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Billy Wilder's Sophisticated Touch

Billy Wilder's most important movies are all oddball classics. "Double Indemnity," "The Lost Weekend," "Sunset Boulevard," "The Seven Year Itch," "Some Like It Hot," and "The Apartment," among others, capture something peculiarly American in their scope and purpose. Yet each is touched by a distinctly cosmopolitan air.

Now, an exciting documentary about the director examines that unique combination of American wise-guy ethos and European sophistication. PBS's long-running "American Masters" series presents "Billy Wilder: the Human Comedy," narrated by Walter Matthau (Wednesday, 9-10 p.m., check local listings), demonstrating just how meaningful Mr. Wilder's contribution to the history of American film has been.

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"In the case of Billy Wilder," says documentary director Mel Stuart, "I was particularly interested in the early years, the Berlin years, because I don't think most people would know about that period of his life. For most people, he was just an American filmmaker."

Wilder was born in a small village 200 miles from Vienna in a region that is now part of Poland. He came of age in the Berlin of the roaring '20s - a "crazy and glorious era," says Mr. Stuart, when remarkable things were happening in the arts. But then came the Great Depression, and then in the 1930s, the threat of Hitler and the Nazi Party drove many a German artist and intellectual into exile.

For Stuart, it was important to show that the sophistication of Wilder's films came an upbringing different from what was usual in America. "I mean, how many of us have run out of Hitler's Germany? These things shape people's ideas. So, I wanted to mix his life with his films to get a more complete picture of him. You see where the literate wit comes from when you see his background."

Stuart stresses Wilder's savoir-faire as an art collector and his gift of gab - how lively his conversation has always been and the number, spiritedness, and wit of his interviews. The documentary includes several choice moments from past interviews. A classic Wilderism: "It is not necessary for a director to know how to write. However, it helps if he knows how to read."

Wilder is often called a cynic by movie critics because his protagonists are all antiheroes - men or women with grave character flaws. While he never hit his audience over the head with moralizing, his movies are profoundly moral nonetheless.

Wilder stripped away the layers of lust, egotism, or greed that his characters bought into, revealing the mess they made when first they started down a wrong path. Self-deception turns to self-perception in the end, though. And in the dramas, that means a catharsis - a moment when the protagonist sees all that he did wrong and feels remorse. In "Double Indemnity" and "Sunset Boulevard," each protagonist tells his story in voice-over, describing his descent into evil and reaching a cleansing realization of his own culpability.

Then too, Stuart points out, a streak of romanticism runs through his work as strong as his skepticism. Not only is there often some sense of redemption in his movies, but very often real love blossoms in spite of all the evil and darkness people let themselves in for. And we always know where decency is located in his films: Even in his film noir masterpiece, "Double Indemnity," there is never any doubt or relativism about the wickedness of the protagonist's (Fred MacMurray) actions.

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"I think he brought a European sensibility along with a love of America to his filmmaking," says Stuart. "There was a Wilder touch - like there was a Lubitsch touch - which included a sophisticated, unsentimental look at America.... I just found as I was watching these pictures, the great ones hold up.... I saw 'Double Indemnity' over and over again, and I never got tired of it. It was a pleasure for me to put [the documentary] together."

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