Welcome Stranger (1947)

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The doctor’s as good as Frank Sinatra! Old Dr. Joseph McRory (Barry Fitzgerald) of Fallbridge, Maine, hires a replacement for his two-month vacation sight unseen. When they finally meet, he and young Californian singing doctor Jim Pearson (Bing Crosby) don’t hit it off, but Pearson is delighted to stay, once he meets teacher Trudy Mason (Joan Caulfield) who volunteers at McRory’s clinic. Only McRory’s housekeeper Mrs Gilley (Elizabeth Patterson) is sympathetic and gives him helpful advice. However the other locals take their cue from McRory and cold-shoulder Pearson, especially Trudy’s stuffy fiancé. But then, guess who needs an emergency appendectomy and the doctors are forced to put aside their differences…  This re-teaming of Crosby with Fitzgerald after Going My Way was huge in 1947 and was heavily promoted by Paramount – this time instead of playing bickering priests, they’re bickering doctors. (They would be reunited again in Top o’ the Morning). The songs of Jimmy Van Heusen are liberally sprinkled throughout the story. Other than trilling, Crosby gives quite a lazy performance in an underwritten role, Fitzgerald has some quaint sayings while Caulfield is lovely, as usual. It’s nice to see Pa Kettle himself (Percy Kilbride) in the smalltown lineup. Written by  N. Richard Nash and Arthur Sheekman from a story by Frank Butler. Director Elliot Nugent makes an appearance as a medic in a scene directed by Billy Wilder.

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Double Indemnity (1944)

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It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets roped into a murderous scheme when he falls for the sensual Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who is intent on killing her husband (Tom Powers) by arranging his ‘accidental death’ and living off the fraudulent accidental death claim. Prompted by the late Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), insurance investigator and Neff’s mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) looks into the case, and gradually begins to uncover the truth… Staggering film noir, this early masterpiece from director Billy Wilder boasts a screenplay co-written (sort of) with Raymond Chandler, adapted from the James M. Cain story Three of a Kind. Rarely has the sensibility of a filmmaker been so attuned to the material in such crystalline fashion:  in this treatise on corruption, crime, sex, adultery and murder the casting plays to all the character strengths with Wilder seeing in the light actor MacMurray something infinitely schlemiel-like, sleazy and vulnerable.  It is literally picture-perfect, offering us a visual and psychological template for noir, a story told in flashback, shot on location all over Los Angeles, from Jerry’s Market to the Chateau Marmont, Glendale Station to the Hollywood Bowl, with venetian blinds, curling cigarette smoke and tilted fedoras filling out the emotional space shot by DoP John Seitz. Did a city ever feel so lonesome? Stanwyck was never better – dolled up in a blonde wig with bangs and an ankle bracelet begging to be opened, this is one of the fatalest femmes ever on screen. Robinson is fantastic as the fatherly man who unravels this story of these blackest of hearts, while this study of behaviour is decorated with the kind of dialogue that you savour forever. How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Classsic Hollywood, in every possible sense of that term.

The Apartment (1960)

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Normally, it takes years to work your way up to the twenty-seventh floor. But it only takes thirty seconds to be out on the street again. You dig?  Ambitious insurance clerk C. C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) permits his bosses to use his NYC apartment to conduct extramarital affairs in hope of gaining a promotion. He pursues a relationship with the office building’s elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) unaware that she is having an affair with one of the apartment’s users, the head of personnel, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) who lies to her that he’s leaving his wife. Bud comes home after the office Christmas party to find Fran has taken an overdose following a disappointing assignation with Sheldrake … Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were fresh off the success of Some Like It Hot when they came up with this gem:  a sympathetic romantic comedy-drama that plays like sly satire – and vice versa. Reuniting one of that film’s stars (and a nasty jab at Marilyn Monroe using lookalike Joyce Jameson) with his Double Indemnity star (MacMurray, cast as a heel, for once) and adding MacLaine to the mix, they created one of the great American classics with performances of a lifetime. Bud can keep on keeping on as a slavering nebbish destined to be the ultimate slimy organisation man or become a mensch but he can’t do it alone, not now he’s in love. This is a sharp, adult, stunningly assured portrait of the battle of the sexes, cruelty, compromise and deception intact. With the glistening monochrome cinematography of Joseph LaShelle memorializing that paean to midcentury modernism, the architecture of the late Fifties office (designed by Alexandre Trauner), and an all-time great closing line (how apposite for a Wilder film), this is prime cut movie.  The best Christmas movie of all time? Probably, if you can take that holiday celebration on a knife edge of suicidal sadness and bleakly realistic optimism. Rarely has a home’s shape taken on such meaning.

Stalag 17 (1953)

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How do you expect to win the war with an army of clowns? 1944.  It’s the longest night of the year in a German POW camp housing American airmen.  Two prisoners, Manfredi and Johnson, try to escape the compound using a tunnel but are quickly discovered and shot dead. Among the men remaining in Barracks 4, suspicion grows that one of their own is a spy for the Germans. All eyes fall on cynical Sgt. Sefton (William Holden) who everybody knows frequently makes black market exchanges with the German guards for small luxuries. To protect himself from a mob of his enraged fellow inmates, Sgt. Sefton resolves to find the true traitor within their midst… Director Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum adapted the autobiographical Broadway hit by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trczinski, a canny blend of comedy and drama which asks serious questions of its players yet taints the seriousness with jokes and the high jinks with irony. Holden is superb as the entrepreneur whose go-getting attitude would be admired back home but in a POW camp it’s a different story. The men are stratified by their ethnicity and class. Rob Strauss and Harvey Lembeck repeat their stage roles as Animal and Harry, and are highly entertaining comic relief, with Don Taylor, Neville Brand and Peter Graves making up the principal roles. The Nazis are led by Otto Preminger’s rather hammily amusing Colonel von Scherbach which casts the enemy as something of a Greek chorus to the loyalties being figured out by the Americans under deadly pressure. Sefton is a model for the Scrounger played by James Garner in The Great Escape while the whole provides a template not just for the legendary Sergeant Bilko but Hogan’s Heroes on TV. Holden got a deserved Academy Award:  he stands out, yes, but in the right way. He’s not exactly Bogie in Casablanca but it helps to think of him in that shadow even if he felt he didn’t deserve recognition and many thought he should have had it for his previous work with Wilder – Sunset Blvd. He’s just swell in a film that is shrewd, bittersweet, hilarious, human and true.

