It’s no surprise that Billy Wilder was a vigorous raconteur. Dialogue was always central to his art, and indeed, in Billy Wilder Speaks, the late Austrian auteur says that he decided to don the director’s cap primarily as a way of protecting his screenplays from tinkering by other filmmakers. What is surprising, for all of Wilder’s puckish volubility, is how slight this series of interviews feels, providing bite-sized movie-buffish info but little insight and even less of the intergenerational portrait and “aural history of the movie business” promised by interviewer Volker Schlöndorff. Conducted during the late ‘80s on condition it be shown only after Wilder’s death, the film finds the 83-year-old director in fine form, casually switching from English to German while regaling the camera with anecdotes on the studio system, the rhythms of comedy, and his leading ladies (asides include Marlene Dietrich’s yen for Von Sternberg-cultivated lighting and Marilyn Monroe’s line-flubbing stress). Throughout the choppy segments (assembled from the much longer, made-for-German-TV original), Wilder remains a triumphantly prickly presence, yet so much of his life and work is left out—his shift from UFA to Paramount, with an alleged Berlin stop for gigolo duties, is discarded with a single line of narration—that the film feels as wispy a project as Cameron Crowe’s softball book with Wilder in the mid-‘90s. Still, the paradigms inherent in Wilder’s work remain fascinatingly palpable in Wilder the man, an old-school professional who valued his visual frugality while relishing indelible shots in Sunset Blvd. and Some Like It Hot and steadfastly refused to place his own personality above the story but poured his obsessions into every harsh gag and bittersweet ending. Wilder demurs with a joke when Schlöndorff dubs him a moralist, yet Holocaust footage locates the haunted gravity stashed under Wilder’s flip misanthropy, a giddy-sardonic morality that infuses his dramas, comedies, and even slim interview sessions.
The image quality wavers: interview footage offers a variety of faded tones, but movie footage remains sharp and clean. The sound is a bit better, though subtitles struggle to keep up with Wilder's energetic language-hopping.
Snippets from additional interview footage are frustratingly skimpy (only 40 seconds for Ace in the Hole, and no sign of Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), though an essay by Schlöndorff sheds some light on the project. Most fun is a nearly complete gallery of Wilder trailers, which taken together suggest the smarmiest filmography of all time.
A surprisingly thin session, but, when Billy Wilder Speaks, cinephiles nevertheless should listen.