Dissolves in Time
In the diaries of Charles Brackett (1892-1969), Billy Wilder’s first major Hollywood collaborator, we discover much – even if cryptically notated – about the art and craft of screenwriting. For instance, Brackett frequently refers to how he and Wilder would rework scenes over and over, in a process he calls “three-dimentionalization” [sic]. Above all, Brackett worried over what he enigmatically called the dissolves in any filmic storyline. He didn’t mean literal, visual, on-screen dissolves; I suspect he was referring to any unwieldy hole or ellipsis in a plot where something needed to be skipped, but still had to be somehow explained, accounted for. The more direct, linear and un-holey a screenplay could be, the better for Brackett.
But Wilder – who parted company with Brackett in 1950 after their mutual success on Sunset Boulevard – went in a radically different direction. He never lost sight of the solid craft lessons (about story structure, point-of-view, the repetition and interweaving of motifs) he had forged with his former collaborator. But for Wilder, what we might call, in the broadest sense, the dissolves of a story – the pauses, the temps morts, the reflective moments, the detours from the narrative’s strict line, the looping-back before moving-forward – become all-important, the very core of both the meaning and the emotion in his work.
It is this trait of the dissolve that, in a subterranean way, allies Wilder – although he may not, in his lifetime (he died in 2002), have approved of the comparison – with the modern, especially European cinema of the 1960s and ‘70s. And Fedora – which has been, for over four decades, a bone of contention between no-nonsense reviewers (like Roger Ebert) and more indulgent cinephiles – is, without a doubt, his most profoundly European film.
Here, for example, is a plot-dissolve worthy of François Truffaut at his most melancholic. In the lobby of a hotel in Corfu, the independent movie producer Barry (William Holden) handwrites a letter to a former Hollywood star, the now reclusive Fedora (Marthe Keller), with whom he is having trouble getting in contact. He plays the sentimental memory card, recalling a one-night affair they shared (in his car) on Santa Monica beach during the making of Leda and the Swan in 1947. (Just as Wilder creatively cheats by placing the private Greek island of Madouri inside Corfu, he also gets away with using Nat King Cole’s 1954 version of “Tenderly” to accompany this flashback.) However, reaching the end of his story, Barry grimaces, tears up the letter, and resigns himself to sending a brief, business-like request instead. The plot has moved nowhere, the moment has been instantly erased – and yet the film has communicated so much that is vital not only to its backstory, but also its deepest themes. Wilder’s art is made of such parentheses and digressions.
It is easy for any film lover to plunge Fedora back into the rich Hollywood history that clearly informs it – invoking, along the way, those treasured critical notions of the testament work or an artist’s late style. The legend accompanying the film’s genesis relates that Wilder even dreamed of casting Greta Garbo in a spooky comeback apparition, and that Marlene Dietrich violently turned down the crucial role of the elderly, wheelchair-bound Countess Sobryanski which was eventually played so memorably by Hildegard Knef. (Can we hear some affectionate echo of Dietrich’s real-life refusal in the Countess’s most acidic lines, such as her description of the Oscar statuette as “just another knick-knack that needs dusting”?) But we should be wary of locking Fedora up in that box of Old Hollywood memories.
Wilder in 1978 (then 72 years old) was certainly not consciously thinking of testaments or final gestures; he strove to make the most modern, exciting, entertaining film that he could. He even resisted casting William Holden because he feared the prospect of endless, inevitable comparisons between Sunset Boulevard and Fedora. In the event, the presence of Holden serves as a fascinating index of Wilder’s attitude toward his material. Aged 60 at the time of shooting, Holden may be craggily wrinkled – the director proudly claimed he was the only star of his generation who had not yet undergone a facelift! – but he exhibits a rugged, vital physicality that puts, say, Robert De Niro in The Irishman (2019) to shame. No, it just won’t do to place Fedora wholly and exclusively under the Sign of Saturn.
For what would turn out to be his penultimate work, Wilder grabbed onto a popular-literary source of the mid ‘70s, Thomas Tryon’s suite of interconnected stories gathered under the title Crowned Heads – although, as Brackett had already wryly noted back in 1942, “his idea of doing a book is to change it completely”. Wilder and his producer-writer collaborator I.A.L. Diamond (1920-1988) freely used the narrative premise of the “Fedora” novella and adapted certain of its most colourful details (the journalist-hero – not a film producer – in Tryon’s text tells the “wetting pants” tale that, in the film, is more effectively handed to Michael York, playing himself); as well as certain motifs that, if anything, Tryon handled too obviously and heavily: time, faces, mirrors, masks.
