The Seven Year Itch (1955)

The Seven Year Itch (1955) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 04/09/2016

It may not be among Billy Wilder’s best films, but I became enamored of The Seven Year Itch and have long counted it among my favorite movies.  Of that hardly complete nor organized list of favorites is the other Billy Wilder/Marilyn Monroe movie, the superior and wonderful Some Like It Hot (1959), which, unlike The Seven Year Itch, was a favorite since my earliest years.  My first movie star crush was on Monroe’s Sugar Kane.  Either her or Julia Adams from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

I got hooked on The Seven Year Itch somewhere along the way in the 1980’s or 1990’s, catching it on AMC back when AMC played actual American movie classics uncut and uninterrupted by commercial.  It was one of those movies that I would stumble upon and wind up watching all the way through.  And I came to enjoy it more and more.

Tom Ewell is a lot of fun as the husband at home in New York City on his lonesome for the summer while his wife and “space cadet” kid are upstate on vacation.  His Walter Mitty-like fantasies run amok, imagining all kinds of affairs, both his and his wife’s, and other whimsies painted out.  But when Marilyn Monroe shows up as the sexy neighbor upstairs, in perhaps her most affable and iconic dumb blonde role, that seven year itch gets going.

Apparently, the film was tamed a good deal by the Hays office, stymieing the the sex into innuendo and declawing the story.  Still, Monroe is such a riveting screen presence, voluptuous and kittenish, a cartoon fantasy still alive in her reality.  I was a bit reminded of Tex Avery in the storytelling and style, like his T.V. of Tomorrow (1953), with the fantasy elements spreading out across the CinemaScope width.  Heck, even the joke in the film about CinemaScope.

One thing that annoyed me was the when the film opens, the version was in CinemaScope, featuring the animated credit sequence by Saul Bass (fantastic!), but then cropped down to a “normal” letterbox format.  Which was oddly bizarre.  Not fullscreen but still rectangular?  And the images were clearly all cropped with some really wonky bits.  Wilder was using the full scope of CinemaScope.  Super annoying in my humble little opinion.

This was a rainy day watch for me and the kids.  An unusual little streak of re-watching a handful of my favorite films and showing them to the kids for the first time.  I spend most of my time watching movies that I haven’t seen.

Still a favorite.

The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment (1960) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 07/26/2015

I’m kicking off a new round of watching those “great movies” that I’ve never seen.  I started this last year and saw several before getting somewhat sidetracked on other trends, including “The Worst Movies Ever Made”.  My latest push is inspired by a new list produced by the BBC of the 100 Best American Films of all time.  While this list has many of the usual suspects and also some questionable entries, it does afford me some clarity on the movies on this list that I’ve never seen.

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is an odd one for me to have never seen.  I do love me some Billy Wilder (as does the BBC list — he’s on there five times for #100 Ace in the Hole (1951), #54 Sunset Boulevard (1950), #35 Double Indemnity (1944), #30 Some Like It Hot (1959), as well as this one which was his highest on the list at #24.)  I also love me some Jack Lemmon.  And this is one of those movies that seems to play nearly endlessly on TCM.  So, how I never saw it?  I dunno.

Lemmon is a cog in a big insurance firm in New York, loaning out his convenient bachelor pad to some managers to take their many trysts.  When he finally gets a promotion for his efforts, he’s spotted by the big boss, played by Fred MacMurray, who starts to ask for the same favors.  Only it turns out that his girl on the side is Fran Kubelik (the very lovely Shirley MacLaine), an elevator gal in the building for whom Lemmon has developed feelings.

While there are elements of comedy about the film, it’s no Some Like It Hot or The Seven Year Itch (1955).  Fran tries to kill herself in Lemmon’s apartment, and while he tries to get her taken care of, he’s also trying to keep everything together.

Between The Apartment and Double Indemnity, you can forget all about the fatherly My Three Sons Fred MacMurray and rather see him as one of Hollywood’s best ruthless villains.

