Happy Birthday, W. Lee Wilder

W. Lee Wilder may have died in 1982, but we celebrate his 109th birthday by looking back at the career of a criminally ignored cult film visionary.

There are several strata of cult filmmakers in the world, directors who generally worked on low-budget, independent genre pictures, but did so with enough personal style and pizazz that their films have earned them a following among obsessive film geeks.

At the top there are those few whose followings have become so large, like John Waters, Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, Ray Harryhausen, even Ed Wood, that they eventually came to earn mainstream recognition, even a certain level of respect in Hollywood. Roger Corman and Ray Harryhausen both received lifetime achievement Oscars, and Ed Wood got an all-star biopic directed by Tim Burton.

Below them are filmmakers like Ray Dennis Steckler, Jess Franco, Herschel Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman and that awful Paul Naschy, who, while never receiving that widespread recognition or respect, have nevertheless generated enough enthusiasm among the film geek crowd that you can count on commercial releases of most of their films.

Then there are the others who so often remain anonymous and forgotten, even at the height of their careers. Sometimes this is justified, given that most filmmakers are just plain awful. But every once in a while I come across a real treasure, a body of work that is so unique that I have no choice but to pay attention, perhaps even become a little creepy and nutty and pushy about it.

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His name was never bandied about elite Hollywood circles, where he remains not just unheralded, but virtually unknown today. He’s not even well-known among the hardcore movie geeks, who so often pride themselves on singing the praises of obscurities. Those few who do know of him certainly don’t hold much respect for him (proof of this lies in the unavailability of most of his films, even in bootleg form), but that’s only because they haven’t been watching carefully enough. For my money, W. Lee Wilder is much more than “Billy Wilder’s less talented older brother,” as he’s usually known by jackanapes and smug dullards who never took more than a cursory glance at the 16 films he produced and directed between 1945 and 1968. To the naysayers, he was just a hack on a par with Ed Wood, but to my mind W. Lee was a much more interesting and adventurous filmmaker than his brother, even though, or perhaps because, he was working with microscopic budgets. He made films that weren’t quite like anything anyone else was making at the time (or since).

The sets tended to be non-descript, the special effects were cheap and obvious, the acting pedestrian. But he did have some fine, sharp little scripts (often written by his son Myles) and an undeniable cinematic flair. Somehow, perhaps pure chutzpah was behind it, or a touch of dark alchemy, or simple madness, all those sub-par onscreen elements came together into some mighty spellbinding wholes.

Part of it might be the fact that Wilder not only made films in nearly every conceivable genre (crime dramas, Westerns, horror, melodramas, comedies, adventure films, noir, science fiction), he made films that seemed to be in nearly every conceivable genre at the same time. And even after blending all these genres together, there was still something else in the mix, something about each film that was just a little askew, a little strange and dizzying, often in ways that aren’t immediately apparent unless you’re paying close attention.

These aren’t films for moonpies to laugh at the way they laugh at Ed Wood. There is nothing incompetent about them, though they may lack the usual Hollywood gloss. At the same time there’s just something wrong with them, something you wouldn’t find in other movies, but it’s usually so subtle it becomes fascinating. Beyond that—Wilder was also a quiet innovator and prescient visionary trapped within the bounds of traditional mid-century filmmaking, probably without even realizing it.

He was born in Austria in 1904 and moved to New York when he was still relatively young. While there he began manufacturing his own line of high quality handbags. By the mid-’40s the original zip-bang thrill ride of purse-making had started to grow a little thin. So he packed up and moved to LA like his brother (who referred to W. Lee as a “boring son of a bitch”) to start producing pictures.

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In ‘45 and ‘46 he produced two of Anthony Mann’s first films, long before Mann would go on to direct classics like Side Street, El Cid, and all those Jimmy Stewart Westerns. Then with two Mann films under his belt he decided to start trying his hand at directing his own features. That’s about when things started getting kind of weird.

On the surface, Yankee Fakir seems like light but typical Wilder fare. That is to say it’s almost a romantic comedy, almost a Western, almost a con man film, and almost a murder mystery, but isn’t quite any of those things. It’s a lighthearted little small-town romp, yet as I watched it I kept thinking that something was deeply and deceptively off. Then during the final scenes of the film, I realized what it was. If you look at the script, the acting style, the pacing, the cinematography, even the opening credit sequence, you’d swear you were watching a film made in the early 1930s. But Yankee Fakir was actually made in 1947. In ’47, a film like this would be completely out of place. A quaint anachronism compared with everything else in theaters at the time. Who knows what he was thinking? And then there’s that title. Although the term “Yankee faker” pops up at the end of the film, there are no fakirs among the cast of characters. There are no references to fakirs. The film contains nary a whiff of fakirs of any kind. No one even wears a turban. A friend of mine offered up a very wise and logical explanation for this, but I forget it now. Personally I think they just misspelled the title.