Fedora was a project that hurled Wilder and Diamond out of America and, specifically, the bosom of Universal Pictures; although United Artists finally came back on board as a (somewhat indifferent) distributor, Fedora was a fully European production, financed through Germany and France. An indication of its transatlantic character is the multiple voice-tracks it possesses in its various national incarnations: when Wilder became dismayed at the evident non-suture of Keller’s and Knef’s voices, he brought in Inga Bunsch (from The Happy Hooker, 1975) to dub them both for the English-language version, while using Keller for the French and Knef for the German versions. But a single voice, whatever the tongue, underlines the ghostly, spectral effect of the film’s switching, blurring and melding of times and identities: mother and daughter, past and present, European by birth and cosmopolitan by destiny …
It’s far more productive to situate Fedora within the heady and very mixed European cinema context of the 1970s than to see it as simply a Hollywood fable – it has more in common, on this level, with Vincente Minnelli’s contemporaneous A Matter of Time (1976, Italy/USA co-production based on Maurice Druon’s French novel The Film of Memory) than the later Mulholland Drive (2001) with which it is sometimes cross-referenced. The key credits alone are eloquent on this score. The great composer Miklós Rózsa (no stranger to Wilder’s filmography) came to it after scoring Alain Resnais’ English-language project Providence (1977). Cinematographer Gerry Fisher had worked extensively with Joseph Losey, a filmmaker already well acquainted with the patchwork casts and crews of European co-production. Celebrated production designer Alexandre Trauner had, beyond his previous collaborations with Wilder, also enhanced the look of transnational films by Losey, Jules Dassin and John Frankenheimer.
Most remarkably for Wilder, within the film itself we find a carefully controlled veering of tone toward the registers of horror and the grotesque – even giallo. A key moment recalls Georges Franju’s immortal Eyes Without a Face (1960). And the superbly histrionic mise en scène of hysterical outbursts (at one point involving four bodies all going wild in the same frame) – not to mention the surplus profusion of gaudy flowers and laurel wreathes at Fedora’s funeral – evokes Rainer Werner Fassbinder, anticipating in particular Veronika Voss (1982). Oh, and who is that gaunt-looking fellow who drives Fedora’s car and bars Barry’s way at every turn? Why, it’s that unmistakeable Fassbinder regular, Gottfried John!
Even at a more nostalgic level of movie lore, the presence of Hildegard Knef is an especially potent and usually overlooked element in Fedora’s brew. She, too, created her own nude scene scandal in the German cinema of the 1950s; she had known Dietrich as a friend in the 1960s and even once portrayed her; and her own considerable stage success came from re-interpreting Garbo’s famous role in Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939)! In fact, we could state that, in Fedora, Wilder – not for the first time in his career – found a way to re-weave the cultural roots of an entire émigré culture back into Hollywood mythology, while updating that survey for a new, changed world.
From its sudden, shock opening – a woman throwing herself before a train (which is an obvious special effect, but no less effective for that blatant artificiality) as an off-screen voice cries “Fedora!”, an image that then impossibly freezes as if it is candid-camera footage on the nightly news, accompanied by the flat statement “Fedora is dead” – Wilder gaily plays the allusive, reflexive, mise en abyme games we know well from 1960s art cinema.
Fedora’s suicide gesture mirrors that of Anna Karenina – and Barry has adapted Tolstoy’s eponymous novel as his latest project. There are, likewise, assorted echoes in Fedora’s story of those mythic female figures she once incarnated on screen (as we learn literally within the film’s first 60 seconds): Madame Bovary, Joan of Arc, Lola Montès. The Countess sits underneath an ostentatious “mother and son” portrait (commissioned during what she will only refer to as the “Great War”, because “we didn’t use numbers in those days”) – which is itself an oddity worthy of Raúl Ruiz, since it is an inventive pastiche (within Trauner’s remarkable set design) of Vittorio Corcos’ 1896 painting “Dreams” (I thank Yves Cantraine for identifying this source), with a little boy from another Corcos work (“The Moschini Family”) seemingly woven in. Not only is that title “Dreams” pertinent, but also the fact that Corcos was once a portraitist for Mussolini finds its echo in the past client list of Dr Vando (a delightful, earring-wearing José Ferrer): Coco Chanel, J. Paul Getty and … Generalissimo Franco!