I enjoyed the film.  Wilder’s popularity is well-earned.  I think if I had caught it at a younger age, I might have really connected with it.  I certainly would have fallen for MacLaine.

Stalag 17 (1953)

Stalag 17 (1953) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 01/31/2014

This year I decided that I was going to make a real effort to see so me of those films that everybody has seen that I have never seen.   You know, the ones that when you say you haven’t seen that movie that people can’t believe it?  Well, oddly enough, Stalag 17 was one of those movies for me.  I decided to give it a go with the kids.

It’s, of course, a Billy Wilder picture, which is pretty much endorsement enough in itself.  Starring William Holden and a wonderful cast of character actors, it’s a WWII movie set in a Prisoner of War camp.  Based on a play, the film was script was expanded upon by Wilder and Edwin Blum.  And it’s a clever mixture of comedy and drama that would make it hard to place it specifically in either of those genre camps.

Holden’s character is an unlikable guy who looks out for himself, making money one way or another and living better than most in the camp.  When the prisoners catch on that there must be a mole in the barracks, he’s the obvious suspect, and that storyline is the main plot through the otherwise episodic narrative.

The Germans are semi-buffoons, with the camp leader played by Otto Preminger.  I guess that the TV show Hogan’s Heroes wasn’t necessarily based on this film, but it certainly plays like a template for that.  They even have their own Sergeant Schultz.

The kids enjoyed the film, but were not so crazily into it.  They liked the part when all of the men in the barracks put on Hitler mustaches to tease and taunt Sgt. Schultz.

What else can I say?  It’s a classic for good reason.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard (1950) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 01/02/2014

Sunset Bouldevard.  One of the great movies.

You know, I hadn’t seen it for ages.  I may actually have only watched it in its entirety once before in my life, some time long ago.  But so much of it is so deeply ingrained via pop culture, so iconic are its performances, its style, scenes, dialog, that it’s as familiar as some long lost dear friend.

But you know, it is truly brilliant.  The reason that there are so many quotable moments?  The script is brilliant.  The performances are brilliant.  Gloria Swanson?  Impeccable.  Erich von Stroheim? Sublime.  William Holden?  Spot on.

What struck me more than anything this viewing through was how this film came out in 1950, meditating as it does on Hollywood myths and legends, and the great Silent Era, which had ended two decades before, though many of its greats were still alive and well.  Obsolete perhaps in 1950’s Hollywood, but the sense of historical truth all in the paper-thin facades of movie sets…for an industry that was itself turning half a century, it seems a particularly mature and observant perspective on itself.

Here I sit, even further away, another half century plus since Sunset Boulevard and I gaze at the vantage of that time and appreciate its clarity.

Of course, Billy Wilder was among the greats  of that second age of Hollywood.  It’s amazing how many terrific movies the man made.  Sunset Boulevard, a notable and well-known as it is, is just plain fantastic.  The kind of movie I could watch over and over again.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Some Like it Hot (1959) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 12/29/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I finally got to take the kids to see the marvelous Some Like It Hot, and at the Castro, no less.  I last saw it at the Castro three years ago and had contemplated taking them to see it with me then.  Ever since, it’s been on the periphery of our film queue.  But I’m glad that we got to see it on the big screen, the last of a series of Sundays at the Castro that started with To Catch a Thief (1955) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

They didn’t have a lot to go on about the film.  I told them it was about two musicians who witness a mob hit in Chicago and join an all-girl band, dressing as women, to escape the gangsters.  I also told them that it was one of my favorite movies, considered by many to be one of the best comedies of all time, and that I’d been into it from a time when I was younger than they are now.

Still, I wasn’t entirely sure how they would like it.

But they loved it.

It was the biggest hit of the three classics that we screened in those three weeks and it made it to both of their “best of” lists for the year (something I’ve only just queried them on for the first time.

What can I say?  It, like so many things, was even more fun for me to watch with them in tow, laughing and smiling at each other over the silly, madcap fun.

And I kind of fall for Marilyn every time I see it.

