Of the many great directors who worked in Hollywood between the 1930s and the 1960s, Billy Wilder’s films have probably dated the best. Even while admiring the brilliance and the prolificacy of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Hitchcock or William Wyler, one usually has to make adjustments for a few touches of over-sentimentality in their films. But Wilder’s best work – notably Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17 and The Apartment – has a hard-edged sophistication that’s instantly appealing to present-day viewers. I often get defensive about favourite old films, especially when watching them in the company of a viewer who’s been weaned on modern cinema and is liable to find them quaint, but I’ve never had this problem with Wilder’s movies.
His acerbic, always-literate screenplays (full of throwaway gems that you’ll miss on a first viewing) are key to this effect; their observations on the celebrity machinery, the dangerous side of the media, the compromises of modern living and Coca-Cola (!) seem just as relevant today as ever. [Watching the media circus that developed around Prince, the little boy trapped in a well near Kurukshetra a few weeks ago, I thought instantly of Wilder’s 1951 script for An Ace in the Hole, about a reporter who exploits a tourist guide’s cave accident.]
So engaging are Wilder’s screenplays that it’s easy to forget he was just as assured a director as a writer. His visual sense is demonstrated in the opening sequence of Some Like it Hot, wherein poker-faced gangsters and determined-looking policemen spray bullets at each other during a madcap car chase. When it’s all over, the title card “Chicago, 1929” appears over a shot of liquor bottles being smuggled in a coffin; it’s Prohibition time, and this entirely wordless sequence by a master wordsmith is a great establishing scene – capturing in just a few economical shots everything that one associates with a particular time and milieu.
Shortly after this, the words do flow, and how! The plot involves two jazz musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), who witness a gangland massacre and escape by pretending to be part of an all-girl band headed for Florida. On the train is the alluring but ditzy Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), and soon a comedy/romance of errors commences. Meanwhile the gangsters, led by “Spats” (the veteran George Raft) are still hot in pursuit.
Given that Some Like it Hot is the definitive cross-dressing comedy – a genre that lends itself to low humour – it’s remarkable how sophisticated it is compared to the other films that followed in its wake. There are elements of slapstick as well as some risqué humour (“Get a load of that rhythm section!” exclaims Jerry as a scantily dressed band member prances by), but nothing that’s embarrassingly over the top. The laugh-out-loud moments have dissipated over the years, but the fine one-liners (or two-worders, as you’ll see right at the end of the movie) and sight gags (a hot water bottle used as a cocktail mixer; a gun hidden in a golf bag) still hold up well.
The comedy goes hand in hand with meaningful character growth, especially in the way Joe and Jerry gradually get in touch with their feminine sides. Anyone who’s only watched Jack Lemmon in post-1970 films associates him with careworn, self-analytical characters in heavy-duty dramatic films such as Save the Tiger, The China Syndrome and Missing. Some Like it Hot is a reminder of what a brilliant, warm comedian he was in the early days. In this performance you can see how much fun Jerry seems to be having as a woman after the initial discomfort; you can understand why the millionaire Osgood Fielding III (a superb supporting performance by the broad-faced Joe E Brown) falls in love with him. (Whenever I look at the standard movie poster of this film, with the three leads on it, my eye is instantly drawn to Lemmon’s warm smile.)
Also note the gradual development of the romance between Sugar and Joe (who begins the film as a sexist cad), and how Monroe gamely allows herself to look undignified in some scenes without sacrificing that famous mix of sexiness and vulnerability. This role was a big stepping stone in her attempt to be taken seriously as an actress, though unfortunately for her there’s so much else of note in the film that she is quickly overshadowed. Sugar’s crooning of “I Wanna Be Loved By You” and her final, tender reconciliation with Joe at the end of another song are moments that could have elevated any film to classic status. In this case, they are just two high points in a movie packed with them.
[Did an edited version of this for the New Sunday Express. Some previous posts on classic films: Strangers on a Train, Yojimbo, M*A*S*H, 8 1/2, Spartacus, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Twelve Angry Men, Peeping Tom, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Duck Soup]