Go Your Own Way: Billy Wilder and the Fine Art of Independent Cinema

by Donald Brackett.

“If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny, or else they’ll kill you.” — Billy Wilder

    Billy Wilder was an amazingly versatile cinematic artist of the highest order, and one somehow capable of making entertaining and inspiring works of both comedy and tragedy with equal aplomb. This curious skill will have to be analyzed by future historians, but at least we have the magnificent films he gifted us, and those movies are more pertinent as artworks than any psychological character study of the great American director could hope to be. It’s true that his own post-traumatic life story eventually formed the basis of his need to turn the commercial industry of Hollywood on its head by introducing what amounts to existential human issues into an entertainment art form which had previously been largely content to serve as a distraction from everyday life. But Wilder also approached his craft quite differently: he made everyday life and ordinary people the keys to his astronomical success. That’s what enabled him to have the clout to operate almost outside the system, something which today we’d call artisanal filmmaking. Inherently a consummate storyteller by nature, and a raconteur in the brilliant darkness of the movie theatre, he somehow displayed an uncanny ability to elicit both our laughter and tears in equal measure, often at the same time. But he also insisted on always telling us the truth. And we often laughed at the truths he told us.

      In an earlier book, Double Solitaire, I explored the creative partnership and films written, produced and directed by the infamous collaboration between Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. But exploring the films that the ever ambitious Billy Wilder created independently after that tumultuous partnership broke up (perhaps in a utopian Wilder Film Festival someday) would likely reveal even about his core artistic and personal motivations. In fact, it is my contention that Wilder was among the visionary forerunners of what we now casually refer to as independent cinema, commencing symbolically with the very first of his films directed under his own creative control, The Major and the Minor, 1942. And this was even though he was technically still breathing the stilted atmosphere of the Hollywood studio system, all the way up to Sunset Boulevard, which was his idea of filing a divorce claim against the powers that be. 

    The divorce settlement per se would be his immediate follow up to that thumbing of his nose at Hollywood so ostentatiously. Subsequent to the twelve other early masterpieces for which he is best remembered in tandem with Brackett, especially Lost Weekend 1945 and Sunset Boulevard 1950, in 1951 Wilder launched himself into a risky stratosphere of fierce independence, one artfully embodied in the always inventive and deeply personal movies he gave to the world. Most notable about his efforts was his uncanny ability to demonstrate, time and time again, the close intimate relationship between comedy and tragedy as modes of artistic expression. His first independent production, Ace in the Hole, 1951, is the stylistic pivot and aesthetic fulcrum upon which the rest of his lengthy career careened into and out of favour with audiences and critics alike. That film was an amazing launching pad into a filmed world of both darkness and light in equal measure. It was, in fact, Wilder’s own private world, which he shared cynically with us all. And now it’s also ours: it’s the contemporary world we all live in, or try to.

Ace in the Hole, 1951, with Kirk Douglas /  by Charles Lang Jr.

We now need a much closer examination of his second great screenwriting partnership, with I.A.L. ‘Izzy’ Diamond, with whom he rose to the pinnacle of a Hollywood for which he still always maintained a terse disdain, one which was often mirrored in the industry’s own responses to his brusque and combative manner, but which nonetheless embraced the former non-English speaking European émigré as one of its most cherished citizens. One conceptual premise from which I’m working (and which surprise some people) is my assertion that the American film director most simpatico with him aesthetically (though not necessarily stylistically) is Stanley Kubrick. This uniquely unexplored perspective leads us to unusual discoveries related to chilly cinema in the history of art, to painting with film, and to the artist personally embodied in his or her art work. “The screen is a magic medium. It has such power that it can retain interest as it conveys emotions and moods that no other art form can hope to tackle.” Kubrick once sternly contended. That stern point of departure is a touchstone for all the frenetic forward motion of Go Your Own Way.

