Scentless Murder

Michael Wood

  • Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe
    Faber, 373 pp, £20.00, December 1999, ISBN 0 571 20162 8

‘He’s a clever, lively director whose work lacks feeling or passion or grace or elegance.’ This is Pauline Kael on Billy Wilder’s One Two Three (1961). Wilder himself seems to agree about this film. ‘It’s a kind of sporadically good picture.’ And: ‘It was not funny. But just the speed was funny.’ Of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) he says, rather more fondly, that it was ‘a wonderful picture, too long’, and that it was ‘the most elegant picture I’ve ever shot. I don’t shoot elegant pictures. Mr Vincente Minnelli, he shot elegant pictures.’

There is a reply to Pauline Kael lurking in these phrases, although Wilder insists that he doesn’t want to reply to her. ‘I like Pauline Kael. She never had a good word to say about my pictures. Maybe a little bit . . . Sunset Boulevard. But she was more often right than wrong, and she was always very positive about what she thought was bad.’ But can we really say that Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), A Foreign Affair (1948), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960) lack feeling or passion or grace or elegance? Or better, if they lack those things, what have they got? To say nothing, as Wilder would rather we said nothing, about Irma La Douce (1963), Kiss Me Stupid (1964), The Fortune Cookie (1966), Avanti! (1972) and Buddy Buddy (1981).

We are not going to find the answer to this question in the engaging mess of Cameron Crowe’s Conversations with Wilder, a series of rambling encounters looking for a storyline. The book is profusely, even confusingly illustrated, with several pictures to most pages, many of them slicing into each other. This is supposed to give the impression of a movie, I think, but it gives the impression of the cutting-room of a director far less tidy than Wilder. The model that is vaguely dangled before us (and seems to have been dangled before Wilder) is Truffaut’s book on Hitchcock, but Truffaut led Hitchcock through his films chronologically and systematically, while no one is leading anyone here. I assume that Crowe, a former Rolling Stone reporter, and the writer-director of Say Anything, Singles and Jerry Maguire, has edited his taped talks with Wilder, but he has edited them to sound like taped talks. The order of events is their actual order, and on page 131 of the book Crowe and Wilder are still discussing whether these conversations are to be turned into a book. When Crowe says right at the beginning that Wilder has ‘the gift of knowing what the truth looks like’, and that he may have this from being a journalist, you know that nothing too demanding is going to happen. This is the territory of received ideas backed up by false premises.

But then there are real benefits to this approach. The slacker the question, the better Wilder’s answer, as if he felt it was up to him to raise the level of the game. Asked what he will say to God when he arrives at the gates of heaven, Wilder says: ‘Will I know it’s God?’ ‘What were the 1960s like for you?’ ‘I didn’t even know they were the 1960s.’ Is Sunset Boulevard a black comedy? ‘No. Just a picture.’ ‘What’s the difference between “inspired by” and a “remake”?’ ‘“Inspired by” means no credit.’ Has he mellowed? ‘I see fewer people now. That’s the way I have mellowed.’ Telling (once again) the story of how he was thrown out by Freud when he tried to interview him for a Viennese newspaper, Wilder remarks on how small the famous couch was, then pauses. ‘All his theories were based on the analysis of very short people.’ After many generous tributes to Marilyn Monroe, a pain on the set but a wonder on the screen, Wilder loses patience a little. Crowe asked him if he complimented her at the time, and Wilder says: ‘No. She was always crying.’ Modestly saying that all he wants is that people should talk about his films for fifteen minutes after they’ve seen them, he responds to Crowe’s earnest enquiry (‘And fifteen minutes is enough for you?’) with the wisecrack he had probably set up all along. ‘Fifteen minutes is the minimum.’ Answering a vacuous question about bringing ‘a living, breathing human being’ to the screen, Wilder says: ‘Even if a person becomes somebody, just the becoming, that is the important thing.’

