Ranking the Films of Billy Wilder

Movies Lists Billy Wilder
Ranking the Films of Billy Wilder

For Billy Wilder, one of the most influential filmmakers in Hollywood history, the priorities were always story and character. If the premise of a movie, no matter the genre, is fully supported by original, three-dimensional characters roaming around an airtight story structure that doesn’t shortchange them in service of a bunch of clichés, then one can get away with any subversion of expectations and bonding of disparate tones. Wilder was an immaculate student of human nature—its ability to inspire, its capacity for horrific acts, hate, love, strength, weakness, selfishness, selflessness, and various other absurdities and existential anomalies in between.

Wilder was a master of genre filmmaking, propelling many genres light years forward with only one or two features, yet he never lost sight of the importance of building great characters to inhabit and enliven the script. He began his career as a screenwriter, and always considered himself first and foremost to be one, even while hailed as one of the top directors in the industry. In a 1981 interview, he said that the only reason he decided to become a director was because only having screenwriting duties on a movie was like making a bed for someone else to have sex on.

His most cynical and dark dramatic material could have some of the wittiest and funniest writing in it; his lightest comedies could have moments of supreme sorrow and ennui. Before he left us in 2002, he graced us with 26 features that he directed. As a tribute, follow us as we rank them, from worst, at least as “bad” as a Wilder film could be, to the very best. (One note: 1934’s The Bad Seed, which Wilder co-directed, is not available stateside on home video, so that one is excluded. That’s fine in a way, since it allows us to solely focus on the Hollywood work that defined him.)

25. Buddy Buddy (1981)


Buddy Buddy is Wilder’s third film with Hollywood’s quintessential odd couple; Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. What turned out to be his last project as director is a bizarrely annoying misfire, an unnecessarily manic, violent, grating dark comedy about a mob hitman (Matthau), tasked with knocking off a witness from a hotel room, constantly thrown off track by a sniveling TV producer (Lemmon) trying to kill himself next door. What starts off as a clever premise gets lost into a rabbit hole of random sit-com shenanigans that involve a weird sex cult led by Klaus Kinski. What sucks the most is that describing Buddy Buddy is a hell of a lot more fun than watching it, since Wilder fails to infuse much energy into the project. As Wilder himself later admitted, Matthau is miscast in the role of the straight man killer. The part needed an actual stoic action star to counteract Lemmon’s constant hysteria.

24. Fedora (1978)


Wilder obviously conceived Fedora to act as a spiritual companion to Sunset Boulevard. How else to explain a project that once again sees William Holden as an opportunist Hollywood player trying to take advantage of an aged Hollywood star of yesteryear living in seclusion, only for the whole endeavor to end in tragedy? This time, Holden plays an independent producer who tries to leverage his ancient one-night stand with Hollywood’s golden age star, Fedora (Marthe Keller), to convince her to come out of retirement so she can join his adaptation of Anna Karenina. What made Sunset Boulevard so special was that, no matter how crazy and self-centered Norma Desmond becomes, we can always relate to her deep insecurities and see her as a victim of her circumstances. Fedora, on the other hand, as is revealed during the third act via an awkward tone shift into Agatha Christie-style murder mystery territory, is pretty much an abusive psychopath. Wilder tries to get us to understand her choices by bringing up the dog-eat-dog shallowness of Hollywood, but it’s hard go along this time around.

23. The Emperor Waltz (1948)


This one is much more for fans of fairly standard Bing Crosby musicals than anyone looking for Wilder’s signature wit and technically progressive energy. Wilder directed this bright, colorful, almost abrasively non-offensive piece of enjoyable but immediately forgettable fluff as his follow-up to his Best Picture winner, The Lost Weekend. Anyone familiar with that natural suicide aide would certainly cut Wilder some slack for wanting to immediately move onto a wistful romance about a lowly gramophone salesman (Crosby) and a rich Austrian woman (Joan Fontaine) falling in love and trying to remain together despite their class difference. Even their dogs fall in love—isn’t that cute? If one forgets that this is part of Wilder’s filmography, it’s a perfectly enjoyable old Hollywood Technicolor musical. But for Wilder fans, it’s only for the completionists.

22. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)


On the surface, the premise is golden: What if Dr. Watson wrote about the cases where Sherlock Holmes failed, and, now that these documents have “resurfaced,” why don’t we watch an adaptation of them? The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was supposed to be one of the most ambitious films of Wilder’s career. It was initially intended to be a three-and-a-half hour road show release that worked as an anthology film about various cases that Holmes failed to solve. The film was then taken from him and cut down to two hours. What remains is an awkwardly paced mess that starts with a misguided and languidly paced thirty-minute short where Holmes (Robert Stephens) pretends to be gay in order to avoid hooking up with a Russian ballet dancer. It’s as if we’re watching the failed pilot of a Sherlock Holmes sit-com before moving onto the main feature where he tries to find out what happened to the husband of a amnesiac woman (Gabrielle Valladon) who shows up at his door. The plot goes to some weird places—little people acrobats as sailors, the origin of the Loch Ness Monster—to maintain our attention, but Wilder’s insistence on playing Holmes completely straight and wrapping this crazy idea around an entirely too self-serious epic Cinerama feel doesn’t do him many favors. The idea of Holmes as failure is cool, but he also eventually comes across as a fairly passive character.

21. Five Graves to Cairo (1943)


It’s hard for any World War II movie made in Hollywood while the actual war was going on not to inject a heavy dose of propaganda, and Five Graves to Cairo, a fairly suspenseful chamber drama about an undercover British soldier (Franchot Tone) trying to uncover the location of German supplies while surrounded by German troops in an Egyptian hotel, certainly fits that bill, especially when it comes to its sudden shift into jingoism during the third act. Since Wilder is a fan of character and dialogue-based stories, a lot of his films are based on plays. He usually figures out a way to expand the confines of a play in order to transform it into a wholly cinematic experience, but Five Graves to Cairo always feels like we’re simply watching the play its based on. Sticking with a single location for most of the runtime could work in bringing out the claustrophobia and suspense felt by the protagonist, but Tone is too dull of a casting choice to bring that intensity. Erich von Stroheim proved in The Grand Illusion that he’s the only actor who can bring humanity to a ruthless German commandant, and he doesn’t disappoint here as the British soldier’s nemesis. The film touches on the civilian frustrations with the war through a neutral character (Anne Baxter) who just wants to see his brother alive, but drops the ball in favor of an inorganic last minute motivation switch.

20. Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

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Wilder was a master at integrating risqué material into projects that seemed innocent and sweet romantic comedies on the surface. For example, looked at from a certain angle, The Apartment is about a sad sack who pimps his own place so his bosses can serial cheat on their wives while he suffers an existential crisis. Kiss Me, Stupid certainly holds the promise of yet another Wilder-trademark cynical takedown of the shallowness, soullessness and desperation of show business, but it lets its horribly self-centered character off the hook a bit too easily. I’ll give Dean Martin this much credit; he plays essentially a version of himself as a full-on rapey, sex-addicted, elitist and smug alcoholic at a time when self-deprecating self-portrayals of celebrities were unheard of. However, the story that surrounds this pioneering move, about a desperate songwriter (Ray Walston) who hires the kind of lovable hooker who only exists in rom-coms (Kim Novak) to act as his wife and seduce the uber-famous Dino (Martin) so he’ll sell some of his songs, lacks the satirical bite that it deserves.

19. The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)


First off, the elephant in the room: I have no idea why the Jewish Wilder, who lost family members to the Holocaust, would make a film glamorizing the Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindberg. To his credit, The Spirit of St. Louis doesn’t have a single line about the politics of Lindberg (Jimmy Stewart) and focuses entirely on his iconic flight across the Atlantic. As epic and grand the film’s technical ambitions are, it really comes to life during its most intimate and personal moments, mainly as it depicts the minute details of Lindberg’s death-defying flight. One can easily imagine one of those single-character, single location movies depicting Lindberg’s thoughts as he crossed the vast ocean by himself, kind of a historical version of the Tom Hardy-starring Locke. However, the studio was obviously interested in a traditional biopic, so Wilder undermines the raw strength of the flying sequences with completely useless flashbacks to Lindberg’s youth, made all the more awkward by the then 47-year-old Jimmy Stewart playing a teenager. A critical and box-office disaster at the time, The Spirit of St. Louis is nowhere near the bastard stepchild of Wilder’s filmography that many think it to be. It’s a pretty satisfying, rousing depiction of one of the 20th Century’s biggest achievements. It just should have been at least 45 minutes shorter.