Billy Wilder was a very serious and fastidious filmmaker. He never claimed to be, or thought he was, an artiste, but he was one nonetheless. The fact that he was also a hugely successful popular entertainer was merely a fortunate coincidence. I was ten years old when I first accidentally watched Sunset Boulevard, on late night television, and its impact has never left me, not even over fifty years later. Sometimes I wish it would, or could. It was the movie which suddenly convinced me that films were our contemporary cathedral murals, our stained glass windows, our new visual masters. The viewing that first illuminated this modernist history of art for me most was my arresting experience of that twisted noir fable, with its stunning opening scene of a dead William Holden floating eerily in a swimming pool, and shot from the bottom of the pool looking up. It was transformative. The realization that films actually were paintings that moved, so to speak, has never entirely left me, and it has also drawn me into a love affair with movies that accepts the fact that they are a stolen series of photographic stills rapidly filtered past a shining lens.

A swan-song of sorts to traditional Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard would also be the final film in the first stage of Billy Wilder’s mesmerizingly long career, after which he would launch himself into a dizzyingly successful merry go round of movies that entertained us, yes, but also revealed something of the underside of human nature to those of us who detected Billy Wilder’s signature paradox: life can be weird, so let’s enjoy ourselves while we can. The second and third stages of Wilder’s oeuvre, in direct contradiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous admonition that “There are no second acts in American lives” took us all on a consistently rocky ride through an ironic landscape that could only have been crafted by a caustic and cynical outsider such as him. Wilder though was the perfect living model for the adage that underneath every cynic is a disappointed romantic. He concealed it so well that most followers of his work had no idea how deeply disjointed his own personal psychological profile actually was.

Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole  (AKA The Big Carnival, 1951) / Charles Lang Jr. 

Daniel Frampton’s insightful concept of the filmind is pertinent to Wilder’s overall objectives as a cinema artist: the photoplay obeys the laws of the mind rather than those of the outer world. Frampton also considers film a thinking being, although he never equalizes man and film: the filmind is “the origin and source of all images and sounds, it makes decisions and ‘serves itself’ throughout the production of the photoplay. Every action we encounter is the direct result of dramatic film-thinking, visualizing ideas, feelings and emotions. It’s almost as if we do not make films so much as films make us.” There’s a good reason why in any survey of average movie lovers, if asked who their favourite filmmaker was, Wilder’s name invariably is up near the top three: it’s his innate skill at visual storytelling in an emotive mode. It’s his weird empathy for the human condition.

What Wilder managed to do with his chilly montage process is to still the frenzy of film down to the calm ardor of reverie. After all, the first salient proviso regarding images, whether painted art, mechanical cinema, or otherwise, is that there is more than meets the eye, and that the secret to the power of images, pace Walter Benjamin, is the fact that what really matters is behind our eyes: our assumptions, beliefs or even superstitions, which we look through whenever we look at. Wilder’s woven celluloid works make this aspect abundantly clear: seeing is not always believing. Sometimes, seeing is simply seeing. That is the secret behind what I often refer to as the brilliant darkness of great cinema such as Wilder’s: that it is an optical language just as efficient, if not moreso, that any linguistic language. And Wilder early on revealed to us that he is a master of the semantics of that new film lingo.

Eisenstein was perhaps the first filmmaker to insist that images were an actual language, one with its own syntax. As he expressed it in one of his texts: “Now, why should the cinema follow the forms of theatre and painting rather than the methodology of language, which allows wholly new concepts and ideas to arise from the combination of two separate concrete objects?” Are images actually words? They used to be. Are films actually novels? They might be. Often the most striking narrative stories emerge from images in the most abstract and dreamlike manner. As the great Soviet film maker and theorist made abundantly clear in his two classics on cinema, Film Sense, 1942 and Film Form, 1949, films are first and foremost, perhaps even primarily, a language all their own.     