Wilder, born in 1906 in what was then Austria and is now Poland, was 91 at the time of these interviews, which took place over more than a year. He had been a journalist in Vienna and Berlin, had written movies in Germany and directed one in France, and went to America in 1934, on the Aquitania. He wrote films in Hollywood, and directed his own first picture there, The Major and the Minor, in 1942. The one consistent, strongly marked thread in Conversations with Wilder is his sense of himself as a writer who became a director and continued to be a writer. ‘I became a director,’ he says, ‘because so many of our scripts had been screwed up.’ ‘I am a writer, basically’; ‘just a writing director’; ‘I am mostly a writer.’ More precisely, or more often, he is a rewriter, since there is usually a play or a novel or an earlier film behind the movies, even if the original is, as Wilder says of the German picture behind Some Like It Hot, ‘deliriously bad’. But then Wilder’s rewriting is unmistakably his, as personal as anyone else’s first go.

But what does this mean? His only ambition, Wilder tells Crowe, ‘was to entertain, this or that way’. ‘To entertain and not to repeat myself and to make as few mistakes as possible.’ ‘I could not make, like Hitchcock did, one Hitchcock picture after another’ – although he did make one Hitchcock (or maybe Preminger) picture, Witness for the Prosecution (1957). So he had no style? Perhaps. ‘I did not develop a style of my own – with one exception, maybe: that I took it seriously whether it was a comedy or not.’ At another moment Wilder goes a little further and admits that films, necessarily, take on the personality of the director. ‘Sure. A musician plays with an inner echo of stuff he has conducted before . . . Of course it takes on your personality . . . You bring your sensibility and hope that people will show up.’ With this we are back at our initial question. If Wilder’s work doesn’t have feeling or passion or grace or elegance, and if ‘truth’ seems too baggy a category for such a fast and elusive moviemaker, what do we find in this work? Here’s a very partial sketch of an answer. We find feeling and passion and grace and elegance, but in scarcely recognisable forms, wrapped in disguise and irony, and often looking like their opposites.

‘It was a hot afternoon and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle.’ This sounds like Raymond Chandler, and it is, since Chandler worked on this script. But it is several other things as well. First of all it comes from a movie rather than a novel, from the soundtrack of Double Indemnity; and it comes to us in the easy, slightly too plausible voice of Fred MacMurray, which makes the murky lyricism of the sentences seem tackier than it would in a Chandler story. Somewhere in the background is James M. Cain, the author of the novel on which the film is based. And the actual writer here, the one who finally approved the words even if he didn’t compose them, is Billy Wilder, the director of the film, and co-author of the script. ‘He was a mess,’ Wilder says of Chandler, ‘but he could write a beautiful sentence. “There is nothing as empty as an empty swimming-pool.” That is a great line, a great one. After a while I was able to write like Chandler.’

Although not quite like Chandler, or like Cain. In the context that Wilder creates, the murder that is said to smell like honeysuckle lacks Cain’s toughness and Chandler’s poignancy. What it has instead is a bright irony, the flicker of fancy lying, and the sense of lurid temptations quite close to the surface of ordinary life. Fred MacMurray, as the insurance man who conspires with Barbara Stanwyck to murder her husband and collect on his life policy, makes all kinds of noises about being a seducer and being seduced, and the movie does everything it can to create a dusty, sultry aura of sex around the crime. All to no avail. The only passion that drives these people is the passion of possibility. Like all memorable fictional criminals (and I guess unlike most real-life miscreants), they commit their crime not out of any raw human need or desire but because they have imagined it could be done, because the deed is their own creation, because they admire their own cleverness and courage and can’t resist the lure of trying them out. Murder doesn’t smell like honeysuckle in this movie, although a killer anxious to romanticise his doings might like to think it does. It doesn’t smell at all. You have only to look at the film’s most famous shot to know how beautifully abstract its criminal conspiracy is. Cameron Crowe calls this ‘one of the greatest moments in Wilder’s entire body of work’. Stanwyck is driving her husband to the railway station, and MacMurray in the back seat is polishing the poor fellow off prior to dumping him on a train line. The camera never leaves Stanwyck’s almost impassive face, seen head-on through the windscreen. Her gaze is steady, her lips part slightly, then close; the faintest suggestion of a smile appears. Stereotypes are lurking here: the heartless woman, the manipulator of men. But what we see on the screen is something finer and simpler: a person who has got the world to conform to her intricate will, and is enjoying the scentlessness of murder.

