No one should shed a tear for Billy Wilder’s legacy. The filmmaker won six Oscars in his time, and four of his movies cracked the most recent edition of the American Film Institute’s top 100 list—a total topped only by Steven Spielberg. But among certain critical circles, Wilder’s standing among the giants of American cinema never quite recovered from the beating it took when the Cahiers du Cinéma brigade popularized their “politique des auteurs” during his 1950s heyday.
At a time when cinephiles sought to establish film as a high art, they directed their focus on creators who expertly wielded the medium’s techniques in a way that would distinguish the craft from the page and the stage. Wilder, who ascended from a decade of studio screenwriting into the directors’ chair, was not the type to fuss over mise-en-scène. He largely preferred economical master shots or two-shots, rarely indulging the kind of self-conscious photographic bravura that enthralled the era’s dominant minds. “They get excited about the sort of stuff I could get by shooting through a wet matzoh,” Wilder scoffed in a 1960 profile.
While contemporary understandings of auteur theory tend to reify a “great man” theory of artistry, focusing on artists whose control over the product permeates from end-to-end, its origins stem from identifying thematic and cinematographic patterns across a body of work over which directors exerted minimal agency. By prioritizing image over scenario and implicitly devaluing the director-screenwriter in the process, auteurists were uniquely blind to the ways in which Wilder smuggled his sensibilities and worldviews past the strictures of the studio system and onto the silver screen.
With a proficiency achieved by few others in history, Wilder deftly genre-hopped at the height of his career. Rather than rest on his laurels by pioneering the film noir with 1944’s Double Indemnity, he excelled in making romance, farce, war drama, satire, courtroom drama, biopic, and plenty of films that combined elements of each. The most persistent criticism against Wilder is that his work was cynical, no matter what kind of movie he made. But closer examination reveals a much more complex picture. Wilder’s versatility belies a shared sensibility across all his work that becomes most apparent in one section of his films: the ending, particularly the final shot or line of dialogue.
If one considers the chief tension of Wilder’s work as the push and pull between cynicism and romanticism, the closing moments of a Wilder film complicate the notion that one can ever fully vanquish the other. Just when it seems one half of Wilder’s persona has won out, he quietly reintroduces the possibility that the climax might not be exactly as it appears. A brief wisecrack, a contradictory image or a moment left unseen undercut the neatly-tied Hollywood ending required of mid-century studio fare. As the audience prepares to mentally reenter the world outside the frame—picking up purses or popcorn bags left on the theater floor, checking phones for messages or news we’ve missed in the past two hours—Wilder reinterprets and reframes our understanding of everything we just saw.
Wilder warped his endings as early as his breakout feature, 1944’s Double Indemnity. While forerunners helped pave the way for Wilder, this triumph sizzled by featuring criminals plotting immoral deeds as the protagonists of the story. The scintillating exploits of insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who entices him to participate in offing her husband for a big payout, marked one of the earliest instances in which a Hollywood film dared to align an audience’s point of view with that of a killer.
While Wilder and co-scripter Raymond Chandler could replicate certain titillating pleasures of hardboiled crime fiction, they still had to abide by film’s superseding Hays Code. The rules were clear: the law had to be respected and upheld; crime required punishment, thereby ruling out both the novel’s original double suicide and Wilder’s proposed gas chamber execution of Walter as finales.
What closes Double Indemnity instead is a moment of bittersweet rapprochement between Neff and his mentor-cum-nemesis Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). The police and medics are on their way to apprehend Neff after Keyes phones them off-screen. Neff, no longer able to suffer through the gunshot wound to his shoulder, collapses on the office floor far away from the elevators he needs to reach in order to flee. Keyes kneels down by his colleague to inform him that there’s no hope of escape—justice is coming for him. His demeanor morphs to reflect a brusque compassion for his fallen coworker, an acknowledgment that he cannot turn a blind eye to the duplicitous deed, but still feels a residual tenderness for Neff.
“The guy you were looking for was too close, right across the desk from ya,” Neff declares to his inquisitive colleague, who had previously tried to locate the perpetrator of the murder to no avail. “Closer than that, Walter,” Keyes replies forlornly. Neff, gasping to catch his breath, utters the film’s final line, responds head-on to the implication contained in the response: “I love you too.” He then struggles to light the cigarette dangling tenuously from his lips, a struggle Keyes alleviates by performing the act himself in a final act of mercy. It’s an unconventional final note, one that suggests Double Indemnity represents more than just a transfer of the gangster film into a white-collar setting. By reframing Neff’s actions through the lens of personal betrayal, Wilder raises the interpretation of his film as a doomed love story. A single image loaded with phallic subtext threads the needle between Neff’s impotence as a criminal, lover, and colleague.
