Aspects of Innocence and Experience: some reflections on literature and film analogy, with particular reference to Henry James and Billy Wilder

Sinyard_Apartment_mirror
One of the finest and most influential books of film theory, Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969) has, I think, one particularly fine but not very influential sentence. At the end of his chapter on the auteur theory, he writes: ‘We need comparisons with authors in the other arts: Ford with Fenimore Cooper, for example, or Hawks with Faulkner.’1 I used that observation as the starting point of one of the chapters in my book, Filming Literature (which is itself nearly 30 years old now) and it was always my favourite chapter of the book. I called it ‘Kindred Spirits’; and the kindred spirits I compared were Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain and John Ford, Joseph Conrad and Orson Welles, and Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock.2

Such comparisons have continued to interest me; and certainly in those particular cases I’ve discovered many more points of contact than I realised at the time. In the case of Dickens and Chaplin, I’d no idea at that time that Chaplin had actually given a talk to the Dickens Fellowship in London in 1955, attracting a record attendance of over 300 members and calling his talk ‘The Immortal Memory of Charles Dickens’; or that, during the last year of his life in 1977, Chaplin had obsessively read and re-read Oliver Twist, obviously because it reminded him so sharply of his own appalling childhood and experience in the workhouse. In the case of Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, at time of writing that chapter and comparing Greene’s Our Man in Havana and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, I had no idea that Hitchcock had tried to buy the rights of Our Man in Havana nor that he had once approached Greene to write the screenplay of his most overtly Catholic film, I Confess (a fact, incidentally, that is still surprisingly omitted from most Greene biographies). I was later to expand on this comparison in my book on Graham Greene;3 and, in fact, the writer-director Neil Jordan has commented on the connection between these two and wondered about what he called Greene’s ‘strange miasma about the work of Alfred Hitchcock’, without doubt Greene’s biggest blind-spot as an otherwise exceptional film critic, which he never corrected and which Jordan rightly thought seemed a little suspect: ‘And there must be another book to be written,’ as he put it, ‘about the lack of contact between these two poets of English criminality and bad conscience’.4

Strangely, though, comparative books between literary authors and film auteurs have not happened, perhaps because the whole notion of authorship – what constitutes an author – has become more complicated, in both literary and filmic terms, since Wollen wrote his book. In revisiting this territory, particularly in relation to Henry James and Billy Wilder, I thought at the outset I should revisit the personal question of why this continues to interest me, and the motives and strategy behind the comparison. I was, and remain, fascinated by what J. Dudley Andrew, in the context of adaptation, referred to as ‘the dialectical interplay between the artistic forms of one period and the cinematic forms of our own period.’5 I like the notion of ‘dialectical interplay’ as a way of discussing connections between literature and film and between the literary artist and the film artist: it permits a broader, more open-minded perspective than had often gone on before. It offered the prospect of going beyond the ‘film of the book’ strategy, with that tired tactic of scoring points between the two, generally at the expense of the newer medium; at going beyond qualitative comparisons that became a form of cultural elitism, with the critics either using the aesthetic and cultural capital of literature to attack film for simplification or sentimentalising the original, or of being accused of surreptitiously trying to raise the prestige of film through comparison with literature or the older arts. Robin Wood was attacked for the latter, I remember, when he had the audacity to compare Vertigo with Keats in his first book on Hitchcock, but I always thought it was a very suggestive comparison, and if it has occurred to him and he can justify it, why shouldn’t he articulate it?6

I am heartened to think that critical attitudes towards adaptation have become much flexible. The touchstone of so-called ‘fidelity’ to the original is invoked much less often; adaptation is seen not as simple ‘visual reconstruction’ but much more imaginatively as, among other things, translation, transformation, re-location; and the idea of the text itself has become much more fluid, implying a recognition that any text is made up of a lot of pre-existing texts and that, as readers and viewers, we ourselves bring to it a multitude of texts from our own experience – an interaction which becomes then a form of renewal and enrichment.

In my own experience, one of the things I’ve always loved about the cinema (and maybe this accounts for my fascination with adaptation) is its multi-disciplinarity, its capacity to draw on and synthesise features of the other arts whilst still producing something uniquely cinematic. Film has elements of drama (e.g. the power of performance), the novel (its momentum of narrative), painting (its visual composition), music (its integration of image with soundtrack, use of rhythm and counterpoint). That great film critic, Raymond Durgnat had a phrase for this aspect of cinema: ‘the mongrel muse’ he called it.7 That multi-dimensional aspect of film has always had an enormous appeal for me, partly because it chimes in with something that Leonard Bernstein said at the opening of his marvellous series of Harvard lectures on music in 1973 called ‘The Unanswered Question’ and which has since become something of a critical mantra of mine: that one of the best ways to get to know a thing is in the context of another discipline. It’s sometimes said rather patronisingly of the directors of the Nouvelle Vague that they discovered Shakespeare through Orson Welles: well, what a wonderful way to discover Shakespeare. This isn’t, in the awful phrase, ‘dumbing down’ (which is often said about film adaptations) but ‘opening up’ and indeed opening vistas of artistic possibilities, journeys and adventures.

