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By Martin Keady · January 25, 2023
Billy Wilder’s tombstone says it all because it bears only his name and the words: “I’m a writer. But then nobody’s perfect.” As well as being a homage to one of the greatest lines in all of the Billy Wilder movies, this epitaph was proof that Wilder, despite being one of Hollywood’s greatest-ever directors, saw himself first, foremost, and forever as a writer.
Born in 1906, during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Wilder began writing as a journalist in Vienna in the mid-1920s. However, when he moved to Berlin later in the decade, he began the transition to film, starting out as a screenwriter alongside other young Jewish writers and directors, including Fred Zinnemann and Robert Siodmak, who, like Wilder himself, would eventually flee the Nazificiation of Germany and Austria by escaping to America.
It was in Hollywood that Wilder established his still stellar reputation, working as a writer-director for nearly half a century and making at least a handful of classics – Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment (all of which are in this collection) – that rank alongside the finest five films ever made by any director anywhere. Yet he always carried with him the memory of having to leave Europe to save his life, a feeling that animated many of his films and gave them a genuine “life or death” quality, whether they were dramas or comedies.
This is a collection of eight of the finest Billy Wilder movies and scripts, from Ninotchka (1939) to the finest “double bill” of films ever made by any director back to back: Some Like It Hot (1959); and The Apartment (1960).
Wilder’s first major success as a Hollywood screenwriter, Ninotchka, was co-written with several other writers, including the first of his two great screenwriting partners, Charles Brackett. Brackett was a patrician, highly educated American who contrasted sharply with Wilder, a scrappy, heavily accented émigré. Nevertheless, these two very different men dovetailed beautifully, eventually writing screenplays together that Wilder directed and Brackett produced.
Ninotchka itself was directed by the man who always remained Wilder’s artistic hero, Ernst Lubitsch, another Jewish, German-speaking immigrant from central Europe who helped Wilder when he first arrived in America. Lubitsch also gave Wilder his first great screenwriting break in Hollywood with this comedy about a Soviet agent, played by Greta Garbo, who attempts to retrieve Imperial-era jewelry after other Russian agents have mislaid it in Paris.Download the script!
Buoyed by the Oscar nomination that he and the other writers of Ninotchka received, Wilder went from being solely a screenwriter to becoming a writer-director. He had directed one undistinguished film in Europe, but at the start of the 1940s, he resumed his directorial career. With the third American film he directed, Double Indemnity, he struck Hollywood paydirt.
Double Indemnity boasts one of the greatest screenwriting teams ever assembled. Rather than working with Brackett, who famously felt that this early film noir was too sordid for him to collaborate on, Wilder enlisted the help of another immigrant to America, the British-born crime writer Raymond Chandler, to adapt James M. Cain’s seminal novel.
Wilder’s first great movie as a writer-director is actually one of the best Billy Wilder movies ever made. With its clever use of voiceover, Double Indemnity showed how the most law-abiding of men; an insurance salesman, no less – could be drawn into a life of double and even triple-crossing by a beautiful woman.Download the script!
Sunset Boulevard remains not only one of the greatest Billy Wilder movies but also one of the greatest films ever made about Hollywood. The story of an impoverished screenwriter who escapes the “repo” (repossession) men by hiding in the home of a forgotten silent movie star, who then hires him to write the script that she hopes will relaunch her career; it is one of the most extraordinary Billy Wilder movies.
More than the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that is based on it, the actual musical legacy of Sunset Boulevard is its role in the creation of one of the finest rock bands of the late 20th century, Australia’s The Go-Betweens. In a recent interview with Mojo magazine, Robert Forster, the group’s co-founder, said that the main inspiration for the band he created with Grant McClennan in the mid-1970s was Wilder’s masterpiece: “If there was one thing that we loved, it was Sunset Boulevard. To Grant and I, Billy Wilder was as important…as Television or Talking Heads, or Bowie…All of that [film] is an aesthetic that we recognized. They’re the ingredients that we wanted – turning things on their head, strangeness, beauty, darkness, dead bodies in swimming pools that are talking. She has a pet ape! It was all perfect.” Indeed it was.Download the script!
Wilder’s partnership with Charles Brackett ended at its peak with Sunset Boulevard. Although Brackett would go on to make many other films as a writer-producer, including Niagara and Titanic (1953), he never made another classic to rank alongside Sunset. By contrast, Wilder would eventually recover from losing his first great co-writer, but his post-Brackett career began uneasily with Ace In The Hole.
