Billy Wilder About Film Noir

Billy Wilder’s career stretches back to the late 1920s, when he collaborated on the scripts for several films made in Germany, including the classic semi-documentary People on Sunday (1929). When Hitler came into power, Wilder fled to France and eventually ended up in America. He soon overcame his limited knowledge of the English language and began work in Hollywood, contributing to the screenplays for Ernst Lubitsh’s Ninotchka (1939) and Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire (1941). He directed his first American film in 1942, The Major and the Minor, and two years later he directed one of the seminal noir films, Double Indemnity (1944). While Wilder’s career would become strongly identified with comedies such as Some Like It Hot (1958) and The Apartment (1960), his career has also included several dramas about the darker aspects of life, such as The Lost Weekend (1945), for which he won an Academy Award, and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Wilder’s directed only a handful of noir films, but those films remain milestones of noir theme and style: Double Indemnity (based on a book by James M. Cain and scripted by Raymond Chadler) provides an essential portrait of the femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) and the insurance investigator (Fred MacMurray) that she lures with sex and convinces to kill her husband; Sunset Boulevard takes us on a lurid journey through the decay surrounding an aged silent film star (Gloria Swanson) and the young screenwriter (William Holden) who stumbles into her web; and Ace in the Hole (1951) pulls us into the carnival-like atmosphere that results when a journalist (Kirk Douglas), with national headlines on his mind, deliberately delays an attempt to rescue a man trapped in a cave. The following interview focuses on these three films as Billy Wilder provides his insights and observations regarding film noir. This interview was conducted by Robert Porfirio in July 1975. As always, thanks to Eyes On Cinema.

The full interview is published in Film Noir Reader 3, edited by Robert Porfirio, Alain Silver, and James Ursini (November 2001; Limelight Editions).

When you started in film, there was a kind of an angst pervading Central Europe after World War I. Did your background, being Jewish in a culture that was becoming rabidly anti-Semitic, create a darker attitude towards life?
Wilder: I think the dark outlook is an American one.

Even in the noir films? So many were made by émigrés: you worked in Europe with Siodmak, Ulmer, and Zinnemann, but also Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger…
Wilder: Where does Preminger figure in film noir?

Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Fallen Angel. He took issue with me about Max Reinhardt, German Expressionism, looking for patterns…
Wilder: But you see, the thing is that you used a key concept there: that is looking for patterns. Now, you must understand that a man who makes movies and certainly somebody like myself that makes all kinds of movies, works in different styles. I don’t make only one kind of movie, like say Hitchcock. Or like Minnelli, doing the great Metro musicals. As a picture-maker, and I think most of us are this way, I am not aware of patterns. We’re not aware that “This picture will be in this genre.” It comes naturally, just the way you do your handwriting. That’s the way I look at it, that’s the way I conceive it. When you see movies, you decide to put some kind of connective theory to them. You may ask me, “Do you remember that in a picture you wrote in 1935, the motive of the good guy was charity; and then the echo in that sentiment reappears in four more pictures. Or, you put the camera…” I’m totally unaware of it. I never think in those terms: “The big overall theme of my œuvre,” I say that laughingly. You’re trying to make as good and as entertaining a picture as you possibly can. If you have any kind of style, the discerning ones will detect it. I can always tell you a Hitchcock picture. I could tell you a King Vidor picture, a Capra picture. You develop a handwriting, but you don’t do it consciously.

But there’s something that brings you to that material. Why, for instance, did you pick a story like Double Indemnity? Why did you choose Chandler to collaborate with?
Wilder: Ah, that’s a very good question, and I’ve answered it and written about [it] before, as I’m sure you know. So I will give you a very romantic version as explanation. A producer, [Joe Sistrom], came to me and said, “Look, do you know James M. Cain?” I answered, “Certainly. He wrote Postman Always Rings Twice.” He said, “Well, we don’t have that, Metro has that, but as an afterthought, and to cash in, he wrote a serial in the old Liberty Magazine called Double Indemnity. Read it.” So I read it, and I said, “Terrific. It’s not as good as Postman, but let’s do it.” So we bought it. Then we said, “Mr. Cain, how would you like to work with Mr. Wilder on a screenplay?” He said, “I would love to, but I can’t because I’m doing Western Union for Fritz Lang at Twentieth Century-Fox.” So, the producer said, “There is a Black Mask mystery writer around Hollywood called Raymond Chandler.” Nobody knew much about him, seriously, as a person. So we agreed, “Let’s bring him in.” He’d never been inside a studio. Then he started working. So you see, it is not that I am tossing up and down in my bed like Goethe conceiving art, and wind is playing in my hair, and I plan it all out to the last detail. No. It’s happenstance that we found Chandler.