I want to undertake one such journey now by exploring connections between two great artists in their respective fields – the novelist Henry James and the film writer-director Billy Wilder – who might at first glance not seem to have that much in common. Indeed one could hardly imagine two more disparate artistic personalities on the surface: Henry James, the refined literary aesthete; Billy Wilder, the uproarious cinematic satirist. They both had elder brothers called William, though that seems at best a tenuous connection, particularly when you recall Henry’s brother William was a brilliant psychologist (often credited with the invention of the term ‘stream-of-consciousness’) whereas Billy’s brother, Wilhelm was a B-movie director, W. Lee Wilder whom even Billy described as ‘a dull son of a bitch’. Unlike Wilder, you cannot really imagine Henry James writing a part for Marilyn Monroe (unless it be Daisy Miller?). So at first you might think that this is just a case of two very different artists in different eras and media expressing themselves by very different means and whom, coincidentally, you just happen to admire and who have the occasional thing in common: you might think that, and you’d be absolutely right. But why is it, then, that when I think of one, I invariably think of the other? It’s that strange connection that I want to say more about now; and I should at the outset say that I’m in not in any way talking about conscious influence – there’s no evidence I know of to indicate Wilder had read any Henry James let alone was deeply affected by his work.

Initially one might list incidental aspects of their personal and artistic character that they (along with other artists) had in common. They were both great raconteurs. Wilder was a famously good interviewee, full of waspish witticisms about Hollywood and stars, notably on Marilyn Monroe (‘My God, there’ve been as many books on Marilyn Monroe as on World War Two – and there’s a great similarity…. She had a brain like Swiss cheese, full of holes – and she was never on time: mind you, my Aunt Ida is always on time, but I wouldn’t pay to see her in a movie’). James was noted as an inveterate one-way conversationalist, whom a young Virginia Woolf remembered as a frequent and loquacious visitor to their house, sounding forth as he leaned back in his chair and apparently on one occasion leaning back so far that he actually fell off, though, as Virginia Woolf recalled it, still continuing to declaim even as he sailed backwards through the air.

On artistic matters, there were two characteristics they shared which I just want to comment on briefly here. They were both perfectionists and absolutely meticulous in their attention to the written word. James’s Prefaces to his novels constitute an extraordinary document of the thought and care that went into the construction and articulation of his work. T. S. Eliot called this quality in James ‘an integrity so great, a vision so exacting that it was forced to the extreme of care and punctiliousness for exact expression.’8 It would not be an exaggeration to make the same claims for Billy Wilder, who went into direction essentially to protect his scripts and who, when he was filming, would ensure that his co-writer from the mid-1950s, I. A. L. Diamond was seated on the set, ensuring that the actors had not deviated from the script by a single syllable: if they had, the scene would have to be done again. Both of them were sticklers about form and structure. I remember once trying to count the recurrent motifs and leitmotifs in Wilder’s The Apartment that bind the whole thing together in this beautiful structure – I counted 28. Too schematic? ‘Maybe construction is frowned upon these days,’ Wilder would say in the 1970s, ‘but that’s the way we’ve been doing it and that’s the way we’re going to do it until they take the cameras away’.9 In the case of Henry James, one thinks of his reply to Hugh Walpole who’d just been reading Dostoyevsky and was suggesting that surely the most important thing was what the artist was actually saying and that form was secondary to substance. In strenuously disagreeing, James countered: ‘Don’t let anyone persuade you that Form is [not] substance to that degree that there is absolutely no substance without it. Form alone takes, and holds, and preserves, substance.’ His objection to Dostoyevsky and to Tolstoy was that they created, in his famous phrase, ‘loose, baggy monsters’, with a leakage of substance caused by an inadequacy of form.

Another thing the two men had in common: they were both art connoisseurs. James was an art critic of great discrimination, and Wilder had one of the finest art collections of anyone in Hollywood: when he came to sell it towards the end of his life, it fetched more than $30 million. Because of his insistence on the primacy of his scripts and his hostility to overt visual effects, Wilder has been underrated as a visual stylist, but he had a very precise eye and just occasionally one can see the influence of his artistic tastes in his own compositions (for example, in The Apartment, there’s a conscious and thematically significant allusion to Henri Rousseau’s ‘Sleeping Gypsy’ in one of the shots after the Shirley MacLaine character has attempted suicide). Similarly, although James was the most densely verbal of novelists, he was very sensitive to visual detail, and some of the greatest moments of revelation in his novels are essentially pictorial. For example, in The Portrait of a Lady, the first inkling that the young heroine, Isabel Archer has that her husband Gilbert has had a former intimate relationship with Madame Merle is an occasion when she comes upon them unexpectedly and there is just something in their posture – nothing as flagrant or obvious as an embrace – that strikes her as disquieting in Chapter 40:

