on top. The framing device employed in Boulevard – we already know Gillis is dead, narrating as he is from the afterworld – only reinforces Wilder’s continued exploration of the intersection of fate and destiny in relationships, a question of whether any of us is really equipped to escape its sway.
“I never knock another man’s merchandise,” says Indemnity’s oily Neff, but that’s exactly what he’ll do in letting his sexual desires overpower his sense of humanity or relationship ethics (and the line’s a reminder that flesh is currency). Wilder stages Neff’s first meeting with the married Phyllis Dietrichson in the manner one might depict a lion at feeding time, “mak[ing] obvious his carnal interest” (Sipiora 109). After pushing his way into the Dietrichson home to renew a policy (an invasive, expressively male motif here), he first sizes Phyllis up as a set of bare legs under a towel before his eyes acknowledge there’s a sentient soul attached. This is about sex, the precise trap Neff purposefully hurtles toward, away from the monotony of his predictable life; it’ll wind up sending Neff off this mortal coil with a gut shot, destroying the target of his lust and her husband along the way. It’s not until the film’s finale that Neff reclaims anything resembling soulfulness: even though Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr), hotheaded boyfriend to Phyllis’ stepdaughter Lola (Jean Heather), is positioned to take the fall for Neff’s murder of Phyllis, Neff wards him away from the crime scene. Facing the retributive wave of his sociopathic overtures to desire, Neff mercifully gives the young couple the chance to reclaim their own relationship.
Sex is toxic in Wilder’s films, expunging the interior lives of characters the way drugs or poison would. It’s equated to a virus or addiction: “If I don’t get it every night, I get such a headache,” whines Dino (Dean Martin) in Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), putting sex at least on par with coffee. The Apartment’s Fran asks how long it’ll take until executive Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is out of her system; this after nearly overdosing on pills in a suicide attempt (a very viable, almost casual option for many Wilder characters).
Sex can spell disaster if its promise is followed through on: if sports cameraman Harry has it with his ex-wife Sandy (Judi West) in Cookie, he’ll have to betray the wheelchair-bound injuries he’s been faking at the behest of his brother-in-law, slippery lawyer Whiplash Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau). A fraud investigator is spying on them, and revealing the truth is tantamount to blowing a fortune. Willie reasons that the sex isn’t worth it right now, never mind that having sex with the faithless Sandy again would inevitably bring back to light, for Harry, all the corrosive qualities of their failed marriage (the angst created by their former union is more clearly – and agonizingly – expressed by Harry’s mother when she learns of Sandy’s imminent reappearance: she wails and sobs on cue). Harry may get momentarily mired in nostalgic reverie for a vibrant relationship that never really was, but Wilder has already drawn a portrait of Sandy for us to chew on: two earlier scenes find her whispering into a phone to Willy or Harry while an unidentified male sleeps or showers in the deep background. It is not clear whether it’s one man or two different men, but the meaning is evident: Sandy echoes an anonymous, alienating sex that feels more functional (and invokes either a somnambulant state or need for cleansing) than an expression of love.
A note about suicide: if being consumed by notions of passionate, indolent sex doesn’t lead to death at the hands of a lover, like it does for Neff and Phyllis in Indemnity and Gillis in Boulevard, then the dispirited and lovelorn may choose the self-destruction route instead. When it finally seeps into Fran that her illicit affair with Sheldrake will never result in them actually being together, she looks to suicide to purge her pain. Baxter relates his story of how a failed relationship brought him to the brink – he “messed” that up by shooting his foot instead of something more debilitating. Audrey Hepburn’s lovestruck, overheated Sabrina in Sabrina (1954), stung by the utter lack of attention and attraction that the younger Larrabee, dashing playboy heir David (Holden again), slings her way, looks to do it in grand style: using her chauffeur father’s keys, she seals up the garage and, in near-comic fashion, conjures a carbon monoxide fog by starting up the Larrabees’ fleet of fancy cars. Irma La Douce’s (1963) Nestor (Lemmon) has the motherlode of conundrums: when he finally does have sex with the woman he loves, Parisian prostitute Irma (MacLaine), it’s as his alter ego Lord X, created in the first place to occupy her professional time, therefore preventing her from having sex with anyone else. In insane meta-reverie, Nestor has to stage Lord X’s suicide in order to prevent Irma from running off with him, so that she may stay with … him.