Over the next few years Wilder wrote, produced, and directed a long string of musical short subjects. Then in ‘53 he brought on his 20-year-old son Myles as a screenwriter and perhaps with Myles’ encouragement moved into science fiction. Or at least what appeared to be science fiction. The Wilders were maybe a quarter-step ahead of the curve, and their next several films, while no less screwy, would go on to become their best known.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNzOr7vNr6k

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Like so many other low-budget science fiction films from the ‘50s, 1953’s Phantom from Space opens with a lot of stock footage of military installations and radar screens, together with a long bit of explanatory narration to set the scene. (There’s also a lot of Theremin music in the score, which just confirms you’re watching a sci-fi film.) Taken from the secret files of “The Central Bureau,” we’re told, it’s the story of how “a small group of people, over the course of one long night, held back a wave of panic and hysteria.”

Okay, so that’s not really true, but we’ll ignore that. Military radar stations pick up a UFO near the Arctic Circle and track it across Alaska, south through Canada, then down the West Coast where it disappears in Southern California. Shortly thereafter people living near the beach begin reporting terrible interference with their radio, TV, and phone reception, so crews of communications workers are sent out to find the trouble.

One of the crews is approached by a strangely calm woman who tells them she was having a picnic with her husband and a friend (in the middle of the night) when they were attacked by a man wearing a diving helmet.

Not much later another man is killed and an oil refinery explodes. When questioned by police, all the witnesses report that there was no head inside the helmet.

It gets pretty tangly, but, working together, the chief of police, three scientists from the local institute and the head of the communications commission determine that they’re looking for an invisible radioactive alien who messes up TV reception everywhere he goes.

For its flaws, occasional gaps in logic, and general low budgetness, the script is quite good, the dialogue naturalistic and believable, complete with a lot of great throwaway lines muttered by side characters. And though the actors are for the most part complete unknowns, they’re several cuts above what most sci-fi from the era could offer, easily talking over each other a la the Howard Hawks school for that added bit of realism.

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More than most of Wilder’s pictures, it pretty much sticks to form as a sci-fi film. Well, a sci-fi mystery, with a crowd of oddball minor characters and a deeply tragic alien who spends much of the film slowly suffocating. It’s also one of the few films I can think of in which the hero turns out to be the communications commission. The “heroic utility company” would become almost a trademark through the rest of Wilder’s science fiction films.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqLmfId9t_U

As surprisingly intelligent, well-acted, and sharply written as phantom from Space was, for most audience members the picture was noticeably light on action and thrills, so W. Lee and Myles returned the following year with Killers from Space.

Not enough can be said about the innovation and almost precognitive vision on display in Killers from Space, which may explain Wilder’s interest in Nostradamus down the line.

After more narration and stock footage (much of it re-used from Phantom), we meet military scientist Dr. Paul Martin (Peter Graves, who was becoming a standard fixture in early ‘50s science fiction). While gathering data from a nuclear test, the controls on his plane freeze, throwing the aircraft into a perfect nose dive into the desert. When rescue crews arrive they discover the plane’s pilot is, oh boy, really dead, but Dr. Martin is nowhere to be found.

Several days later Martin stumbles out of the desert into the base, perfectly fine save for having no memory of the events and a clean surgical scar on his chest. At the time, of course, most sci-fi pictures were Cold War parables in which the aliens are commie stand-ins. It was rarely discussed onscreen, but everyone knew what was going on. Here, though, they not only make the idea clear, they turn it on its head.

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When “Martin” shows up perfectly fine save for that scar, the FBI immediately assumes him to be a commie plant there to steal nuclear secrets, and he’s told to take the proverbial “long vacation” until they can prove he is who he says he is.

At home, Martin is tormented by visions of eyeballs and actually does start stealing nuclear secrets, which he hides under a rock in the desert. When he’s caught, he’s returned to the base and placed under hypnosis. This is where things get interesting.

At first it seems (again) like standard material. Seconds before the crash, see, Martin was spirited out of the plane by aliens who bring him to some kind of underground base. While being held captive, Graves learns the details of the alien invasion plan. He escapes and, with the confused assistance of the local electric company (see what I mean about utilities?), sets out to stop them.

However…

Six years before Betty and Barney Hill shared their true story of alien abduction with the world, Wilder put the details of that abduction up on the screen. In fact, the abduction in Killers from Space has essentially become the prototype of what we think of when we think of “alien abduction,” complete with small, silent aliens with large eyes, a metal examination table, and strange medical procedures. In this case they remove Graves’ heart from his body, fix it, and replace it, which is a detail I’ve heard in several “true” abduction stories. And of course, as is also now standard, Graves has no memory of these events until he’s placed under hypnosis.

