It was a fellow artist-journalist, George Orwell, who took the trouble to point out that the “unmistakable mark of Dickens’s writing is the unnecessary detail.” It’s not so much the germane fact as the casual one that gives his novels their delightful atmosphere. Billy Wilder, who also started in journalism, might have taken from the filthy trade the bracing social cynicism that makes his movies tick. The best of them are filled with the kinds of details that provide pure oxygen to nascent drama, raising it to a level of life more interesting than the original material might have promised.
Wilder’s liking for facts was fundamental. However happy he was with his six Academy Awards, he once said, the thing that made him really proud was appearing twice in the New York Times crossword, “once 17 across and once 21 down.” It’s the specificity that makes it funny, but also—and here’s the Wilder touch—it carries a truth from his own experience. In 1925 in Vienna, when he was eighteen years old, he wrote the crossword puzzle (signed “Billie Wilder”) for Die Bühne, a slightly saucy culture magazine with a thing for girls’ legs.
Wilder understood the (often grievous) relationship between newspaper sales and entertainment. In those years, he was caricatured as “the racing reporter,” his bowler hat being swept from him with the effort to get ahead. He made it to Berlin, where he wrote for Berliner Zeitung and Berliner Börsen-Courier, for Tempo and the literary journal Der Querschnitt. He had, as journalists on the make sometimes do, a tidy talent for exaggeration, and he later claimed to have interviewed, over the course of a single day, Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst’s colleague Alfred Adler, the writer Arthur Schnitzler, and the composer Richard Strauss.
Noah Isenberg writes in the introduction to Billy Wilder on Assignment, a collection of his journalism, that while working for those papers he began nodding to the “Americanophilia that was already blossoming inside him.” That sense of human interest, of ease and personality—what was later recognized as part of the Wilder approach—began to show itself in 1929, in the first film on which he gained a solo writing credit: Der Teufelsreporter (Hell of a Reporter), about a former circus star who becomes an intrepid journalist.
The American style seemed to come naturally to Wilder. The most successful story in this collection, “Waiter, a Dancer, Please!,” about being a hoofer for hire at a big hotel, is waspish and (if you allow for the choppy sentences) jazz-era excitable, New Yorker–ish, with a self-deprecating turn and a fairly urbane sense of the perfectly ridiculous:
In the ballroom. Packed. Cigarette haze. Perfume and brilliantine. Preened ladies from twenty to fifty. Bald heads. Mamas with prepubescent daughters. Young men with garish neckties and brightly colored spats. Whole families.
The jazz band on the upper level is slouching over their instruments and bobbing to the rhythm. Aside from the banjo player, who is looking down, bored and mouth agape, at the couples as they jump, grind, chuff, and hop.
Loud and sweltering.
Herr Isin’s red eyes gaze at me as though straining to say: Go!
Yes, yes, I’ll go dance. Over there in the corner, the lady in the Persian lamb coat and the crocodile leather shoes. I’ll go ask her to dance.
But Herr Isin taps my shoulder. “You’re dancing with table 91. Right over here.”
When Wilder interviews Cornelius Vanderbilt, “American multimillionaire,” he seems to delight in quoting him in defense of Wilder’s own profession. “Wonderful thing to be a journalist,” Vanderbilt says.
When I was twenty-two I started as a newspaper reporter at the New YorkHerald and the New YorkTimes. Today I’m twenty-eight; I’m the owner of three newspapers: two in California, one in Miami, Florida. Additionally, I have two magazines and a publication company that extends across the entire US and employs eight thousand workers. I always live in New York. Would you like to visit me sometime?
Wilder loved jazz, and his mind was sailing to America even before he did. In a travel piece about Venice for Die Stunde, published in March 1927, he notices, at a café, how “Americans are bent over newspapers as big as bedsheets,” and it was that sense, perhaps, of the voluminous, riveting nature of American storytelling that he brought with him in January 1934 when he sailed over on the SS Aquitania. As with many a refugee, it was the high-spirited, coffeehouse banter of newspapers and celebrities that informed his sense of America as a place of modern morality, with its acrobatic challenges to human interest. “Wilder’s acclaimed work in Hollywood,” Isenberg writes, “is in many ways an outgrowth of his stint as a reporter in interwar Vienna and Weimar Berlin.”