Some Like It Hot

Some Like it Hot (1959) movie poster

(1959) director Billy Wilder
viewed: 09/03/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

It’s no secret that Some Like It Hot is a great film.  Heck, it’s one of those perennial placements of top film comedies of all time on notable lists throughout criticism.  It was selected by the Library of Congress back in 1989 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.  It’s a well-known and much-loved entity.

And I love it too.

For as long as I’ve been listing such things, I’ve put Some Like It Hoton my lists of favorite films, a list that I try to keep short, since it could be so long.  But the thing about the film for me is that I’ve liked it since I was quite young.  I’m not 100% sure how old I was when I first saw it, but I’m willing to guess around 7 or 8.  And it spawned for me my first movie star crush…on Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar Kane, and oddly mainstream thing for me.  I thought Jack Lemmon was hilarious and I thought the whole thing great fun.

On those notes, not much has changed.  It had been years.  And I mean years since I’d last seen it.  In the interim, I’d developed a liking for another Marilyn Monroe/Billy Wilder film, The Seven Year Itch (1955), which became one of those films that when I’d stumble on it on cable, I’d usually find myself watching all the way through no matter where I’d come in.  But I honestly couldn’t recall the last time that I’d actually seen Some Like It Hot.

When I first noted that it was playing at the Castro, I debated about taking the kids to it.  It had been so long before that I’d seen it, I wasn’t so positive how they would respond to it.  But at the same time, I had these twinging sensations about sharing a movie that I’d loved at their age and had continued to love and I was really curious as to how they would find it.  As things turned out, an early release from work before Labor Day weekend put me at the theater on my own, making the decision for me.  Though I may still screen it for them sometime soon.

It’s the funny thing about this day and age versus the day and age in which I was 8.  Thirty years makes a lot of difference in a lot of places, but perhaps it’s the more subtle changes in life that strike most poignantly at times.  I mean, at age 8, we had a television set that got at most 7 channels, no way to record or capture something to watch at your own leisure.  No way to go out and grab just any film in the world and watch either.  You basically watched what came on and were much more beholding to the whims of the schedulers.  And then I had my mom, who looked out for movies that she thought I’d like and helped me find what I might want.

My kids on the other hand, well, they have few channels too.  But that is only because their mother shuns cable and satellite.  But the channels that they have don’t play lots of old movies and television shows and actually, they don’t hardly ever watch it.  All of their watching is “managed”, “selected”, and supervised.  Luckily or unluckily, they have me selecting and screening a wide variety of films and talking to them about them in detail.  Perhaps then the big difference is self-discovery versus “planned exposure”.

Something else kind of funny is that when I saw it as a kid, the movie was not quite 20 years old, and I watched a lot of old movies back then, but it seemed like something from a perhaps far older era.  Perhaps that is just childhood myopia.  But now, it’s 50 years old, and it seems to still emanate from a time beyond beyond, a much different world (it does purport itself to be set in 1929).  When I think back to the temporal proximity of the film’s 1959 release and my late 1970’s viewing, that seems not such a long stretch of time.  And somehow, still, I watch it with partially the same eyes.

Well, that tangent aside (and my apologies for it), but seeing Some Like It Hot again for the first time in years was just as wonderful as before.  Perhaps I didn’t find it a constant comedy laugh-riot (it’s more spread out than that, though some scenes have the rat-a-tat quick verbal gags as any screwball comedy).  But it’s high points are sublime.  Jack Lemmon is pitch-perfect in every moment.  Marilyn Monroe is luscious and funny and somewhat if not greatly tragic and sad.  It’s funny as hell, lively, clever, and beautifully photographed.

It’s Billy Wilder.  And it’s Billy Wilder at his level best.

It’s a great, great, great movie.  And one that I’ll be sharing with Felix and Clara before too long.