18. A Foreign Affair (1948)


This one was a bit of a gamble from the start: How to make a breezy, screwball romantic comedy about the love triangle between a frisky captain (John Lund), a German singer struggling to survive (Marlene Dietrich), and a square but feisty congresswoman (Jean Arthur), within the backdrop of a bombed out and miserable post-World War II Berlin, shot in real locations no less? Almost as if trolling his audience for wanting to escape into fun Hollywood romances while the world had just gotten out of a massive trauma, Wilder uses happy-go-lucky rom-com music during sweeping shots of bombed out buildings and a city surrounded by paranoia and misery. On the other hand, Wilder was apparently happy to see those who killed members of his family punished while shooting these scenes, so take that with a grain of salt. The twists and turns in this comedy of errors are fairly predictable, but Dietrich’s natural presence and charisma, as well as Arthur’s dedication to her character’s borderline cartoonish lack of self-awareness, creates a fun genre piece. It also works well as a fairly grounded and surprisingly critical documentation of the culture and attitudes that surrounded U.S.’s post-war efforts. Too bad John Lund is a bit too much of a wet blanket for us to believe Fontaine and Dietrich would be falling over one another to bag him.

17. The Fortune Cookie (1966)


This one is just a plain fun time at the movies. Sure, it’s about the lengths immoral people are willing to go in search of easy riches, a Wilder staple, but one can’t help but wonder if the overall reason for The Fortune Cookie’s existence is to give as much space for Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau to flex their natural opposites attract chemistry. As usual with films with this duo, Lemmon is the meek and moral everyman—at least the decent everyman the audience should aspire to be—as a sports photographer who suffers a broken leg while on the job, and Matthau is the sneaky representation of unchecked American entitlement, as his brother-in-law who tries to scam the insurance agency by making the injury look much worse than it is. The premise is of course used as an excuse for a series of set-pieces where the duo go through ridiculous lengths to “prove” their case, sandwiched in between some grade-A Lemmon-Matthau banter and screaming matches as the photographer becomes more and more uncomfortable with the brother-in-law’s ploy.

16. The Front Page (1974)


I know it borders on critical heresy, but this is my favorite of the many film adaptations of Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur’s iconic play about the press’ thirst for scoops no matter how grisly and tragic the subject. Yes, that includes His Girl Friday. One advantage that Wilder’s version has over that classic screwball comedy is that it sticks to the gender assignment of the play and has two male protagonists. This strips the project from His Girl Friday’s unnecessary romance sub-plot and dated sexism. Yet there are many other adaptations with two male leads, what makes this one special? First of all, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau come to the rescue once again as they bring their trademark manic, moral opposites energy in full force. Another reason is that Wilder captures a nostalgic old Hollywood feel by only using obvious soundstages and a lush, colorful look. There was a flurry of such aesthetic during the ’70s, from The Sting to Bugsy Malone, but The Front Page captures it perfectly.

15. Avanti! (1972)


In its essence, Avanti is a fairly predictable romantic comedy/comedy of errors that uses the dreamy soft focus backdrop of an Italian coastal town. Not much new there as far as Hollywood genre work is concerned. It’s also a bit on the long side for the simple story it tells. So what places it so high on this list and makes it one of Wilder’s most underrated late-era work? The answer is simple: The adorable Juliet Mills as Ms. Piggott, a free spirit who takes life as it comes along and enjoys every moment despite her crippling self-esteem issues. I realize that it sounds like I’m describing a textbook case of a manic pixie dream girl, but Wilder and Mills always manage to keep her grounded by taking her insecurities seriously. The story of a stuck-up mega rich businessman (You should be used to seeing Jack Lemmon’s name on this list at this point) flying to Italy to bury his father and ending up falling in love with a woman (Mills) who turns out to be far closer to his past than he’d like to admit, has enough twists and turns to keep us intrigued. But it’s Mills’ presence that keeps us glued to the screen.

14. Irma La Douce (1963)


Make no mistake; The Apartment is not only the greatest romantic comedy ever made, but is one of the most influential comedies of all time. Hell, it practically invented the dramedy genre. Coming from a film with such colossal cultural importance to a spiritual follow-up would certainly not guarantee the same lightning-in-a-bottle success. To their credit, it doesn’t feel like the team of Wilder, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine are trying to carbon copy The Apartment with this surprisingly loyal adaptation of Alexandre Breffort’s risqué play about a police officer (Lemmon) who falls in love with a prostitute (MacLaine) and pays for her under a secret identity so she doesn’t sleep with anyone else. It’s a fairly open-minded study on how men, no matter how open-minded they may be, try to control the women they love. But it’s the lush widescreen color cinematography, a contrast to The Apartment’s stark black-and-white look—as well as Lemmon and MacLaine’s previously proven chemistry—that makes Irma La Douce one of Wilder’s most accessible comedies.

