6. Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
World War II intrigue, as the survivor of a deadly tank battle tries to outwit Rommel, as they both take shelter in an isolated hotel. I have always liked Franchot Tone. But, Billy Wilder drags something out of him that is quite remarkable: a certain kind of tenacity. You will get the chance to assess this quality for yourselves, when Eureka Entertainment releases this film, which will be the first time it has seen the light of day for almost 80 years.
This film also highlights one of Wilder’s most remarkable qualities: his sense of history. This film was released in 1943. He chose to make a film where Rommel is the villain. We’re in the middle of the Second World War, and he is using one of its principal generals as its villain? Genius! Spielberg, eat your heart out! A truly inspired thriller, this is “Raiders” on steroids! When it is released, please hook up your regionless DVD player, and enjoy. If you don’t know what a regionless DVD player is, I’ve got a guy.
7. The Major and the Minor (1942)
Ginger Rogers has had enough. She has tried out New York City and has had enough! Dammit! She wants to go home! But, she doesn’t have enough money to go home. So, she does what any rational human being would do: she dresses up in old clothes, pretends she is a 12 year old girl, and gets the reduced ticket. Oh yeah! This makes sense! And that’s what makes it a Wilder film. His first, and it must be said, a rather brilliant one. Along the way, she meets a military instructor, played by the very dashing Ray Milland, and falls in love with him.
Wilder had directed or co-directed, films before this but, this is him bursting on human consciousness. And, boy, does he burst! He was in the midst of a maelstrom of greatness. Yet, he found a way to make a mark. Sturgess, Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford, Cukor, keep going. There has never been a greater era for film directors. Yet, with this little, innocent film, he did it. For that, he is one of my heroes.
8. A Foreign Affair (1948)
Marlene Dietrich. What else can you say about Marlene Dietrich? She is a style icon! An absolute genius when it comes to brand. So, what else can you do? Make her a villain! The War (quote, unquote) made that possible. And Dietrich’s accent made it impossible to not make that association. However, this story of mistaken identity is much more than that. Jean Arthur’s portrayal of an Investigator’ for the War Department was an inspired choice. Wilder pulled a performance from her for the ages. There are too many surprises in this film for me to flirt with. Catch it when you can. Enjoy!
9. The Front Page (1974)
I can try all I want, but this film will always be about Lemmon and Matthau: probably the greatest double-act in the history of film. I mean, come on! Everyone follows in their footsteps, even those who have been following Laurel and Hardy, and the rest. This story had already been perfected by Howard Hawks. So, why re-visit it?! It makes no sense! But, Wilder did! And triumphantly, they blew it out of the water. It is an attempt to bring the story back to its roots, and a way to push into a new phase, a new light. I love “Grumpy Old Men”, and its sequel but, this is the last great teaming of these two acting titans, and great friends.
10. Irma La Douce (1963)
A reunion of the principals in “The Apartment”: with what change? We’re making a musical…except we’re not. I mean, the songs are there, and yet they’re not. This is what is confusing to me. “Irma la Duce” was a huge success on stage. Then Wilder chose to strip the “Musical” element from the film. It’s not that Lemmon and Maclaine couldn’t sing, it just seems that he wanted to focus on the plot, and not on the original stage production. And maybe that best describes Wilder’s style. Plot, not stage production. This is a period when he really focused on stage productions, when he could: “The Seven Year Itch:, “Witness for the Prosecution”, “One, Two, Three” etc.
It is a fascinating look into Wilder’s personality. He wanted to strip every single pretense from a premise, and present the bare essentials of it. He never made a musical, because he clearly viewed the conventions of musicals to be a hinderance. I am sorry he never saw the beauty of those conventions but, every artist is different. And, Wilder was one of the greatest artists of our time.