Ace in the Hole

 

Ace in the Hole (1951) movie poster

(1951) dir. Billy Wilder
viewed: 10/22/07

Ace in the Hole is a film that I’d been interested in seeing for some years.  Recommended by a friend when talking about writer/director Billy Wilder’s best films, I had searched in the days of VHS for naught, and now this film has recently been given the Criterion Collection treatment, and finally, I got a chance to see it.

Wilder was an excellent director but also an excellent writer.  The patter and the dialogue snap and crack and wisecrack with a sharpness that epitomized the time, but are rich and funny.  Kirk Douglas is excellent as the down on his luck smartass big city reporter who gets stuck in Abluqueque, New Mexico at a small town newspaper, waiting to find the story that will make him big again and able to return to the big leagues.  The story that he stumbles on is a man trapped in a cavern in the side of a hill, and he capitalizes on it for his own glory.  He quite literally turns the situation into a circus, not just a media circus, but with ferris wheels and fun rides.

The film’s depiction of the small town in the Southwest of the period is interesting.  It’s rustic down to an almost classic cowboy world, though populated and operated by automobile.  Douglas’s character pulls everyone into his scheme, either directly or indirectly.  And when he hits his moral crisis toward the end of the film, he takes it out on all of them, too.

Ace in the Hole could certainly be analyzed from a number of perspectives, though the main one would be its analysis and criticism of media and media culture.  Comparing the staid and somber character of the Albuquerque newspaper publisher, who’s cross-stitched motto “Tell the Truth” is placed all around their office to the hungry wolves out the exploit and recast “news” to entice the readers or listeners, the film depicts a contrast in integrity, though oddly enough the media monster and radio announcer cast longer shadows than the small town newspaper.  Though Douglas’s character comes to a realization of his crimes, no one is really left to learn from them, the big city newspaper hangs up on him.

It does echo interestingly through the media today, though it has its own quaintness of the 1950’s.  Media and what people are interested in, how they buy into the drama, become voyuers, feed back into the machine of the process without really having true interest in the “real” story, all could be re-made today.  Of course, when the miners were trapped in Wyoming not so long ago, I don’t know that they set up a side show for onlookers, but certainly, the international media turned an everseeing eye onto that tragedy with a non-stop level of coverage.

Wilder is indeed one of the best of Hollywood’s autuers.  I have to remind myself to see more of his films that I haven’t gotten around to yet.

Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944) movie poster

(1944) dir. Billy Wilder
viewed: 04/02/07

Considered by many to be one of the high water marks of the film noir period, Billy Wilder’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is certainly worth its reputation.  One could say that alone for the performances of Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson.  It’s quite a revelation to see the dad of My Three Sons, which I totally grew up on, talking tough, smoking, planning murder, sexing up a skirt, and saying “Baby” like he means it.  Killer.

The film script was co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, so this thing has the total noir pedigree.  Some beautiful cinematography, some great dialogue, and a good ride, all the way.

It’s funny,…I like noir, I got especially into crime fiction even more than film noir, but there is a certain type that is attracted to the genre.  It’s like another form of geekdom like those who like anime. The difference is that they all like to think of themselves as gritty and tough and full of cynical views of the world.

To me, one of the things about noir that I like is the way that it evolved from German Expressionism, an evolution that is almost literal and non-metaphorical.  As Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, many artists in Eastern Europe escaped to America, deeply penetrating Hollywood and bringing much of their aesthetics with them.  The difference is that the darkness and horror that defined Expressionism became integrated with the urban experience and the cultural milieu of America during and post-war.  They left behind the fantasy aspects of horror and situated it within more recognizable constructs as crime and the elements of the modern world.

The writing had been there for some time.  Dashiell Hammett and others, writing for Black Mask among other publications, created a world view and writing style that preceded the filmic versions of themselves.  In film school, they point out that film noir is not a genre but a style.  The irony is that it almost has become a sub-genre in our contemporary world.  That doesn’t change the masterpieces of the original, real period.

Double Indemnity is a great film noir, I would say, much as others do.  I have others that I prefer for varying reasons, but it’s a well-earned classic and it’s a good book too.