It’s notable, though, that these suicide attempts uniformly fail. The characters – good-hearted, essentially decent folks – are cosmically positioned to find a healthier, more inspiring connection down the road. Wilder rewards the ardently hapless, allowing for the intervention of fate to trigger subsequent emotional clarity. Baxter and Fran finally find each other amidst the complicated romantic and professional entanglements, fortunate that they hadn’t succeeded in killing themselves or their morality; Sabrina realizes she’s more compatible – and happier – with the much older Linus Larrabee (Humphrey Bogart) than she ever could be with the fly-by-night David; and Nestor and Irma find a shared identity in a rare gesture, not only in the world of prostitution, but in Wilder’s oeuvre, as well – a wedding and the promise of a new family. The karmic resolutions that Wilder spins are satisfying enough – the audience knows the couples are fated to be together long before the characters do – to dispel the notion that sexual consummation is a required part of the process, for the characters or for us. By the finales of these films – and in marked contrast to their first acts, frequently dark evocations of the soul that “metonymically link single girl sexuality with death” (Hoffman 76) – male and female characters are simply happy to have endured, to be alive and alongside someone who has empathy for the journey and respect for the survivor. Sex remains an afterthought, a low priority need.
During stridulation, the male hump-winged grig, a cricket-like insect, rubs its forewings together to create a siren mating call in hopes of attracting a female. When a grig lass does take notice and swoops in to consummate the seduction, she’s often apt to chomp off bits of the male’s hind wings and lap up his blood during the act.2 It’s doubtful even had Boulevard’s Joe Gillis been up on his entomology that he would have been able to see Norma Desmond for the female hump-winged grig that she is. Isn’t that what she’s doing, taking small chunks at a time from Gillis’ psyche, draining him of his life force in a swap for socio-economic stability and an enviable wardrobe? To further the arthropodal analogy, the Hollywood of this tale is a spider web of despair whose hellish hub is Desmond’s mansion; the pool, where pathetic fly Gillis splashes down forevermore in the finale, is the murky center of black widow Norma’s web.
After dazzling his eyes and loins, Phyllis lures Walter Neff through interconnected train cars of passion-fueled machinations, inciting him bit by bit to sacrifice his humanity in the name of her freedom. She’s a different kind of spider woman – more praying-mantis-like – for she’s not above savaging one of her own to get nourishment; the dubious details surrounding the death of sickly first wife to Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) cast suspicion on Phyllis, who was the woman’s nurse at the time. When life with Dietrichson, now her husband, starts to feel oppressive, the only recourse is to take his life, akin to the female praying mantis’ ruthless habit of eating the male’s head after mating. Wilder and co-screenwriter Raymond Chandler clinch the allusion by literally having Neff choke Dietrichson with a wire to the neck, an act Phyllis can’t carry out herself, instead seemingly psychically willing her weaker-minded lover to embody her desires. Here, the camera pans to the smirking Phyllis, remaining resolutely focused on her throughout the offscreen murder. It’s not hard to imagine – the sound design echoing of phlegmy choking hastens the experience – Dietrichson’s head being freed from his body. He has finished serving his purpose for Phyllis, another mantis for the pile.
The cocksure Neff and desperate Gillis are fools, ultimately, for rushing blindly into the simmering gloom of Dietrichson’s and Desmond’s expressionistic mansions and the metaphoric web of its respective predatory queens. Sylvia Harvey, in her essay, “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir,” notes of Indemnity: “It is at the additional and perhaps more important level of mise-en-scène or visual style that the physical environment of the lovers (whether created by landscape/set, or by camera angle, framing, and lighting) is presented as threatening, disturbing, fragmented.”
In fact, lairs; abodes; edifices tall and small; and working, living, and transportive spaces provide, in the hands of Wilder – who once said making movies was a “mixture of architecture and poetry” – clues to the nature of relationships and the inner psyche of the characters.3 They’re places to hide, places of imprisonment, or representations of abstract state of minds that yearn for simple comfort and security, alternately oppressing its inhabitants and offering hope.
Irma La Douce manages a three-pronged squelching of Jack Lemmon’s masculinity and sexual potency through its production design. First, his Nestor is brought into the rigid confines of the chief constable’s office the morning after the rookie policeman – who abides by the rigidity and square lifestyle associated with upholders of the law – unwittingly busted the chief himself in a raid on the prostitute’s hotel. Nestor is fired within the harsh, geometric angularity of the Paris precinct, and while the chief barks and demoralizes him, his once-intransigent baton flops flaccidly in his fist.
And maybe he’s being punished for being so sexually naive (it’s a comic slow burn watching Nestor realize that his beat cuts right through the prostitutes’ alley on Rue Casanova), but even when he’s genuinely falling for MacLaine’s Irma, he’s rendered impotent. Irma’s bohemian-inflected flat gives Nestor a kind of performance anxiety: he spends more time constructing a makeshift curtain of newspapers over the massive window that looks out onto the street than attending to Irma. Moreover, he begins working overnight shifts in the fish markets, unbeknownst to Irma, to support his Lord X character’s sole retention of Irma’s services, and when she models a skimpy new number to arouse Nestor’s imagination one morning, he collapses in exhaustion instead. The function and meaning of the hotel room, a home away from home for Irma where she and Lord X will forge a sincere bond, transfigures over the course of the film – it percolates with manipulation, converging identities, and then genuine, actual feeing – but the Lord X persona is adamant about avoiding sex there, citing an old war injury for his current impotence; so, in an effort to continue the impotence act in these domains, Nestor has become impotent.