She perceived that they had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas and were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing to shock in this; they were old friends, in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative positions, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected.10

It’s an image that will later trigger her tormented self-communing across the whole of that wonderful Chapter 42, as she sits alone in front of the fire, mentally analysing the agonies of her marriage, a scene that will build to that devastating last sentence when, at 4 in the morning, she exhaustedly starts to go to bed: ‘But even then she stopped again in the middle of the room and stood there gazing at a remembered vision – that of her husband and Madame Merle unconsciously and familiarly associated’.11

One more comparative example of their visual astuteness: in one of James’s late great novels, The Ambassadors, where his style has become very tortuous and elaborated (I always remember reading a volume of Alec Guinness’s memoirs where he said he’d started to read James’s The Wings of the Dove and after the first page, he’d gone so dizzy with the exhaustion of trying to follow the sentences that he had to lie down). Nevertheless, as in Portrait of a Lady, the key moment of revelation is visual not verbal: an act of seeing, when its hero, a middle-aged American in Paris, Lambert Strether catches sight of what seems like a courting couple in a boat on a lake, recognises them as two people he has idealised on coming to know them, and suddenly realises they are engaged in a furtive and ignoble affair. As in Portrait of a Lady, the vision is not only a moment of revelation but a moment of self-revelation, where the watcher becomes aware of his naïve gullibility as well as the others’ worldly corruption. An equivalent moment in Billy Wilder would be that astonishing moment in The Apartment, when Jack Lemmon’s clerk, on the path to promotion in his job through blithely lending his apartment key to his superiors so they can pursue their extra-marital affairs, learns that the woman he loves, Shirley Maclaine’s elevator operator, is having an affair with his boss (Fred MacMurray). Again it’s an exquisitely planned moment of seeing. She lends him her compact case to check his executive bowler hat in its mirror and the mirror is broken; and he suddenly recognises it as something he has found in his apartment and returned to his boss to whom he has lent his key. The shot of his fractured reflection- which is the moment of recognition – not only signifies the shattering of his illusions about her but also is the moment when he is compelled to see himself and the dual role he has been playing. Like the Jamesian moments I’ve described, it’s a moment of maximum disillusionment – what James in the Preface of The Ambassadors calls the ‘terrible fluidity of self-revelation’ – and they are moments prepared for and delivered by two consummate masters of dramatic structure.

There are numerous other points in common that I could mention – their social comedy, their sophisticated use of often unreliable narrators, their desire for popular success mingled with the tasting of the bitterest failure – in James’s case, his play, Guy Domville, where, coming to take his author’s bow at the end, he was booed off the stage; or in Wilder’s case, Kiss me, Stupid, which was critically reviled – but I want to come now what seems to me the core connection between them. Let me state it as a blunt proposition: that Billy Wilder could be seen as Henry James in reverse, a sort of mirror image, distorted by different perspectives of personality, time and artistic form, but at the same time and in an odd way strikingly reminiscent of each other.

To sketch this out a bit: Henry James is an American, a New Yorker of the 19th century who travels to Europe and eventually settles there, becoming in a way more European than the Europeans, though never, as it were, shaking off his American accent. He never desires to return to America – as he put it in a letter to his sister-in-law Mrs William James,12 ‘I could go back to America to die, but never, never to live’ (he will, in fact, die in London); and yet he never loses his American perspective; and the contrast and conflict between America and Europe becomes a key theme of his work (I’m thinking of novels like Roderick Hudson, The Europeans, The American, The Aspern Papers, Daisy Miller, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, Portrait of a Lady – a far from exhaustive list). By contrast, Billy Wilder is a 20th century European, born in Sucha which is now in Poland but which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who emigrates to America from Berlin when the Nazis come to power (as he put it when he left in 1933, ‘Berlin was not a place for a nice Jewish boy to be’) and settles there. He becomes more American than the Americans – he develops a legendary passion for baseball and a compendious knowledge of American popular songs that will find its way into his films – but he never loses his European perspective and, like James, the America/Europe conflict and contrast is at the core of many of his films (The Emperor Waltz, A Foreign Affair, Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, One, Two, Three, Avanti!). For all his nearly seventy years in America, he literally never loses his European accent, about which he is to the end of his life very sensitive. His accent apparently became particularly pronounced at moments of stress, like the first day of shooting a new film; and there’s a famous occasion when he begins shooting The Fortune Cookie and starts barking out heavily accented instructions: Jack Lemmon, who by that time has worked with Wilder on three previous films, is unfazed, but Walter Matthau, who has never worked with him before, is at first baffled and then intrigued. ‘Say,’ he says to Wilder, ‘You’re from outta town, aren’t you?’

To put this comparison in another way: Henry James is a supreme American master of the great artistic form of the 19th century, the novel, a century that could be called the ‘European century’; Wilder is a supreme European-born master of the great artistic form of the 20th century, the cinema, a century that could be called the ‘American century’. ‘One day the world will be yours,’ says Emperor Franz Joseph in Wilder’s fin-de-siecle musical comedy, The Emperor Waltz to Bing Crosby’s American phonograph salesman in Vienna, to which Crosby replies without batting an eyelid, ‘You bet it will.’ This cultural, social and artistic contrast between America and Europe will give both of them their big theme: what James would call the ‘International theme’ and what Wilder might call ‘A Foreign Affair’. To put it in James’s words at the beginning of his book, William Wetmore Story and his Friends (1903): ‘The social, personal, aesthetic relation of the American world to the European made as charming a subject as the student of manners, morals, personal adventures, the history of taste, the development, need wish to take up.’ Wilder’s work would also completely confirm that.

In James’s case, he will become enthralled by, and will work infinite variations on, the situation of American ‘innocence’ coming up against European ‘experience’ and watching the interaction. There is a very funny passage early on in James’s study of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1879) where he writes:

One might enumerate the items of high civilisation, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it would become a wonder to know what was left… No sovereign, no court… no aristocracy, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles… nor old country houses, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; nor little Norman churches; no great universities nor public schools – no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; … no museums, no political society, no sporting class – no Epsom nor Ascot! The natural remark in the almost lurid light of such an indictment would be that, if these things are left out, everything is left out.

This [heavily edited] evocation of the then emptiness of American culture and heritage, as James saw it, always reminds me of that moment in Citizen Kane when Kane is off to Europe for a break and Bernstein is pulling his leg about the pictures and statues he hasn’t bought yet: ‘You can’t blame me, Mr Bernstein,’ Kane replies, ‘They’ve been making statues for 2,000 years and I’ve only been buying for five.’ In other words, if we Americans can’t acquire culture and heritage through experience, maybe we can buy it, turn it into a commodity. Money, acquisitiveness and greed will become key themes in James, as they are in Wilder, but at that stage, I think, the conflict is between American innocence (which can connote idealism but also ingenuousness) coming up against European experience (which can connote culture and civilisation but also corruption and decadence). Behind it all, I think, are two crucial things for James, as they will be equally crucial for Wilder: firstly, a vision of an ideal society, which is something he sketches in The American Scene (1907) and which would combine the best of American vitality and enterprise with European culture and sophistication; and, secondly, an exploration of his own identity as a Europeanised American.

Wilder’s 20th century equivalent to that outburst of James against the shallowness of 19th century America might be something that Marilyn Monroe’s character says in The Seven-Year Itch when she’s talking about her appearance on a tv commercial: ‘Every time I show my teeth on television, more people see me than ever saw Sarah Bernhardt. It’s something to think about, isn’t it?’ It certainly is; and the critic Stephen Farber in a fine Film Comment article on Wilder, made a potent observation on this: ‘That line crystallises Wilder’s disenchanted vision of today’s world, Americans with “kissing sweet” toothpaste grins, who haven’t the slightest shred of culture, refinement or elegance.’13 Up to a point that’s true, but I also think that part of Wilder loves that kind of vitality and indeed vulgarity: it might not be that refined, but it’s close to real life. If Henry James is the 19th century American who has gone to Europe and been completely seduced by its culture and refinement, Wilder is the 20th century European who has gone to America and been bowled over by its energy and drive (one can see that particularly in a film like Some like it Hot). He falls in love with the country (according to his first major screenwriting collaborator, Charles Brackett: ‘in love with America as I have seen few people in love with it’), yet he also sees the flaws more bitingly than any other director of his generation and seems to hanker occasionally for an injection of ameliorating European civilisation and humanity, which I think he also recognises has probably gone. Like James, he evokes a lost ideal more than a prospective reality or aspiration. In James, the America/Europe theme will culminate in The Ambassadors; in Wilder, it will culminate in his 1972 film, Avanti!, ostensibly a light romantic comedy with Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills, actually an epic personal contemplation, lasting around two-and-a-half-hours, of America/Europe interaction and his own identity as an Americanised European. As it is in James, the European landscape is felt as a moral as well as a physical presence. Indeed you can not only feel and see this America/Europe interaction, conflict and contrast in Wilder; you can also hear it over his soundtracks which often counterpoint American popular idioms with European classics: e.g. the popular song ‘Fascination’ with a Haydn symphony in Love in the Afternoon; the song ‘Tangerine’ with Schubert in Double Indemnity; Bing Crosby warbling sentimental lyrics to Johann Strauss waltzes in The Emperor Waltz.

This kind of duality – between high culture/ popular culture, America/Europe, Innocence/Experience – set me thinking about something that Graham Greene wrote in an essay on James in 1936: that

to render the highest justice to corruption, you must retain your innocence; you have to be conscious all the time within yourself of treachery to something valuable. If Peter Quint is to be rooted in you, so must the child his ghost corrupts; if Osmond, Isabel Archer… These are the points of purity in the dark picture.

