Enraptured by the details: a Billy Wilder double-bill

by Blake Backlash

It can be difficult to know how to begin. The attempt to come up with a first line for his novel about alcoholism sends Don Birnham, the protagonist of The Lost Weekend, into a bout of sweaty self-doubt. The fear of the blank page is enough make him abandon the manuscript of The Bottle to go searching for an actual bottle.

If Billy Wilder ever experienced such creative uneasiness himself, it doesn’t show in the films. The openings of The Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity are both memorable because of the strikingly assured way they immerse us quickly into their narratives. We watch Fred MacMurray stagger into an office in the wee-small hours and start to dictate a memo, in which he confesses to murder. And we watch Ray Milland through a window, as he packs a suitcase and casts nervous glances towards the bottle of whisky we can see dangling on a rope that hangs out of that window. The endings of both these films will, in different ways, return us to these opening images – this is a pattern that Wilder used most famously in Sunset Blvd, which opens with William Holden’s corpse floating in a swimming pool, as William Holden starts to tell us how he came to be floating there.

This habit of returning his audience to where they came in, reflects Wilder’s command of the structuring and patterning of his films. I guess to some degree Wilder is thought of as a writer and director of comedies but while The Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity have moments of black humour, they’re both pretty far away from being comic. And yet both contain sequences of set-up and pay-off that mirror the ways the best comedies reward their audience. In The Lost Weekend objects that feature early in the narrative (a bottle, a typewriter, a woman’s raincoat, a pawned gun) reappear in significant ways as the film draws to a close. And in Double Indemnity the way Fred MacMurray strikes matches to light Edward G Robinson’s cigars for him is inverted in a bitterly ironic way as that film ends.

That business with the matches and cigars tells us something about the relationship between Walter Neff (MacMurray) and Barton Keyes (Robinson). The two men are in love. MacMurray’s narration is directed towards Robinson, which almost makes the film seem dedicated to him, and at one point in that narration he says something like “I could have hugged you, Keyes”. There’s another moment, early in the film, where MacMurray smiles at Robinson and there’s a true warmth and generosity in that smile, a pureness almost, that we never see in MacMurray’s face at any time when he speaks to Barbara Stanwyck. There’s something tawdry about their relationship right from the get-go. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is kind of cheap – although in the book James M Cain gave her the name Phyllis Nerdlinger so the film has given her a name which, if not exactly classy, is at least not as conspicuously unclassy. But she still wears a blonde wig, which is as vulgar as it is sexy. In contrast with the pure, almost literally Platonic, love MacMurray has for Robinson, he seems almost infected with love for Stanwyck. Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s script emphasises the way that love seems to have corrupted MacMurray’s senses – as he leaves Stanwyck’s house he talks about “murder that smells like honeysuckle” and “the sour taste of her ice tea”. Rather wonderfully for the contemporary viewer, he tries to rid himself of said sour taste by stopping at a drive-in restaurant and having a beer. The sight of MacMurray being served, and downing, that beer while sitting at the wheel of his car dates the film as pleasingly as the microphone tube he speaks into while he dictates his office-memo narration. So the film works as a portrait of suburban Los Angles in the forties – partly because Wilder seems to enjoy showing us the bland supermarket Stanwyck and MacMurray have secret meetings in, and the ever so slightly oppressive office that MacMurray and Robinson work in. There’s an almost documentary like interest in these institutions, as there also is in the way an insurance company works. The title is now so associated with film noir that it can be easy to forget it is really a phrase once more associated with the small print on insurance policies than murder and betrayal. It’s one of the earliest  noirs but there’s bathos in the film that seems to be already trying to deflate the melodrama and romanticism that would come to define the genre.

Any romantic spark that the film does have may have come more from Chandler than Wilder. When they first meet, MacMurray and Stanwyck have a lively bit of flirtatious dialogue about cars and speeding – and it’s pretty close to a similar exchange that Bogart and Bacall share about horses and riders in The Big Sleep. But for the most part Double Indemnity is sceptical about romance – Robinson, the closest thing the film has to a hero, is a man who sings the praises of statistics and actuarial tables.