And not unlike the hump-winged grig, Wilder chomped at the bit to bend the architecture and poetry of his production design to reveal essential truths about his characters. The kaleidoscopic set design and vibrant mise-en-scène of Irma – already intrinsically theatrical, based on a musical play by Alexandre Breffort deemed a “French fairy tale for wicked grown-ups” – announces the world of Rue Casanova’s streetwalkers as a colorful façade.4 A profession that trades in sex may not be sustainable, but it sure is colorful; it’s telling, too, that throughout his career, Wilder primarily shot in widescreen black and white (The Apartment, and One, Two, Three  just before Irma and Kiss Me, Stupid and The Fortune Cookie immediately after are all black and white productions), yet relented here. That choice immediately enhances the story’s fable-like tone, with Wilder perhaps admitting that a film ending with a joyous wedding in the traditional confines of a church – the filmmaker fiercely eschewed that type of conventionality in romantic comedies – is the most fantastical of all.
The spaces in The Apartment, meticulously rendered, sometimes suffocatingly so (and examples of Wilder’s penchant, assisted by art director Alexander Trainer and set decorator Edward G. Boyle, as in Irma, for forced perspective sets that utilized background layering and miniatures), routinely seek to emasculate Baxter.5 The insurance floor where he works splays out in an endless grid of desks and lights, reducing the buzzing humans within to points on a number line, expected to produce and process more points to plot somewhere. Later, after Fran stands him up, Baxter drinks up his heartache in a bar that’s as geometrically deep and people dense as his office space; in both instances, he’s shorn of any individual sensuality or chance to really articulate anything meaningful (Lemmon radiates the kind of persona one could fall for … after getting familiar enough with his endearing, goofy charm), pushed about in seas of anonymity. As he moves up the executive ladder, he moves off the floor and ever closer to the icily immoral center of the corporate web where, incidentally, the higher-ups play fast and loose in their relationships with women. Each new office finds Baxter blitzed by an unexpected, disconcerting layer of truth regarding Fran and his own desires.
Baxter’s eponymous apartment is a less austere environment: it’s haphazardly, warmly cluttered, but it doesn’t spiritually belong to him. He’s the only one not having sex there. It’s an inviting place, though, to anyone who enters; the irony of the sleazy situation notwithstanding, it’s a non-threatening space, too. While the floozy mistresses wonder whom it belongs to, softening their edges a bit (and perhaps taken off-guard by its domestic, rather than expectedly ribald, appearance) so that the lecherous insurance execs who have brought them there can slip in for the kill, Baxter’s superiors consistently take its availability and reliability for granted (they love the little cheese crackers he stocks and lament their short supply). Baxter’s bedroom door, if there actually is one, remains open throughout the film, a clue to a readiness for his own meaningful companionship, if not playboy acrobatics. The bedroom is where Baxter rescues and rehabilitates Fran; it and the kitchen, where he’s newly motivated to cook dinner during Fran’s recovery, are always visible on the left and right of the frame in Wilder’s master shots, its alignment a reminder of an ordered domestic ideal.
The kitchen especially comes alive during Fran’s stay: Baxter was a sad sack TV dinner guy before her, but both characters end up trading off meal prep like a real, live couple (Wilder’s kitchens are vital places – Sabrina studies in a Paris one to recover from her broken heart; Neff and Phyllis post-coitally discuss the details of her husband’s murder for the first time in Neff’s ominously lit kitchen; Marilyn’s Girl leaves her underwear in the kitchen fridge to beat the heat in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch). It’s not until Baxter decides to relinquish his apartment, does that nurturing pay off as anything that might offer real hope for a future. When Fran shows up to finish that memorable last hand of cards and deliver her parting mantra, it’s pretty clear – no matter the walls and furniture, home is wherever these two are together.
Although Wilder would be the first to say he abhorred camera pyrotechnics or anything that would call attention to the director outside of an elegant setup, he was apt to design compositions that were quite technically complex and psychologically illuminating.6 In Fortune Cookie, the reunited Harry and Sandy surreptitiously reveal that they still have their wedding rings; it’s supposed to ring as a re-meet-cute moment, but Wilder sees it as another chance to subconsciously reveal “the frustration which marriage to an emotionally dead woman causes Harry” (Armstrong 122) and salvation all at once. The scene plays out in the living room and Wilder lets the camera rest on Harry rather than intercutting between him and Sandy, illuminating only his increasingly enraptured countenance at being in her company. Just behind his shoulder, though, in a reflection in the apartment’s bay window, we can see Boom Boom, playing nursemaid in recompense of “injuring” Harry, enter the room from the kitchen where he has been preparing dinner, a literal emergence from Harry’s subconscious and soul.
