The darker films of Billy Wilder

Mention the Golden Age of Hollywood – the 30s, the 40s, and into the 50s (although the studio system that gave rise to that Golden Age was already collapsing by then) – and most people these days … well, let us be on the safe side and say “a great many people these days” … will have a mental picture of the “Dream Factory” – a pipeline churning out frothy escapism, undemanding entertainment that is best seen with one’s brains left safely at home. Of course, there’s no denying that much that came out of Hollywood back then was indeed light, frothy entertainment: no-one will be watching the Astaire-Rogers musicals, say, or screwball comedies, expecting anything too serious. Although it may be added that should anyone take their brains along to these films rather than leave them at home, those brains would not necessarily feel insulted by what they see: there are gradations even in light, frothy entertainment.

But there was far more to the Dream Factory than merely confecting sweet dreams. Even at the height of the Depression, when, heaven knows, escape from a bitter reality was very much needed, the focus was not always purely on “escapism”: even comedies such as the Laurel and Hardy films acknowledged the reality of the Depression (Stan and Ollie were frequently penniless vagrants), and Chaplin, in films such as The Kid or Modern Times, certainly didn’t hold back. Social criticism was very much an integral part of the gangster movie genre at Warner Brothers; and in 1940, barely a year after the Great Depression is reckoned to have ended, John Ford made a magnificent cinematic adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: those who reckon Hollywood films of that era were essentially frothy escapism can still let out an astonished gasp or two as one of the characters in that film describes in shockingly graphic detail how his children had starved to death.

The darkness Hollywood films of that Golden Era were prepared to depict was not necessarily merely the darkness of social evils, murky though they were: sometimes, the darkness was of the human heart. And here, Billy Wilder, especially, excelled. In some sixteen or so years – between 1944 and 1960, to be precise – Billy Wilder co-wrote and directed, amongst, it may be admitted, more light-hearted fare, five films that look very uncompromisingly indeed into the darkness of the human heart. These films are, in chronological order, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival), and The Apartment. Each of these films features as protagonist a man who, through flaws and shortcomings in his character, finds himself morally compromised, and becomes, as a consequence, filled with self-disgust. (In Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, this protagonist shares the spotlight with a female character who, too, is very deeply flawed, though in very different ways.)

At this point, when the reader is, I’m aware, wondering what all this is leading to, and when I am eager to press ahead and satisfy the reader’s curiosity on that score, I have to issue one of those tiresome “spoiler alerts”. I know I have to, because when I don’t, I receive indignant e-mails. So here it is: If you have not seen these films – more particularly, if you have not seen The Lost Weekend and The Apartment – and plan to see them, and feel that the essence of good drama lies in finding out what happens next (at least on first viewing), and, in particular, in what happens at the end, then it is probably best that you read no further. For it is on the endings of The Lost Weekend and of The Apartment that I intend to focus.

With that out of the way, let us continue.

Three of these five films (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole) end in tragedy: they could hardly have ended any other way. The other two films are also dark and tragic in content, although tragedy is averted at the end. In The Apartment, the last film of this unofficial series, the deeply flawed protagonist is, at long last, allowed to redeem himself morally. And there is a real sense of joy when this happens: there is a sense of release, a rare concession, amidst all the pessimism and all the cynicism and all the vitriol, that a way out, even given our profound human shortcomings, may be possible. It is possible not by the Grace of God – the presence of God is not particularly apparent in any of these films – but by a moral strength that even the most unremarkable of us may retain within ourselves. This ending moves us because it is so hard won, because we have, both earlier in this film and in the previous films, been shown the various red hells into which our sightless souls may stray. For, until that ending of that final film, we are, morally, in very murky waters indeed. We are far from the Dream Factory here.

