August 22, 2010

The Adventures of Billy Wilder’s Smarter Brother


There are several strata of cult filmmakers in the world—directors who generally worked on low-budget, independent genre pictures, but did so with enough personal style and pizzazz that their films have earned them a following among creepy film geeks.

            At the top there are those few whose followings have become so large—like John Waters, Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, even Ed Wood—that they eventually came to earn mainstream recognition, even a certain level of respect in Hollywood.

Below them are filmmakers like Ray Dennis Steckler, Jess Franco, Doris Wishman and that awful Paul Naschy, who, while never receiving that widespread recognition or respect, have generated enough enthusiasm among the smug hipster geeks (who celebrate them in long turgid articles on geek-centric websites) that you can count on commercial releases of most of their films.

            Then there are the others who so often remain anonymous and forgotten, even at the height of their careers. Sometimes this is justified, given that most filmmakers are just plain awful. But every once in awhile I come across a real treasure—a body of work that is so unique that I have no choice but to pay attention, perhaps even become a little obsessive.

His name was never bandied about Hollywood, where he remains not just unheralded, but virtually unknown today. He’s not even well-known among the smug movie geeks—people who so often pride themselves on singing the praises of obscurities. Those few who do know of him certainly don’t hold much respect for him. (Proof of this lies in the unavailability of most of his films today, even in bootleg form.) But for my money, W. Lee Wilder is much more than “Billy Wilder’s less talented brother”—as he’s usually known—he’s an auteur to be reckoned with.

This only became apparent a few weeks ago. I had been aware of Wilder, but never paid him that much attention. Then my friend Don was struck by one of his films, and we both decided to grab as many films as we could find in order to properly re-evaluate this sadly forgotten talent. What we found was surprising, and W. Lee Wilder soon became my new favorite filmmaker.

Living in the shadow of his brother, W. Lee never got the recognition he deserved, but in spite of it all he soldiered on from the mid-forties through the late sixties, crafting fifteen or sixteen little indie films that might nowadays be individually labeled “film noir,” “comedy,” “mystery,” “science fiction,” or “horror”—but which are so odd, and contain so many unexpected touches, that their resemblance to those well-established genres is fraternal at best. In the end he created a whole new style of film, and one that was uniquely and inimitably his own.

            The sets tended to be non-descript, the special effects were cheap and obvious, the acting pedestrian. But he did have some fine, sharp little scripts (often written by his son Myles) and an undeniable cinematic flair. Somehow—perhaps pure gumption was behind it, or a touch of dark alchemy—all those sub-par onscreen elements came together into some mighty spellbinding wholes.

            These aren’t films for dullards to laugh at the way they laugh at Ed Wood. There is nothing incompetent about these films, though they may lack the usual Hollywood gloss. But at the same time there’s something so subtly off about them that makes them fascinating. And there was more than that—Wilder was also a quiet and unassuming visionary trapped within the bounds of traditional mid-century filmmaking. Explaining what makes a particular film so intriguing is difficult, but nevertheless let me try to describe a few.

            While brother Billy (whose real name was Samuel, by the way—W. Lee was the real Billy of the family)—anyway, while Billy was making ho-hum mainstream crap like Some Like it Hot and The Apartment, in 1957 W. Lee was making The Man Without a Body. Now, disembodied head and brain transplant movies had already become fairly commonplace by that time (Donovan’s Brain, Black Friday, etc.), but Wilder’s film, as I would soon come to expect, was a little different. It tells the story of a cutthroat businessman dying of a brain tumor who hires a young researcher to not simply get him a new brain, but get him Nostradamus’s brain. That, get it, would allow him to see into the future and stay one step ahead of the competition. Needless to say, Nostradamus has plans of his own.

            On the surface, Yankee Fakir seems like light but typical Wilder fare—that is to say it’s almost a romantic comedy, almost a Western, almost a con man film, and almost a mystery, but isn’t quite any of those things. It’s a lighthearted little small-town romp, yet as I watched it I kept thinking that something was deeply and deceptively off. Then during the final scenes of the film, I realized what it was. If you look at the script, the acting style, the pacing, and the cinematography, you’d swear you were watching a film made in the early 1930s. But the film was actually made in 1947. In ’47, film like this would be completely out of place. Who knows what he was thinking? (And then there’s that title. Although the term “Yankee faker” pops up at the end of the film, there is nary a reference to fakirs of any kind. Don offered up a very wise and logical explanation for this, but personally I think the title was just misspelled.)

            In most cases, “ape man on the loose” pictures (and I’m well on my way to seeing them all) take place in small towns, wooded areas, or the mountains. But in 1954’s The Snow Creature, Wilder follows the model of King Kong but on a much smaller scale, briskly moving the action from the Himalayas (where a Yeti community is discovered by some botanical researchers) to the streets of Los Angeles—or more specifically, below the streets of Los Angeles. Over a decade before Chinatown, Wilder made what is perhaps the first film ever in which the real hero is the Los Angeles Water Authority.

            Speaking of this odd precognition Wilder so often exhibited (which may explain why he was later interested in Nostradamus), not enough can be said about the innovation and foresight found in Killers From Space (also from 1954).

From the outside, the plot seems fairly standard for mid-fifties low-budget science fiction: Aliens save a nuclear scientist (the great Peter Graves) from a military plane crash at an atomic test site. While being held captive, Graves learns the details of the alien invasion plan. He escapes and, with the confused assistance of the local electric company, sets out to stop them.

            However . . .

            Six years before Betty and Barney Hill shared their true story of alien abduction with the world, Wilder put the details of that abduction up on the screen. In fact, the abduction in Killers from Space has essentially become the prototype of what we think of when we think of “alien abduction,” complete with small, silent aliens with large eyes, a metal examination table, and strange medical procedures. In this case they remove Graves’ heart from his body, fix it, and replace it, which is a detail I’ve heard in several “true” abduction stories. And of course—as is also now standard—Graves has no memory of these events until he’s placed under hypnosis.

            But that’s not all. During his escape from the aliens, Graves encounters several giant lizards and insects. While giant monsters had made appearances in films since the silent era, this was one of the first times a director filmed real creatures and rear-projected them on a screen so the actors could interact with “giant monsters.” This, too, would become industry standard throughout the fifties—but do you see Wilder getting any credit? Hell no! Everyone talks about (the admittedly great) Bert I. Gordon, who didn’t make his first rear projection giant monster picture until 1957—three years after Killers from Space!

Wilder’s last film, The Omegans, came out in 1968. In it, a painter becomes convinced his wife is having an affair, so he decides to kill both her and her suspected paramour. But he wants it to look like an accident, see, so he asks them to pose for a portrait—next to a radioactive river!

            Don pointed out that Wilder lived for another fourteen years after The Omegans was released.

            “Maybe he’d said all he had to say,” Don suggested. I think he may be right.

No, he never received much recognition or acclaim, never made millions and never won six Academy Awards like his dumb brother. But W. Lee Wilder forged on through those twenty-some years, working with small budgets, small crews, and studios that no longer exist. In that time he made some fifteen films, and I’ll tell you this—they were the films he wanted to make, films that are immediately recognizable as W. Lee Wilder films, and that’s something he could take to his grave.


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