Boom Boom, visually and emotionally, is never far from his thoughts, his true kindred spirit in a way the sultry, wan Sandy never could be. She’s the opposite of the energetic, reliable Boom Boom; she’s physically and expressively languid, most often found horizontal and bed-disheveled. And now, at Willie’s winking behest – and an unspoken promise of a big payday – she’s jumping into the scheme. Willie’s logic is that a reunion between the injured Harry and his estranged wife can only help their chances of winning the suit, swinging the empathy vote; Sandy uses sex as a cynical down payment on a future that, ultimately, her callousness and apathy will undo. She’s a Wilder troupe performer and archetype, a character to whom “money, more than gender or even attraction, remains the ultimate aphrodisiac” (Cabin).
Boom Boom’s reflection/emergence shot, and its attendant visual psychology, is cleverly reciprocated in a masterful bit of choreography in a perilously tight space, Wilder’s projection of morally hazy Willie’s cosmic comeuppance. The filmmaker routinely stages and cuts between parallel action in Cookie to reveal just how differently Harry and Willie are participating in the mounting lawsuit caper, and he does it here by affording us a look into the life of Willie’s mind. Willie telephones Harry to dissuade him from getting frisky with Sandy, while behind him his home is clamorous and chaotic. Willie’s kids rollerskate down a hallway that links to the kitchen, precisely where his wife currently exits to with dinner’s pots and pans. The resulting cacophony of clatter is the point where the crowd converges (and the same position within the frame as Boom Boom’s reflection had been).
The audience isn’t privy to the actual crash – that happens offscreen – and neither is Willie, but that’s the point: Willie has long ago lost touch with the tones and rhythms, however off-kilter, of his family. And he’s lost sight, too, of domestic tranquility, rolling his eyes skyward, his spirit bereft of anything kindred-like. Willie is, as Robert Armstrong notes, “a cartoon celebration of what happens when Reason … triumphs over feelings” (119).
“I can’t marry you because I love you,” a matter-of-fact Irma explains to Nestor, a shrewd declaration considering Irma’s characters do indeed marry in the end (a conceit to its fable-like underpinnings); the film’s funniest line is no joke, though. In fact, it likely reflected Wilder’s own sentiments regarding domesticity.7 The construct of marriage – specifically in the post-World War II traditional, hierarchal sense – holds little weight in his films; on the contrary, its tenets are often disrespected, disregarded as a nuisance.
C. C. Baxter rents out his Manhattan apartment to the executives above him looking to carry on secret affairs. For these dubious men – portrayed as weaselly, giggling frat boys, never seemingly engaged in actual crucial work or positions of integrity, domestic or otherwise – extramarital sex on the way up the corporate ladder is akin to a casual tennis lunch. They’re frivolously inhumane, egomaniacal, often reeking of seething frustration, and undeserved of any honestly earned wild streak. They belong to the rarified, “gendered and sexualized system of power and dominance that privileges and maintains a lying and cheating white capitalist patriarchy” (Hoffman 72).
They’re also constantly juggling time and space, arranging the puzzle pieces of minutes and seconds spent between their home and side lives. And, as Al Kirkeby (David Lewis) demonstrates in the film’s first act, the execs’ actual pleasures are momentary and provide no real, lasting comfort. Kirkeby ushers his buxom date out the door – no post-coital cuddling here – already an hour past the agreed time with Baxter, to get back to a life he’ll plan a way out of again the first minute he has. Joe Dobisch (Ray Walston), too, is in an existential, not to mention physical, hurry: he calls Baxter from a bar, first declaring that he needs just 45 minutes’ worth of time at his pad before drunkenly reassessing the amorous intensity of his willing date. Thirty minutes, it turns out, is all he’ll need. Dobisch, like the others, acquiesces to a kind of clipped sexuality, accepting of an unspoken edict that suggests that this all comes with the territory. It’s certainly not about sincere love, it’s not even about honest affection. It’s about a hollow conquest, one of many that takes a similar form their pursuit of material success does, a never-look-back shrine of indefatigable masculinity and self-righteousness that these men pray to because the phallic rat race told them so – get married, have two kids and a dog, earn your way up to a maid or a nanny, then start stepping out on your wife.8
Joe (Tony Curtis) in Some Like It Hot, charming and bullishly manipulative, makes it clear from the film’s start that he’s the kind of guy that’ll rage against the dying of bachelorhood. His explicit pursuit of bedding Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (the ethereal Monroe again) – and his utter distaste for domesticity – is highlighted when, disguised as millionaire oil heir Junior, he growls at and runs off a puttering little kid at the beach where he’s planned to snare Sugar. The notion of children hanging around, a natural extension of family, is met with a threat, however feigned, of violence, as it was with the kitchen collision in Fortune Cookie. It’s no surprise then that Joe’s amorous interactions with Sugar are so filled with angst (he’s faking impotence, a go-to malady in Wilder’s work, and she’s waxing philosophically about the dearth of worthwhile men); a flurry of shifting identities; and, like Apartment’s execs, rushed lovemaking (Joe can only fleetingly commandeer Osgood Fielding’s anchored yacht for his tryst, while Jerry occupies Fielding back on shore).