That is not to diminish the quality of Ace In The Hole itself, which, like Sunset Boulevard, was a tar-black analysis of media manipulation, only in the press industry rather than in Hollywood. Early 1950s audiences were more prepared to accept deceit among the Hollywood elite than among the hard-working press. Whatever the reason, Ace In The Hole did not fare nearly as well on its release as Sunset Boulevard. Some contemporary critics even wondered whether Wilder had lost something indispensable with Brackett’s departure. History, however, has been far kinder, and Ace In The Hole is now regarded as being almost prophetic about the misuse of the media.Download the script!
After his breakup with Brackett, Wilder was initially unable to establish another lasting co-writing partnership. In the next few years, he needed to be more consistent, at least when judged by the lofty standards that he had established in the 1940s and the early 1950s.
That is evident in the next two scripts in this collection: Stalag 17 (1953); and Love In The Afternoon (1957). The first was based on a play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, two US soldiers who had been prisoners of war in the titular Austrian prison. Although their experience of incarceration gives the film considerable authenticity, at times, the film betrays its stage origins.
Despite the commercial success of Sabrina (1954), a frothy concoction about a love triangle between two wealthy brothers and their chauffeur’s daughter, Wilder’s mid-fifties creative malaise continued into the second half of the decade. That was again evident in Love In The Afternoon, which is the story of an aging lothario who becomes infatuated with a much younger woman, who proves to be the daughter of a private detective hired to entrap him.
Love In The Afternoon is most memorable for finally providing Wilder with a tremendous new co-writer. That was I.A.L. Diamond, who Wilder would work with for the rest of his career, including the two finest Billy Wilder movies ever made: Some Like It Hot; and The Apartment.Download the script!
The Wilder-Brackett writing partnership had been one of the opposites. Still, the Wilder-Diamond relationship was almost one of the identikits because the two men were similar in their backgrounds, outlooks, and humor. They were both European Jews who had emigrated to America, even if Diamond had come to the US with his family. At the same time, he was still a child; unlike Wilder, who had fled from Europe as an adult, they both retained a sense of being perpetually in exile or even on the run. And that sense is at the heart of Some Like It Hot.
It is often forgotten that Some Like It Hot is probably the greatest remake ever because the films on which it was based – a 1935 French film called Fanfare of Love and a 1951 German remake called Fanfares of Love – were transformed by Wilder and Diamond’s genius. The earlier films may have depicted musicians going into hiding. Still, by relocating the story to Prohibition-era Chicago and thus adding gangsters to the mix, Wilder and Diamond made the reason that the musicians go on the run (to avoid being killed after witnessing a mob massacre) completely convincing and compelling.
With its cross-dressing (the musicians, of course, have to join an all-female band to escape) and endlessly witty exploration of the exact nature of sexual identity, Some Like It Hot is arguably the classic Hollywood film that has the most to say about our age of increasing sexual and gender fluidity. Even more importantly, it ranks alongside the greatest comedies ever written in any medium or art form: Shakespeare’s comedies; Mozart’s comic operas; and the finest episodes of Frasier, the greatest TV sitcom. Like those other masterpieces, it is an utterly fantastical, indeed almost unbelievable, creation that is also utterly accurate about the sheer, ridiculous comedy of being human.Download the script!
Wilder and Diamond followed up the greatest screen comedy ever with arguably the greatest screen comedy-drama ever, The Apartment, in which the laughs ultimately catch in the viewer’s mouth and are replaced by uncertainty, even dread.
Wilder and Diamond recruited one of the on-the-run musicians from Some Like It Hot (Jack Lemmon). They pinned him down to a single location: the titular apartment he lets the bosses in his insurance firm use for trysts with their mistresses. Of course, it all goes wrong when Lemmon’s “C.C. Baxter” (like Diamond, he is known by his initials) falls in love with the mistress of his biggest boss. Thus, this Billy Wilder movie is transformed from a “pure” comedy (one in which the only aim is to make people laugh) into a comedy-drama, which, unlike most comedy dramas, is completely hilarious and dramatic.
After the back-to-back triumphs of Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Wilder and Diamond made films for nearly two more decades. However, despite the merits of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), they never made another masterpiece. But then, having already made at least five of them throughout his long career, Wilder probably did not need to make another. To misquote his most famous line – the one that adorns his tombstone – Nobody’s perfect…but at his best, Billy Wilder was more perfect than anyone else.Download the script!
Read More: The Top 10 Billy Wilder Films