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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Time for put-upon Sicily to put out its wines

The high-altitude vineyards of Italy’s largest island produce nectar for the gods, Greek or Roman.

It was Diodorus of Sicily, a Greek historian in the 1st century BC, who wrote of the Gauls’ passionate attachment to wine that they “partake of this drink without moderation . . . and when drunk fall into a stupor or a state of madness”. There was, as yet, virtually no wine made in what would become France, and Italian merchants were making a fortune: in exchange for a jar of wine they received a slave, thus “exchanging the cupbearer for the cup”.

An irritated Gaul – and they were not people to irritate – might have responded that the Sicilians were no slouches on the drinking front, either. They had been making wine for several centuries by the time Diodorus was born, and although some of their grapes had been transplanted successfully to the mainland, a fair bit of what they produced was being consumed by the producers. And who, when drunk, does not approach either catatonia or insanity?

Perhaps the accusations rankle because the Gauls, with their lack of home-grown grapes, their thirst and consequent misbehaviour, were clearly the Brits of the Roman era. Plus ça change, as their descendants might say, although, given that France now has far healthier attitudes to wine than we do, perhaps there’s hope for us yet: just keep expanding the English vineyards, wait a couple of thousand years and – voilà!

Arguably the Sicilians have as many reasons to flee consciousness as we do. Their island may be breath-catchingly beautiful, from the Mediterranean beaches to the slopes of Mount Etna, past Greek temples, Roman ruins and Baroque churches, and their weather so wonderfully warm and dry that they can grow almost anything (a facility that led in the 20th century to a flood of boring wine that almost drowned the island’s vinous reputation for good). But Italy’s slender length is characterised by economic top-heaviness: the north is rich and industrialised, the south poor and rural, and Sicily is as far south as you can get.

The antique feel that tourists find so charming – Tinkers! Fishmongers! Absolutely nothing open between noon and 4pm! – is an indication of a region whose glories lie in the distant past, 2,500 years ago, when Syracuse was a powerful city state at least as large as Athens, praised by Cicero as “the greatest of the Greek cities, and the most beautiful of all”.

Such vicissitudes will make you flexible. Sicily has the adaptability of an island that has seen volcanic eruptions and armed invasions, has been powerful and poor, and been diddled out of its patrimony by cousins from the north as well as criminal-minded brothers from the village next door. Its range of indigenous grapes reflects this. There is spicy, rich Nero d’Avola; light, cherryish Frappato; and Nerello Mascalese, perhaps the most adaptable of all. The best whites are almondy Grillo and the tart, lemonish Carricante, grown on volcanic Etna’s high slopes.

As befits a place so frequently invaded, there are international grapes, too: one of the island’s finest wines, Tasca d’Almerita’s Contea di Sclafani Rosso del Conte, blends Nero d’Avola with Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. Some top producers, such as Feudo Montoni, stick to indigenous grapes; the formidable Planeta tries practically everything.

The best winemakers have a wilful individuality that those befuddled Gauls would surely have recognised. In the case of COS, a fine triumvirate based in the south of the island, this mental agility has inspired Pithos, wine aged in the ancient clay jars called amphorae. Maybe this is the past catching up with Sicily – or, given the new trendiness of amphorae, just Sicily catching up. Does it matter? The wines are excellent, and entirely distinctive. Surely it is time for Sicily, or at least its finest products, to do a little invading of their own.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror