A jazz age thug carefully steps into a huge hollow cake; his job is to pop out later and gun down a big gangster. A henchman hands the thug a machine gun, then warns him, "And don't mess up the cake. I promised to bring back a piece for my kids."
The henchman is a minor character in a fleeting scene in Some Like It Hot, but Billy Wilder couldn't resist giving him a line with a nifty reverse spin on it. That was Wilder all over. He gave Hollywood's top stars their finest, fullest roles: Greta Garbo (Ninotchka), Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity), Gloria Swanson (Sunset Blvd.), Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon), Marilyn Monroe (Some Like It Hot), Jack Lemmon (The Apartment and six others). And what was in it for the viewer? Roiling dramatic dilemmas, complex adult characters and, memorably, some of the tastiest slices of dialogue in movie history. That was the icing on Wilder's cake.
Being the cleverest fellow in movies had its perks: six Oscars (out of 21 nominations), for writing, producing and directing. It also earned Wilder, from the sterner critics, the label of cynic. They said his films were long on wit and short on compassion. Pick up a rock, and Wilder's view of the human condition would crawl out from under it. Nearly 40 years ago, critic Andrew Sarris wrote, "Billy Wilder is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism." Today we can see that Wilder was less a cynic than a premature realist. An Austrian Jew who left Germany in 1933 and who lost relatives in Auschwitz, he earned the right to be a little sour on human nature.
Yet if a cynic he was, it was with acerbic joy--a shameless love for all the scoundrels who schemed to get rich, kill the cuckolded husband, exploit the misery of a man trapped in a cave, beat a murder rap, shin up the corporate ladder, bamboozle an insurance company or steal a nice guy's girl. For Wilder, mankind was divided not into the haves and have-nots but into the haves and let's-gets. He celebrated the ugly American: brash men on the make, women on the take. What knaves these mortals be! How smart they are, though not as smart as they think.
And what squirmy fun their machinations are to watch. It's hard to think of another filmmaker whose pictures have given so much ripe, intelligent pleasure and are still as fresh as when he concocted them. And what about his rare failures? "Well," as Joe E. Brown says at the end of Some Like It Hot, when told that his fiance is really a man, "nobody's perfect."
There was a bit of Billy in all these characters. A con man by nature and force of circumstance, he was also a quick study. Arriving in Hollywood in 1934 with a resume of scriptwork in Germany and France but knowing hardly a word of English, he was writing screenplays at Fox within the year.
His very adaptability helped him see both sides of any issue. In Double Indemnity insurance man Edward G. Robinson spits out suicide rates with the fervor of a baseball-stats maven. In The Fortune Cookie shyster Walter Matthau says that insurance companies have too much money: "They've run out of storage space--they have to microfilm it... So don't give me with the scruples." Wilder never straddled the fence; he trampolined from one side to the other.