Sunday, August 27, 2006

Film classics: Some Like it Hot

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]


  1. It's a lovely movie, isn't it? It's my personal favorite of Billy Wilder's movies (with Double Indemnity). Three years back in San Francisco I had seen a musical version with Tony Curtis in the Joe E. Brown role.

    Last week at our local revival house I saw another of Wilder's movies, the comparatively little known "Love In The Afternoon" with Audrey Hepburn & Gary Cooper. In it Hepburn is a teenager & Cooper a much (much!) older playboy. It was a very risque subject, & Wilder plays it for all it's worth. The movie was very funny, though when they kiss for the first time you do get a little uneasy - there is a 28 year difference in their ages. But I admire how Wilder takes these sexually ambiguous/ promiscuous/ adventerous subject matters (LitA, SLiH, Apartment, Irma La Douce, Seven year Itch, Sabrina etc.) & makes totally un-American big studio Hollywood films. Last week I also watched Ernst Lubitsch's "Heaven can Wait" (it was a good week :-)), & Wilder seems to have been very influenced by Lubitsch. They both bring a very refined European sensibility in their movies, & Wilder had written two of Lubitsch's movies, including the excellent Ninotchka. My only complaint against Wilder is that being such a great writer himself (& having people like Charles Brackett & IAL Diamond as collaborators) his movies sound much better than they look. Sunset Boulevard & Double Indemnity are two worthy exceptions, & on both he had the great John Seitz as his cinematographer.

  2. Jai: Ah, Wilder. Agree, agree. What's always amazed me about Wilder is that he managed to make some seriously hilarious movies but also some incredible serious ones - The Lost Weekend and Witness for the Prosecution being the two that spring to mind that you don't mention. Incredible stuff.

    Also agree with you about Lemmon, of course. Somehow, Lemmon is the actor I most closely associate with Wilder (with William Holden being a close second), rather as one associates Gunnar Bjornstrand with Bergman - Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Irma La Douce, Avanti - it's an impressive list.

    tipu: Have you seen 'Kiss me, Stupid'. You might enjoy it.

  3. Yes, I agree about Jack Lemmon in this film, he was just so good. On the other had Tony Curtis was embarrassingly bad, especially whenever he tried to do some sort of an English accent, of course we had to know it was fake, but it was bad fake!
    I haven't seen it for years but whenever I read your reviews it makes me want to go and see the films again to pick out everything I missed the first time round.

  4. Deborah: I didn't think Curtis was embarrassingly bad, but it's true that his performance hasn't dated too well. That "English accent" was actually meant to be a parody of Cary Grant - a Hollywood inside joke of sorts (imitating Grant being the only way a man could hope to get Marilyn Monroe coming on to him). It's a pretty decent imitation on its own terms, but for a modern-day viewer who doesn't know the context, it just seems irritating and overblown.

  5. Tipu: Some god points there about Wilder and Lubitsch - and, by extension, the "outsiders" who worked in Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s. They brought a very different mood to the films - you can see that in the work of Fritz Lang and Hitchcock too, though they worked in different genres. I saw Love in the Afternoon a very long time ago.

  6. On the 'outsiders' in Hollywood, isn't it amazing that some of the most archetypical American movies are made by emigres from Europe - Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Adventures Of Robin Hood), Fred Zinneman (Oklahoma, High Noon), Hitchcock, Fritz Lang (Fury) etc. Back in Calcutta in the 80s when I was growing up strange (as in, unusual) books would sometimes pop up in the bookstores, & one of them was John Russell Taylor's "Strangers in Paradise: The Hollywood Emigres 1933-1950". It covered this ground, & I was fascinated by it, & many years later when I moved to the US myself it gave me a nice frame of reference &, I dare say, some confidence :-) JRT had also written a book on Hitchcock. Similarly, Emeric Pressburger also got the 'English spirit' down pat in UK around the same time.

    Re. Tony Curtis - he was a ham, but Wilder actually made him look better than he is. And that Cary Grant imitation was spot on!

    Falstaff - shall try & see Kiss Me, Stupid. The movie had flopped, if I recall, & started Wilder's slide. perhaps Kiss Me, Deadly or Kiss Me, Kate could be better choices? Or even Kiss Kiss Bang bang, which is sitting at home patiently by the DVD player? But 'nuff said, shall try not to give this kiss a miss :-)

  7. Tipu: in contemporary literature there are similar instances - notably the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, who moved with his family from Japan to England at the age of six, and whose books capture a certain genteel "Englishness" that belongs more to the past than the present. Despite being veddy British in every way (other than his features), he often admits in interviews to having felt like an alien as a child, and consequently having perfected the mannerisms that were thought to be archetypally English.

  8. Some Like It Hot

  9. Regarding the first para:
    I see no reason to be defensive about "over-sentimentality" in the classics while discussing them with viewers weaned on "modern cinema".

    I must admit at the outset that my exposure to contemporary cinema is rather limited. I started watching films only a couple of years ago and have mostly confined myself to old classics. However, going by the handful of post 90s films I've seen, I find the best films of the 30s and 40s to be a lot more sophisticated, lean and compact than several modern favourites.

    For instance, popular films like Schindler's List and Forrest Gump are very sentimental, melodramatic, unsubtle and simplistic among other things. Yet, modern audiences love these films.

    I can't quite figure out somebody who says he loves Forrest Gump, but finds The Shop around the Corner quiant and sentimental.