Regarding Double Indemnity, in the end you decided the sequence in the gas chamber was anti-climactic?
Wilder: We were delighted with it at first. Fred MacMurray loved it. He didn’t want to play it. No leading man wanted to play it, initially. But then he was absolutely delighted. I am a great friend of his, but can tell you when he shot the scene, there was no hesitation, no nothing, no problem with his performance. I shot that whole thing in the gas chamber, the execution, when everything was still, with tremendous accuracy. But then I realized, look this thing is already over. I just already have one tag outside that office, when Neff collapses on the way to the elevator, where he can’t even light the match. And from the distance, you hear the sirens, be it an ambulance or be it the police, you know it is over. No need for the gas chamber.

MacMurray is ideal as a romantic debunker, tough on the outside, yet soft enough to be lured by this woman.
Wilder: Well, he was just kind of a middle-class insurance guy who works an angle. If he is that tough, then there is nothing left for Stanwyck to work on. He has to be seduced and sucked in on that thing. He is the average man who suddenly becomes a murderer. That’s the dark aspect of the middle-class, how ordinary guys can come to commit murder. But it was difficult to get a leading man. Everybody turned me down. I tried up and down the street, believe me, including George Raft. Nobody would do it, they didn’t want to play this unsympathetic guy. Nor did Fred MacMurray see the possibilities at first. He said, “Look, I’m a saxophone player. I’m making my comedies with Claudette Colbert, what do you want?” “Well, you’ve got to make that one step, and believe me it’s going to be rewarding; and it’s not that difficult to do.” So he did it. But he didn’t want to do it. He didn’t want to be murdered, he didn’t want to be a murderer. Stanwyck knew what she had. Dick Powell, he volunteered to do it. He told me, “I’ll do it for nothing.” He knew that was the way out of those silly things—you know where he was singing smack into Ruby Keeler’s face and he had to get out of that, so he was dying to play [Walter Neff]. That was before Murder, My Sweet. He came to my office to sell me: “For Christ’s sake, let me play it.” “Well look, I can take a comedian, and make it. But I don’t want to take a singer.” And he was damned good, you know, in Murder, My Sweet.

Isn’t this dark aspect of the middle class what Chandler was describing with the image of meek housewives feeling the edge of a knife as they stare at their husbands’ necks?
Wilder: Chandler was more of a cynic than me, because he was more of a romantic than I ever was. He has his own odd rules and thought Hollywood was just a bunch of phonies. I can’t say he was completely wrong, but [he] never really understood movies and how they work. He couldn’t structure a picture. He had enough trouble with books. But his dialogue. I put up with a lot of crap because of that. And after a couple of weeks with him and that foul pipe smoke, I managed to cough up a few good lines myself. We kept him on during the shooting, to discuss any dialogue changes.

You say he had a way with dialogue, but not plotting…
Wilder: The plotting was lousy; but then again, it had to be lousy so as not to get in the way of the atmosphere. There again, the plotting was not good in Chinatown. It is not very good in many Ross MacDonald or even Dash Hammett novels. The plotting, no. It is the atmosphere of the hot house. It is the description of the man with hair coming out of his ears long enough to catch a moth. This kind of thing. The funny thing is, Chandler would come up with a good image, pictorial, and like I said I would come up with a Chandlerism, as it were. It’s very strange, you know, that’s the way it always happens. He was not a young man, when we worked together on Double Indemnity for ten or twelve weeks, so he never quite learned it…the craft. And then he was on his own, with John Houseman barely looking over his shoulder. A screenwriter is a bum poet, a third-rate dramatist, a kind of a half-assed engineer. You got to build that bridge, so it will carry the traffic, everything else, the acting, the drama, happens on the set. Screenwriting is a mixture of techniques, and a little literary talent, sure; but also a sense of how to manage it, so that they will not fall asleep. You can’t bore the actors or the audience.

