#14 in my Ranking of Billy Wilder movies.
For the second movie in a row, Billy Wilder chose a prostitute to carry a film, and this time it works better. It helps that the movie is only two hours long, providing greater focus which enhances the final emotional impact.
Dean Martin stars as Dino, essentially Dean Martin, as he drives from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, hits a roadblock, goes on a detour, and ends up in Climax, Nevada, an out of the way town of a few thousand. There, he encounters Barney and Orville, a pair of aspiring songwriters who trick Dino into spending the night at Orville’s house. Orville loves the idea of selling one of his dozens of songs to one of the biggest names in music, but he has a problem. He’s insanely jealous of any man who interacts with his wife from the milkman to the dentist to his fourteen year old piano student. The idea of keeping Dino, oversexed star, and his wife, the most attractive woman in town, under one roof for a single night is just too much for him. However, Orville can’t just send his wife away, he has to replace her with someone who Orville can essentially offer up to Dino as a sacrifice, and it doesn’t help that that very night is Orville and Zelda’s anniversary.
That’s a lot of setup that takes a while to get through, and it’s my main complaint with the film. It’s opening is a bit laborious in setting everything up (while being equally entertaining in individual moments along the way), but once you get past that, the movie knows what it’s doing.
Barney finds Polly the Pistol, the most attractive waitress at The Belly Button, an immoral dive just outside of town and brings her to Orville’s house after he instigates a fight with Zelda that sends her to her mother’s house. By pure luck, Zelda and Dino never meet while Orville’s trying to get rid of his wife, so it’s easy to pass Polly off as Orville’s wife. The comedy that follows is drenched in different sources of irony, and it works really well. Polly and Orville develop a relationship that mirrors the real marriage Orville has. Polly starts more loyal to Orville, who treats her like the hired hand she is for a time, but once he sells his songs to Dino and walks out of his house leaving Polly behind with Dino, he can’t get away from the idea that he’s left his wife behind. So, doing what he would have done earlier in the film, he violently tosses Dino out of the house, protecting the honor of the woman who’s playing his wife.
Zelda, though, hasn’t been forgotten, and she shares a moment with Barney that I find frustrating. She fights with her mother and comes home to find Barney peeping into a moment where Dino is just out of sight beneath the window and Orville and Polly are dancing happily at the successful sale of the song. Out of context, the moment looks really bad and Zelda takes it poorly, but Barney is right there and could explain what’s going on but only speaks cryptically. It could be explained away as the emotion of the moment is overwhelming him so Barney can’t think clearly, but the moment has a very sitcom feel that I can’t quite get past.
What follows is what got the movie in trouble with the moral authorities at the time. Orville sleeps with Polly, and Dino finds Zelda in Polly’s trailer behind The Belly Button and they sleep together. It’s a mutual infidelity that the movie doesn’t really treat that negatively. In fact, in the end, it’s what really saves the marriage, freeing Orville of his incessant jealousy.
The movie has its issues, but there’s more than enough to outweigh those problems with positives. The cast is, across the board, very fun to watch. Dean Martin playing himself in an impossible situation is good for a laugh. Kim Novak is very good as a Marilyn Monroe replacement. Even Ray Walston, who replaced Peter Sellers after Sellers had a heart attack mid-production, is able to carry his lofty load with aplomb. I actually wonder if this movie would have worked as well with Sellers in the role. He’s always struck me as a camera hog, and I think the role of Orville wouldn’t have been served as well with such an approach.
It’s lesser Wilder, but it’s still entertaining and works as a whole.
Netflix Rating: 4/5
Quality Rating: 3/4