Tuesday, November 12, 2013

cinema obscura: Billy Wilder's "Fedora" (1978)

Billy Wilder remained a vital, prolific filmmaker, while many of his contemporaries were slowing down with only an occasional film.

But Wilder kept churning out title after title, particularly in the 1950s and '60s. In 1957, for example, he was actually able to produce a wildly diverse trio - "Love in the Afternoon," "The Spirit of St. Louis" and "Witness for the Prosecution." Whew.

But after "The Fortune Cookie" in 1966, he abruptly pulled back. It was four years later when he returned with the troubled but appealing "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes," followed another two years by "Avanti!," a sophisticated but clearly middle-aged entertainment. Yes, he was beginning to slow down, too, and would make only three more films, two of them rather lethargic Lemmon-Matthau teamings, "The Front Page" and "Buddy Buddy," the latter being Wilder's final film.

But sandwiched in-between was the compelling"Fedora" (1978), an attempt by Wilder to return to form. More accurately, it was a companion piece to his triumphant "Sunset Blvd." (1950), replete with the same leading man - William Holden. It was nearly 30 years later and Wilder and, to a degree, Holden were out to prove that they still had it in them to make a seminal, influential movie about the filmmaking process. Only this time, the pervasive eerieness of the material wasn't simple camp.

"Fedora" is genuinely eerie. Actually, it's downright creepy.

Once again, Holden plays a washed-up movie opportunist hoping to nudge a retired, reclusive actress - the Polish Fedora - toward a comeback with his new version of "Anna Karenina." But something is amiss, strange.

And when Fedora dies suddenly, after jumping in front of a moving train, Holden attempts to ferret out the ... "truth." That word comes with ominous underpinings. "Fedora" is an atmospheric, chilly affair, not quite as companionable as "Sunset Blvd.," and while Wilder opted for color cinematography (courtesy of Gerry Fisher's painterly hues) rather than black-&-white, he conjurs up dreamy shadow imagery that efficiently distills his film's disturbing themes. (A French-German co-production, "Fedora" is essentially the European sibling of "Sunset Blvd.")

The film's Big Secret, concocted by Tom Tryon (the late film-actor-turned-writer) for a short story in his 1978 collection, "Crowned Heads," remains provocative, and Wilder surrounded Holden with both a top international cast - Marthe Keller (pictured above with Holden), Hildegard Kneff, Stephen Collins, José Ferrer, Frances Sternhagen, Henry Fonda, Mario Adorf (below with Holden), Arlene Francis and Michael York - and a fabulous setting, the Greek Island of Corfu.

For the occasion, the director adapted Tryon's story in collaboration with his long-time writing partner, I.A.L. "Izzy" Diamond, and these vets make it clear that they are striving not for the modernity of the other films at the time but for something ageless. Again, not unlike "Sunset Blvd."

Their efforts here almost matched their previous projects. Almost.

Note in Passing: In his book, "Conversations with Wilder," Cameron Crowe writes, "Wilder is quick to point out that his original casting plan would have served the picture better." I believe, if my recollections are correct, that his original plan was to cast Vanessa Redgrave and her mother Rachel Kempson is the roles ultimately played by Keller and Kneff.


Mike said...

Enjoyed this article very much. Tracking down "Fedora"(bwhich I've tried for years) has proven to be elusive. It's the dereliction of the home-entertainment arms of the studios that move present-day cinephiles to distraction. I agree with twentyfourframes - this film should be on DVD.

Steve said...

The film is available on a Spanish DVD release. The picture and sound quality are good. It contains the original English version along with a dubbed Spanish version. There are Spanish subtitles available as well but unfortunately no English subtitles. I don't know if this DVD is an edited chopped version of Fedora but this Wilder film is far from a masterpiece. What is wonderful about this Billy Wilder film is its score, the music by Miklos Rozsa. I don't believe it is represented here in full vs. the Varese album release.

Alex said...

I am dismayed this film is still not on DVD. I watched it years ago on a rented VHS copy and was pleasantly surprised. Wilder still had that acidic touch he was so known for. Hard to believe Wilder could not get a film made during the last 20 years of his life.

Robert G. said...

I saw this ages ago, I believe on HBO. Very provocative, and one would like to think that a film by a director as revered and well-remembered as Wilder would warrant a fresh release (or at least a Netflix stream). Probably some kind of of pain-in-the-butt rights issue is involved.

Ari said...

This sentence struck me: "[W]hen Fedora dies suddenly, after jumping in front of a moving train, Holden attempts to ferret out the ... "truth." That word comes with ominous underpinings. "Fedora" is an atmospheric, chilly affair[.]

That description could easily apply to a number of notable movies from the 1970s - The Conversation, The Parallax View, and All the President's Men come to mind immediately as examples. In that sense, it's interesting to think how Wilder managed to remain in touch with the mood of the moment, even into the late 1970s.

a.n. said...

The original casting plans for FEDORA were to have Marlene Dietrich and Faye Dunaway; Dunaway was actually signed, but when Dietrich refused (the part was a woman who becomes a recluse after a botched plastic surgery job; Dietrich had stopped appearing in public, reputedly for that very reason), Dunaway was gone.

joe baltake said...

Thanks for the heads up and the fascinating update, a.n.