Billy Wilder’s 1950s films included some of the most famous sex comedies of the era, such as the raucous The Seven Year Itch (1955), in which a wandering husband (Tom Ewell) is smitten by the charms of his upstairs neighbor Tom Ewell admires Marilyn Monroe’s skirt in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955). Marilyn Monroe, known simply as “the girl” throughout the film, while his wife is away. The scene of Marilyn cooling off over a New York City subway grate in the heat of summer is one of the cinema’s most enduring images. As usual, Wilder manages to find just the right blend of comedy and innuendo to make the film a dazzling, playful treat.
No less entertaining was the brilliant, gender-bending Some Like It Hot (1959), with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag, on the run from the mob in an all-girl jazz orchestra, one of whose members is Marilyn Monroe. Other notable Billy Wilder films of the 1950s include the acidic Hollywood noir Sunset Blvd. (1950), a brutal study of faded glamour and ambition, with real-life silent-screen star Gloria Swanson in what was ironically her most famous role, as former silent-screen queen Norma Desmond, finally gone mad; as she informs her kept, much-younger lover, failed screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), when he comments on her lost
fame, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small!” In contrast, the lovely comedy/drama Sabrina (1954) features two wealthy brothers who couldn’t be more different (Humphrey Bogart and William Holden), fighting for the attentions of a chauffeur’s daughter (Audrey Hepburn) whose time in Paris has turned her into a very chic, lovely woman. Then there was the corrosive, bleak corporate love story The Apartment (1960), with Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray Truly, Wilder was a Renaissance man, with a mastery of many genres.
The cinema of the 1950s in the United States was simultaneously sophisticated, as with Hitchcock’s and Wilder’s films, and simplistic, as with the string of popular vehicles starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (such as Norman Taurog’s Jumping Jacks and Hal Walker’s Sailor Beware, both 1952)
. While these films accurately reflected the spirit of the times, so did the teen films from American International Pictures; the “Red Scare” films that dominated the first part of the decade; the lush, traditional Technicolor musicals of Vin-cente Minnelli; and the smaller rock ’n’ roll musicals that were just beginning to appear. The fifties in the United States was a period of decisive change and stasis, of repression and liberation, of spectacle and gritty realism. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the world, the cinema was also adjusting to the aftermath of the war, creating films that spoke directly to international postwar audiences on matters of vital importance. It is to these films, and filmmakers, that we now turn.
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