Wilder’s follow-up to Double Indemnity, 1945’s Best Picture-winning The Lost Weekend, closes out with a more recognizable strategy: the full-circle. We enter the film on a pan across the Manhattan skyline and wind up outside the window of alcoholic and writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland). He’s packing for a trip under the guise that he’s maintained sobriety, all while mentally fixated on a bottle of booze that hangs outside his window by a string. What follows is one of the first instances in which Hollywood treated alcoholism as an addiction and disease rather than just a punchline.
Though limited in what it could depict, The Lost Weekend sears as it charts Don’s descent. He conceptualizes himself as two dueling, Jekyll and Hyde-like identities, “Don the Writer” and “Don the Drunk.” With the patient help of his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), he comes to understand that these bifurcated selves are intertwined. As part of his effort to merge them in the film’s climax, Don attempts to turn the weekend’s drunken debauchery into a novel. While beginning to narrate how it all begins, Wilder returns to the film’s introductory sequence, though this time we see it in reverse. The camera exits the window, lingers on the bottle and tracks the opposite direction to return to a glimpse of the city.
Taken at face value, this might look like a traditional happy ending for Don’s story. He’s taken his first step towards progress by admitting he has a problem that he must learn to live with, not merely wish away. But the final shot raises the possibility that his moment of clarity is just that: a moment. The film’s bookended shots don’t offer much hope that Dan has fully broken out of the pattern of recovery and relapse many alcoholics know well. It’s a note of promise, of potential—but not consummation or commitment.
If there’s an exception that proves the rule for Wilder’s endings, it’s his 1951 film Ace in the Hole. His pitch-black satire of the media circus that springs up in a New Mexico town around a man trapped in a cave, it spares no one, indicting every participant and onlooker. The harshest judgment remains reserved for the film’s protagonist, Kirk Douglas’ Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter who sees a professional opportunity and story where others might see a suffering man. A veritable cottage industry pops up around the attempted rescue, one which Tatum and his accomplices artificially prolong for their own benefits. Yet when Tatum feels a pang of guilt, it’s too late. Leo Minosa dies in the cave.
No one gets off easy in Ace in the Hole, bystander or direct participant. All those who gathered either profited or paid into a system that treated a man’s life as a spectacle. Tatum’s remorse is not enough to save him, either. He is unable to recover from a stab wound inflicted by the victim’s wife and takes a psychological beating from his abandonment by the New York press corps he hoped to woo through his coverage of Leo’s rescue. While Wilder brings the film full circle, there is no mistaking the difference here, given that Tatum falls over dead directly in front of the camera. Tatum, in extreme close-up, forces us to stare directly at the consequences of complicity in the scheme.
Audiences and critics alike rejected Ace in the Hole upon its stateside release, a rare misfire for the popular Wilder. Though he would deny the most nihilistic readings of the film, there’s little wiggle room granted in his pointed finale. The wages of Tatum’s manifold sins are death. Wilder does not let us look away from it, either, making his demise proximate and palpable at such an irregularly short distance for the director. “People will do anything for money,” Wilder quipped, “except some people who will do almost anything for money.”
It’s no wonder that no films to follow for Wilder end with such an undeniable exclamation point as Ace in the Hole. (Though the film has risen in esteem in the 2000s, Wilder long considered it “the runt of the litter” during his lifetime.) “I like to mix a little vinegar in the cocktail,” Wilder later said of Ace in the Hole. “I suppose the audience thought they’d come to see another kind of picture and felt they’d been cheated.” If he had cynicism to express, he would need to cloak it more carefully—or package it in such a way that it became barely perceptible. He chose his next film with Paramount, 1953’s Stalag 17, largely to acquiesce to the studio’s pressure to make a film that could generate enough profit to cover both pictures. While the film is undeniably a more chipper affair than Ace in the Hole, there is little daylight between their outlooks by the time we reach the end.