In Sunset Boulevard (1950), Wilder does something similar, but to more desolate effect. At the beginning, he goes one better than Chandler by showing that there is something even emptier than an empty swimming-pool: a pool with a corpse in it, face down, photographed from the bottom of the water, so that the body hangs on the shifting screen, like a large, broken effigy. ‘He always wanted a pool,’ William Holden says in voice-over just before we see the body. And at the end of the film, when the same underwater shot appears (after an extraordinary dissolve from Gloria Swanson’s face), Holden comments: ‘Back at that pool again. The one I always wanted.’ ‘He’ and ‘I’ are both Holden himself, the now dead hero of his own narration. But he has been killed because he tried to leave Swanson, the fading movie star who cannot accept her public extinction, or her exclusion from the studios. ‘No one ever leaves a star,’ she says just before she shoots him. ‘That’s what makes one a star.’ After she has killed him, she murmurs: ‘Stars are ageless, aren’t they?’ She then confuses, or pretends to confuse, the crowd of journalists and news cameras assembled at the scene of the crime with the busy set of her next movie, which appears to be a version of Salome. She descends the stairs into the bright lights, and the movie ends on a close-up of her face coming towards us, occupying the whole screen until it becomes a blur. Cameron Crowe asks Wilder if this is ‘an optical effect’. Wilder says: ‘The focus gets thrown out by the focus carrier. I left the camera running. I didn’t know where to cut.’ He is being a little disingenuous here, but he is also telling us something. This blurred face, like the clear calm face of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, is the face of a woman who, with desperate results, has escaped the limitations of the world. How would you know where to cut?

Wilder loves these denials of accepted reality, not because he is a rebel or wants to endorse a crime or a fantasy, but because he sees – at least this is what his films suggest – a kind of heroism in some forms of persistence beyond the edges of reason or morality. This view continues into Wilder’s comedies, and is precisely the implication of the celebrated conclusion of Some Like It Hot, the line ‘Nobody’s perfect,’ which moviegoers remember when they have forgotten everything else except perhaps ‘Round up the usual suspects,’ from Casablanca. It may not be coincidental that both of these famous lines have to do with blank denials of what the film in each case has presented as fact. ‘Round up the usual suspects,’ in context, spoken by a French policeman, means: ‘Let’s ignore the killing of the German officer which has happened before our eyes.’ And ‘Nobody’s perfect’ means . . . Well, let’s go back a little.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, two musicians on the run, are impersonating women so that they can hold down jobs in an all-female band. Lemmon in his role as the eyelash-fluttering Daphne manages to captivate the rich Osgood Fielding, played by Joe E. Brown, a had-been comedian whom Wilder dug up for a second round of fame. When Lemmon first announces that Brown has proposed marriage to him, he seems to think it’s a good idea, and Curtis has to explain to him why it’s not. ‘You’re a guy,’ Curtis says. ‘Why would a guy want to marry a guy?’ Lemmon, undaunted, says: ‘Security?’ But then he is persuaded, and right at the end of the movie, tells Brown he can’t marry him. Brown asks why not. Lemmon tries all kinds of reasons. His hair colour is not natural. He smokes all the time. He has a compromised past, has lived with a saxophone player (Curtis) for years. He can never have children. Brown is unperturbed by any of this. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he says in answer to the first excuse. ‘I don’t care,’ and ‘I forgive you’ in answer to the next two. If they can’t have children, they can adopt some. Lemmon gives up, pulls off his wig, and says, in the voice of a person who has both run out of patience and arrived at an entirely irrefutable argument: ‘I’m a man.’ Brown barely glances at him, and the blissful, all-accepting grin never leaves his face for a moment. ‘Well,’ he says grandly. ‘Nobody’s perfect.’

