Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, based on the play “L’Ora della Fantasia” by Anna Bonacci
Stars: Kim Novak, Dean Martin, Ray Walston, Felicia Farr, Cliff Osmond
The Story: When the famous singer “Dino” passes through the tiny town of Climax, Nevada, two would-be songwriters decide to keep him there long enough to hear their work. At first, Walston is afraid that Dino will want to steal his wife, but they decide to hire the town hooker to pose as his wife, so that Dino can have his way with her. If you think it can’t get any more dirty-minded than that, you’d be very wrong.
How it Came to be Underrated: This is what career suicide looks like. Wilder (like Hitchcock and Michael Powell) spent the ‘50s pushing the boundaries of propriety, but gradually lost his audience when standards started to loosen faster than he could push them. This was Wilder’s attempt to get back out in front and obliterate the line entirely. Instead, it destroyed his reputation, which isn’t hard to understand. It’s great, but this material would have been too dirty for 1974, but less ten years earlier!
Why It’s Great:
- Wilder wanted the songs the characters wrote to be awful, so he asked Ira Gershwin if he and his late brother George had ever written any songs they weren’t proud of. Ira handed over all their stinkers, like “I’m A Poached Egg”, and Wilder loved them. It’s just a shame that we never actually get to hear to the lyrics to “I’m Taking Mom to the Junior Prom Because She’s a Better Twister Than My Sister”
- Can we talk about how daring Dean Martin is here? To play any character this callous and depraved is brave, but to do it as himself— using his real nickname, doing his own act, name-checking his real friends, then demanding another character’s wife in tribute as if he were the bad guy in Braveheart?? This was one ego-less actor! He twists his persona into something so casually monstrous that it’s terrifying. You can’t get your jaw off the floor as you watch it.
- But this is Novak’s movie. She’s funny, sexy as heartbreaking, giving the movie a surprising amount of heart and soul. Her performance couldn’t be more different than her equally great work in Vertigo, even though the roles are bizarrely similar: In both movies, a man hires her to impersonate his wife and then seduce another man!
- Peter Sellers was supposed to play Walston’s part, but he showed up on set and immediately had a heart attack. Walston does a great job in a rare leading role, but it’s hard not to imagine what could have been.
- Felicia Farr had just married Jack Lemmon at the time and she now survives him after a long, happy marriage. She didn’t make a lot of movies, which is a shame, because she’s really wonderful here. Novak steals the show as the bawdy hooker with a heart of gold, but Farr arguably has the tougher job of being perfectly sweet and likable even after she turns out to be just as deliriously dirty-minded as the rest of them.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Like most of Wilder’s later movies, the biggest flaw here is that it’s overlong. But Wilder was just as funny as ever if you’re will to forgive the slack pacing. The two movies he made before this are similarly overlong but still underrated: Irma La Douce and One Two Three.
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD, which has a lone special feature: a much cleaner ending. They don’t explain whether Wilder was forced to shoot it, then discarded it, or whether it was his idea in a moment of panic. For better or worse, he stuck to his guns.
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