The protagonist of Stalag 17 is not all that different from the one in Ace in the Hole; Wilder’s description of William Holden’s J.J. Sefton as “an unsentimental opportunist” could easily apply to Chuck Tatum, though Wilder softens his depiction in the follow-up film. A humorous whodunit set in a Nazi prisoner of war camp, the film centers on the men of the titular barracks as they attempt to smoke out a mole in their midst. Sefton is not afraid to use his wiles for personal benefit, holding a few cards close to the chest, even if it means keeping some of his fellow captives in the dark.
Sefton is ultimately able to finesse a way to out the rat and fool the German guards into killing the traitor as a cover for his escape with another prisoner, Lieutenant James Dunbar. It’s not necessarily an act of great altruism; his chosen companion, a man from a family of means, will likely net him a handsome financial reward. His final words to the men he leaves behind convey not heroism, but ambivalence: “If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let’s pretend we’ve never met before.”
Wilder does not follow Sefton and Dunbar outside the wires of the prison camp, instead lingering behind in the same claustrophobic quarters where the rest of the film takes place. There’s not an electricity in the air from the successful breakout, but a pervasive sense of anticlimax. The group’s clown, Animal (Robert Strauss), gets the final word: “Maybe he just wanted to steal our wire cutters. You ever think of that?” It’s played for a laugh, but the implication is grim.
We hear the same music from the opening credits, the war anthem “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” albeit this time hummed with a smile by the film’s narrator, Cookie. It’s another return to a favorite Wilder device, the circular plot structure, though one that demonstrates a break in the cycle. There’s triumph in Stalag 17, but it’s fleeting. The film concludes not with a celebration of Sefton’s achievement but a wistful acknowledgement of a dark truth, the camera remaining on the men he left behind, unlikely to escape themselves. We’re confronted with the looming specter of death, just from a less intrusive vantage point. When considering that Wilder lost several close family members, including his mother, in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust, the film’s final note reverberates with an even greater melancholy.
Audiences at the time didn’t seem to notice or mind, however. Stalag 17 was a massive hit for Wilder and did, in fact, gross enough to recoup the losses on Ace in the Hole. The success portended a new pattern in the filmmaker’s work, a habit of slyly redefining the meaning of his films in ways that managed to be both brazen and subtle.
Wilder’s two most renowned romances, 1954’s Sabrina and 1960’s Best Picture-winner The Apartment, both conclude on a note that’s hardly “happily ever after.” He indulges the third-act genre imperative, the grand romantic gesture, in both films. In Sabrina, Humphrey Bogart’s Linus makes a dramatic maritime chase after Audrey Hepburn’s titular heroine following an elaborate stunt by family members to trick him into admitting his love. In The Apartment, Wilder grants a rare extended close-up to Shirley MacLaine as her Fran Kubelik makes an important realization while “Auld Lang Syne” ushers in a new year: she’s ringing in the holiday with the wrong man. She then rushes across town to be with Jack Lemmon’s goodhearted Bud Baxter in the apartment where he doted on her following an attempted suicide.
Yet in both cases, the grand romantic gesture is not reciprocated. Chiefly, there’s no kiss between the leads. Linus and Sabrina warmly embrace on the deck of a cruise liner headed to Paris, then Wilder immediately fades out to black. Fran and Bud reconnect and he professes his love, but she cheekily focuses on resuming a previous game of gin rummy rather than acknowledging his declaration. “Shut up and deal,” Fran affectionately ribs him, as the music swells and the film ends.
Wilder’s film prior to The Apartment, 1959’s Some Like It Hot, plays out as a curious inverse of this emphatic ending—a punchy zinger that points to a happy ending, but the prevailing mood is far less sanguine. The film’s climax ends with Tony Curtis’ Joe and Jack Lemmon’s Jerry, disguised as female musicians to avoid retribution for witnessing a mob hit, making a dramatic escape from armed hitmen. Along with them in their flight are the two people they’ve wooed over the course of their subterfuge: the group’s enchanting lead singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) and millionaire sugar daddy Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown).