All five of these films seem to me masterpieces, but speaking entirely subjectively (as I often do on this blog), it is The Lost Weekend that particularly intrigues me. Its protagonist (played by Ray Milland) is an alcoholic, but the film is not really about alcoholism, as such: at least, alcoholism is not its central theme. The central character, Don Birnam, seems to have everything going for him: he is handsome and charismatic, he is intelligent and cultured, and he is supremely articulate. But he is haunted by a sense of failure.  He had aspired, and aspires still, to be a writer, but all he has to show for it is a series of unfinished manuscripts. His tragedy is not merely that he is mediocre, or, worse, talentless; his tragedy is also that he recognises it, and that he cannot come to terms with what he recognises. And he takes refuge in drink, and exercising his supreme articulacy with the barman:

It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does it do to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent. Extremely competent! I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo, moulding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer, it’s the Nile, Nat. The Nile and down into the barge of Cleopatra.

As the film progresses, we see Don Birnam travel through what seems like the circles of some Dantean inferno. Even now, some  seventy-five years after the film’s release, I doubt I have seen anything more horrific in a film than the sequence in the drying-out ward, or the terrifying alcoholic hallucinations Don Birnam has back in his flat.

But the tragedy that seems inevitable is averted. His girlfriend Helen (played by Jane Wyman), persuades him to start writing again, and he sits down to pen a novel based on his experiences. We, the viewer, may be left unsatisfied by this. Don Birnam has had false starts before, we know; and, further, we know also that, despite all his qualities, he does not have whatever it takes to be a writer: what stirs his imagination is not what he is writing, but rather, the idea of being a writer. When I saw this film in my younger days, I had no doubt that he would return to his drinking, and that what we see on screen is not so much a new start, but, rather, tragedy deferred.

But in my latest viewing (last week), I thought differently. Shortly before the end, Don has redeemed his revolver from the pawnbroker, obviously planning to shoot himself, and Helen, knowing this, and not really knowing what to do about it, pours him a drink; and when he expresses puzzlement, she breaks down and says “I’d rather have you drunk than have you dead”. Now, call me sentimental (as you probably will), but I suddenly found myself rather moved by this. Helen has, after all, stayed by him even when she has been told, by Don himself amongst others, to get out while she still can. And if she would rather have him drunk than dead, then maybe she would rather have him talentless than dead too. Maybe she could reconcile him to his lack of talent. Maybe. The future, as the film ends, is still uncertain, but if Don is to redeem himself, it won’t be through discovering his talent (he doesn’t have any), but, through Helen’s love, by being reconciled to that fact. And if that sounds sentimental, I’d counter that perhaps, too often, we miss out on profound matters by our fear of being sentimental as much as we do by actually being sentimental. At any rate, this last viewing, the ending did not seem to me so inevitably dark as it used to seem.

It is only at the end of the last film of this series, The Apartment, that the protagonist (played here by Jack Lemmon) is allowed unambiguously to redeem himself. What he had been doing really was unspeakably sordid: in return for promotion, he would lend out his apartment to senior managers in his office for them to carry out their extra-marital affairs. But in this film, the protagonist is, at long last, allowed to rediscover his moral bearings. And yes, the driving force, once again, is love. Perhaps these Wilder films are not quite so cynical as they are so often made out to be: yes, morality is frequently flouted and love frequently slighted, but morality and love both exist, and they are both potent, redeeming forces.

By the time The Apartment was released, in 1960, what we think of as The Golden Age of Hollywood was finished. Perhaps The Apartment and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, released two years later, were the last remnants of that age. And while it did turn out the most glorious entertainment, it wasn’t blind to the darkness either. And no director, I think, peered into that darkness as insistently as did Billy Wilder. But it would be a mistake, I think, to see in even his darkest films merely undiluted pessimism and cynicism.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on May 27, 2019 at 3:14 pm

    I see you have had no replies so far. Dark indeed.
    It seems to me that “I’d rather have you drunk than dead” is not likely to get many people’s approval these days, especially amongst your American readership.
    The scary thing is, when I was a teenager I wouldn’t have seen the darkness of that at all.
    Never mind, these days we can medicate away our existential problems with different chemicals, medically sanctioned and otherwise.

    Reply

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