(On Cable TV, February 2019) Considering Hollywood’s enduring love affair for American heroes (even if we have to scrub a bit of their non-heroics along the way), it was inevitable that sooner or later, Charles Lindbergh would be brought to the forefront with The Spirit of St. Louis. And while James Stewart was far too old at 49 to play Lindbergh (who was 25 at the time of the film’s event), you have to take into account Stewart’s obvious enthusiasm and technical qualifications to play the role of an experienced flyer—as a draftee and then a reserve officer, he flew bombers from WW2 to the Vietnam War. The script focuses tightly on Lindbergh’s trip and not so much on the less heroic aspects of his later life, but as co-written by Billy Wilder The Spirit of St. Louis becomes a fascinating aeronautical procedural as Lindbergh works to develop the plane that will carry him from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and then wait patiently for a good weather opportunity even as others are also racing to make the trip. Director Howard Hawks is in his element here as he describes the relationship between Lindbergh and his plane during the gruelling transatlantic flight. Even the film’s length and overused voiceovers help us feel the isolation and experimental nature of the solo trip. The predictable shout-outs to divine power become annoying, but the film’s clever structure keeps things more interesting than a strictly chronological approach would have done. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is how it manages to create suspense out of a story that everyone knows, with a foreordained conclusion. The Spirit of St. Louis is certainly not a perfect film, but it does create something very entertaining out of three legendary creators (Wilder, Hawks, Stewart) and a landmark historical event.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) From a twenty-first-century perspective, looking at the totality of an actor’s filmography at once certainly has a different impact that chronologically living through it one movie at a time. As much as I like Audrey Hepburn, for instance (and I do!), it’s hard not to notice that in between 1954 and 1967, she made no less than seven movies at least partially set in Paris, and at least four of them with significantly older men. While Sabrina was partially set in Paris but obviously not filmed there, Funny Face and Love in the Afternoon (both 1957, shot a month apart) get the subgenre properly started. In the latter film, Gary Cooper plays an aging playboy who sets his sights on an inexperienced young daughter of a detective. The remarkable difference between the two characters (in age, in social status, in understanding the world) is enough to make any viewer uneasy, and it’s a measure of writer/director Billy Wilder’s skill and both stars’ charm that the film (barely) holds together. Hepburn is up to her usual self here, although if you want another Paris movie in which she calls her father an ebullient “Papa!”, you’ll be better served by How to Steal a Million Dollars. Cooper is a bit less bland than usual here, with a character that does service to his stature in the industry at the time. Maurice Chevalier rounds up the marquee names with an on-target role as a wise, compassionate and knowing private investigator to the stars. There’s no avoiding that the material here is tricky, and that Wilder steers his movie through material that would instantly doom other directors. (Although much of the same can be said about Funny Face and Charade.) There are, fortunately, quite a few laughs along the way, my favourite being the gypsy band following Cooper’s character around, mixing diegetic and non-diegetic musical cues. But while the film does have its strengths (seeing Hepburn, Cooper, Chevalier and Wilder working together being the best of them), its place in a well-defined sub-sub-genre of “Hepburn with older men in Paris” also invites unfavourable comparisons. Funny Face has Astaire dancing and Hepburn keeping up, while Charade plays far more smoothly with the romance with the far more charismatic Cary Grant. If Love in the Afternoon makes you queasy despite its old-school Hollywood charm, you’re not alone.
(In French, On Cable TV, January 2019) If you want to understand why so many people love Audrey Hepburn as an actress, as a style icon or even as a person, you can start with Breakfast at Tiffany’s … or you can start with Sabrina. I know which one I’d pick: Despite Breakfast at Tiffany’s little black dress, Sabrina has Hepburn in a far more suitable role, avoids many of the unpleasant edges of the other film, and showcases Hepburn at the very beginning of her long association with high fashion. It’s also, to put it bluntly, a better movie. Here we have Humphrey Bogart, certainly too old for Hepburn at thirty years her senior but playing a fascinating deviation on his usual persona as a sophisticated businessman thrown in a romantic role. Plot-wise, Sabrina is filled with tricky material—the acknowledged age difference, the class issues, the messy familial romantic entanglements, heck the opening scene’s suicide attempt—but it succeeds largely because of writer/director Billy Wilder’s typically light touch on difficult material. The intriguing glimpse at the life of New York’s upper-class set is window dressing for a romance that’s not as clear-cut as in many other movies of the period, and that’s the territory in which Wilder excelled. Still, for most, Sabrina will be enjoyable on a purely aesthetic level: This is the movie that first paired Audrey Hepburn with Paris (even if only in studio shots), and also the film that launched her lifelong association with Givenchy. Sabrina is far less sappy and mindless than you’d expect from a mid-1950s romance, and that’s what gives it enduring power—plus Bogart and Hepburn, of course.
