Billy Wilder’s tribute pic to his Hollywood mentor, Ernst Lubitsch*, wound up being less and more than he expected when ever youthful Cary Grant declined the lead and a rapidly aging Gary Cooper took the part. An already risky story (rich American roué falls into a lighthearted affair with Audrey Hepburn’s slip of a girl, unaware he’s a regular subject in the files of her father, private investigator Maurice Chevalier) never quite finds the mixed tone Wilder is trying for (smutty/comic/lyrical). Instead, something deeper comes up, with Cooper bringing out strains of mortality on every camera trick designed to camouflage the lovers unsettling age difference. Chevalier, closing in on 70, looks better than Coop @ 55. He also gives the film’s best perf, anchored by Wilder & co-scripter I.A.L. Diamond in a miraculous little speech to his daughter upon ‘gifting’ her with a dossier on her boyfriend. (Next year’s triumph in GIGI/’58 shows him playing the roué role himself.) For Wilder, the film feels atypically personal (he’d been a dance hall gigolo back in Weimar Berlin), only matched by his script for HOLD BACK THE DAWN/’41. Unsuccessful upon release, it still splits audiences. (Except for its oft-excerpted, emotionally overwhelming train station finale, backed by Franz Waxman’s stunning underscoring.) An uncomfortable near-masterpiece, and much loved by a few.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Lubitsch scripter Samson Raphaelson put his finger on a major difference between Ernst & Billy noting that a gag in this film where lovers in a clinch don’t notice the street watering truck spraying them misses the ‘Lubitsch Touch.’ He’d have shut off the water jets for just the moment of passing, as if l’amour had infected the truck.
DOUBLE-BILL: Next year brought another nakedly personal commercial disappointment in Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO/’58. And again, a poor initial reception was blamed, at least by its director, on his prematurely aging star.