Billy Wilder

22 June 1906 - 27 March 2002

Richard Armstrong


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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Billy Wilder in action.Billy Wilder, who has died aged 95, directed his first Hollywood film in 1942. Since then he has co-written, directed and produced some of the most astute American comedies of the last fifty years. To many he was an innovator, introducing moral realism to simplistic Hollywood scenarios. To others he was a cynic, introducing vulgarity under the guise of ‘European’ sophistication. To some he was a narrator of the modern conscience. But if irresistible narrative drive is what we remember of such as Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and Some Like it Hot, occasionally Wilder allowed his characters a little dead time to reflect on this compromised life.

In the following scene from The Apartment, Bud Baxter has just found out that the woman he loves is being seduced by his boss in his apartment. And there is nothing he can do about it.  For its forlorn portrait of sexual relations, the scene speaks to men and women everywhere.
 

Scene 87: INTERIOR CHEAP BAR - COLUMBUS AVENUE IN THE SIXTIES - EVENING

It is six o’clock, and the joint is crowded with customers having one for the road before joining their families for Christmas Eve. There are men with gaily wrapped packages, small trussed-up Christmas trees, a plucked turkey in a plastic bag. Written across the mirror behind the bar, in glittering white letters, is HAPPY HOLIDAYS. Everybody is in high spirits, laughing it up and toasting each other.

Everybody except Bud Baxter. He is standing at the bar in his chesterfield and bowler, slightly isolated, brooding over an almost empty martini glass. The bartender comes up, sets down a fresh martini with an olive on a toothpick, takes his payment from a pile of bills and coins lying in front of Bud. Bud fishes out the olive, adds it to half a dozen other impaled olives neatly arranged in fan shape on the counter. He is obviously trying to complete the circle.

A short, rotund man dressed as Santa Claus hurries in from the street, and comes up to the bar beside Bud.

SANTA CLAUS (to bartender): Hey, Charlie - give me a shot of bourbon - and step on it - my sleigh is double parked.

He laughs uproariously at his own joke, nudges Bud with his elbow. Bud stares at him coldly, turns back to his martini. The laughter dies in Santa Claus’ throat. He gets his shot of bourbon, moves down the bar to find more convivial company.

Standing near the end of the curved bar is a girl in her middle twenties wearing a ratty fur coat. Her name is MARGIE MacDOUGALL, she is drinking a Rum Collins through a straw, and she too is alone. From a distance, she is studying Bud with interest. On the bar in front of her is a container of straws in paper wrappers. She takes one of them out, tears off the end of the paper, blows through the straw - sending the wrapper floating toward Bud. The paper wrapper passes right in front of Bud’s nose. He doesn’t notice it. Margie, undaunted, let’s go with another missile. This time the wrapper lands on the brim of Bud’s bowler. No reaction. Another wrapper comes floating in, hits Bud’s cheek. He never takes his eye off his martini.

Margie leaves her place, and carrying her handbag and her empty glass, comes up alongside Bud. Without a word, she reaches up and removes the wrapper from Bud’s bowler.

MARGIE: You buy me a drink, I’ll buy you some music. (sets the glass down) Rum Collins. Not waiting for an answer, she heads for the juke box. Bud looks after her noncommittally, then turns to the bartender.

BUD: Rum Collins. (indicating martini glass) And another one of these little mothers.
At the juke box, Margie has dropped a coin in and made her selection. The music starts - ADESTE FIDELIS. She rejoins Bud at the bar just as the bartender is putting down their drinks in front of them. Bud removes the new olive, adds it to the pattern on the counter in front of him. They both drink, staring straight ahead. For quite a while, there is complete silence between them.

MARGIE (out of nowhere): You like Castro? (a blank look from Bud) I mean - how do you feel about Castro?

BUD: What is Castro?

MARGIE: You know, that big-shot down in Cuba - with the crazy beard.

BUD: What about him?

MARGIE: Because as far as I’m concerned, he’s a no good fink. Two weeks ago I wrote him a letter - never even answered me.

BUD: That so.

MARGIE: All I wanted him to do was let Mickey out for Christmas.

BUD: Who is Mickey?

MARGIE: My husband. He’s in Havana - in jail.

BUD: Oh. Mixed up in that revolution?

MARGIE: Mickey? He wouldn’t do nothing like that. He’s a jockey. They caught him doping a horse.

BUD: Well, you can’t win ‘em all.

They sit there silently for a moment, contemplating the injustices of the world.

MARGIE (to herself):
‘Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring - 
Nothing -
No action -
Dullsville!
(drinks; to Bud) You married?

BUD: No.

MARGIE: Family?

BUD: No.

MARGIE: A night like this, it sort of spooks you to walk into an empty apartment.

BUD: I said I had no family - I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

They both drink.
 

Extracted from: The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie: Two Screenplays by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, Studio Vista Books, 1966.
 
 
 
 
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