Gilbey on Film: In praise of Billy Wilder

Ten years of after the director's death, it's worth watching <em>The Apartment</em> again.

Billy Wilder died 10 years ago this week. His films, though, have the gift of eternal life. The Apartment, along with Some Like It Hot, is probably the most cherished of these (okay, I'll be completely uncontroversial and say the best). It will be back in UK cinemas in June. This is the second or third re-release of the film that I can remember in the last 15 years. My instinct in these circumstances is to complain about the same old titles being wheeled out again, and to protest that the resources should be splashed instead on digging out the ones that are overlooked or forgotten (such as Wilder's own fascinating and incomplete The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which was re-released 10 years ago).

But it's hard to stay gruff for long when faced with The Apartment. Instead I find myself thinking how wonderful it will be to see it again on a large screen. The last time I watched it was on TV a year or two ago. It was three or four in the morning, I was ill, unable to sleep, knocking back the Lemsip. But finding The Apartment on TV was the best pick-me-up of all. It's snappy and jolly but with the unmistakably Wilderesque strains of regret, melancholy and scepticism running through its romance.

The stench of the immoral or the venal in Wilder's work is so potent as to be made tolerable only by the crispness of the storytelling -- if Double Indemnity and Ace in the Hole were not such wildly compelling entertainments, they would plunge us forever into an inescapable pessimism. Wilder's unshowy brilliance, his meticulous x-rays of human fallibility, make great art out of the pitiful. (How he would have hated that: "I don't make cinema," he said. "I make movies. I make movies for amusement.")

Fresh off Some Like It Hot, Wilder, his co-writer, I A L Diamond, and their star, Jack Lemmon, waltzed straight into The Apartment. "While I was working with Mr. Lemmon for the first time on Some Like It Hot," Wilder said in a delightful interview with The Paris Review,

I thought to myself, "This guy's got a little bit of genius. I would love to make another picture with him, but I don't have a story." So I looked in my little black book and I came across a note about David Lean's movie Brief Encounter, that story about a married woman who lives in the country, comes to London, and meets a man. They have an affair in his friend's apartment. What I had written was, "What about the friend who has to crawl back into that warm bed?"

CC "Bud" Baxter (Lemmon) is the poor sap in question. He's rising fast at work, one promotion after another, but the secret of his success is that he loans out his apartment to the company executives for their trysts, one 45-minute slot at a time. It's a sleazy little set-up, and Wilder keeps the movie galloping along so briskly that we can overlook the unpleasantness at first. But then reality starts to creep in as Baxter realises that the woman he longs to bring home in his arms -- chirpy elevator assistant Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) -- has already been to his apartment, in the company of his boss (Fred MacMurray). The question of how Baxter finds out allows Wilder and Diamond to demonstrate their knack for succinct storytelling: one broken compact mirror is all it takes to make his heart break.

In fact, they are unbeatable at turning out these "moments" -- witness also Baxter's classic straining-spaghetti-through-a-tennis-racket scene, born out of Diamond's realisation that "Women love seeing a man trying to cook in the kitchen."

Such stand-out scenes never impede the film's precise, fluid rhythm. Wilder shot the picture in 50 days flat, and edited it in under a week. "We had three feet of unused film," he said proudly in Cameron Crowe's excellent book Interviews with Billy Wilder. (Read Andrew O'Hagan's lively review of it here. Wilder, you see, had been Crowe's first choice to play Tom Cruise's mentor in Jerry Maguire, a role the late director sadly declined.)

Fifty-seven days! That only enriches the film's miracles. This is lean, funny film-making, expertly paced and played, ending in a romantic flourish to swoon over. It won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Wilder said: "It was ideal for Lemmon, the combination of sweet and sour. I liked it when someone called that picture a dirty fairy tale..." It was, he reckoned, "the picture [of mine] that has the fewest faults."

Billy Wilder. Photograph: Getty Images

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era