Wilder drops hints that the strictly domestic life is a distant second-place booby prize to freewheeling or fatalistic pursuits of personal discovery, even if both paths frequently hold the promise of frustration. Double Indemnity’s production design, for example, does the real talking in a scene where Neff and Phyllis meet in a grocery market to discuss their post-murder moves. They discreetly murmur in a shopping aisle, ducking behind a tower of Farina baby food; their salacious conversation in the shadow of domestic iconography amounts to a Wilder sneer in the direction of the “dignity” of family. The paradoxical happenings not only suggest that the sanctity of the domestic construct can’t save them now, but that they’re too awash in lust and fear – of sex, liberation, control, and judgment – to even sense the irony. Again, Harvey crystallizes the connections: “The act of killing the husband serves as the supreme act of violence against family life, and has, in some sense, to be atoned for through the mutual destruction of the lovers in the macabre shootout, at the family house, which ends the film.”9
In Kiss Me, Stupid, Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) appears freewheeling – she’s a waitress and dancer at the local watering hole/burlesque house, the appropriately named Belly Button – but she’s more humane and layered than any of the characters here. She may be a hired hand, made to play extra nice with Dean’s Dino, softening his will to say anything but “yes” to recording the composition that amateur songwriter Orville (Walston) is trying to shill to him, but sex isn’t on her mind. Even under more heartfelt auspices, Polly can’t get at a satisfying domestic happy ending, something which she admits she yearns for. Being without a man, she says, “is like a trailer without a car, it ain’t going nowhere”; the line doesn’t ring of complicit servitude or a concession of sidekick status in a male-dominated society as much as it does of someone who’s been convinced that a domestic life is the American Dream’s proper endgame, holding on to aspirations “which [she] believe[s] may bring permanent fulfillment but probably will bring only temporary solace” (Armstrong 112). It’s true, she doesn’t get what she desires within the film’s running time, but she is the only townie that gets to leave dusty, barren Climax, Nevada, in hopes that her personal (or otherwise) climax occurs somewhere more resplendent.
Why so down on relationships, Billy? If domestic partnerships, marriages, and hook-ups all struggle in the face of a slide into moral and existential torpor, and the sex games people play lead to unsatisfying conclusions anyway, how can any union survive the Wilder savagery, a deep-rooted perspective borne of “cynicism and bleakness … attributed to [his] European sensibility” (Sklar 253)? There seems no right path to contentment, yet there’s evidence that Wilder thought relationships were worth salvaging, too, and stripping the rhizomatous Sturm und Drang that attaches itself to the chase may be a key to its livelihood. In other words, skip the sex. But … how?
Well, often sex being relegated to the sidelines is a necessity from the start. The exploration of characters who dispense with traditionally masculine ideals and traits, masculinity especially defined by the years between the close of World War II and the societal sea change of the mid-to-late 1960s – an era correlating precisely to the feverish prime of the director’s career – bears treasures in Some Like It Hot. To escape the wrath of Spats Colombo’s (George Raft) mob after witnessing a massacre, Joe and Jerry become Josephine and Daphne, musicians on their way to a Florida hotel residency with an all-female band. The inversion of feminine and masculine presuppositions, however, isn’t just a narrative construct – they can’t succumb to hooking up with their bandmates and risk discovery as men, they’ll wind up dead! – or a means to an end for Lemmon’s Jerry, specifically … it’s freeing and transformative.
Joe and Jerry are an old married couple. Joe is decidedly masculine, gambling and chasing girls a specialty; he’s a slave to immediate gratification and prone to casual bullying of the wispier Jerry. Jerry, for his part, effortlessly occupies the feminine side of the relationship: he’s more mature when he indicates he’ll use any performance paycheck (a rarity in the days approaching the Depression) to fix a tooth filling and pay off debts, decidedly responsible, matronly acts. And when he asks, in full female regalia, traipsing down the train station platform, “How do they walk in these things?” it feels less a condemnation of high heels than a personal challenge to inhabit them correctly. Jerry’s acceptance of his role almost immediately extends beyond its initial self-preserving needs; Joe will jump back and forth between identities, hewing close to his male one, but Jerry “remains unsynchronized, like a traced outline constantly departing from the thing traced” (Armstrong 94). When he changes his name from the obvious Geraldine to Daphne at the last second, it doesn’t strike as impulsive, but something he’s mulled over prior. And even if Jerry initially, lecherously, realizes his new guise puts the gals in the band at emotional and physical ease, he doesn’t exploit the situation to his sexual benefit, but, rather, is quick to feel a kinship. After sharing tailoring tips with some of them, he takes the rap for Sugar’s banned liquor flask. It’s a beautiful moment of newfound solidarity, one that comes from Jerry’s heart, not his loins.