(On TV, June 2018) You really wouldn’t expect a film about alcoholism to be so … entertaining. And yet here we are with The Lost Weekend, a film about an alcoholic protagonist being offered a weekend out of town to work on his issues … which he refuses in order to go on a three-day bender that leads him to rock-bottom. Surprisingly non-didactic, the script nonetheless carefully maps out the behaviour and coping mechanisms of a functioning alcoholic, before dropping him down as low as he can go: abandonment, debts, imprisonment, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts and perhaps self-redemption at the end. And yet the film remains fascinating and engaging throughout, a paean to director Billy Wilder’s ability, amply demonstrated here and elsewhere, in balancing extremely different tones into a cohesive whole. Ray Milland is convincing in the lead role, although Doris Dowling is captivating in a relatively minor barfly role. The filmmaking techniques here are used wisely, but it’s the message of the film that’s interesting: Alcoholism isn’t always shown in a proper light (often used as a comic device), and this film does manage to find a way to talk about it that still stands the test of time. Hilariously enough, The Lost Weekend was directly inspired by director Wilder’s experience working with noted alcoholic Raymond Chandler during Double Indemnity. I’m not the best audience for the film (I don’t even drink, so it’s not as if I can relate to alcoholism), but I found the film far more interesting than expected, and I find it an entirely acceptable Oscar-winner.
(On TV, June 2018) Like many, I like film noir a lot, and Double Indemnity is like mainlining a strong hit of the stuff. Pure undiluted deliciousness, with black-and-white cinematography, unusual investigator, femme fatale, crackling dialogue, strong narration and bleak outlook. Here, the focus on insurance agents trying to figure out a murder mystery is unusual enough to be interesting, while the Los Angeles setting is an instant classic. Fred MacMurray is a great anti-hero (morally flawed, but almost unexplainably likable along the way), Barbara Stanwyck is dangerously alluring and Edward G. Robinson is the moral anchor of the film. Double Indemnity does have that moment-to-moment watching compulsion that great movies have—whether it’s the details of an insurance firm, dialogue along the lines of the classic “There’s a speed limit in this state” exchange, a trip at the grocery store, or the careful composition of a noir film before they even had realized that there was a film noir genre. Double Indemnity is absorbing viewing, and a clear success for director Billy Wilder, gifted with a Raymond Chandler script from a James M. Cain novel.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) I haven’t watched that many movies starring Marlene Dietrich yet, but Witness for the Prosecution is the first when I really get what Dietrich was about—it certainly helps that it flashes back to a cabaret sequence. Looking spectacular in her mid-fifties, she feels actively dangerous as the titular witness willing to do what it takes to achieve what she wants. Not that she’s the sole highlight of the film—Charles Laughton is incredibly likable as a barrister taking on a difficult case and never quite certain of everyone’s motives. The script, adapted from an Agatha Christie short story, is nicely paced to introduce the characters before getting down to the business of thrills and unexpected plot twists. Witness for the Prosecution does amount to a satisfying film, perhaps too brightly lit as a court drama to be pure film noir but certainly willing to get its inspiration from the depths of human cruelty. If director Billy Wilder has made a bad movie, I haven’t yet seen it.
