Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and The Apartment notwithstanding, Billy Wilder wrote his best scripts as an indentured servant for Paramount, well before the rancidness he flashed like a badge made him a perennial nominee at the Academy Awards: Hollywood loves a cynic it can understand and package. Of these, Midnight is the best (Ninotchka is another), given deluxe treatment by the excellent hack Mitchell Leisen, and it's finally out on DVD. Like Leisen's earlier adaptation of the Preston Sturges script Easy Living, Midnight takes place in a parquet-and-Park-Avenue world encased in Art Deco with no real-life referents, and it's all the better for it; this and Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise may be the closest that American film has come to the pure verbal-velour world of Congreve. Claudette Colbert's work in It Happened One Night was the dress rehearsal for her performance here (as Mary Astor's dame on the make is a sober variant on the pure zaniness of her acting in 1942's The Palm Beach Story, in which she also squared off against Colbert). She shows an uncommon mix of daffiness and common sense. Feminism may have made these roles extinct, but the tension caused by Colbert's expansion of a stereotype for comic purposes should give Leslie Mann something to study at home for months to come. A bearable Dom Ameche (overdoing the oafishness towards at the end) leads a cast of eccentrics that includes Francis Lederer, Hedda Hopper, and John Barrymore, the latter inhabiting such a sozzled state of grace that he can fling one-liners with nary a facial muscle exertion. If you never watched Midnight on tape, here's your chance.


Tal said...

That's a ballsy claim, particularly since you marked his three best movies as exceptions! And you're excluding The Seven Year Itch (20th Century Fox), Some Like It Hot, One, Two, Three, and The Fortune Cookie (all United Artists). Although I believe Sunset Boulevard is Paramount (that's the lot they're on, remember? When she meets with Cecil B. Demille?).

Alfred Soto said...

I was referring to the years before he started directing, when he was just a hired hand at Paramount; but, yeah, I have BIG problems with Wilder. It's not because he's not as deep as he thinks he is – his surfaces aren't as clever as he thinks they are either. [i]Some Like It Hot[/i]'s the only one I like on your list.