Later that night, an insomniac Sugar hops into Jerry/Daphne’s bunk to thank him; he feels a momentary spike in adrenaline, but it’s an altogether fleeting thrill when an exodus of the band’s girls join them, giggling and imbibing. In the revelry, Daphne’s gathering has become a celebration of girldom; robbed of the opportunity for secret sex opens Jerry up to platonically connecting with the girls on their level and to having fun, an element in short supply when palling around with Joe. The scene is a foreshadowing, too, not of Jerry’s desexualization, but of his fondness for the enervating joy of companionship.
Wilder has readily admitted that even though Jerry gets swept up in Osgood Fielding’s proposal of marriage in Hot’s final act, “he was not consciously toying with the notion of engaging in a homosexual relationship. It was just the idea of being engaged to a millionaire that was very appealing [to him]” (Phillips 229). A visual joke seems to corroborate Wilder’s assertion that sex would be implicitly absent from this union: Osgood, all grabby and flirty, trails Jerry/Daphne into the Seminole-Ritz Hotel’s elevator, whereupon the camera pans up from the closing doors to its floor indicator just above. The lever springs to life, a ringing, phallic arrow rising up – on the soundtrack, a sound of a pronounced slap – then deflating back down to its original position. The camera pans down, the doors open, and Daphne angrily strides out of the elevator, leaving the millionaire rubbing his cheek and understanding the score: physicality is out of bounds.
Yet, later, while the presumably more sexually compatible Joe (as Junior) and Sugar are slogging through layers of deception and angst aboard Osgood’s yacht, Jerry and Osgood are in effortless syncopation, waltzing and tangoing the night away. Like Nestor in Irma, Jerry has “forgotten” who he is, or at least his need for a sexual relationship, in the name of stability, financial security, and – here it is again – fun. Joe and Sugar’s pasts and currently curdling lust seem fated to inform their future, but the Daphne/Osgood pairing, all things considered, has a decent chance of making it.
In the case of Cookie’s Harry Hinkle and Boom Boom Jackson, it is their inherently feminine leanings that immediately endear them to, or at least elicit empathy from, the audience. Harry has to project a helplessness in the name of Willie’s theatrics; weakness is not a terribly difficult role for him to play, still stinging as he is from the noxious relationship with Sandy, who was/is the sexual aggressor, an inversion of typically male-centric characteristics. And that he has to do this from a wheelchair, his body in disuse and strapped into a corset to limit mobility, amounts to emasculation. Boom Boom’s natural inclination is to bring flowers to Harry in the hospital and later he’ll cook and care for him; he has a motherly air about him, brought on, in part, by a need to provide for his family. Boom Boom, too, is broken: he’s been distracted and ineffectual in football games since the accident and harbors the burden of a history of familial alcoholism. Armstrong notes, “what unites Harry and Boom Boom is the recognition in each that the other has been rendered only half a man” (116).
If Harry and Boom Boom offer the only hope for a genuine friendship in Cookie, it’s just the “latest in a long line of Wilderian buddies which stretches back to Walter and Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity” (Armstrong 119). They, too, dispense with traditional notions of the hetero-male friendship. Even aside from the two instances in which Neff tells Keyes that he loves him, the affection between them is apparent. Neff honors his colleague and mentor’s intelligence and judgment enough to “confess” his crimes to him via Dictaphone and makes a point of not underestimating Keyes’ professional instincts and doggedness (akin to the otherworldly clairvoyance mothers seem to possess) while carrying out his fraudulent scheme.10 Keyes wants Neff to make some sacrifices, give up the door-to-door game, and come “settle down” in the investigation branch of the insurance company.
If the open, “heart as big as a house” Keyes represents the pseudo-matronly symbol of family in a film otherwise repelled by the notion, often humanely offering, despite his exterior crustiness, ways in and out for characters (and not just for Neff; he allows a lying truck driver to wiggle out of his ill-advised insurance scam, even explaining how to properly exit through his office door to freedom), the impetuous, narrow-focused Neff is the stubborn male id. Had he only taken Keyes’ domestic bait, the need for confession becomes moot. Phillip Sipiora writes: “Much has been said about Keyes’ possible homosexual attraction for Neff. A love story can, of course, have many meanings, including a father-son type of relationship of love and respect, which clearly is part of the Keyes-Neff relationship.”
If that statement also evokes the gender/sexual inversion of the Daphne/Osgood Fielding dynamic, then the vital difference is that Jerry ultimately listens to his heart, while Neff, fatally, ignores his.
