I’m a big fan of mystery and suspense films, and the great Billy Wilder directed several of my all-time favorites. In 1944, the energetic Austrian immigrant made his mark in Hollywood with DOUBLE INDEMNITY, widely regarded as the first true American “noir” film. Over the years, he gave us SEVEN GRAVES TO CAIRO, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. His Oscar-winning Best Picture was THE APARTMENT (1960), a non-mystery. (He also won Best Director and Best Screenplay for that.)
But the film for which Wilder is perhaps best known is definitely a crime-lover’s paradise. That would be SUNSET BLVD (1950), his trenchant look at the price of fame that introduced us to down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis and deranged has-been movie star Norma Desmond, so memorably played by William Holden and Gloria Swanson. What many people don’t know is that nearly 30 years later, Wilder released a “bookend” to SUNSET, a companion piece for his landmark tale of the grim underside of the film industry.
That film is FEDORA. This dark, Gothic-tinged 1978 story was written by Wilder and his usual collaborator, I. A. L. Diamond, based on a novella by horror writer Thomas Tryon (THE OTHER, HARVEST HOME). Tryon had also been a Hollywood leading man (THE CARDINAL, IN HARM’S WAY), so he really knew the territory.
The plot of the film is similar to SUNSET BLVD: A down-on-his-luck film producer (William Holden, again) goes to Corfu in search of a legendarily reclusive screen actress, the fabulous Fedora (Marthe Keller), to talk her out of retirement for his new movie. What he finds in her seaside villa is a mystery. The aging actress seems eerily untouched by time, as young and beautiful as she was in her heyday many years before. She’s surrounded by a sinister group of retainers, including a creepy plastic surgeon (Jose Ferrer), a nasty nurse (Frances Sternhagen), and an imperious old countess (Hildegard Knef). Holden believes these people are holding the star prisoner in her own home and stealing her fortune, and he determines to free her from their influence. This leads to some shocking revelations, scandal, and tragedy.
FEDORA was not a hit with critics or the public when it first appeared in theaters, but its reputation has grown over the years. Still, it has been difficult to find a copy of it (VHS only, and a bad transfer at that), and everyone forgot about it–until last year, when some Wilder fans restored the film and played it at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was greeted with standing ovations.
Good news! That restored print is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray! I just got my copy, and it’s gorgeous. I liked the film in 1978, and I like it even more now. It’s rather bizarre–melodramatic, campy, over-the-top–but that fits right in with what Wilder was saying about Hollywood. SUNSET BLVD showed that he didn’t think much of the industry in 1950, and FEDORA proves that his low opinion never changed. It was one of his final films–he only made one more after it–and it was his only title that wasn’t available on DVD. Now, at last, you can add it to your film collection (I placed it on my shelf beside my copy of SUNSET). Enjoy!