Tag: Billy Wilder Page 1 of 2

Rewatching the Filmography: Sabrina

Part of my filmography completion goals for this year is rewatching films that I either don’t remember that well or didn’t care for the first time and want to give another chance. I decided I’d go ahead and post some reactions to those as well.

Sabrina is one of a few films that continue to benefit from Audrey Hepburn’s ongoing popularity. There are a few “classes” of classic film – ones that everyone knows like The Wizard of Oz, ones that are loved by die-hard classic aficionados, and ones like Sabrina that find an appreciative modern audience of people who are open to classic films but aren’t necessarily big film buffs in general. These people gravitate toward Audrey Hepburn as a style icon, and certain films of hers (especially this one, Roman Holiday, Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade and My Fair Lady) stay perennially popular because they highlight her effortless style, effervescent screen presence, and ineffable wide-eyed innocence.


Perhaps my own struggles with loving Sabrina stem in part as a personal backlash against its popularity, the assumption of this particular group of classic film watchers that it’s a great and classic film. I want to express kinship with these nascent classic film fans, but sometimes, as in this case, the films that apparently speak to them simply don’t to me, and I find that both baffling and fascinating. (I do have a whole post percolating around in my head on this topic, but as you can see, I find it very difficult to avoid generalizing a whole group of people in ways that probably aren’t accurate while still making the point I want to make.)

Completing the Filmography: Fedora

In 1950, Billy Wilder made what is probably the definitive film on Hollywood and aging with Sunset Boulevard, but it seems he wasn’t quite done with the topic, returning to it in 1978’s Fedora, a film about an iconic actress from the 1940s (very Garbo-esque in accent and distancing demeanor) who has retired to the Greek isles under somewhat mysterious circumstances.

After a long series of films with Jack Lemmon, Wilder returns to his previous favorite male actor, William Holden – who also not coincidentally played the male lead in Sunset Boulevard, the first of many echoes from that film to this. Here he’s a movie producer (perhaps a few steps up from Joe Gilles’ desperate screenwriter, though he’s still desperate) hoping to find the reclusive Mme. Fedora and convince her to come back and star in a film for him. The first half of Fedora plays like a mystery, a “where is Fedora” and “why won’t the people at this island villa she’s supposedly staying with let me in or talk to me” situation that’s reminiscent of The Third Man.

Completing the Filmography: Five Graves to Cairo

This year instead of doing Blind Spots or other list-based viewing, I’m focusing in on completing filmographies of certain directors – some of which I’m only a few films away from completing and will probably do so pretty quickly, while others may be in progress for quite a while. I plan to do some major comprehensive posts about each one when I get finished with all their films (I’m also doing some background reading), but in the meantime I figured I’d do some posts with more informal thoughts as I work my way through these films. Since I’m eventually planning to include actors in this little completionist goal, I’ll keep track of how I’m doing on various actors’ filmographies as well. Stats! I love stats. In case you didn’t know that about me, now you do. I love stats.


Five Graves to Cairo is Billy Wilder’s third film as writer/director (his second in Hollywood), and it’s a WWII-set film that’s more of a spy thriller than an actual war film – despite being set in North Africa in the midst of Rommel’s campaign, and having Rommel as a character, there are no battle scenes in the film. (Correction: There is a montage of a battle at the very end for like twenty seconds.)

The opening shot is one of the most visually arresting in all of Wilder’s filmography – a tank rolls across the desert, up and down dunes aimlessly. Not all is right here. A soldier’s arm drapes lifelessly out of the cockpit, where several other men lie dead, one flopped forward on the steering mechanism, keeping the tank moving forward. One man stirs; this is John Bramble (Franchot Tone), who is the only survivor and is now caught behind enemy lines.

Stream It!: Witness for the Prosecution

[Showcasing the best and highlighting the newest additions to the various streaming services, including but not limited to Netflix Instant, HuluPlus, Amazon Prime, and Warner Archive Instant.]

Stream on Netflix: Witness for the Prosecution

si-witness_for_the_prosecutionI really want to start doing these more often, since a ton of great stuff is dropping onto on demand subscription services all the time. This is one that’s actually been on Netflix Instant for quite a while, but it’s a great movie, I’ve got Billy Wilder on the mind right now, and it has a great double feature combination that’s also on Netflix Instant. Win all around.

Witness for the Prosecution is a late film in three acting careers – Charles Laughton, as experienced but physically ailing barrister Sir Wilfred; Tyrone Power (this is his final credited film), as the murder suspect Leonard Vole whom Laughton defends; and Marlene Dietrich, as Power’s beautiful and devoted wife. It may be late in their careers, but they are all at the top of their game, and so is Wilder, delivering a consistently witty and surprising courtroom drama with a dose of mystery. Laughton’s delightful wife Elsa Lanchester also plays his nurse, who emphatically thinks he is not ready to take on a case after recently suffering a heart attack.

