Welcome to the first (and hopefully not last) instalment of the Shelf of Shame, a series of posts where I finally get around to watching discs that have been sitting on the shelf for far too long. I’m starting with the Billy Wilder film Fedora, released on Blu-ray/DVD here in the UK by Eureka, a disc I bought several months ago and hadn’t gotten around to watching. There’s films that have been sitting on that shelf of shame for much longer than that, several years some of them (Betty Blue is one that springs to mind, which I bought back in 2013, shudder), but as a keen admirer of Billy Wilder’s filmography it didn’t seem right for this film to be on the shelf of shame for any longer.
That being said, I bought this one knowing very well that Fedora is not one of the best Wilder films, but even one of Wilder’s lesser films is better than those of most other directors. Wilder is rightfully a legend in cinema history- with films like Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Ace in the Hole to his name…. even one of his ‘lesser’ films, Avanti!, qualifies as a personal favourite, so Fedora had to be worth a shot, no?
At the beginning of Fedora, we witness a frantic-looking woman throw herself from a station platform into the path of an approaching train, instantly killing herself. The woman is legendary film actress Fedora (Marthe Keller), an icon of Hollywood of old, and as crowds of adoring fans visit her body which is lying in state prior to a lavish funeral, waiting in the line is down-on-his-luck film producer Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweller (William Holden). Through the device of a voice-over and flashbacks, Dutch tells us his story, of events just two weeks prior, when he had tracked down the reclusive movie star to a remote island in the Mediterranean. Dutch had written a script based on Anna Karenina, and was trying to get a deal to make it into a film, one of the conditions of his backers being that he should get Fedora out of retirement to take the starring role in the romantic tragedy.
Dutch knew Fedora from many years prior, having met her on a movie set in his youth back when Fedora was at her Hollywood prime, a huge movie star, and she and Dutch had shared a one-night liaison. Having tracked her down to a remote island in the Med, Dutch hoped his past liaison with her might enable him to convince her out of retirement. The Fedora he found hiding away from the public eye on the remote island was as beautiful and ageless as he remembered from all those years ago, but acted furtive and nervous, finally claiming she was being held captive on the island by the Polish Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Krief) that owns it. Before Dutch could free her from the clutches of the countess and her associates, Fedora was taken from the island hideaway to France, where she would commit suicide just several days later, as we saw at the beginning of the film.
In many ways, Fedora as a film really doesn’t work. Its sequences on the romantic Mediterranean lack the wistful romance of Wilder’s superior Avanti!, and most viewers will quickly deduce the films central ‘twist’ long before it is revealed. But there is something else going on in Fedora, and part of it is no doubt a shared theme with Wilder’s early classic Sunset Boulevard, another film about a reclusive Hollywood legend that also starred William Holden, and also was told through flashbacks and Holden’s narration. It all combines into a curious symmetry and a suspicion that there are layers of meaning that escape us (indeed, most likely not even there) but yet still tantalise.
Fedora dates from 1978, and is Wilder’s second from last film, and yet feels older than it is, clearly old-fashioned even in 1978. This is deliberate, as the film is a somewhat bitter love letter (how typical of Wilder) to Hollywood of old, the director far removed from the Coppolas and Spielbergs and Scorceses and other young turks that were taking over. “It’s a whole different business now! The kids with beards have taken over! They don’t need scripts, just give ’em a hand-held camera with a zoom lens!” cries Dutch forlornly at one point, and you wonder if its Wilder wailing through him. The new corporate studio system in place when this film was made was already far different to Old Hollywood (it is to Hollywood’s shame that Wilder could not get this film made in Hollywood, instead relying on European investors).
Through its love/hate eulogy for Old Hollywood, and the power of film to immortalise and at the same time destroy, the film weaves quite a spell. While it is far from Wilder’s best work, there remains something utterly bewitching about it. Its not a great movie, but remains quite a good one. Fedora isn’t really about that ‘twist’ and is really more about its atmosphere, its languid pace, its performances (albeit two of them undermined by some very dodgy dubbing, unfortunately). For me I think its greatest asset is its central terror of growing old and being utterly defeated by the past- its likely unintentional, but Fedora’s nightmare in this film was possibly the same that could have haunted Wilder himself in the twilight of his career, his importance and worth in Hollywood in the era of Star Wars quite unfair.