You do get these figures in Wilder as well as James: there are the predators, like the William Holden heroes or Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, but there are also the more pure in heart, like the Audrey Hepburn heroines of Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon – and this is the essence of the tension. James is constantly drawn to the theme of Innocence in danger, or lost, or betrayed, in works like Washington Square, What Maisie Knew, The Turn of the Screw, The Spoils of Poynton – and that activates Wilder too, as he contrives situations where there are very rarely two completely innocent lovers in Wilder who meet on equal terms: one is invariably deceiving the other in some way or is more worldly-wise, and that might be precisely the attraction. Innocence is attracted to experience and vice-versa- experience is attracted to innocence, perhaps in order to corrupt it, but perhaps also as a reminder of what has been lost. In one of his early stories, The Last of the Valerii, James will divide people into two categories: people who were, or who were not, as he put it, ‘susceptible of the moral life’. Wilder has a similar division in mind, but usually puts it a bit more bluntly: in The Apartment, he divides people into those who take and those who get took; and in The Fortune Cookie, he divides people into those who will do anything for money and those who will do almost anything for money (and there are characters like that in James too, notably in Washington Square and The Aspern Papers). In both cases, all this adds up to a world-view that is very much connected to their feelings as artists, outsiders and exiles, and bringing, in James’s case, an American perspective to the European scene and in Wilder’s case, a European perspective to an American scene, which will translate into rich and complex reflections on innocence, experience and morality.

I want to illustrate some of these points by showing and commenting on extracts from two Billy Wilder films. The first is his classic film noir of 1944, Double Indemnity. By now Wilder had lived in America for ten years; had established himself as a screenwriter (particularly for Ernst Lubitsch and Mitchell Leisen) and then as a director. This is his third film as director but the first to offer the kind of dark view of America with which, particularly over this and the next decade, he will be associated, Just to set the scene: an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) has plotted with an American-style femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband; fake it to look like an accident; and then claim the insurance. It seems at first like the perfect murder. But the claims investigator (Edward G. Robinson) is beginning to smell a rat; also Stanwyck’s stepdaughter, Lola has revealed to MacMurray that her mother also died in suspicious circumstances – and the nurse in charge of her was Barbara Stanwyck. The tale is being narrated in flashback by MacMurray, who is now mortally wounded.

These are not nice people, and because the characters were so unpleasant, nobody wanted to play them. Wilder had a lot of trouble casting the roles. He remained confident, however. ‘When George Raft turned it down,’ he said, ‘we knew we had a good picture.’ At this point in the film MacMurray has arranged a secret assignation with Stanwyck to warn her off claiming the insurance because Robinson is getting too suspicious:

The supermarket setting is, on one level, a nice use of dramatic counterpoint – an image of normality and order, set against a hushed discussion of the consequences of murder. On another level, it is an extension of the two protagonists: a cold and concentrated image of commerce, money, profit, precisely the forces that are driving them. There’s a sign in the shop that says ‘We Deliver- More for Less’. Meanwhile, the characterisation of the heroine is a kind of Americanised corruption of the European femme fatale: a figure allied, as Molly Haskell argued in her book, From Reverence to Rape, ‘not with the dark forces of nature, but with the green forces of the capitalist economy.’14 Yet the hold she has over the hero is still definitely sexual; and I would contend that, whereas it would be hard to imagine more indigenous American directors like Ford or Hawks, say, so convincingly creating such a devouring female siren, she could emerge from the darker cultural heritage of European émigrés like Wilder, Lang or Siodmak. There is one detail that is particularly relevant here: Wilder changes the surname of her character from Nirdlinger (in the James Cain novel) to Dietrichson – surely a conscious reference to Marlene Dietrich, the sexual siren of The Blue Angel tempting the previously upright hero to his downfall. Finally, the music drifting up from the Hollywood Bowl – as MacMurray prepares to quiz the daughter of the man he has murdered to find out how much she knows – is Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, its incomplete nature perhaps a wry analogy to a murder scheme that they are finding themselves unable to push through to a successful conclusion. More than that, though, it seems a poignant, almost subliminal memory of the European culture Wilder has left behind – and the war has now shattered- as he now begins to strip the New World of its innocence with a sardonic satirical savagery worthy of his Viennese idol, the writer Karl Krauss. It’s a wonderfully evocative and concentrated image of the Old World/New World conflict in Wilder – art and culture of the past in the dim background, a distant music, as it were: upfront grim venal greed.

I want to jump forward around 30 years to a film Wilder made towards the end of his career, Avanti!, made in 1972. The America/Europe contrast is now not only more overt but indeed the central theme of the film. Wilder’s favourite actor, Jack Lemmon plays a conservative American businessman called over to Italy to collect the body of his father, who has been killed in car crash while holidaying in Ischia. When he arrives, he is shocked to discover that not only has a woman been killed in the car along with his father, but that his father had been having a holiday affair with this woman for the last ten years. Juliet Mills plays the woman’s daughter, who has come over from England to arrange for her mother’s funeral.