Sabrina (1954)

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Aka Sabrina Fair/La vie en rose – Oh Sabrina Sabrina Sabrina where have you been all my life?  – Right over the garage. Chauffeur’s daughter Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is an ugly duckling who tries to commit suicide in her employer’s limousine because of a bad case of unrequited love for boss’ son playboy David Larrabee (William Holden). He doesn’t even know she’s alive. So when she returns to Long Island from two years at cooking school in Paris a beautiful young woman she immediately catches three-times married David’s attention when he sees her waiting for her proper English father Thomas (John Williams) at the railway station. David woos and wins her but their romance is threatened by David’s serious older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), who runs the family business and is relying on David to marry an heiress Elizabeth (Martha Hyer) in order for a crucial corporate merger to take place. So when David’s back is out Linus tries to distract Sabrina and finds himself falling for her himself  but can’t admit it and plans to ship her back to Paris … This cynical romcom is extraordinary for a few things: its star wattage, its creepy Freudian setup (Bogart looks like Hepburn’s grandfather) and amazing dry wit. Samuel Taylor adapted his stageplay Sabrina Fair with contributions from Ernest Lehman and director Billy Wilder, who was making his last film at Paramount. Bogart behaved badly on set, believing he was miscast (Cary Grant was Wilder’s first choice) and wanting his wife Lauren Bacall in Hepburn’s role. He found Hepburn unprofessional because of her problems learning lines but just read some of the ones they delivered: Look at me, Joe College with a touch of arthritis. Or, Paris isn’t for changing planes it’s for changing your outlook. And, There’s a front seat and a back seat and a window in between. And perhaps its mission statement in a film about class and sex and money: Nobody poor was ever called democratic for marrying someone rich. This is a writer’s movie for sure! It’s really a movie about movies and how they pair off young girls with old men (how relevant is that nowadays with everything in the news?!) But it was the scene of a serious set romance for the blond-highlighted Holden and Hepburn and also the introduction of Hubert de Givenchy’s gowns to Hollywood, credited to Edith Head. When Hepburn walked into his Paris salon he thought he was going to meet Katharine Hepburn. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful screen association:  she is the very epitome of elfin beauty in this film, a duckling who grows into an astonishing swan. And she calls her French poodle David! The fact that she marries the much older, successful brother and heir to the family money isn’t remotely cynical, not at all! There are some very funny scenes, many taking place in the car and some at the boardroom where Bogart gets to fire guns at new plastic inventions. No wonder he apologised to everyone concerned at the conclusion of production. It gave him a role he hadn’t had before – an uptight stick in the mud who turns into a romantic lead – and at his age! 

A Foreign Affair (1947)

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When tightly wound Iowa Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) arrives in rubble-strewn Berlin on a fact-finding mission about GI morals she doesn’t reckon on falling for smooth-talking black marketeer Captain Pringle (John Lund) or indeed his mistress Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich) whose ex is a former Nazi high commander… Billy Wilder was stationed in his favourite city for the US military in 1945, years after he’d fled when Hitler came to power. He was shocked by everything he saw and was charged with reorganising the entertainment industry and editing footage from the camps. He shot film of the city and instead of going to a mental hospital when he discovered what the Nazis had done to his only family, returned to Hollywood where he made a crazed Bing Crosby movie about interspecies breeding in the Tirol called The Emperor Waltz. Then he returned to this subject – post-war Berlin and how diplomacy was a thin veneer over a lot of mucky surviving and blind eyes being turned to the reality – via a story by David Shaw. It caused a lot of censorship problems for Paramount, where the interiors were shot, while locations filming took care of the exteriors. Dietrich is the only possible person to be Erika, the slinky seductive songstress who winds everyone around her finger delivering louche songs by Frederick Hollaender that speak to her own background on the cabaret scene in the city. She and Arthur are cannily deployed against one another and this led to serious frostiness on the set. The politics of occupation and accommodation and the pointlessness of reeducating the shameless were never so hilariously depicted and this wasn’t even screened in Germany until 1977. Nobody gets out of this unscathed. Adapted by Robert Harari and written by Wilder and Charles Brackett. You can read more about this in my article on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/billy-wilders-a-foreign-affair.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

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Halfway through the twentieth century came another excoriating portrait of life behind the gates in the mansions of Hollywood stars and a glimpse into the dog days of the jobbing screenwriter. When Joe Gillis (William Holden) finds himself in the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) little does he imagine that he will become a pawn in her deluded plans for a comeback and wind up face down in her swimming pool (the film is narrated by his corpse.) A stunning conceit, brilliantly executed, and made by Billy Wilder with regular co-writer and producer Charles Brackett, this is cinematic navel-gazing at its finest by one of its best teams, including Holden, who appeared regularly for Wilder, and Swanson, who was barely 50 yet her glory days were decades behind her.  Erich Von Stroheim, one of her former directors, appears here as her butler, and former director, shielding her from the reality she can no longer face. The film is 65 years old today. Happy Birthday!