Can we talk about Ace in the Hole and its depiction of how some people exploit others’ tragedies?
Wilder: Our man, the reporter, was played by Mr. Kirk Douglas. Now, he was on the skids and he thought that a great story would get him back into the big time, big leagues. He remembered the Floyd Collins story. Now, I looked up the Floyd Collins story. They composed a song, they were selling hot dogs, there was a circus up there, literally a circus, people came. I was attacked by every paper because of that movie. They loathed it. It was cynical, they said. Cynical, my ass. I tell you, you read about a plane crash somewhere nearby and you want to check out the scene, you can’t get to it because ten thousand people are already there: they’re picking up little scraps, ghoulish souvenir hunters. After I read those horrifying reviews about Ace In The Hole, I remember I was going down Wilshire Boulevard and there was an automobile accident. Somebody was run over. I stopped my car. I wanted to help that guy who was run over. Then another guy jumps out of his car and photographs the thing. “You’d better call an ambulance,” I said. “Call a doctor, my ass. I’ve got to get to the L.A. Times. I’ve got a picture. I’ve got to move. I just took a picture here. I’ve got to deliver it.” But you say that in a movie, and the critics think you’re exaggerating.

Did you see a kind of trend happening in the 1940s when Double Indemnity spawned a rash of movies with first-person narrations?
Wilder: I have always been a great man for narration, and not because it is a lazy man’s crutch. That is maybe true; but it is not easy to have good narration done well. What I had in Sunset Boulevard, for instance, the narrator being a dead man was economical story telling. You can say in two lines something that would take twenty minutes to dramatize, to show and to photograph. There are a lot of guys who try narration; but they don’t quite know the technique. Most of the time, the mistake is that they are telling you something in narration that you already see, that is self-evident. But if it adds, if it brings in something new, another perspective, then good.

Obviously I planned to ask about the noir aspects of Sunset Boulevard.
Wilder: The description of the house was, if I remember, the whole thing was early Wallace Beery, to whom she was married at one time, by the way. At first, you know, this was supposed to be a comedy. We were going to get Mae West, but she turned us down. And then [Gloria] Swanson almost dropped out when Paramount asked for a screen test. There was a lot of Norma in her, you know. The biggest threat to the mood in Sunset Boulevard was when we lost the original actor, [Montgomery Clift], and went with Bill Holden. He looked older than we wanted, and Swanson did not want to be made up to look sixty. It would never have worked anyway. This was a woman who used all her considerable means to go the other way. Who knows what mood a younger actor, or at least younger looking, would have given.

You had the same cameraman lighting these moody interiors in both Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, John Seitz.
Wilder: Johnny Seitz was a great cameraman. And he was fearless. He should have won an [Academy] Award on Five Graves and I thought surely he would on Sunset Boulevard.

The final scene in the house in Double Indemnity…
Wilder: Yes, that was beautiful.

And the night exteriors in that picture, the glistening train tracks.
Wilder: Johnny was brilliant, yes.

In Double Indemnity, the make-up on Barbara Stanwyck…
Wilder: Mistake there. Big mistake.

Wilder: I don’t know. I wanted her blonde. Blondes have more fun, but…

She seemed almost ice cold with that.
Wilder: Yeah, I wanted to do that, to have her look like that. But you must understand one thing, it was a mistake. And I was the first one, to see the mistake after we were shooting. I talked to somebody about George Stevens’ Place In The Sun. A real masterpiece, I think. But this guy said, “That’s a great picture, but there’s one cheap kind of symbolism that is almost not worthy of that great picture, that is, that district attorney, he limps. Justice kind of limping, you’ve got that cane. It was just kind of cheap and cheesy.” “Well, I agree with you. As a matter of fact, Stevens agrees with you.” But you see, if you do that in a play, after the third performance you go backstage and you tell that actor, “Look, tomorrow no cane. Okay. Tomorrow lose the cane.” But after the picture is half-finished, after I shot for four weeks with Stanwyck, now I know I made a mistake. I can’t say, “Look tomorrow, you ain’t going to be wearing the blonde wig.” I’m stuck… I can’t reshoot four weeks of stuff. I’m totally stuck. I’ve committed myself; the mistake was caught too late. Fortunately it did not hurt the picture. But it was too thick, we were not very clever about wig-making. But when people say, “My god, that wig. It looked phony,” I answer “You noticed that? That was my intention. I wanted the phoniness in the girl, bad taste, phony wig.” That is how I get out of it. —Billy Wilder About Film Noir: An interview by Robert Porfirio

Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in

Spread the love