The scene I want to show is the scene at the morgue where they go to identify their parents. Just two quick things by way of preface: I would argue that Avanti! is Wilder’s most Jamesian film in two respects at least: a) the Italian setting and the way it is used: it’s a kind of paradise in the film and it recalls James’s love of Italy above all other countries: as he says in his Preface to Roderick Hudson: ‘One fact about it indeed outlives all others; the fact that the loved Italy was the scene of my fiction- so much more loved than one has ever been able, even after fifty efforts, to say!’; and b) the other Jamesian touch here is the tempo. There’s a funny bit in James’s Portrait of a Lady where the brash American Caspar Goodwood grumbles that ‘Italian trains go at about the rate of American funerals’ and this scene seems almost a droll evocation of that: Jack Lemmon’s finger-snapping executive keeps trying to speed things up, but is compelled to adjust to a more leisurely tempo and to a less cynical, more romantic tone:

[Extract begins at 34:00]

Being Wilder, that scene is very funny. I love the characterisation of the coroner, this automaton who only knows one word of English (‘Okay’- rather like the Lemmon character, in fact, who only knows one word of Italian, ‘Ciao’), but who, towards the end of his appearance, with that sodden sponge in his pocket, shows a touching human fallibility; just as later, with the Jack Lemmon character, a little bit of humanity will start leaking through. I like the detail of Juliet Mills’s daffodils – which Lemmon doesn’t know the name of, in English, let alone Italian; they add colour and warmth to what could have been a chilly scene. I love the discreetness of the camerawork, which for the most part keeps a respectful distance from the action, only moving into close-up when Juliet Mills is identifying her mother and putting flowers next to her, a poignant shot that is cannily defused of sentimentality when Lemmon noses his way into the frame to sneak a curious peek at the corpse. (By contrast, she has had the discretion to look away when the corpse of Wendell’s mother has been uncovered.) I love Lemmon’s acting in this scene – overall, I think this is possibly his greatest screen performance, and that’s saying a great deal: his abashed expression when she tells him the name of the flowers; the way he can intimidate the coroner through that distinctive quizzical raising of the left eyebrow; his vocal skill to suggest how decorum is only just keeping the rein on his impatience; ‘Come on – just sign, please’/’May I make a suggestion?’/‘No’. All of this is building up to that excruciating moment when, as a casual afterthought when he is leaving and with unpardonable American brusqueness, he murmurs to Carlucci (Clive Revill): ‘Ask fat-ass if she wants a ride.’ It is a tiny detonation of exasperation and meant to be a private aside, but even Carlucci is taken aback by the rudeness; and she hears it in all its repulsiveness, replying with dignity: ‘Tell him, “No, thank you”.’ And then comes perhaps the most beautiful significant moment of all, when she goes over to the window and opens it, and suddenly the interior becomes suffused with warmth, radiance and sunlight, as if life has started up again.

Wilder aficionados might particularly sense the significance and even symbolism of that last gesture, which has occurred in Ninotchka, the famous 1939 film which Wilder co-scripted for Ernst Lubitsch; and also in Sabrina, when in both cases the heroines open the window to let in the air, a gesture of emotional and spiritual release. In both cases there the setting is Paris – ‘Paris is a place for changing your outlook, for throwing open the windows,’ says Audrey Hepburn to the jaded, plastic American executive played by Humphrey Bogart, who will indeed be heading for Paris at the end of the film. And in Henry James’s The Ambassadors, there is a comparable moment and sentiment in the open air of a spacious garden in Paris when, as if stirred by the atmosphere around him, the stuffy middle-aged American hero, Lambert Strether makes a similar plea to his young friend: ‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have had your life. If you haven’t had that, what have you had?’.15 It is exactly the same feeling in Wilder – a feeling of emotional release stimulated by the air the character breathes.

At one point in Avanti!, Jack Lemmon notices a 90-year-old man who is able to rise from his chair and dance with two beautiful young nurses. Musing ruefully that ‘this place must take years off your life’, Lemmon is told that the old man has been coming to the hotel ‘since before World War 1’ – in other words, before Europe tore itself apart. Although Wilder might be offering Europe as a source of spiritual rejuvenation in Avanti! to set against the materialist values of the American, the reference to the Great War signals an awareness of the way the war represented a watershed in terms of European identity and self-belief, politically and socially as well as emotionally and psychologically. For Henry James, the outbreak of war – and he did not live to see the end of it, for he died in 1916 – was a terrible shock: ‘an abyss of blood and darkness,’ he called it. To him it seemed both an awful premonition of what the new century was in for, but also a terrible betrayal of what he thought the 19th had stood for, with its promise of continual progress and betterment in which he had so fervently believed. T. S. Eliot characterised this outlook as James’s ‘Romanticism’ and he went on to elaborate on what he thought this meant:

His romanticism implied no defect in observation of the things he wanted to observe; it was not the romanticism of those who dream because they are too lazy or too fearful to face the facts; it issues rather from the imperative insistence of an ideal which tormented him. He was possessed by the vision of an ideal society; he saw (not fancied) the relations between the members of such a society. And no one, in the end, has ever been more aware – or with more benignity or less bitterness – of the disparity between possibility and fact.