He maintained this crucial notion, as well as demonstrating it vividly in his films, that word and image were intimately related, and that films were sentences of a special sort, with images instead of words. They speak to us directly, in a dialectical tongue consisting of pictures. Indeed, through his creation of the concept of the montage, the sequence of images accumulating into an embodied meaning, there also exists a syntax of imagery and even a general semantics governing the entire science of signs. Film artists such as Wilder, despite their commercial and critical success, contributed to a finely tuned sensibility emphasizing both time and space, one embedded in the inherent durational component of their own craftsmanship, as well as the foregrounding of cinema as a uniquely structured language with its own set of codes and mystifications. And Wilder so excelled at wielding this particular technic with his own mix of considerable guts, grace, charisma and charm. 

Recently, culture critic and film scholar Hava Aldouby has illuminated another similarly specialized zone of viewing pleasure by reminding us that the great Federico Fellini professed a sincere desire to create ‘an entire film made of immobile pictures.’ In our dreams perhaps. For me, the most tantalizing of films are those that draw extensively on art history, and particularly painting, as a reservoir for their highly retinal and idiosyncratic visual imagery. David Lynch, for example, has said he liked making ‘moving paintings’. Something like Goya in action. Dreaming with our eyes wide open if you like. Films invite us to enter a kind of enhanced ultra-reverie, transmitted like a visual virus, to which we, or some of us anyway, willingly submit. We do so of course because, as Tarkovsky has suggested, all art, including the cinema, is an expression of our collaborative existence. And few art forms are more collaborative in nature than cinema: the director with his or her crew and the director with the audience itself. In the long run, it is our dependence upon each other for survival that makes up the concrete raw materials for art making as an emotional enterprise, no matter what it looks like. Without interdependence, making art at all would be beside the point; with it, it is the whole point itself.

Cinema also gifts writers with an ideal metaphor that could be applied to any duration-based works. The passage of time within the frame, perhaps the penultimate Eisensteinian insight: building sculptures made out of time and light itself instead of marble. Wilder stands out boldly in this category of ultra-durational film artists. He could easily be considered part of the auteur school of cinema aesthetics, in order to differentiate average studio entertainment from the highly idiosyncratic expressions of directors who clearly saw themselves as visual artists using light and time as their paint and plaster. Wilder used the film medium not just in a sociological manner (as he does in two of his greatest films, Ace in the Hole, 1951, and The Apartment, 1960) but as the primary delivery system for images which transcend the cognitive realm altogether and get right to the zone of the emotive and affective, as he did in Some Like it Hot, 1959 and Irma la Douce, 1959. They too are sad ruminations on the human condition though, at least as encapsulated through our relationships with other humans, and they both take us into tenderhearted encounters between fellow strays, looking for something, anything. Wilder was very personally familiar with the armor of the human heart. That’s why we still cherish his shared celluloid reveries.

Jack Lemmon with Billy Wilder during filming The Apartment, 1960 /  Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios

Wilder’s moving portrait-paintings, even the very funny ones, cause us to pause and register the intuition of the instant, as we gaze into the codes of human behaviour the intrepid (or was it reckless) director shows to us in real time. He never lets us forget that we’re actually watching 24 images per second, and also to savor them as such. His cinephilia is contagious, and is at the heart of everything he’s ever written, produced or directed. His stock in trade is the emotional character costume worn by those too fragile to show themselves entirely. Photography, the culmination of the history of art, is especially adept at conveying the human aura, affect and agency, and cinema, the culmination of the history of photography, is perhaps the penultimate realm of both concealment and unmasking. One can only presume that just as the digital domain is the culmination of the history of cinema, in a recursive manner, it will also continue this ever forward momentum of distinctively different image-story vehicles. And yet as distinct as all these visual languages and industries are, they are all are still basically only delivery systems for the steady stream of images which we the audience crave.

