'He's a clever, lively director whose work lacks feeling or passion or grace or elegance.' This is Pauline Kael on Billy Wilder's One Two Three (1961). Wilder himself seems to agree about this film. 'It's a kind of sporadically good picture.' And: 'It was not funny. But just the speed was funny.' Of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) he says, rather more fondly, that it was 'a wonderful picture, too long', and that it was 'the most elegant picture I've ever shot. I don't shoot elegant pictures. Mr Vincente Minnelli, he shot elegant pictures.'
There is a reply to Pauline Kael lurking in these phrases, although Wilder insists that he doesn't want to reply to her. 'I like Pauline Kael. She never had a good word to say about my pictures. Maybe a little bit . . . Sunset Boulevard. But she was more often right than wrong, and she was always very positive about what she thought was bad.' But can we really say that Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), A Foreign Affair (1948), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960) lack feeling or passion or grace or elegance? Or better, if they lack those things, what have they got? To say nothing, as Wilder would rather we said nothing, about Irma La Douce (1963), Kiss Me Stupid (1964), The Fortune Cookie (1966), Avanti! (1972) and Buddy Buddy (1981).
LRB 2 March 2000 | PDF Download