It’s hard to argue with that when you see the films. Though his accent, in every sense, would remain intact, and his vocabulary compact, Wilder very quickly learned the modes and manners of the American words industry. “Even for Albuquerque, this is pretty Albuquerque,” says the down-on-his-luck newspaperman Charles Tatum to Jacob Boot, the editor of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, in Ace in the Hole (1951). The editor is sitting at his desk under a framed sampler that says, “TELL THE TRUTH.” Tatum continues: “Mr. Boot”—the homage to Evelyn Waugh’s journalism novel, Scoop, should not go unnoticed—“I know newspapers backward, forward and sideways. I can write them, edit them, print them, wrap them and sell them…I can handle big news and little news, and, if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.”
Out of all his lightsome European reporting and sprightly casuals, Wilder spins a dark tale of journalism as a vehicle of unapologetic human exploitation. Tatum, played with well-oiled, mechanical charmlessness by Kirk Douglas, has bad tires and a dirty reputation: he needs a big story to break, and he finds it out on the New Mexico highway, where a local man is trapped in an underground cave. Tatum aims for success, but his downward spiral—the downward spiral of an entire culture, you might argue—is captured by Wilder as an aspect of American reality, where opportunism is both the nectar and the poison. (The original title of the film was The Human Interest Story; later they changed it to The Big Carnival.) “Everybody in this game has to make up his own mind,” Tatum says when the going gets rough. The problems of journalism are the problems of truth, history, and technology, and Wilder, from a certain point of view, was always on assignment.
Ace in the Hole failed at the box office, a fact that may only reinforce its theme. In Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge, a searching new study by the film historian Joseph McBride, we see that any deep portrayal of unscrupulous journalism—then or now—is likely to fall foul of the public that gives such “news-gathering” its lifeblood. Bad news values, it may be argued, reflect poor expectations in the paying audience. They feast on each other (no less at Facebook than under William Randolph Hearst). Ace in the Hole wasn’t Wilder’s first film about journalism, and it wouldn’t be his last, but it “indicts the American public,” McBride writes, “that serves not only as the reporter’s audience but also as his callous enablers.”
Today is a cold climate for journalism. In the era that named (but by no means invented) “fake news,” what do Wilder’s observations about journalistic venality tell us about the present-day spectacle of mob accusation as evidence and mass denial as information? Well, they show us what to feel: revulsion. And they minister to the idea that money and success, by themselves, may be a kind of moral narcotic, leaving supplicants asleep to the harm that is actually being done.
Another writer, Joe Gillis, is found dead at the beginning of Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), floating in the swimming pool of a mansion he could not afford to live in. (“The poor dope,” we hear in Gillis’s own voiceover, speaking of himself. “He always wanted a pool.”) Gillis, played by William Holden, is a kept man and a born cynic, perhaps, but at heart he is a broken idealist. When first we see him (alive), he’s afraid he might have to go back to Ohio, to that “thirty-five-dollar-a-week job behind the copy desk of the Dayton Evening Post.” So when he meets Norma Desmond he meets another person like him who has, in some larger way, been given the “go-by.” For a moment, she appears like a useful opportunity; in fact, she’s a mirror. Her grotesque delusions about returning to her former status as a movie star are reflective of his own delusions about making it as something more than a provincial newspaper hack. His intellectual superiority can only underscore rather than relieve the poverty of his position.
Gillis agrees to read her script. “Sometimes,” he says, “it’s interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be.” He sees his chance and concocts “a little plot of my own,” a plot, we already know, that will lead to his floating dead in that swimming pool. Desmond’s mansion is crumbling in slow motion, and so is he, the hack without qualities. Well, not entirely without qualities: he sees the problem of Hollywood, and he sees, with a degree of pain, how everybody is, or is about to be, a has-been, or a never-been. He calls himself her “ghostwriter.” She depends on lies, but so does he. He hates himself for it, but I’m not sure that makes it any better.
For Don Birnam, the alcoholic writer in The Lost Weekend (1945), real life becomes a phantasmagoria. “Down strange, forbidden byways he wandered in search of his soul,” the original trailer said. But what Birnam is really searching for, and what Wilder recorded via Ray Milland’s austere portrayal, was a means of understanding why we are at the mercy of the stories we need. The Lost Weekend is a movie about illusions, how a writer needs them, and how a society does, too. “It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat?” Birnam says, speaking of alcohol to the bartender at P.J. Clarke’s.
It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent. Supremely competent! I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers—all three of them. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer, it’s the Nile, Nat. The Nile and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.
