Fedora remains the most divisive film in Billy Wilder’s back catalogue. Some consider it a late period masterpiece while others consider it a poor retread of his success with Sunset Boulevard. The truth is closer to the middle but it remains ones of Wilder’s most endlessly fascinating films which predates a lot of what David Lynch did in Mulholland Drive.
The film starts very much like Sunset Boulevard with William Holden narrating the film through flashback. Holden plays the film producer Barry “Dutch” Detweiler who has come to find the legendary actress Fedora (Marthe Keller) to star in a new version of Anna Karenina he is putting together. From the beginning you know she has committed suicide by jumping in front of a train but the film unravels the mystery of Fedora’s last weeks. She is held up on a remote island with a Countess (Hildegard Knef), physician (Jose Ferrer) and a maid (Frances Sternhagen) who seem to control every aspect of her life to a possibly sinister point.
Wilder is very much a man out of his time, he directs with old-fashioned elegance which was completely out of fashion within the New Hollywood of the time. Wilder couldn’t get the film made by any Hollywood studio so he had to get money from German investors. It premiered at Cannes but only because they were doing a retrospective of Wilder’s oeuvre. Wilder complained that UA who eventually got the distribution rights spent “about $625 on a marketing campaign.”. Until recently it has been nearly impossible to see which has only built up its mystique.
It would make a fascinating double bill with Mulholland Drive because like that film it deals with the seedy side of Hollywood but also identity switching. Another film which would be fascinating to watch alongside it is Seconds which also have a extreme identity switch. It’s well-known Lynch is a massive fan of Billy Wilder and Sunset Boulevard is a film he admires greatly. However I wonder if he is also a big fan of Fedora because the similarities are there from the subject matter to the deliberately campy melodrama.
Fedora’s biggest issues come from the fact the big reveal is a little more than half way through the proceedings. The film has another 20 minutes or so to fill and they delve into the relationship between Fedora and Michael York (playing himself) during the shoot of an unfinished film which ends up being Fedora’s last film. This segment of the film isn’t as successful as the first half which is a rock solid mystery which draws on Sunset Boulevard but also Vertigo. Fedora is very much the kind of film Hitchcock should have been making in his twilight years but didn’t sadly.
Overall Fedora is a film which will continue to intrigue viewers and divide critics. It’s a rare film by a master filmmaker in their twilight years which is inventive, daring and camper than a camp site. Henry Fonda also appears in a bizarre cameo as himself as President of the Academy Award which is a role he never occupied. Eureka’s disc is fairly sparse with just deleted scenes, a restoration comparison but have a length booklet with 2 new essays on the film and a vintage piece on the film.