Wednesday, February 22, 2017
If Anything Is To Be Gained
ACE IN THE HOLE he retreated from that darkness to somewhat safer projects. STALAG 17, SABRINA and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH were based on acclaimed stage plays, all commercial properties to one degree or other. Whether or not it was by design, with his three 1957 releases it’s almost like he’s finding the way back to his own pure voice, gradually scaling things down from the epic CinemaScope sprawl of SPIRIT which was a prolonged, unhappy production to the big stars on location for LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON to the ultra-compact WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (based on the Agatha Christie stage play; adaptation by Larry Marcus, screenplay by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz), shot on soundstages in Hollywood featuring a mere handful of sets and starring big names who by all accounts got along famously with the director. There’s a confidence felt in each scene as if everything about it is automatically clicking together and just as the film’s lead character is rediscovering the passion for his own work, Wilder is doing the same. Based on some of the films he made over the following decade he may have even realized that he never wanted to leave the confines of a soundstage again unless forced to, that all he requires are these actors speaking his dialogue and going at each other full throttle. And it does this without sacrificing the basics of the Christie narrative; in an interview excerpted on the Blu-ray Wilder talks about how the author was brilliant when it came to plot but lousy with characters and if you read the original 15-page story it doesn’t feel like anything more than a rough sketch. Very little dialogue is kept from the stage version as well; at one point in the Christie script for the play Vole mentions a job selling egg beaters which in the hands of Wilder is turned into a contraption he’s invented out of a Lubitsch film, just one small example of how the film was intent on transforming everything in the story. Even the character of Miss Plimsoll played by Elsa Lanchester is a new invention to go along with this subplot and it’s like Wilder mostly treated the source material as an outline (“Nothing was in the play,” he told Cameron Crowe, not far off from the truth) keeping the basic essentials and using those pieces to make the film that allowed him to say what he needed to. A FOREIGN AFFAIR. It not only serves as another reference to one of his films, the two would work beautifully paired together in a double bill as undeniable reflections of each other. THE APARTMENT. A few lower points came in the years that followed like IRMA LA DOUCE and THE FORTUNE COOKIE as well as others which vary in quality but they also spend a great deal of time in their principle locations, just like this one. It’s hard not to wish that Wilder could have loosened up by a certain point (AVANTI! and FEDORA do a little, not that it helped the receptions that those films got) but let’s stick with this film for now. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION plays so effortlessly that it’s probably been underrated over the years, looked at as just a stage adaptation that came between Marilyn Monroe vehicles. But mixed in with its incisive storytelling is a look at a cynical world, one where automatic innocence may be presumed while at the same time doubting the very concept of goodness. That’s part of why it works so well in the end—unlike the triumph of Lindbergh landing in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS the sliver of optimism found in human nature comes from just about the last place you’d expect. So maybe we have to accept the possibility that something like it can be found again in this world. I’m not sure I totally believe in that yet but I’m trying.