13. One, Two, Three (1961)


Having lived through his share of various political regimes, Wilder always had the perfect satirical key to skewer the extremes of both sides. He gets his chance here with One, Two, Three, a rambunctious screwball comedy that essentially pits two characters from opposite ideological ends struggling to find common ground in the name of love. Jimmy Cagney gives one of the best performances of his career as a shrill and pompous embodiment of entitled American capitalism, a Coca-Cola executive who has to babysit his boss’ spoiled daughter (Pamela Tiffin). It turns out the daughter is madly in love with a hardcore communist (Horst Buchholz), forcing the executive to devise devious plans to get rid of him, until he begins to realize that love can come out of the most unexpected places. The airtight comedic timing between Cagney and Buchholz is key here. If executed without self-control, two loud blowhard characters going at one another can be death for comedy. Thankfully, with Wilder at the helm, we don’t have to worry about that.

12. The Seven Year Itch (1955)


Wilder had a fraught working relationship with Monroe; he never hid his contempt for her personality and talent even after her tragic death. That’s on full display here. As much as Monroe’s face and name are plastered on every marketing material, her part is cut down to its bare essentials. She’s basically a depthless source of unattainable desire for a paranoid family man (Tom Ewell) who decides to cheat on his wife while she’s on vacation. It sounds like a cynical and sexist move to barely give Monroe any defining characteristics, but it fits within the confines of the premise, since the protagonist, who we’re supposed to see as pathetic and shallow, also considers her not much more than a piece of meat. What really elevates The Seven Year Itch from the standard sex comedy are the ridiculous and borderline absurd fantasy sequences where Ewell’s character imagines the worst possible scenarios for his transgressions, while also providing some meta commentary at a time when such post-modern narrative approaches weren’t commonplace.

11. Love in the Afternoon (1957)


During the Hayes code period, Wilder always found ways of exploring the intersectional nature of raw sexuality and romance as candidly and honestly as possible. Love in the Afternoon is his crowning achievement in that sense. Decades before simplistic films like No Strings Attached covered the “dangers” of falling in love while engaged in a purely sexual relationship, Love in the Afternoon dealt with the issue in an equally adult and romanticized way. The angelic Audrey Hepburn is Ariane, the melancholic daughter of a top private investigator (Maurice Chevalier). She falls in love with one of his subjects (Gary Cooper), a notorious playboy who has many lovers and refuses to settle down. This forces Ariane to play along, pretending that her desires about the playboy are as casual as his, but a fairly unpredictable switch between this dynamic gradually reveals itself. Interestingly, it’s Chevalier who does a lot of the emotional heavy lifting here, as a father who has to come to terms that his beloved daughter might end up with someone he doesn’t approve of, but has to accept for the sake of her happiness. If there’s one big knock against Love in the Afternoon, it’s Gary Cooper’s sleepwalking performance. Cooper was already miscast, since his rugged western demeanor is far removed from the Cary Grant-ish suave sexpot the character is supposed to be. As if fully aware of this fact, Cooper looks downright uncomfortable in the role. Thankfully, Hepburn’s naturally lovable aura is there to save the day.

10. Ace in the Hole (1951)


Billy Wilder’s cynical streak is a mile wide in this story of muckraker journalist Chuck Tatum, who plots an amoral scheme to take advantage of a collapsed mine incident in the deserts of New Mexico. Starring Kirk Douglas in full snarling villain mode, it’s a film that looks squarely at the relationship between the press and public calamities that allow it to sell papers. If you have any preconceived notions about ’50s movies being wholesome, Ace in the Hole will soon put those to bed. —Amy Glynn

9. Some Like It Hot (1959)


What can I say about this beloved classic, perhaps Wilder’s most famous film, that hasn’t already been pointed out in thousands of articles? You know the story by now: Two musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) on the run from the mob dress up as women to infiltrate an all-female band. Curtis’s character falls in love with Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe) and has to figure out a way to open up to her without exposing his secret identity, while a horny rich man (Joe E. Brown is the one who recites perhaps the most famous closing line in film history) digs his claws into Lemmon. Misunderstandings abound, hilarity ensues, etc. Interestingly, as central as Curtis and Monroe’s romance is to the story (The two famously hated each other in real life), it’s the Lemmon and Brown “romance” that comes across as surprisingly sweet in these modern times.

