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Billy Wilder coaxed Gloria Swanson out of retirement for “Sunset Boulevard.” | Wiki­media Commons

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psy­cho­an­alyst, a syco­phant, and a bastard.” This is how Billy Wilder described his role in 1960, the year of “The Apartment,” for which he won three Academy Awards as not only director, but also pro­ducer and screen­writer. 

Anthony Lane from The New Yorker wrote of Wilder’s legacy, “Over and over, Wilder shows us mankind behaving badly, or using one another as props and pawns, or racing into follies from which there is no escape, and still, like sheep to the shearer, we come back for more.” 

Wilder’s unique, styl­istic twist on the genre of film noir and uncon­ven­tional themes made his films unprece­dented in the cin­e­matic world. Pushing the bound­aries of acceptable subject material for film by exploring themes of adultery, alco­holism, and crime, Wilder pro­duced some of the best films of Hollywood’s Golden Era. 

Wilder wrote a moving script for “The Lost Weekend,” which came out in 1945 and follows one man’s struggle with alco­holism. The alco­holic, Don, pleads for a drink, saying, “Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geo­metric figure. No end, no beginning.” Don’s last words in the film are, “Out there in that big con­crete jungle, I wonder how many others there are like me? Poor bedeviled guys on fire with thirst. Such comical figures, to the rest of the world, as they stagger towards another binge, another bender, another spree.” 

“Sunset Boulevard” tells the story of a retired movie star des­per­ately trying to make her comeback, and a bankrupt screen­writer whose work won’t sell. When the two become lovers, the screenwriter’s eventual infi­delity leads to the movie star’s jealousy, insanity, and tragic end.

Starring Hollywood’s icon Marilyn Monroe, “Some Like It Hot” pre­miered in 1959. The strong themes of sexual comedy, raucous humor, and cross-dressing com­pletely vio­lated the Motion Picture Pro­duction Code, which had been for almost 30 years. “Some Like It Hot” led to the eventual rejection of the code in 1968 and the cre­ation of the MPAA film rating system, which is still used today. In 2009 the American Film Institute named the film the best American comedy ever made.

“Double Indemnity” is perhaps Wilder’s darkest film. An insurance salesman becomes involved in a murder when he falls in love with a woman intent on killing her husband and living off of the fraud­ulent acci­dental death claim. As the two plot the murder, the moral cor­ruption of these char­acters grows more dis­turbing. After they succeed in killing him, the salesman’s depravity leads him to another violent act.

The film is marked by a mood of pes­simism, fatalism, and menace. Wilder uses a unique lighting system to darken the film, casting shadows across faces, dark corners of rooms, and alleyways to accen­tuate the mystery, crime, and depravity of the film. He also uses a film noir style called Venetian blind lighting, where the lines of a window blind cast deep shadows on a character’s face.

Not only did Wilder write and direct movies, but he col­lab­o­rated with world-class Hol­lywood stars in order to produce phe­nomenal per­for­mances. In fact, Wilder directed fourteen dif­ferent actors in Oscar-nom­i­nating per­for­mances. When working with actors, Wilder’s method was to con­sider the lim­i­ta­tions of the actor and bend the script to those lim­i­ta­tions, rather than force the actors to perform beyond their ability. 

Wilder coaxed Hol­lywood stars Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim out of retirement to perform in “Sunset Boulevard.” Swanson would go on to win the Golden Globe Award for best actress.

Billy Wilder’s legacy is evident from the mark his movies have made on the cin­e­matic world. With their bold, raucous themes and extra­or­dinary actors, his films leave the viewer with both a shudder and a smile.