Though Some Like It Hot is often regarded as simply “the greatest American comedy of all-time” (AFI – which should be taken with a gigantic grain of salt) or a Marilyn Monroe sort-of-skin-flick, it turns out that it really is a great film. (If someone else had said so – say, the BFI – then we might not have hesitated at the claim.)
Throughout the film there is a remarkably adept use of deep-focus photography by Billy Wilder and whomever he hired to shoot the film. The first scene perfectly sets the tone, theme, and style of the rest of the film. By having the gangsters pose as pallbearers accompanying the casket of a beloved friend in a hearse, the audience immediately believes in a certain situation that is momentarily to be proved quite false. Once another car emerges from the edge of Wilder’s camera behind the hearse, so also does emerge the hint that we have been momentarily misled. A gunfight ensues, leading the pallbearers to pull machine guns out and begin firing back. In the gunfire, the casket is pierced and liquid pours out. As if to confirm our suspicion – and to assure us that the liquid isn’t anything too grotesque – a gangster opens the casket to reveal booze; lots of booze. Enter the subtitle: “Chicago, 1929”.
The perfectly symmetrical shots from inside the car contain the entire interior of the vehicle and extend our view through the windshield (or back window, as the case may be), giving the viewer a clear field of sight and capturing all of the action relevant to the scene. Initial shock on the viewer’s part is replaced by suspense, which is followed by comedy. All three elements are crucial to the rest of the film, and each element in this scene only hints at the more expanded manifestations in the story to come. Incidentally, this opening scene is also (almost?) completely without dialogue, wonderfully exploiting the potential of camera and mis-en-scene as well as doing homage to silent film, typical of Wilder.
The opening scene also alerts the audience to the theme of “things-are-not-as-they-seem.” Lemmon and Curtis’ romp as a couple of musical dames forms the central predicament of the film. They become the deceivers, taking the place of the gangsters of the opening scene. The deceived become said gangsters, along with the rest of the diegetic world, corresponding to the deceived audience of the opening sequence. The audience, who was gradually let in on the joke of the opening scene, is now in on the joke of the transvestite men from the beginning. In the beginning, then, Wilder explicitly distinguishes the film as it is (comedy) from what it could have been (mystery/suspense). He simply does this by allowing the audience to know the protagonists before they embark on a spree of deception. And granted, the premise is a bit more worthy of comedy than mystery.
Things aren’t as they seem.
Similarly, shortly into the film we see a funeral home which is a front for a bar, where our heroes work as musicians. An undercover federal agent sits casually at a table until the timed bust. The bar’s unknowing patrons even order scotch using the word “coffee,” bringing the film’s deception to a semiotic level. This “it-isn’t-what-it-appears” theme is prevalent throughout the film, as even the supporting and seemingly superfluous details complement the theme as it is in the main plot.
Insofar as the above can be described as “irony,” it is shown us again in the film’s main characters. Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon) are introduced to us with two immediately revelations: (1) they play instruments in a band and (2) they are desirous of attractive females, not above letting their eyes wander to the nearest pair of clean-shaven legs. This example and other comments by the secretaries at the musicians’ talent agency foreshadow the coming gender-reversals by reminding the viewers of the obvious: these are two men, and not just men, but men shamelessly and wholeheartedly devoted to the chase of beautiful women.
Before they begin their transformation, Joe and Jerry are mistaken for something they are not: gangsters or feds. In the same scene, the gangsters holding the men hostage brutally murder rival gangsters. The massacre is quite brutal for a film of this sort, apparently serving to remind the viewer that even though this is a comedy, something big is at stake, which just might warrant the sort of actions that Lemmon and Curtis’ characters would otherwise utterly refuse to do.
The first shot of the guys in drag focuses on their legs, connecting them with their opening scene when they admired the legs of a nearby woman. Their fixed gaze on “Sugar Cane’s” (Marilyn Monroe’s) backside (“like jello on springs”) sweetens the irony. When Suger and Joe are in the bathroom talking together, she begins to look straight at the camera as everything about her hypnotizes Joe (and therefore many of the viewers). The short scenes on the train are framed by brief exterior shots of the locomotive, connecting the revved engine with the fast-boiling blood of our main characters.
Shot composition equivocating Monroe with a bouquet; a balancing effect.
Later, Joe steers a boat backwards to comic effect, a detail which again emphasizes the backwardness of the film and its characters. On a final note, one of the funnier lines came from Jack Lemmon after Tony Curtis begins giving what the rest of us know is a pretty good Cary Grant impression: “Nobody talks like that.”
I love Jack Lemmon’s Cary Grant impression.
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