(On DVD, January 2018) For late-twentieth century cinephiles such as myself, Jack Lemmon is first the eponymous Grumpy Old Man, or the miserable salesman of Glengarry Glenn Ross. But this late-career Lemmon is the last act in a long list of roles, and films such as The Apartment (alongside Some Like it Hot and The Odd Couple) do suggest that young Lemmon was the best Lemmon. He’s certainly charming in The Apartment, playing a young man who has struck a most unusual arrangement with his superiors at work: His apartment made available for dalliances, in exchange for professional advancement. The film does begin in firmly comic mode, as the protagonist juggles the schedules of four executives with his own desire to sleep, and then to court an elevator attendant played by Shirley MacLaine. The first half of The Apartment plays as a proto-Mad Men, capped off by a sequence in which Lemmon dons a dapper hat and strolls out like a true New York City professional with a bright future. The look at this slice of 1960 NYC living is terrific and if the film had stopped there, it would have been already worth a look. But there’s a lot of murk under the premise of the film and The Apartment soon heads deeper in those troubled waters, shifting from suggestive comedy to much bleaker romantic drama as the protagonist ends up in romantic conflict with one of his superiors, and then in even darker territory with a suicide attempt that changes everything. Director Billy Wilder had an illustrious career, and the way he shifts adeptly between three subgenres in a single film is a great example of what he could do with difficult material. The Apartment is still unsettling today—less so than upon its release, but it still defies sensibilities. The film’s second half is a great deal less fun than the first, but it does give much of the film’s enduring power.
(On DVD, January 2018) Curiously enough, it takes longer than expected for Some Like it Hot to warm up. The first act, in which two Chicago-based musicians witness a mob murder and decide to go on the run by cross-dressing and joining an all-female musical group to Florida, is occasionally a slog. Sure, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are sympathetic enough, and Marilyn Monroe makes a striking entrance, but the film seems far too busy setting up its ridiculous situation to get many laughs. Things get much better once the story lands in a posh Florida resort, as the complications pile up and the film’s true nature starts coming out. By the time Lemmon’s character has to fake being uninterested in Monroe as she slinks all over him, or as Curtis rather likes the attention he’s getting as a woman, the film starts hitting its peak comic moments. It keeps going to a rather simple but effective final line. It helps, from an atmospheric perspective, that the Floridian passages spend quality time looking at a high-end lifestyle in which yachts are treated as mobile homes for the rich—there’s some wish-fulfillment right there. Thematically, the film has a few surprises in store: For a comedy dealing in cross-dressing and attraction based on misrepresented gender, Some Like it Hot has aged surprisingly well—it’s far less prone to gay panic than you’d expect from a movie from the fifties, and still feels almost progressive in the way it approaches same-sex attraction. As a result of its pro-love anti-hate agenda, it can be rewatched without too much trouble even today, while many (most!) movies of its era feel grossly dated. Much of this credit goes to director Billy Wilder as he allows Lemmon, Curtis and Monroe, to become a terrific comic trio and help the film get over its duller moments. The far more interesting last half makes up for an average beginning, and Some Like it Hot is still worth a look today.
(On TV, December 2017) It’s hard to watch Stalag 17 and not think about the fetishization of history. Like it or not, World War II drama has grown more and more ponderous over the past decades, to the point where a World War II movie is presumed to be all about gravitas and serious considerations of the terrible cost of war. It wasn’t always so, though, whether we’re talking about the blockbuster WW2-themed action adventures from the seventies (The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare) or, even closer to the war itself, a film like Stalag 17 that spends a lot of time in silly comedy before getting down to the thriller business. Early parts of the film, such as the white-line painting sequence, really wouldn’t feel out of place in an Adam Sandler movie. Keep in mind that Stalag 17 is based on the real-life experiences of its writers (filtered through a Broadway play adapted on-screen) and so presents the full range of humour and horror of German POW camps—not the almost idealized portrayal of later writers with an indirect knowledge of events. As such, Stalag 17 uniquely captures in time a historical truth of sorts, then wraps it up in entertaining thriller mechanics about uncovering an informant and helping a marked prisoner escape. William Holden is quite good as the resourceful but unjustly accused protagonist, while Don Taylor plays the other lead engagingly. Writer/director Billy Wilder has a long and varied filmography, and his Stalag 17 is still quite entertaining to watch, even as its closeness to the subject does give it a now-unusual quality.