It’s entertaining to learn that this perfect line didn’t start out perfect – that it didn’t seem quite right to Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond when they wrote it.

Now we needed a line for Joe E. Brown and could not find it. But somewhere in the beginning of our discussion, Iz said: ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ And I said: ‘Look, let’s go back to your line . . . Let’s send it to the mimeograph department so that they have something, and then we’re going to really sit down and make a real funny last line.’

We never found the line, so we went with ‘Nobody’s perfect.’

The sequence is revealing. A much-used cliché, with a certain amount of resigned irony built into it – ‘Nobody’s perfect,’ in most uses, must mean either something blandly forgiving, like ‘We’re all doing our best,’ or something terminally dismal, like ‘I suppose I have to put up with your vices or mistakes because I don’t have any real choice’ – is conscripted, in the film, for what looks like a mania, a sheer refusal to take any kind of no as any kind of answer. But of course the mania is not what is making us laugh. We are laughing at the final failure of Lemmon’s apparently conclusive argument – which indeed looks like the failure of argument itself. The question is not why a guy would want to marry a guy but why anyone would want to marry anyone. If you want to do it, you will always find reasons. And if you don’t, no reason will be enough. Certainly merely being a guy or a girl doesn’t seem to be either an obstacle or an answer.

Some Like It Hot doesn’t invite us to take these speculations any further than a little dizzying play with the idea of what we think is normal. I don’t think we’re supposed to wonder, for instance, whether Brown recognised all along that Lemmon was in drag, and that was what he liked about him. But in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Wilder’s most lyrical and delicately mournful film, we are asked to think about just this kind of thing, again, not because Wilder is protesting against stereotypes or pursuing progressive ideas, but because he understands that a fidelity to one’s own peculiarities, whatever they are, can make life difficult. Sex for Wilder, like murder, doesn’t plunge us into basic humanity, it takes us into interesting territories of difference. Wilder himself is very unhappy with the final state of this film, which was much longer, deliberately episodic, in its original version. He left it to be cut by his editor, Ernest Walter, and says he doesn’t know where the missing footage now is. The film as it stands has its weaknesses, and its lapses of pace or intensity, but it also has some extraordinary passages of criss-crossing comedy and melancholy.

The fun begins rather broadly. A famous ballerina, about to retire, would like to have a child by a brilliant man. She has the beauty, she needs to co-opt the brains. She and her impresario (Clive Revill, in an astonishingly funny performance, topped only by his similar, but more extensive role in Wilder’s Avanti!), have canvassed various candidates, including Tolstoy (‘too old’), and Nietzsche (‘too German’). They have also thought of Tchaikovsky. Holmes, told of all this, murmurs his approval. ‘You couldn’t go wrong with Tchaikovsky,’ he says. The impresario is emphatic in reply: ‘You could, and we did. It was . . . catastrophe.’ Why was that. Well, women, it seems, were not Tchaikovsky’s ‘glass of tea’. ‘Oh, pity, that,’ Holmes says mildly. Needless to say, Holmes is now the ballerina’s choice, but he has seen his way out: the Tchaikovsky route. He explains that he is not a free man, that he and Watson have been living together for some time, ‘five very happy years’. The impresario is shocked. ‘Dr Watson is . . . your glass of tea?’ Holmes, enjoying himself, is off the hook, and soon leaves the scene. Holmes is Robert Stephens, wonderfully effete and engaging; Wilder says he ‘never quite knew if he was a homosexual or not’ – offscreen, that is. Watson is Colin Blakely, a kind of terrier of a companion to the great man.