But that’s not all. During his escape from the aliens, Graves encounters several giant lizards, spiders, and insects. While giant monsters had made appearances in films since the silent era, this was one of the first times a director filmed real creatures and rear-projected them on a screen so the actors could interact with “giant monsters.” This, too, would become industry standard throughout the ‘50s—but do you see Wilder getting any credit? Hell no! Everyone talks about (the admittedly great) Bert I. Gordon, who didn’t make his first rear projection giant monster picture until 1957—three years after Killers from Space!

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Today Killers from Space remains Wilder’s best known picture, but it has little to do with the profound but unsung impact it had on the culture at large. No, it’s known today mostly for its regular appearance in box sets of public domain titles. You can��t turn around without running into a damn Killers from Space.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmBrWUV9_zo

But anyway. The same year as Killers, the Wilder team moved away from space-based horrors to more earthly ones, as usual with a twist. In most cases, “ape man on the loose” pictures (and I’m well on my way to seeing them all) take place in small towns, wooded areas, or the mountains. But in 1954’s The Snow Creature, Wilder follows the model of King Kong by bringing the creature in question to a major metropolitan area.

Dr. Frank Parrish (Paul Langton) is both a botanist and an asshole, leading an expedition high into the Himalayas to collect specimens. When his chief Sherpa, Subra (Teru Shimada, in a fantastic performance) learns his wife has been kidnapped by a yeti, Parrish refuses to let him go look for her. So Subra does the only thing he can do; he incites a mutiny and takes command of the expedition.

For its first half, The Snow Creature makes for an interesting double bill with Val Guest and Nigel Kneale’s The Abominable Snowman (1957). Working with half the budget, Wilder’s external shots near the top of the mountains (accentuated by some gorgeous cinematography) are much more believable than Guest’s. I would even argue that Wilder has made the far more intriguing and exciting (if less philosophical) picture of the two.

Eventually the expedition, now led by Subra, stumbles across a society of yetis in a cave. When one is stunned by a rock they tie it up and carry it back down the mountain, where that dick Parrish makes plans to fly it back to LA in a specially designed refrigerator. Once again this is where we run into something you won’t find anywhere but a Wilder picture.

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Upon arriving at LAX, Dr. Parrish is immediately confronted by a customs official, who won’t let the yeti into the country until the creature’s immigration status is determined and all the proper paperwork is filled out. You never saw anything like that in King Kong, and that was a 50-foot gorilla! As dull as it might sound, it’s a funny scene, and a wonderfully logical detail.

Well, though, as the debate rolls on in the customs office, the yeti breaks out of his refrigerator much more easily than any six year old ever did, and begins a rampage across the city. After the bodies start piling up, it’s clear that it’s time to call on a utility company. And sure enough, some 15 years before Chinatown, LA Water and Sewer comes to the rescue, and the film ends with an homage to The Third Man (and a great closing line).

The whole film is beautifully shot in a hard noir style, and once again it’s populated with weird little side characters who liven things up considerably.

Wilder took a break from sci-fi after that to make some crime/adventure/con man/romance/comedies for a bit before returning to the head scratchers. Those odd but very realistic characters around the edges come even more into play in ‘56’s Fright (again written by Myles). It could have been a standard melodrama about a psychiatrist falling in love with a patient, and that’s what it looks like if you don’t think about it too much, but as it rolls on it just gets more and more baffling.

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As the police try to talk an escaped killer down from the Queensboro Bridge, a shrink, Dr. James Hamilton (Eric Fleming from Queen of Outer Space) steps out of the gathered crowd and offers to hypnotize him. It works like a charm (though it’s unclear how many people in the crowd were hypnotized as well), and the ensuing publicity brings him far more attention than he’s comfortable with. Not only are reporters constantly nagging him for interviews, but one day when leaving the office he finds a clearly troubled but attractive young blond (Nancy Malone) sitting in his car.

He tries to throw her out, but she insists on vaguely telling him what her vague problem is. After explaining bluntly that he never takes friends as patients and never makes patients friends, he sets up an appointment and asks her to dinner. Ethics be damned.

During their regular sessions he hypnotizes her and soon discovers she has that old shrink movie standby, a split personality. Clearly influenced by Vertigo, the other personality is a tragic 19th century German princess in a suicide pact with a married prince.

Speaking of ethics, very few people in the film seem to have any. The doctor’s dating his patient. A reporter breaks into his office, listens to recordings of private patient sessions, and prints them in the paper. The cops let a convicted killer (the same one who escapes at the beginning of the film) out unshackled in order to play a part in some psychological parlor game in which they know he will be killed. Oh, it goes on and on. But as ever there’s a parade of people on the street, in restaurants, in bars, who all have something interesting to say. Ultimately it’s not among Wilder’s finest, and I think the problem can be traced back to the simple fact that no major utilities are called upon to save the day.