While Baxter cares for the recovering Fran in the cradle of his apartment, the first such time that genuine warmth between two people has been conjured in this space, she awakens in him a dormant aptitude for domesticity. If it’s a dusty old relic from the waning days of 1950s sexual politics, that being deft in the kitchen and managing the facilities of a buzzing household is a woman’s job, then, well, in this case, the stereotypical feminization looks good on Baxter, and it’s healing for him, too.11 Nursing Fran back to health, cooking her dinner, and tending to her comfort inadvertently give him a respite from the searing heat of clamoring up the company’s hierarchy; when he shifts his attention to something real, he uses that coiled energy humanely and selflessly for her sake only, becoming the mensch that his neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) hoped he could be. Notably, Baxter puts any feelings of love – or projections of those feelings, anyway – on hold during Fran’s recuperation. He may be falling for her, but he’s not about to complicate her life any further. Alison Hoffman notes, “[Baxter’s] desires seem far more emotional than prurient. He’s much more interested in caring for Fran, rather than fucking her (or, for that matter, fucking her over)” (81).
When all is done and said, the endings of Wilder’s films reward those characters who think and act, as Baxter did, humanely and selflessly; it’s the only way to endure an age consumed by “pursuing the post-modern deities of Money and Status” (Armstrong 102). Cahiers du Cinema writer Jean Doucet wrote in 1960: “For Wilder, human beings are wading in mire. Their cowardice makes their position almost hopeless. Salvation can come only if they acknowledge their state. Profound disgust gives rise to a nostalgia for purity. Ultimately, Wilder’s characters are romantics, idealists sunk in depravity, which is itself a consequence of the decadence of a civilization, the decay of a society.”
If most of that is true – and Wilder himself admitted that his work “portray[ed] Americans as beasts”12 – “cowardice” lingers as an especially unfair label to hang on Wilder’s more decent characters, principally because he subverts their outcast/outlier status and general socio-political bewilderment into something resembling heroism in the face of everyone else’s cowardly indifference, overconfidence, and selfishness. Giving of oneself is, indeed, a brave and bold gesture and a kind of salvation in these films, becoming another path to transformation … and triumph.
The prize is a relationship worth a damn, a place of comfort, a place to renew one’s soul and to draw irrevocably closer to another’s. When Fran delivers that last line over cards with Baxter in his boxed-up, now barren apartment, there’s a spark in her eye that encompasses all the warmth the space – and Baxter – once afforded her; it’s not a look as prelude to sex, but it’s sensual and soul-stirring, more seductive and honest than any come-on ever could be. The pair might have something good here. At the close of The Fortune Cookie, it’s apparent that Harry’s Mustang will be repossessed in the morning and he’ll be dealing with the fallout of lying in wildly public fashion, and Boom Boom’s future as a pro football player is tenuous. But scampering off the field together as they do, tossing an imaginary pigskin around, there’s solace in that they found each other. In the middle of Irma La Douce, Nestor speaks his own truth through his alter ego, Lord X: “All I want is a bit of companionship, a shoulder to cry on, a smile to lean against.”
The street-wizened Irma may find that a bit eccentric, but she takes it to heart, and in the film’s third act, she tenderly attempts to rid X of his impotency, not by physically touching him or engaging his libido, but by appealing to his heart and imagination. She talks him through a sensual trip to Tahiti, describing in intimate detail the scent of the beaches, the caress of the warm waters, conjuring with words the colors of the sunset. It’s one of the most romantic scenes in any of Wilder’s films, imbuing in the audience – and Nestor – the sense that this soulful pairing will find contentment on a whole different plane.
There’s that word again: heart. Its presence – or absence – is frequently thumping just under the diegesis; lines of dialogue analogous to the condition and constitution of the heart – battered, emboldened, or broken, like the elevator operator’s – double as ironic longings in some Wilder characters. “The heartless so-and-so’s,” snarls Boulevard’s Joe Gillis about the throng of journalists and hangers-on buzzing around Norma’s mansion the dawn after his murder. He’s frustrated, of course, that the breathing mouths aren’t using their hearts while his has just stopped, but it’s also what they’ve done to Norma to push her to this moment, his heart finally softening for her. When the puerile Walter Neff sputters that Keyes had “a heart as big as a house,” he’s in part wishing he had the will and common sense to seek shelter in it.
Even the two interlocking hearts paint-slopped onto a Parisian cobblestone street in Irma can’t be completely washed away by the morning’s city janitorial attendant. Its vibrant curves and colors, likely created by a pair of the night’s lovers, collapse in a river of blood at the hands of a water hose – imagery denoting a love that is at once nebulous, violent, and temporary – but won’t it then flow through the sewers under the Rue Casanova, literally and figuratively underscoring everything that transpires above?
