Bridging the transition between the studio system and the rise of the independent producer-director, Billy Wilder was one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century. Fascinated by human folly, he explored the American character and its attitudes toward such diverse subjects as war, addiction, suicide, politics, and mass media, creating a classic in almost every genre he touched. In this course, we will scratch the surface of Wilder’s incomparable range by exploring four films from different decades of his expansive career.
Adapting James M. Cain’s novel with co-screenwriter Raymond Chandler, Wilder created the archetypal film noir in Double Indemnity (1944). It is the sordid tale of a Los Angeles insurance agent (Fred MacMurray) seduced by his client’s wife (Barbara Stanwyck) into murdering her husband for his death benefits, as well as a masterpiece of skillful narrative and sociocultural resonance. Ace in the Hole (1951) tells the even darker story of a washed-up reporter (Kirk Douglas) who salvages his career by exploiting news of a man buried alive in a cave, delaying efforts to rescue him, and collaborating with a corrupt sheriff and the trapped man’s unscrupulous wife to create a media frenzy. Wilder’s scathing criticism of the methods and morals of the American press did not go over well at the time with critics (no surprise) or audiences, though it was loved in Europe.
The Apartment (1960) is one of the smartest and darkest romantic comedies ever made in Hollywood. Set in a world that Mad Men devotees will surely recognize, a low-level insurance man (Jack Lemmon) eager to climb the corporate ladder lets his boss (Fred MacMurray) use his apartment for weeknight trysts. Jealousy, heartache—and, yes, humor—ensue when a love triangle forms between the two men and an unassuming elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine). With Fedora (1978), in which a failed film producer (William Holden) tries to lure a great movie star back to Hollywood, Wilder revisits the themes of Sunset Boulevard from the vantage point of the late 1970s. Janet Maslin called it “a proud, passionate remembrance of the way movies used to be, and a bitter smile at what they have become.”
Billy Wilder’s films are as fresh and vibrant today as they were when he was at the peak of his career. Join us to learn about one of Hollywood’s earliest, most prolific, and most successful writer/directors.