In some ways I think Billy Wilder takes James’s romanticism to its next phase – now even more bruised and battered after World War Two. It might seem odd to use the term ‘Romantic’ about a film-maker so often associated – branded even – with the label ‘bad taste cynicism’, but even Andrew Sarris had to revise his assessment of Wilder in view of his later films and the light they shed on earlier works: so a director he had castigated in 1968 as ‘too cynical to believe even in his own cynicism’ was described thirty years or so later in a completely different way, when Sarris says that ‘critics [including himself?] failed to realise that his apparent cynicism was the only way he could make his raging romanticism palatable.’16 I’m not sure I would go so far as to call Wilder a ‘raging’ romantic, but I do think there’s a strong element of romanticism in classic early screenplays of his like Midnight (1939), Ninotchka (1939) and particularly, Hold Back the Dawn (1941), with its astonishing idealisation of an imagined America that will wash its hero – a corrupt European gigolo – clean, and which Wilder then has to adjust to the harsher realities he sees. Yet he never entirely loses this romanticism and which is connected to his European heritage, and indeed seems to flower in Europe: so that for every Double Indemnity there’s a Sabrina; for every Lost Weekend there’s a Love in the Afternoon; for every Ace in the Hole there’s an Avanti!

Remember that speech that Greta Garbo has to give towards the end of Ninotchka in 1939 when the world is on the brink of another war and where a mood of melancholy has overtaken the film. ‘I know,’ she says, ‘wars will wash over us… bombs will fall… all civilisation will crumble… but not yet, please… wait, wait… what’s the hurry? Let us be happy… give us our moment.’ Almost like the 1913 poem ‘Grantchester’ by Rupert Brooke (whom James so wildly admired), Garbo’s speech seems to be exhorting time to stand still in the hope that the drift towards war can be arrested and the world might come to its senses. It doesn’t, of course, and it’s disquieting to think about the films Wilder makes in the immediate aftermath of World War Two: editing a documentary on the concentration camps at Auschwitz, where a number of his family (including his mother and grandmother) had perished; a musical The Emperor Waltz (1947), set in the fin-de-siecle Vienna of Wilder’s youth, as if recollecting what has just been destroyed; and A Foreign Affair (1948), a black market comedy that, in the phrase of the critic Richard Winnington, ‘illuminates as well as stings’, about the American occupation of post-war Berlin, shot on location in a city that Wilder loved but had to escape from 15 years earlier and which was now little more than a heap of rubble. He will return to Berlin in One, Two, Three (1961) at the time of the erecting of the Berlin Wall, another dubious milestone of 20th century European history. But when he returns to Europe in his final films – like the Victorian London of Private Life of Sherlock Holmes or the idealised Italy of Avanti! – the vision is more mellow, nostalgic even, an affectionate evocation not only of a ‘visitable past’ (in James’s phrase in The Aspern Papers) but also of a vanished world. Even in his great penultimate film, Fedora (1978), whose setting is contemporary and which is mainly set in Corfu, the mood is more elegiac than bitter, and the situation rather Jamesian, notably the James of The Aspern Papers, with a duplicitous American hero who for his own career purposes tries to trick his way into the confidence of an old woman and her daughter, who have something he wants but are not what they seem; whose scheme will fail; but who will nevertheless find reconciliation of a kind at a funeral in Paris.

To summarise: looking at James and Wilder together, I have tried to sketch how a supreme novelist of the 19th century and a supreme film maker of the 20th have dealt with one of the big themes of their respective epochs: the contrast between America and Europe, its general significance, but also its personal meaning for them. The word ‘sketch’ is deliberately chosen: there are nuances of contrast and difference in terms of theme and style that would require much more detailed consideration. However, I would like to return to the point about the value of this kind of study and the way this value might touch on what we are doing when enthusing about adaptation.

I began by quoting from Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema about how more books were needed on film and the other arts as well as, he said, books that lead to greater clarification of debates in the context of film authorship, notably to do with the nature of collaboration, industrial and generic constraints etc. Wollen wrote this over 40 years and much of the things he asked for then have come to pass. ‘We need not two or three books on Hitchcock and Ford,’ he wrote, ‘but many, many more.’ Well, we have certainly had that, but when he went on, ‘We need comparisons with authors in the other arts, Ford with Fenimore Cooper, for example, Hawks with Faulkner’,17 that hasn’t happened, and I suggested early on why I thought this was so. But it also raises the question: why do we need this? Is it simply to see authorial similarity or influence in artists working in different artistic forms? To see where film fits in a wider artistic tradition? To see what it has in common with other arts and can learn from them- or vice-versa?