It was roughly around this point that Myles started moving more into television. He’d write a couple more films for his dad in the ‘60s, but most of his efforts were focused on writing for every TV show on the air, from McHale’s Navy to Bonanza to a long stint as the primary writer on The Dukes of Hazzard for some reason.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xnPTW9smi1Q

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While W. Lee’s brother Billy (whose real name was Samuel, by the way—W. Lee was the real Billy of the family). Anyway, while Billy was making ho-hum mainstream crap like Some Like it Hot and The Apartment, in 1957 W. Lee returned to straight science fiction (or whatever the hell it was) with The Man Without a Body. It wasn’t written by Myles, but it’s hands down the strangest picture he ever made, pushing that subconscious weirdness and surreality of the earlier films to remarkable new heights.

Now, disembodied head and brain transplant movies had already become fairly commonplace by that time (Black Friday, etc.), but Wilder’s film was, well, let’s just say a little different.

Karl Brussard (George Coulouris, who somehow found himself making this between Citizen Kane and Papillon) is a wealthy asshole industrialist who seems to be going a little dotty. He keeps forgetting the orders he’s given and starts answering phones that aren’t ringing. Not much of anyone is surprised to learn he has an inoperable brain tumor, but like most wealthy asshole industrialists, he’s not much interested in dying when there’s more money to be made. He learns of a Dr. Merritt (Robert Hutton) who’s doing experimental head transplant research in London, and makes an appointment.

Although the doctor is hesitant to attempt one of his transplants on a human (by that time he’d only gotten as far as monkeys), they sort of agree that if Brussard can bring him a useable head, he’d give it a try.

The film then stops dead for a few minutes as Brussard makes an unexpected stop at Madame Toussaud’s wax museum and we get an impromptu tour of the tourist trap’s greatest hits. Inspired and desperate, Brussard goes to a pub, hires a disgraced and drunken surgeon, and together they fly to France and dig up, yes, Nostradamus’ grave. With Nostradamus’ head, see, Brussard would be able to see into the future and make his business decisions accordingly. Fortunately even after 450 years in the ground Nostradamus’ head is remarkably well preserved, so they lop it off and he smuggles it back to London. Dr. Merritt, having no idea whose head he’s got there, plops it in a pan of solution, attaches a bunch of hoses and electrodes, and before you know it reanimates Nostradamus, who speaks remarkably good English for someone who’s been dead that long. (Nostradamus was played by Michael Golden, a British character actor with a 40-year career. So far as I can tell this was the only time he played a disembodied head.)

Well, Brussard’s scheme to use Nostradamus’ precognitive powers for his own personal gain becomes pretty clear to everyone involved, including Nostradamus who, we find out, isn’t terribly tickled with the idea of becoming a wealthy asshole. Looking into the future, Nostradamus offers Brussard some friendly financial advice which brings down the asshole’s entire empire. Then things get all crazy with murder and, well, just plain craziness. Before you know it Nostradamus’ head has been transplanted onto the body of the doctor’s assistant.

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Not being a Myles Wilder script the film is missing all those wonderful side characters and a heroic utility company, but with a storyline this nutty, who cares? The end is abrupt, anticlimactic, and perfectly logical, and the film is packed with references to everything from Frankenstein to (as you might expect given the head in question) films that wouldn’t be made for another eleven years. The most important thing about Man Without a Body, though, is that Wilder approaches the material, as utterly insane as it is, so seriously that you have no choice but to sit back and accept the koo koo ride.

This was his last sort-of science fiction film. Over the next decade he would only make a small handful of films, including a sort-of mystery/thriller, a sort-of Cold War espionage picture, and a jewel heist/cannibal film (after you’ve seen enough of his movies you stop asking questions).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HRVL35s4QM

Wilder’s last film, The Omegans, came out in 1968. In it, a painter becomes convinced his wife is having an affair, so decides to kill both her and her suspected paramour. He wants it to look like an accident, see, so he asks them to pose for a portrait next to a radioactive river!

(Like I said, after a while you stop asking.)

After the release of The Omegans, Wilder lived quietly in Hollywood for another 14 years. It’s possible, considering the range and scope of his body of work, that he’d simply said all he needed to say.

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No, he never received much recognition or acclaim, never made millions and never won six Academy Awards like his dumb brother. But W. Lee Wilder forged on through those twenty-some years, working with small budgets, small crews, and studios that no longer exist. In that time he made 16 features, and I’ll tell you this: even if no one remembers them or Wilder himself, they were the films he wanted to make, films that are immediately recognizable as W. Lee Wilder films, and that’s something he could take to his grave.

 

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