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Study of an Author: “Never Bore”: Billy Wilder as Auteur

ENGL 292.601

Perhaps because his films were so popular and his signature was by design subtle, writer-producer-director Billy Wilder has generally been overlooked in discussions about great directors.  Wilder was infuriated by distinctive stylists such as Hitchcock, whom he dismissed as a modernist.  Instead, he made “invisible narratives,” seamless stories with superb dialogue and skillfully crafted plots.  He aimed to enthrall his audiences, drawing them into the story so much that they became all but unaware that they were watching a film. Yet despite his insistence upon movies as entertainment, Wilder’s films reflect a powerful drive to instruct that Wilder occasionally if obliquely acknowledged:  “If you're going to tell people the truth, be funny or they'll kill you,” he once remarked.  His mantra was, “Never bore.”  He explicitly wrote and directed for “the masses,” resulting in a remarkable range of popular, well-crafted films.  His comedies typically appear at the top rank of American cinema:  Some Like It Hot, Seven Year Itch, The Apartment, and Stalag 17 (basis for the popular TV show, Hogan’s Heroes).  His brooding melodramas were equally successful, such as Sunset Boulevard, a critique of Hollywood, and Lost Weekend, which brought the problem of alcoholism to the screen and into American conversation.  His brilliant Double Indemnity  is regarded by some as launching the genre of film noir.   Initially a screenwriter, Wilder’s brilliant screenplays and directing of actors enabled him to work with most of Hollywood’s greatest from 1930s to the 1980s.  This course will explore Wilder’s work from a range of perspectives—farce, melodrama, social commitment, noir—and trace, as we do, a history of American cinema and the role of this German exile in shaping it.     

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