Laughton is always great to watch, from his early villain-type roles like Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls and Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty to his imposing girth as King Henry VIII a few times to his witty charm in movies like this one. He’s got a reputation as a scenery-chewer, and that’s not entirely wrong, but he’s one of the absolute best scenery-chewers ever in the movies, and comes across more as a scene-stealer here. Dietrich has her share of meaty roles, but this may be one of her absolute best, as her duplicity (or is it?) comes to light. The script will keep you guessing, all the way up to the delicious ending.

Double Feature: Anatomy of a Murder

si-anatomy_of_a_murder_ver2In some ways, Anatomy of a Murder is a more traditional courtroom drama than Witness for the Prosecution, with more courtroom scenes (and American ones, which feel a bit more familiar to us on this side of the pond) and a battle of lawyers front and center as James Stewart defends and George C. Scott prosecutes a man (Ben Gazzara) claiming a temporary insanity defense for killing a man who allegedly raped his wife (Lee Remick). There’s a mystery at the heart of this one, too, as Stewart digs into the evidence to find out what really happened, but it’s not as whimsical or twisty as Witness for the Prosecution.

In 1959, a film touching on the subject of rape was fairly rare and pretty controversial. Director Otto Preminger was no stranger to controversy, having pushed the limits of the Production Code already, notably in 1953 when his film The Moon is Blue included the word “virgin.” Here Remick’s character is known to be something of a flirt or worse, and Gazzara’s is known to be violent and possessive, which brings his plea of temporary insanity into question. The film is also well-remembered for its brilliant Duke Ellington jazz score (also unusual at the time) and the focus on Stewart as a character rather than simply focusing on the plot. That said, his courtroom scenes opposite Scott are electric.

Besides both being courtroom films about a dubious murder case, the films have another connection in terms of the surprising outcomes of each case – which I obviously can’t talk about in any detail without spoiling stuff. I’ve probably said too much already. Both films are streaming on Netflix for the low low price of “included in your $8 a month subscription,” so just watch them. You’ll have a delightful time.

Stream It!: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

[Showcasing the best and highlighting the newest additions to the various streaming services, including but not limited to Netflix Instant, HuluPlus, Amazon Prime, and Warner Archive Instant.]

New on Netflix: Sunset Boulevard


A bunch of new stuff hit Netflix at the beginning of the month, as usual, but the immediately standout was Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Wilder is known for his cynical yet often uproarious approach to his films, and here he turns that cynicism directly toward Hollywood, making one of the most scathing and ruthlessly entertaining movies about the movies you’ll ever see.

In true film noir fashion, our hero (?) tells the story of his inevitable undoing in flashback – but not only is he in existential defeat, as noir heroes usually are, he’s actually already dead, floating facedown in the pool of a decaying mansion on Sunset Blvd. His relationship with faded silent screen star Norma Desmond (played by silent screen star Gloria Swanson) takes up the bulk of the film, and Norma is a gloriously over-the-top character. This film is not going for realism in any way, but it’s about as perfect an encapsulation of Gothicism in a Hollywood setting as you could wish to see.

All the extra little touches Wilder brings are great, too, particularly in the casting. Erich von Stroheim plays Desmond’s butler, but he also used to be her director – Stroheim himself was a director (and actor) in the silent era, and directed Swanson in the unfinished Queen Kelly, footage from which is used within Sunset Boulevard. Stroheim’s relationship with Hollywood studios was notorious, baggage which certainly informs the critique Sunset Boulevard makes about the way the system chews people up and throws them away when it gets done with them. It’s kind of amazing Wilder even got this film made in Hollywood, to be honest – he doesn’t say a lot of good things about the system.

Double Feature: All About Eve

all_about_eveIn looking for a good double feature to go with Sunset Boulevard, I first thought of other films about Hollywood with similarly dark tones – Mulholland Drive, The Bad and the Beautiful, etc. But none of them were streaming. I thought I was going to have to go with a typical director pairing and choose Double Indemnity (which would be a good double feature, mind you), but then I thought why not pair one of the greatest films about Hollywood with one of the greatest films about the stage – and they just happen to have been made the same year!

All About Eve follows eager fan Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) as she worms her way into the life of established stage star Margo Channing (Bette Davis), but her intentions may not be the best. This is one of Davis’ absolute best roles; Margo’s combination of star power and neuroticism make her one of the great characters of the screen, while Baxter amazingly holds her own as the scheming Eve. That they were both nominated for Best Actress Oscars is fitting, though they may have split the vote (the Oscar went to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday, a good film, but it ain’t All About Eve).

The rest of the cast is a dream, too, with Thelma Ritter especially shining, as always, as Margo’s no-nonsense maid Birdie, the only one of Margo’s crowd who sees right through Eve. The other person with Eve’s number is drama critic Addison Steele (George Sanders), whose acerbic wit grants many of the film’s devastatingly good one-liners. Look for a young Marilyn Monroe as “a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts.”

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