Writer of Week #9: Wilder At Heart

There are thousands of influences that go into making a person’s character: people, events, instructions and stories.

One influential story for me came early in my childhood via the television on a Saturday afternoon. I remember it was old, one of the black & white burn offs that they put up on Saturday since no one was watching television anyway.

I could never remember the name of the flick, or the stars (it was one of the big guys, you know – Peck or Grant or Douglas, or someone like one of them…)

But I remember the story, and what a sucker punch to my pre-teen brain it was.

There was a reporter, on vacation or fired or somesuch, and he happens to be near a mine when there’s a cave-in. One guy is stuck inside, and the reporter crawls in to where the guy is pinned down and starts talking to him, and they become friends.

Word gets out, and suddenly this is a national story – and here the vacationing/fired/whatever reporter has an exclusive with the story of a career. And by this point, the guy trapped in the mountain trusts the reporter and no one else, so the story stays exclusive.

Then a decision needs to be made – there are two ways to get the guy out, and he asks his reporter buddy to decide which way. Both have their drawbacks, but one way – a visually spectacular drilling operation – would take longer.

Which means the story would go on longer…

The reporter’s choice and the consequences – whew-ee. For decades, when faced with a choice that can help me but might inconvenience another, I was haunted with the image of a drill arcing in the sky, boring a hole down into the earth, piercing more than dirt…

The name of the film is ACE IN THE HOLE; after decades of coming to believe I dreamed the whole thing, it came out on DVD this year. (The reporter was Douglas, in case you were wondering.)

Which brings me to this week’s writer: Billy Wilder.

Billy was a Jewish writer trying to make a career for himself in Berlin when Hitler came to power, which suddenly made the United States look attractive. (His mother and several other relatives ended their days in Auschwitz.)

Once here, he pretended to know enough English to get a job in Hollywood, a pretense that became true enough as he eventually garnered twelve Oscar nominations for screenwriting. For a nice piece of irony, check out BALL OF FIRE, a screwball comedy about a group of Professors perfecting an English encyclopedia.

The ever versatile Wilder not only mastered screwball, but is credited with creating the first true Noir film – DOUBLE INDEMNITY – which set the standard for all to follow.

Of course I should mention that he didn’t stop at writing, becoming a director and producer as well. One of four people to win an Oscar for writing, directing and producing on the same film.

Two of his movies consistently make my personal top twenty movies of all time – and I’m not even referring to SOME LIKE IT HOT or SUNSET BOULEVARD.

The benchmark for beauty in a Hollywood starlet for me was set in SABRINA; if she can’t make my heart go pitter-pat like Audrey Hepburn up in that tree, ever on the outside of the party, well then the girl just ain’t worth the effort.

And the bitter-sweet APARTMENT – the nice guy coming in last, just like in real life. And realizing that maybe last isn’t the worse place to be, just like in real life.

Those two movies alone would secure Billy Wilder my sincere adulation; add that to the score of other great films he is responsible for, and dag-nab it, the guy is just too good to be true.

Well, nobody’s perfect.

Just my thoughts,

Sean

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