In the field of journalism, workers are now involved in the separating of one illusion from another, the threshing of this or that lie. We can seek the truth—but who is “we,” and “can” everybody, and what is “seek,” and how is “truth” to be defined? When considering Wilder’s evolution, the journey from interwar stylist to hard-bitten realist, from European idealist to American social critic, one has to follow what happened to the writers in his head. Not only the writer and journalist he was himself—it was Truffaut who said that you can tell a lot about directors from their first jobs—but also those professional wordsmiths who appear, at least theoretically, to be so crucial to the business of democracy. Wilder portrays such ugliness as he can imagine, and he plays, in many of his films, on the mass audience’s capacity for enjoying the squalor of high-minded intentions.
In The Front Page (1974), we see the director thinking again about these problems, in the immediate aftermath of huge fabrications, huge lies, and huge interpretations of how truth might relate to power. In other words, after Watergate. The story of these inveterate hacks was an old favorite, from the 1928 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, essentially a story about male friendship and mild professional deceit, but in this late outing by Wilder and his screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond, the film gives voice, as McBride puts it, to a “less comedic view of the journalism racket.”
Most of its action takes place in the pressroom of the criminal courts in Chicago in 1929. The journalists are ruthless, hard-drinking, dry-your-eyes goons led by Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon) and his editor, Walter Burns (Walter Matthau). When it comes to details, the reporters are mainly interested in sleaze and hyperbole, the most talented of them only inches away from either the Pulitzer Prize or a year in the clink. Walter is mainly trying to stop Hildy, his star reporter, from running off with a girl to get married and move to Philadelphia. The boys tell lies to get to the truth or manipulate the truth to get to the story: they are teasingly amoral tradesmen working every angle. “Gentlemen of the press!” shouts a floozy called Mollie Malloy (Carol Burnett), before spitting in their eyes. “All you care about is a stinking headline.” Hildy knows the score:
Journalists! Bunch of crazy buttinskis, with dandruff on their shoulders and holes in their pants. Peeking through keyholes…Stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that get raped in Oak Park. And for what? So a million shop girls and motormen’s wives can get their jollies. And the next day somebody wraps the front page around a dead mackerel.
This is journalism, set during the period when Wilder himself was working at it, and any affection for this “riff-raff,” these “bums,” must enter into a sparring contest (albeit hilariously, given the misanthropic facial contortions of Walter Matthau) with a spirited degree of self-loathing. When Mollie jumps from a window, the reporters run from the pressroom, already shouting their alliterative headline—“Shady Lady Leaps for Love”—while another woman, Peggy Grant (Hildy’s intended, played by Susan Sarandon), stands aside as her ravenous fiancé struggles at a typewriter to meet his final, unexpected deadline. “I’m beginning to think all newspapermen have a disease,” she gently says. That disease is the movie’s subject, and the editor—pretending to be the couple’s only friend—will show himself to be the most diseased of all, unseating their happiness with a final, incriminating libel. The born newspaperman gets his way. He will always get his way, especially when he claims to act in the public interest, which is the journalist’s deathless prerogative.
The Front Page has crudity as its subject and is crude itself. “It sometimes sounds as if Wilder and Diamond are reveling in it,” McBride notes. It’s as if there is something unresolved in the director’s past, and perhaps for him it was the essential frivolity of his early journalism, which showed no awareness of the devastating forces that were rising in Europe. Later on, his dark center is never very far from his comic one, and the overlap, in many of the films, forms a Venn diagram of twentieth-century angst about what is sayable and what is true.
But we should not forget that creative fiction may be a corrective to the excesses of journalism. Wilder was amused and appalled by what newspapermen could do when a hot potato landed in their laps, and The Front Page, as McBride puts it,
presents his skeptical view of the overly romantic idolizing of the press that was fashionable in 1974 because of the stardom of Washington Post Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. [It is] an indictment of the whole rotten system.
The film reeks of dismay about corrupt mayors and thirsty politicians—Vincent Canby of The New York Times referred to its “giddy bitterness”—but it is newspapers that come in for Wilder’s full whack, as if it is in their columns that human deceit is at its utmost.
It was conscience, perhaps—the Rosebud at the heart of Wilder’s comical world. As a young reporter, just before leaving Vienna, he was implicated in a sleazy racket: he and the papers he wrote for were said to be publishing favorable notices in return for advertising. It was known locally as a “café tax,” and the experience might have remained with Wilder, under the palms of Hollywood, as a stinging memory. The guns of satire will often be found, when you inspect them closely, to be turning their fire inward. We enjoy a laugh at the end of The Front Page, when the rolling titles tell us where our major characters ended up, not least the editor of the Examiner: “WALTER BURNS retired and occasionally lectured at the University of Chicago, on the Ethics of Journalism.”