Billy Wilder: Too hot to handle

As Billy Wilder's masterpiece 'Double Indemnity' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reflects on what made the director great
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By the 1990s, there was a sense that he was as much a relic from a vanished era as Norma Desmond, the silent star so memorably played by Gloria Swanson in Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950). In a Hollywood where opening weekend grosses were all that counted, his craftsmanship seemed anachronistic.

Wilder never used dramatic camera movements for their own sake. His style was one of the most pared-down of all the great directors. If he was showing the point of view of an alcoholic, as he did in 1945's The Lost Weekend, jarring, hallucinatory camera-work could just about be justified, but in most cases the pyrotechnics in Wilder films were in the dialogue that he and his collaborators so painstakingly hammered out.

Everything in his films was consummately well constructed. Whenever he made the slightest goof, he was embarrassed. For example, on one key scene in Double Indemnity (1944), he showed a door opening out into the corridor. It's behind this door that Barbara Stanwyck hides, thereby concealing her affair with MacMurray from his colleague, Edward G Robinson. The scene made dramatic sense, helping to crank up the tension, but, as the director acknowledged, the door should have opened inward. He was "cheating" for an effect.

Arguably, the key influence on Wilder was his fellow émigré, Ernst Lubitsch, for whom he wrote such films as Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) and Ninotchka (1939). Film critics and historians have made much of the so-called "Lubitsch touch". This was hard to define, but as far as Wilder was concerned, it meant elegance and lightness. Whenever there was any formal problem to be resolved, whether in terms of a plot point or punchline, Lubitsch had an uncanny knack of finding the perfect solution. "How would Lubitsch do it?" was Wilder's motto. He even commissioned the artist Saul Bass to make a sign of this question to hang in his office.

Wilder's caustic wit was famous, but he wasn't above bullying. Just occasionally, he could even appear extraordinarily callous. William Holden famously said he had a "mind full of razor blades". Tony Curtis, who revered him, nonetheless calls Wilder a "cruel" man, and tells a terrible story to illustrate his point. In the early 1990s, Curtis's 23-year-old son Nicholas died of a heroin overdose. Curtis was devastated. Four months after the death, he spotted Wilder in a restaurant, went over to him and confided his grief. "I squatted down next to him and said to him, 'Billy, my son died of an overdose of heroin.' And he said to me: 'He learnt it from you.' I was so stunned I just got up and walked away. I realised he wasn't perhaps the friend I thought he was."

When you've lived through as many upheavals as Wilder did, there is not much room for sentimentality. As a child during the First World War, Wilder queued with his brother on food lines in Vienna. He had witnessed the tumult of the Weimar era at first hand. His mother died in Auschwitz. He once suggested that the unscrupulous and amoral newspaperman played so brilliantly by Kirk Douglas in 1951 in Ace In The Hole ("I've met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life but you - you're 20 minutes," one character says of him) was far less cynical than the real-life prototypes he associated with during his days as a reporter in Vienna in the 1920s.

In some respects, Wilder retained a journalist's sensibility throughout his career, always moving on to the next story. "I always changed my locale," he told the director Cameron Crowe. "I did a comedy. I did serious pictures. I did not develop a style of my own." He shared that restless opportunism shown by many characters in his films, such as Fred MacMurray as the insurance man embroiled in a murder plot in Double Indemnity or William Holden throwing in his lot with Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.

But what really made him tick? The books and documentaries, in which many of the same anecdotes are rehashed, only ever provide a partial insight. Late in his life, Wilder started writing an autobiography. He completed more than 600 pages, but eventually gave up. "It is not really what I want," he said, as if he knew that the less he revealed, the more the mystique around him would grow.

'Double Indemnity' is re-released on 11 November; a Billy Wilder season screens at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020-7928 3232) from November