When Watson finds out what Holmes has been saying, he is furious, and raves on about dishonour and disgrace, and people talking. Suddenly, absurdly, he borrows a joke from Some Like It Hot. ‘Maybe if we got married,’ he says. Holmes says: ‘Then they’d really talk.’ But then comes the delicate part. Watson, like everyone who finds Lemmon’s argument conclusive, assumes there is a simple norm in these matters. He thinks Holmes has made a joke in very poor taste, but he doesn’t suspect for a moment that there may be some truth in the joke. Watson isn’t Holmes’s glass of tea, but that doesn’t mean other men aren’t. At this point the title of the film takes on its full force, since in the face of Watson’s dawning suspicions Holmes decides to defend either his private right to homosexuality or the total privacy of his sexual orientation. Watson, in a fit of flustered pride, says he can get any number of women to vouch for him, and of course Holmes can do the same. Or can he? ‘Can you, Holmes?’ Holmes says: ‘Goodnight, Watson.’ Watson then says he’d like to ask a question, and hopes he is not being presumptuous. There have been women in Holmes’s life, haven’t there? Holmes says, ‘The answer is yes,’ the camera returns to Watson and shows his fatuous relief, and Holmes continues, ‘you are being presumptuous.’ Holmes goes into his room, closing the door behind him.

All this is played out against the background of a good deal of talk about Holmes’s misogyny. He says himself that he doesn’t trust women, and that he is ‘not a wholehearted admirer of womankind’. ‘The twinkle in the eye,’ he says, ‘and the arsenic in the soup.’ All his remarks on the subject have this edgy, aggressive quality, and suggest concealment and evasion, even fear, rather than a firmly held position. He speaks of a murderess he admired, sprinkling cyanide on her husband’s steak and kidney pie. And tells the story of his fiancée, dying of influenza on the eve of their wedding, as an instance of women’s unreliability. Stephens’s tone as he delivers this tale doesn’t convince us there was a fiancée, let alone that she died in this way.

Are we to read these remarks about women simply as coded confessions of homosexuality? Wilder’s own comments certainly suggest this. ‘I should have been more daring,’ he says in an interview quoted in Ed Sikov’s 1998 biography, On Sunset Boulevard. ‘I wanted to make Holmes a homosexual . . . That’s why he’s on dope, you know.’ But in that case the film is more subtle than its maker at that moment. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is not a movie with a simple secret – Holmes is gay and that explains everything. It is a movie in which a gay-looking Holmes, who is happy to play with the idea of his own gayness, almost falls in love with a female German spy (a beautifully feline and elegant Genevieve Page) who almost outwits him. In a fine reversal of the Holmes myth, we realise she is a spy long before he does: in fact, he probably would never have found out if his smarmy brother had not told him – so he is the last to know what everyone knows. This makes the spy all the more attractive to him, and the pathos gets really tangled when we realise that she thinks he had rumbled her from the start. ‘Not quite that soon,’ he says, unable to confess the extent of his failure. And when she continues by saying she wishes she could have given him a closer game, he says: ‘Close enough.’ She is arrested, swapped for a British spy caught by the Germans, but at the end of the film we learn that she has been caught and executed in Japan. Holmes, almost wordlessly, reaches for his cocaine.

Heterosexual after all, then, or bisexual? Holmes would say we are being presumptuous. All we know is that he has fallen for the agent of his failure in a way he cannot fall for his own success; that he admires grace and skill and courage and disguise, and grieves for their loss. Why would those gifts be confined to one sex, or be a matter of sex at all? Or as Wilder remarks in answer to one of Crowe’s clunking questions (‘What is your definition of love?’): ‘Love has many, many visages, many aspects to it. That is, love for a boy, love for a woman . . .’ When Crowe asks Wilder if he is a misogynist, he says he doesn’t know, and his wife says he is, and we hear the unmarked laughter on the page.