With imminent danger in their rearview, both protagonists break the spell they’ve cast over their would-be romantic counterparts and admit to their deception. Joe, who seduced Sugar in the guise of an oil baron, tells her she deserves a more honest, wealthy man than him—an offer to jump ship that she quickly declines as she grabs him for a smooch. Jerry, on the other hand, experiences a similar outpouring of unrequited love; the wrinkle is that Osgood fell in love with Daphne, the woman he masqueraded as in drag. Despite every possible claim Jerry can think of to repel his suitor, he’s so blinded by his adoration that he’s willing to accept or forgive anything. Finally, Jerry removes Daphne’s wig and discloses his true gender—a reveal to which Osgood grinningly reacts, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
It’s a cruel irony that Wilder’s most sincere, earnest declaration of love to close out a film is one that a character would actively try to rebuff. The belly laugh generated by Osgood’s perfect final line obscures the gut-punch of pain it portends for Jerry. An ostensibly happy ending has never felt more like a life sentence.
“The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it,” Wilder instructed in the final of his 10 commandments of screenwriting. “Don’t hang around.” Sabrina and The Apartment in particular stand as tribute Wilder’s commitment to climaxing quite literally at the close, packing in their biggest moment for the very end. These are ecstatic notes on which to send the audience back into the world, but what do we lose from the absence of any falling action? Could this merely be a rush of unsustainable puppy love? Although Wilder does not suggest his grand finales are hollow, he provides only a whiff of promise that any of these relationships are durable enough to overcome all that’s come before. Any audience wanting more out of the ending must instead project their own values on the text.
The power of what remains outside the frame does not always cast such a dour light on the film, as is the case for Wilder’s 1957 Charles Lindbergh biopic The Spirit of St. Louis. The achievement-oriented picture is, admittedly, an odd fit for Wilder. The film’s wide-screen CinemaScope vistas capturing Lindbergh’s pioneering transatlantic flight are precisely the kind of resplendent visuals he found so antithetical and unnecessary to storytelling.
Wilder dutifully recounts the construction of the eponymous airplane and the preparation leading up his historic flight for the vast majority of the film’s runtime. Everything about the workmanlike proceduralism of The Spirit of St. Louis suggests the film will end with Lucky Lindy’s triumphant landing in Paris. Indeed, he touches down in France, and hundreds of thousands of onlookers swarm the plane. But these crowds are treated less like a sign of victorious jubilation and more like a nightmarish mob as Lindbergh (Jimmy Stewart) is carried further and further away from the plane on the shoulders of the assembled masses to his great distress.
It is only later on a hangar, when Lindbergh finally reunites with the creation that enabled his successful flight, that he can feel peace and accomplishment. As he caresses the plane tenderly, the tranquil moment of rapport reframes The Spirit of St. Louis as a love story between man and machine—and, by extension, a man and his work. By ending on this note, Wilder eschews the “great man” conventions of the biographical drama. Instead, he strips a great achievement down to its most personal elements and limits celebration to archival footage of Lindbergh’s ticker tape parade. He does not deny the audience what they came to see, but his refusal to center triumphalist tropes opens up surprising avenues of interpretation in an otherwise rote effort.
In describing his reversal on Wilder later in life, American auterist critic Andrew Sarris openly admitted that he allowed people to talk down from championing the filmmaker despite his enthusiasm for the work. “Perhaps I mistrusted Wilder because I never had to work very hard to enjoy his movies,” Sarris wrote in Film Comment. He’s not wrong in the sense that Wilder movies are often fun and breezy. At the very least, they are always constructed competently and with minimal fussiness.
But a focus on enjoyment and intelligibility in Wilder’s films omits an underlying backbone supporting his work—the films are often quite challenging in their implications and insinuations. Wilder, by way of his mentor Ernst Lubitsch, said that a cardinal rule of screenwriting was to “let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” But Wilder’s films were never simple math; they were differential equations in drag as convincing as the characters in Some Like It Hot. The trackable touch that most directors of the era had to achieve by superseding a screenwriter’s words was what Wilder managed to accomplish within the opaqueness of his own scripts’ denouements.
If there’s any throughline connecting Wilder’s filmography, it’s the willingness to send scrambled signals through the conventions of studio filmmaking he otherwise upheld. Wilder was both company man and saboteur at the same time. Though discreet and small, his self-contradicting endings are akin to a painter’s signature at the bottom of the canvas, recognizable and repeatable no matter the subject of the piece.
A true auteurist analysis of Billy Wilder must go beyond the plating of a course and embrace the singular aftertaste. Criticism that dismisses Wilder’s work as a sugar high merely devours the candied apple and discards the remnants without noticing a defining feature: the core has been rotten the whole time.