The intricate narrative structure of Wilder’s films is something than can be endlessly studied – although few of his self-proclaimed acolytes (including Cameron Crowe, Amy Heckerling and Pedro Almodóvar) have ever managed to fully or successfully imitate it in all its multi-levelled detail. In its deliberate scattering of periods, storytellers and layered revelations, Fedora is the most baroque syuzhet ever concocted by Wilder and Diamond. Like Vertigo (1958) or The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), it falls into two neat but asymmetrical halves. The first half rests on one long flashback (with its own embedded flashback, the written letter described above) from Barry’s viewpoint, and (as the French say) it buckles its buckle at the point where it returns to Fedora’s funeral. Dead heroine, wised-up investigator, a gang of blameworthy villains – surely it’s all sorted out by now? But there is much, much more to come.
The more that Fedora, now hopping from one narrator to another, churns through the complexities of the Sobryanski clan’s past – with its veritable enfant secret, its tidily dispatched grandmother, its well-resourced private doctor, and an eternally stern and forbidding minder (Frances Sternhagen as Miss Balfour) – the more it raises difficult ethical questions. Wilder never lingers on these issues unduly, but he does make sure they register in our minds. Is Barry himself to blame for precipitating Fedora’s death? Was Fedora ever fit for any kind of motherhood? What about the passive complicity of the Count (Hans Jaray) in all this? Some commentators disapprove of what they take to be Wilder’s unambiguously facile jokes at the expense of the laissez-faire, New Hollywood of the 1970s – yet, while the Countess may disparage the ugly, realist aesthetic of “cinéma-vérité” and wax lyrical about the “glamour” of yesteryear, she also expresses regret over not having lived her prime years in a modern age when having a child out of wedlock is no longer cause for public, hypocritical, moral scandal.
In fact, glamour hardly comes easy in Fedora – even back in the Hollywood studio heyday, Fedora has to endure the demeaning labour of a minor assistant (the young Barry played by Stephen Collins) yawning over her naked body and unfussily throwing wet leaves at her breasts. As the critic-director Danièle Dubroux wrote in Cahiers du cinéma at the time of the film’s release, this code of glamour is about not only manufacturing beauty, but also hiding human flaws under a perpetually “tense” surface – literally drawn tense in the case of cosmetic surgery.
Dubroux notes that when Henry Fonda makes his charming cameo in Greece as President of the Academy, what he seems to be admiring is not Fedora as herself (since she is really not, at that point, herself!), eternally young, but rather all the tricks and signs of concealment: sunglasses, large hat, the fading sunlight that casts a misty sheen over the image in Fisher’s cinematography (evoking, in such watery shots, a sunlit version of Arnold Böcklin’s 1880s paintings of the Isle of the Dead, a pictorial allusion that Wilder wanted to take further until budgetary limitations prevented him). When Fedora remarks, at the end of their ceremonial conversation, “They don’t make women’s pictures anymore”, Fonda’s envoi is: “Because they don’t make women like you anymore”.
Wilder was a genius at a certain flavour of tough, tortured sentimentality, both poignant and harsh at the same time. This has much to do with the 20th century history he lived through, alongside the showbiz dreams that he fastidiously pursued. Only Wilder would have made the crack, in relation to Fedora’s transnational status and his own mixed identity as a director, that “if the film is a success, that’s my revenge against Hollywood; and if it’s a financial disaster, it’s my revenge for Auschwitz”!
Another of the time dissolves in Wilder’s work takes the narrative form of returned, sometimes unopened gifts. Early in Fedora, Barry finds that his script for The Snows of Yesteryear keeps bouncing back to him, unread by the person for whom it is intended. When we first encounter this, it can seem like a simple running gag, on a level with some other sidelong, comic relief, bits of business such as the wide-eyed double-takes of the hotel manager (Mario Adorf). But then, in the film’s very final moments, the motif returns, and it is unexpectedly poignant. Who but Billy Wilder can wrench melancholic emotion from the plot device of a promised “electrified blanket”?
© Adrian Martin April 2020