Friday, May 20, 2011
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, Robert Thoeren, Michael Logan
Photography: Charles Lang
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Editor: Arthur P. Schmidt
Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, George Raft, Pat O'Brien, Joe E. Brown
I fully intended coming into this complaining—and I will say, and stick to it, that I think it's one of the stranger artifacts of the critical consensus that this gets pushed to the head of the Billy Wilder line when Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity, and The Apartment—at the very least—deserve places well ahead of it. I was going to complain, but then a funny thing happened. I watched it again.
Maybe Some Like it Hot is one of those films that depend on being in the right mood for it, which I know is a certain kind of indictment and at best damning with faint praise. I have seen this and liked it—those occasions are almost always unplanned, stumbling onto it on a TV broadcast. And I have more often seen it and been underwhelmed. In many ways it fits the sensibilities of TV better, as a kind of situation comedy of errors full of characters bent on deceiving and manipulating one another, often for no particular good reason above and beyond "I wanna." But it's Billy Wilder so there are many more levels to it than mere situation comedy.
And the gags may be tired (they may have been tired even then, though I'm less sure about that) but there's still a lot of wit in the knowingness with which they're delivered. "You're quite a girl," says Osgood Fielding III, a lecherous, aging playboy of means (played with a refreshingly easygoing equanimity by Joe E. Brown), as he sets about making a pass at Daphne (played by Jerry played by Jack Lemmon in drag). "Wanna bet?" the mincing Lemmon comes back, with a strange noise he perfected for this role of a kind of cackling giggle.
Meanwhile, Tony Curtis as Joe/Josephine not only gets to purse his lips, stick his chin in the air, and flounce around with an infectious pleasure, but he also gets to do his Cary Grant impression too, which is priceless. There's a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to all this now. Lemmon and Curtis frequently appear to be signaling almost desperately through the fourth wall that this is all a gag, that in fact they are men only forced by the immediate situation in the screenplay to dress like women, that this is nothing that should under any circumstances be taken seriously. Then the picture switches up on that too. I'm thinking that's more likely where Wilder takes a hand, as when a giddy Daphne daydreams aloud of where she wants to spend her honeymoon, recalling her night of dancing the tango with Osgood.
There's even an intriguing proto-feminist thread, just barely visible but woven all through, with Jerry and Joe getting a visceral taste of the experience women live with every day, the clothes they have to wear and especially the loutish and unwanted attention from men continually directed their way. A good deal more could have been done with that, of course, but what's here was probably plenty for its times—as, no doubt, was the transvestism—and maybe just the right amount for the picture.
Marilyn Monroe, the star attraction, does here what she does so well and did so often, playing a blonde bombshell bruised emotionally forever by some incident in her far past and now numbly trying to endure the rest of her life. Here she's something of a lush and Wilder is not above dressing her up so her breasts flop around outrageously. But she's as good-hearted as they come, a fact that Jerry and Joe soon realize, trying to treat her tenderly even in all the noise of the plot, including their own mistreatment of her.
One point that strikes me every time I see it is how unusual the decision to shoot it in black and white seems. By the late '50s color was the norm for probably the majority of Hollywood productions, and certainly for comparable comedies such as Doris Day/Rock Hudson vehicles—and furthermore a good deal of Some Like it Hot is set in Florida, the home of color. I'm not sure it was the wrong decision to go black and white, but invariably I find myself pondering it, distracted by it. There must be a colorized version somewhere to get some sense of how it would compare. On the other hand, it seems to me that the Florida scenes at least are screaming for the richest possible technicolor; I haven't seen many colorized pictures but I get the sense they're a bit washed out and grainy, so maybe that's not the best idea after the fact after all.
The gangster shtick, with old wooden George Raft leading the charge and various craggy-faced character players in nice suits following him around, is 100% old school, with virtually zero surprises, but it's pretty much what's needed to keep this pot good and stirred. No coincidence is too obvious, no pratfall too easy, no deception too cruel, no plot point too outlandish. It dares nothing, yet somehow it dares everything, particularly in the flourish it chooses to end on. It's wacky, it's silly, and it ends well on multiple levels. It's weird, not always a good weird, but good enough.