8. Stalag 17 (1953)


Tonally, Billy Wilder’s prisoners of war story is a true dramedy, fitting into an odd post-war space when American cinemagoers were apparently content to laugh at the horrors faced by prisoners even while being reminded of the deadly results of incarceration, which were obviously even more dire for victims of the Holocaust. It’s William Holden who makes the film click and hum, portraying American airman Sefton as a somewhat sleazy but clever profiteer who figures that if he’s going to spend time in a POW camp, he might as well be an enterprising big shot while he’s there, living as comfortably as he can. In comparison with a film like The Great Escape, which would later come along and tell a story ringing with many of the same tropes minus the screwball sense of humor, Stalag 17 is both an escape story and a light mystery, centered around the identity of the German informant who is sabotaging each attempt by the Americans to flee the camp and defy the Germans. With a cast of colorful characters and good-natured humor, Stalag 17 somehow takes a horrific premise and mines it for laughs more successfully than one would have thought possible. —Jim Vorel

7. The Major and The Minor (1942)


The “male gaze” has a lazy eye! Wilder’s first American movie has a way of landing low, if not last, on a lot of lists—indicating that for whatever reason it’s underwatched and rather misunderstood. A cheeky, subversive comedy that plays with male inability to “see” women, The Major and the Minor stars the inimitable Ginger Rogers as Susan Applegate, a young Iowan fed up with hustling at demeaning jobs in New York City. When she gets to Grand Central to catch a train home, she discovers the fare has gone up and the only way she can get on the train is with a half-price child’s ticket. She “disguises” herself as a tween and Shakespearean mistaken-identity hijinks ensue—especially when she stumbles into the sleeper car of Major Philip Kirby (Ray Miland), who finds himself having to take “Sue-Sue” back with him to the military academy where he works. Thanks to his “bum eye” he somehow manages not to notice Sue-Sue is a grown-ass woman, so he’s a little unnerved by his inappropriate attraction to her. Throw in a hideous domineering fiancée, her no-nonsense scientist younger sister, and a couple hundred horny boys in military regalia (and, of course, an excellent dance sequence), and you’ve got a farce with heart, wit and ten times the sophistication of the more critically acknowledged Some Like It Hot. It’s been said before and it holds true here: Ginger Rogers could do everything her male counterparts could. Backward, and wearing high heels. Or in this case, saddle shoes. —Amy Glynn

6. Sabrina (1954)


The ultimate ugly duckling story and the movie that gave us the template for the modern romantic comedy, for better or worse. Out of all of the roles that made audiences immediately fall in love with Audrey Hepburn, Sabrina should be on top of the list. Forget about how miscast Humphrey Bogart is as the grouchy love interest to Hepburn’s Sabrina, the lovesick daughter of a no-nonsense chauffeur (John Williams), this is Hepburn’s show all the way. Right after his effortless comedic turn in Stalag 17, William Holden lets loose in a Wilder joint again as the aloof rich playboy whom Sabrina pines for—what is it with pairing Hepburn with rich older men?—only to gradually realize that his stoic businessman brother, played by Bogart, might be the one for her. Since we’re now inundated with a wide array of similar rom-coms, the story beats are predictable at this point. Yet it’s still hard to deny the charming energy of both the movie and the character.

5. The Lost Weekend (1945)


For the general audience, The Lost Weekend is a raw and uncompromising melodrama that boldly and honestly studies the scourge of alcoholism in pure dramatic fashion for the first time in Hollywood. Up until that point, alcoholic characters were used only for comedic purposes. For struggling writers who constantly have to battle their inner demons telling them that they’re not good enough, or that they’ll never make it, it’s one of the most terrifying horror movies they will ever see. Perhaps it’s Ray Milland’s hauntingly realistic portrayal of an alcoholic writer who pushes away his loved ones in service of feeding his self-hatred, or the self-repeating nightmarish structure that doesn’t offer much of a rainbow at the end of the journey. Or maybe it’s the legitimately horrifying DT hallucination sequence that burns into the memory of anyone who watches it. One thing’s for sure: The Lost Weekend is not an experience you will soon forget.

4. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)


As fans of the author will know, Agatha Christie has a list of recurring characters in her murder mystery books, from Hercule Poirot to Miss Marple. I wish that the protagonist of Witness for the Prosecution, a lovably cranky and obsessive barrister brought to life with infectious glee by the great Charles Laughton, had become such a recurring cinematic figure. He’s the secret ingredient that turns this already airtight mystery about a man (Tyrone Power) on trial for murdering a rich old lady, and his double-crossing wife (Marlene Dietrich, who can burn a hole in your chest simply by her no-fucks-given German stare) in the middle of it, into a rollicking good time. It’s up to the barrister to figure out this intricate crime and let the man go free, whether or not he deserves it. I especially love the barrister’s motivation for taking the case, working as the inciting incident for the first plot point. Usually, the motivation that pulls a protagonist out of their comfort zone and propels them into the story is something with dramatic heft—they need to save a loved one, have to go on a journey in search of something big, etc… In Witness for the Prosecution, the story’s kicked off when the barrister, ordered to stop smoking after recent health troubles, accepts the case that’s central to the story simply because the person who brought it to him has cigars in his pocket. Simple and brilliant.

3. The Apartment (1960)


Filmmaker Billy Wilder had perhaps one of the greatest, most diverse track records in film history from 1944 to 1960. In this period, he tackled an Oscar-winning drama about alcoholism (The Lost Weekend), two well-regarded film noirs (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard), a war drama (Stalag 17), two light-hearted rom-coms (Sabrina, Seven Year Itch) a gripping murder-mystery (Witness for the Prosecution) and perhaps the funniest American movie of all time (Some Like It Hot). Yet, of all these golden credits, one of Wilder’s most beloved and memorable achievements was 1960’s The Apartment. Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, an ambitious office worker who, desperate to climb the corporate ladder, allows his bosses to use his apartment to carry on discreet affairs with their mistresses. Things get complicated, however, when he discovers that his office crush, quirky elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), is one of his bosses’ mistresses. While it actually gets quite dark at times, The Apartment strikes a perfect balance between laugh-out-loud comedy and emotionally honest drama. Following the career highlight that was his drag-heavy performance in Some Like It Hot, Lemmon here proves that he can play the low-key, straight man with equal dexterity. Likewise, MacLaine’s charming portrayal as the damaged, yet lovable Kubelik would provide the model for manic pixie dream girls for years to come. —Mark Rozeman

2. Double Indemnity (1944)


Long before the Boomers came to know Fred MacMurray as the kindly father on My Three Sons, the actor essayed his best performance in Double Indemnity as the deplorable, hard-boiled Walter Neff, who falls for a married temptress (Barbara Stanwyck) who talks him into killing her husband. Whether in film or on television, MacMurray normally played the nice guy, but for Double Indemnity he turned his everyman decency into a mask—perfect for a character who can barely conceal what a lustful, conniving bastard he is. One of the great noirs, this early effort from Billy Wilder revealed the filmmaker’s talent for wonderfully thorny, unapologetically rotten characters—and it doubles as one of the definitive mid-century Los Angeles movies. —Tim Grierson

1. Sunset Boulevard (1950)


Billy Wilder’s meta noir is a doozy, an unfailingly cynical critique of showbiz and a portrait of postwar alienation projected on the microcosm of Hollywood. It’s also wickedly funny in Sahara dry fashion, from the opening words of our dead narrator—floating facedown in his killer’s swimming pool—to Norma Desmond’s concluding descent down her staircase, and the rabbit hole. Gloria Swanson is magnificent and sad as Ms. Desmond, a fading beauty of the silent screen who manipulates broke, hackish screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) into becoming her boy toy. Theirs is a fated relationship from the get-go, she of the wordless era, he dependent on them for his very livelihood. They’re on the outs with their industry, and each other, yet coexist out of desperation. Wilder, who co-wrote with Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman Jr., layered the script with in-joke upon self-referential wink, perhaps the least of which is Desmond’s passion project, about that OG of femme fatales, Salomé. There’s a parade of Hollywood cameos, name-checks, and behind-the-scenes instances of “art imitating life” (and vice versa); for example, Erich von Stroheim, who portrays Desmond’s former director/first husband-turned-still lovestruck butler Max, directed Swanson in 1929’s Queen Kelly (excerpted here) before she as the film’s producer fired him, much like her Sunset Boulevard character discards his. Many of these nods were in less-than-good fun, so it’s no shock that Sunset Boulevard met with local disdain, yet Wilder doesn’t flinch. Norma, Joe, Max … they’re all unwanted souls who, try as they might to live in the past, have succumbed to the present—in Joe’s case, most finally. The smoke and mirrors of Tinseltown, of life, don’t do the job anymore (though cinematographer John Seitz, who also lensed Double Indemnity, most certainly did, sprinkling dust into the air for the lights to catch). Desmond may be a seductress past her sell-by date, but Hollywood is the ultimate femme fatale, who chews suckers up and spits them out. Sunset Boulevard gives L.A. its close-up, alright. —Amanda Schurr

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