And if Robinson’s love for MacMurray is the flaw that blinds him to MacMurray’s weakness (in some ways MacMurray is a kind of homme fatale for Robinson), what saves Robinson is his eye for detail. Wilder brings a similar kind of precision to the film. The plot works partly because MacMurray’s plan for killing Stanwyck’s husband seems genuinely clever. We know that MacMurray knows that Robinson’s claims investigator has exposed too many ill-conceived plans – and the idea he comes up with is smart enough for us to believe that this man, who knows his job and knows his friend, might think that he could get away with it. Wilder focuses, literally at times, on the details of the plan: how MacMurray gets a man to sign an insurance policy he doesn’t want; how he fashions a fake cast for his leg; what he does to his telephone and doorbell with a couple of bits of card and why. In the same way that a plot hole can spoil our enjoyment of a thriller, when we watch the best thrillers, we’re won round because we believe the protagonists, and thus the filmmakers, have thought about things we haven’t considered. Wilder is smart enough for us to enjoy how smart he is.

The Lost Weekend might not exactly be a thriller, but Ray Milland cooks up numerous smart plots to get, and hide, booze. In those opening moments, as he’s packing his suitcase, he smiles and tells his brother he might take his typewriter on the trip. We might think that the smile was that of a man looking forward to a bit of time and space to write, if something didn’t seem a little… wrong with the look in Milland’s eyes as he smiled. It turns out that he’s smiling because sending his brother into the next room to search for that typewriter gives him a chance to go for a slug of that whisky that’s dangling out the window. Because being an alcoholic is consuming all of Milland’s creative energy, there’s a real imaginative frenzy to the schemes he comes up with and the lies he tells to get himself a drink. Even when he’s reduced to stealing a stranger’s purse, Milland executes the theft with a kind of creative elegance and style. When he goes to the bathroom to remove the cash from the purse, he buys a carnation to leave in the bag in its place and he smiles to himself like a man who has just thought-up the perfect ironic flourish to end his short-story.

It was working with Chandler, who had his own struggles with drink, that led Wilder to consider making The Lost Weekend. And it is the story of an alcoholic writer, rather than just an alcoholic. Milland talks about how there are two Dons: Don the Writer and Don the Drunk, and Wilder seems to need to empathise with Don the Writer to understand Don the Drunk. Don’s flair for words is Wilder’s too. And the film is a writer’s film. Some critics, notably David Thompson, have taken Wilder to task for a lack of visual imagination. This ignores how many visually striking images there are in Wilder’s films. That said, such visually striking moments can seem more creative in their conception than they are in their execution. It seems to me that I read descriptions of many of Wilder’s most famous shots and sequences (the DTs scene in The Lost Weekend, that floating corpse in Sunset Blvd) before I saw the films, and that often made for a slight air of disappointment when I actually did see them. How easy they are to describe may be part of the problem – they can be captured in words in a way that, say, the shower scene in Psycho cannot. So what stood out as I watched these films again this time were the less bravura moments. In Double Indemnity the way the camera pushes in on Stanwyck’s face as her husband screams makes for a genuinely chilling screen murder. And in The Lost Weekend how Wilder finds continually inventive ways to frame Milland in his apartment, so that all the struggling and scheming that goes on there is vividly alive. Both films benefit a great deal from scores by Miklos Rozsa, especially The Lost Weekend where Rozsa’s music (with theremin!) does a great job of capturing Milland’s quick transitions between joy and despair.

Milland has a line in The Lost Weekend about how hard love is to write about. “You have to catch it through details” he says and I can’t help but think of the line as a mini-manifesto from Wilder. It’s true that that precision meant he cared about the way words were used in his films, but the way words are patterned through a film, the way they can flow languidly, or rattle, staccato, is as much a part of the form of a film as camera angles and editing. And Wilder clearly cares deeply about how his films look; it’s just that his command of the material means when he does concern himself more with visual style, there’s a purposefulness about it. The fancy stuff has to do something for his story and to his audience. And there’s so much pleasure in being part of that audience, the kind of pleasure there always is in seeing something put together with so much care.

The Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity are released today on Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema 

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One thought on “Enraptured by the details: a Billy Wilder double-bill

  1. Oh new word, Bathos!

    Not easy to summarise what makes these two films great, but you managed it pretty bloomin’ well I think.

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