For myself, I like to think that it is another form of ‘throwing open the windows’ – of enlarging the artistic field. One of the ideas about adaptation that has always appealed to me has been, on the one hand, the idea of continuity – of a text being circulated and re-circulated amongst an evolving generation of recipients, who bring their own perspectives to it which generate and guarantee the text’s continual growth, renewal and transformation, The other great appeal for me has been the idea of the broadening community: that is, that to transform a text from one artistic form to another brings into play a whole new community that might not otherwise have encountered it. And, to take it closer to James and Wilder, it relates to the way artists across different media connect and- sometimes you feel almost by a process of osmosis- communicate with each other, discover an inter-relationship quite unconsciously.

One of the projects I was going to do a long time ago (my book on Billy Wilder intervened) was a study of the interrelationships between the arts and artists responding to something in the air in the period immediately before World War One: comparative essays that drew out connections between Picasso and Stravinsky; Kandinsky and Schoenberg; Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes and the music of Ravel; Gustav Mahler and Thomas Mann, particularly the Mahler of the 9th Symphony and the Thomas Mann of Death in Venice; H.G.Wells’s novel, Tono-Bungay and its impact on Vaughan Williams’s ‘London’ Symphony; E.M.Forster’s Howards End and Elgar’s 2nd Symphony – all contemporaneous works that have an enormous amount in common: even though they cross different disciplines, they are responding to the same artistic, social and political currents, to similar themes and tensions of the times. When I find some free time during retirement, I might one day get back to that, as I might with another project that has preoccupied me over a number of years and is another film project that goes beyond film and would embrace the other arts – specifically, on the film, Vertigo and what it owes to, and throws light on, Romantic poetry, Impressionist painting, Gothic literature, Wagnerian opera, French Symbolism, and many other things beside. It’s almost like the feeling behind Alexander Sokurov’s single-shot tour of the Russian Hermitage in his film, Russian Ark (2002), which emphasises continuity and evolution in a single camera movement that travels through centuries and epochs and gives, as he put it, the feeling of ‘each artist sensing a whole civilisation of artists standing behind him.’ (It recalls for me too another quote from the French writer Anatole France about what critics did and indeed what they were for: ‘A good critic is one who relates the adventures of his [or her] soul amongst masterpieces.’) In a Sight and Sound piece on Sokurov and Russian Ark, Ian Christie contended that Eisenstein belonged to this same tradition, and that Eisenstein even saw it exemplified by the popular 1940s Hollywood movie, A Guy Named Joe (re-made by Steven Spielberg as Always), where dead pilots serve as guardians for the living and symbolise what Eisenstein called ‘the creative heritage that is transmitted down the generations.’ In some ways, I like to think that is what we are doing when studying adaptation. From our own individual angles and perspectives, we are considering and discussing – even deconstructing- the ‘creative heritage that is transmitted down the generations.’ May I then just offer Henry James and Billy Wilder as my own eccentric example of this glorious transmission.

Neil Sinyard

A version of this talk was first given at an Adaptations Conference at Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, and more recently at the University of Dundee. It is respectfully dedicated to my special American friend, Tom Leitch, and to the memory of the late Jim Welsh, founding editor of Literature/Film Quarterly and an exceptional scholar and gentleman who will be greatly missed.


drupal stats


  1. Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, p. 115. []
  2. Neil Sinyard, Filming Literature. []
  3. Neil Sinyard, Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003 []
  4. Foreword in Quentin Falk, Travels in Greeneland Third Edition, p.7. []
  5. Dudley Andrew, ‘Adaptation’, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (editors), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings Fifth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 454. []
  6. Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films (1965). []
  7. Raymond Durgnat, ‘The Mongrel Muse’, in F.H. Marcus (editor), Film and Literature: Contrasts in the Media (Seranton: Chandler, 1971, pp. 71-82. []
  8. T. S. Eliot, ‘A Prediction in Regard to Three English Authors: Henry James; J. G. Frazer; F. H. Bradley’, Vanity Fair, 1924. The James section of this piece is reproduced, for example, in Dorothea Krook, The Ordeal of Consciousness in Henry James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), pp. 1-2. []
  9. ‘Dialogue on Film’ in American Film, August 1976, p. 36. []
  10. Henry James, Portrait of a Lady, Chapter 40. []
  11. Ibid, p. 435. []
  12. 1 April 1913. []
  13. Film Comment, Winter 1971, p. 11. []
  14. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, p. 197. []
  15. Book 5, Part 2, p. 173. []
  16. See Andrew Sarris, You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet, p. 326. []
  17. Wollen, p. 115. []

Leave a Reply