- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

Although Billy Wilder retrospectives at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and the National Gallery of Art have concluded, 2006 remains the late filmmaker’s centennial year for several months to come. Turner Classic Movies has chosen the date of his birth, June 22, as the pretext for a special remembrance that combines excerpts from interviews recorded in 1988 with revivals of a half-dozen Wilder movies.

The interview material, titled “Billy Wilder Speaks,” will be shown twice on Thursday evening. “Double Indemnity” will be revived between these presentations. After the encore of “Speaks,” the early hours of Friday will be devoted to a Wilder night-owl festival of “The Lost Weekend,” “Sabrina,” “A Foreign Affair,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.” Kind of a joker-in-the-pack ensemble, this collection deals out five Wilder hits before concluding with one of his flops.

The novelty item is, of course, the interview compilation, which is a fascinating fragment. It was re-edited from a German television series in which conversations between Mr. Wilder and his German interlocutors, movie critic Hellmut Karasek and director Volker Schlondorff, extended over three episodes. The complete sessions will be released later this year on DVD by Kino International.

Mr. Schlondorff provides the narration. He had just completed his first American project, the Dustin Hoffman remake of “Death of a Salesman,” at the time Mr. Wilder consented to be quizzed and photographed at his office in Beverly Hills. All three participants speak in a torrent of German and English; subtitles enhance the passages that are more German than English.

The editing is adroit and coherent and reasonably smooth despite patchy interludes. One can follow the subject’s anecdotal or tutorial drift from one topic to the next without feeling dislodged or confused.

The German, French, Mexican and Hollywood apprentice phases of Mr. Wilder’s screenwriting or directing activities seem a bit shortchanged in this collection. His first major screenwriting partner, Charles Brackett, remains in a memory hole. Presumably in deference to an American public, the ampler segments deal with “Double Indemnity,” “The Lost Weekend,” “A Foreign Affair,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Stalag 17,” “Sabrina,” “The Seven-Year Itch,” “Love in the Afternoon,” “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment.” No title is remotely exhausted, in terms of either cinematic analysis or human-interest reminiscence.

Moviegoers with an extensive knowledge of Mr. Wilder and his work might find much of the material familiar. Even vigilant raconteurs recycle their stories with considerable frequency. Nevertheless, it was my impression that almost every anecdote was improved by the context: the fact that Mr. Wilder renders all quips and battle yarns in real time, while dominating an intimate conversational setting.

There are some delightful character sketches — for example, the contrast between Audrey Hepburn being helpful and Marilyn Monroe being absent-minded. Mr. Wilder fondly recalls how Miss Hepburn bailed him out of a jam during a Friday shoot of “Sabrina” by deliberately muffing lines; she knew he was short of script pages and needed a weekend to catch up.

The director despaired of ever being able to predict when Miss Monroe would handle a line reliably. He thought it would take her days to get through an exchange with Tony Curtis on the beach near the Coronado Hotel in San Diego, where naval aircraft frequently did flyovers while “Some Like It Hot” was on location. She got the scene letter-perfect on the second take. Then she reversed expectations during a studio scene that took scores of takes before she mastered the line, “It’s me, Sugar,” spoken while announcing herself outside a hotel door. (Miss Monroe kept lapsing into, “Sugar, it’s me.”)

The 70-minute running time of “Billy Wilder Speaks” is generous with inimitable nuggets of professional wisdom. Reflecting on screenwriting, the subject observes, “You start with four million ideas. There’s way too much. So you must be architect, organizer and bookkeeper to get the material down to 130 pages.” His mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, a master of pictorial innuendo while directing boudoir comedy, advised him that there was more than a “two plus two” approach to getting a sum of four. The important thing was to “let the audience add it up.”

Mr. Wilder says he preferred to “work fast” with “as few shots as possible” in any given scene — although it was essential to make those shots “good and interesting.” In his estimation, “a big scene that the film could do without” is by definition “a bad scene.” His defense of basic self-interest is a keeper: “Just because a man thinks this is an unjust world — and it is — I’m not gonna give him any of mine.”

Asked if he was at “the height of his success” after the release of “Some Like It Hot,” Mr. Wilder grimaces and replies, “The height of success is always the next film.”

PROGRAM: “Billy Wilder Speaks”

WHEN: Thursday: “Billy Wilder Speaks” at 8 and 11:30 p.m., “Double Indemnity” at 9:30 p.m. Friday: “The Lost Weekend” at 1 a.m., “Sabrina” at 3 a.m., “A Foreign Affair” at 5 a.m., “Sunset Boulevard” at 7 a.m. “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” at 9 a.m.

WHERE: Turner Classic Movies cable channel

WEB SITE: www.tcm.com

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