If, as Bachelard suggested, there is a poetics to duration just as there is to space, it probably involves the privileged state of reverie, of daydreaming, which films induce in the first place, and which still celebrate to this day. That’s what makes a dark meditation on incarceration and isolation such as Wilder’s strangely alluring Stalag 17, from 1957, so definitive. After all, it takes place in a prisoner of war camp, and there is no action to speak of, since we spend all our time watching prisoners sit around talking about being prisoners. Prisoners of time. Ironically, that scenario could almost have been produced by Samuel Beckett (and it actually was produced, by Jean-Paul Sartre, in his play No Exit). Of course, luckily for him (lightning seemed to strike twice for Billy) Wilder would merge his own considerable storytelling skills with those of the second great creative collaborator in his illustrious career, combining talents with I.A.L. ‘Izzy’ Diamond to considerable acclaim on Love in the Afternoon, 1957, Some Like It Hot, 1959, The Apartment, 1960, followed later on by The Seven Year Itch, 1955, The Fortune Cookie, 1966, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmesin 1970, Avanti!, 1972, The Front Page, 1974, Fedora, 1978, and Buddy Buddy, 1981. 

Indeed, the three mid-career decades in which the two men collaborated, from 1957 up until Diamond’s passing in 1988, leaving Wilder partnerless (and buddyless), were among the most fruitful in the twilight years of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Once his friend and creative collaborator, who Wilder often referred to as, “Not my alter-ego, he’s my alter-Id”, was gone, Billy stayed around for another fourteen years, but not as an active filmmaker, more as a legend. And, of course, it’s his legend which matters most to us here. Some call it survivor’s guilt. He called it history. Either way he used it as emotional fuel to stoke the furnace of his often caustic cinematic furnace. Wilder, the ever industrious Austrian immigrant who made America his home sweet home, once described his European hometown as being half an hour from Vienna, by telegraph. He could also share his creative partner Izzy Diamond’s wistful observation that “The town where I was born still exists. But the country doesn’t.” 

 When Wilder first started working in the film industry, as Robert Porfirio mentioned to the director, there was a kind of angst pervading Central Europe after World War One and prior to the second war. “Did your background, being Jewish in a culture that was becoming rabidly anti-semitic, create in you a darker side to life.” To which the insightful director responded, surprisingly perhaps given the prevailing wisdom, “I think the dark outlook is already an American one.” “Even in the noir films?” Porfirio once asked him “So many noir movies were made by emigres.” Provoking in Wilder a key insight: “But you see, the thing is that you used a key concept there: that of looking for patterns. As a picture-maker, and I think most of us are this way, I am not even aware of patterns. We’re not aware that ‘this picture will be in that genre’. It comes more naturally, just the way you do your handwriting. If you have any kind of style, the discerning ones will detect it. You develop a handwriting, but you don’t do it consciously.” 

For Billy Wilder that handwriting, and its embedded storytelling style, might best be described as melodrama without sentiment, and tragedy without tears. His own personal survivor character armor, as a European emigre who made good, always held him in good defensive stead, despite the fact that the movie characters he created did not always fare as well in his screenplay as their canny maker did in real life. That irony, the darkness of their maker being synonymous with the darkness of his crafted characters, flaws and all, is what makes his bleakly tender and socially conscious film The Apartment a classic of late noir, despite the fact that no one is murdered or betrayed, apart from self-betrayal. It is indeed evident in Wilder’s best films that both comedy and tragedy are a kind of homeopathic medicine prescribed aesthetically in order to cope with the vagaries of 20th century life, especially when the two are combined in a single dose. What Billy Wilder learned, and what he subsequently shared with us all, was that a spoonful of sugar always helps the medicine go down.

^^^

Donald Brackett is a film critic/curator and author based in Vancouver Canada. In addition to writing numerous articles for Critics At Large, Offscreen, Xibit, Arcade Projects, Found Footage, and Embodied Meanings, he is the author of the recent books Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, 2022, which focused on the conceptual artist’s experimental films; and Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, 2024, examining their unique creative partnership. He has curated programs for Cinematheue, among them Strange Magic: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, 2013. He is currently curating a follow up program of Wilder’s independent films with IAL Diamond, as well as working on a new book about Billy Wilder’s contributions to independent cinema.

Image: A pacing Billy Wilder (with walking stick) arguing with his creative collaborator Charles Brackett (reclining on his couch), by Peter Stackpole, 1944.

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