So, the cynically sentimental Billy Wilder implores us, in his way, to reckon with the heart. Simply listen to it. It’s the most elemental of things – to be decent, to be kind, to find the common ground. It’s not a leap to say that in the absence of sex, the other senses of a relationship are heightened; the ones that persevere in Wilder’s cinematic world are beholden to stripping away all the forces that could distract two people from taking a clear peek into each other’s souls. That clarity is not the only determining force in making a real connection, however. The characters that stand in triumph over twists of cruel fate peppered their way – Baxter and Fran, Harry and Boom Boom, Polly the Pistol, even Jerry and Osgood – have done so organically, reacting to and reconciling with scenarios unfolding around them that are beyond their control; instead of burying their head in the sand along with their goodwill, they retain their essential goodness and unvanquished, if exhausted, optimism. Ethically challenged folks like Neff, Whiplash Willie, and Sandy Hinkle mistake ambition for fate and sex for due diligence, attempting to steer purposefully in the direction of a destiny each feels is deserved, assumed, but is not – and they’re the last to know – aligned with their dubious karma; their blindly Shakespearean inclinations ultimately leave them floundering, or worse, dead.
There’s another terrific Wilder/Diamond zinger in the last line canon: Zelda Spooner (Felicia Farr) leans into her prattling, overanalyzing husband Orville, who has finally achieved mainstream musical success amidst a clash of propitious extramarital affairs, and coos, “Kiss me, stupid.” It’s the final revelation of the dynamic filmmaker’s cinematic oeuvre: with grace and faith, let the female embrace sway and renew; don’t overthink it, find genuine and soulful ways to express love, and move forward into a spectacular unknown. Ah … therein lies that poetry Wilder was talking about. And it’s pretty sexy.
Armstrong, Richard. Billy Wilder, American Film Realist. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000. Print.
Block, Bruce. The Apartment audio commentary. Bruce Block, 2011. Blu-ray.
Cabin, Chris. “Some like It Hot: Blu-ray Review.” Rev. of Some like It Hot. Slantmagazine.com. 29 May 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing about Film. 8th ed. University of Pennsylvania: Pearson, 2012. Print.
Douchet, Jean. Masters of Cinema: Billy Wilder. Ed. Noël Simsolo. Paris: Cahiers Du Cinéma Sarl, 2011. Print.
Edmonds, Patricia. “The First Time.” National Geographic. Jan. 2015: 20. Print.
Harvey, Sylvia. “Woman’s Place: The Absent family of Film Noir.” Movies and Mass Culture. Ed. John Belton. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996. 171-82. Print.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Hoffman, Alison R. “Shame and the Single Girl: Reviving Fran and Falling for Baxter in The Apartment.” Billy Wilder, Movie-maker: Critical Essays on the Films. Ed. Karen McNally. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. 71-86. Print.
“Irma La Douce (musical).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 13 Dec. 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irma_La_Douce_(musical).
Phillips, Gene D. Some like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 2010. Print.
Sipiora, Phillip. “Phenomenological Masking: Complications of Identity in Double Indemnity.” Billy Wilder, Movie-maker: Critical Essays on the Films. Ed. Karen McNally. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. 102-116. Print.
Sklar, Robert. Movie-made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.
Wilder, Billy. “The Writer Speaks: Billy Wilder.” Interview. YouTube. 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOjDuaLBl9c.
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Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots.
- Wilder’s battles with American motion picture censorship committees are well documented, principally throughout Phillips’ book. [↩]
- Edmonds, “The First Time” from National Geographic, January 2015. [↩]
- The quote is from an interview Wilder conducted for the Writer’s Guild Foundation series, The Writer Speaks. [↩]
- The quote is from a review of the stage version of Irma La Douce, originally published in Life magazine, November 14, 1960, according to the musical’s Wikipedia page. [↩]
- Film producer and historian Bruce Block talks at length about Trainer and Boyle’s set contributions in the commentary for The Apartment Blu-ray. [↩]
- Wilder, The Writer Speaks. [↩]
- See Phillips, 2-3. [↩]
- Hoffman uses the terms “phallic” and “rat race” independently of each other in her essay “Shame and the Single Girl,” which I then semantically synthesized to evoke her essential meaning. [↩]
- Sipiora uses this quote verbatim in his essay “Phenomenological Masking.” [↩]
- While recording the details of his crimes on Keyes’ Dictaphone, Neff actually points out that he’s not actually confessing anything, but simply telling Keyes how he did it. [↩]
- Hoffman points out that Baxter takes “pleasure in the feminine,” preferring the melodrama Grand Hotel with Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford over the “violent masculinity found on Western-themed programs.” [↩]
- Armstrong notes this Wilder quote (113) from Neil Sinyard and Adrian Turner’s book, Journey Down Sunset Boulevard (BCW Publishing, 1979). [↩]