Watching Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (for maybe the 50th time), and there’s something that has always stood out for me. For those who haven’t seen it (and if you haven’t, go now! It’s on Netflix Instant!), Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon accidentally witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 Chicago and have to go on the run…. disguised as two women in an all-girl band.
That concept obviously has plenty of potential (and in 1959, was quite risqué; the success of the film marked the beginning of the end for the Hays Production Code), but the moment in the film that really shows what a master Wilder was is one not of over-the-top hilarity but immense restraint.
In the top frame, Curtis is calling into the talent agency, using his best female voice, saying that he and Lemmon are the “two female musicians” they’re looking for. So we’re in! It’s coming, we’re going to see Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon dressed as women! It’s going to be hilarious!
What Wilder does next is what few directors in this day and age would dare: he simply crossfades to the punchline. A crossfade to their legs from behind, then a simple cut to their faces in full drag. No big reveal, no delay to play with the audience’s feelings and anticipation. He says it’s coming, and then he delivers it.
Because the story is bigger than this reveal. It’s not “look at them as women” but “how are they going to keep this up”? And that’s more than them in drag. Wilder knew that he didn’t need to build it up. It’s funny as is, and doesn’t need camera and editorial tricks to make it more so. This simple reveal is a promise: we’re not going to exploit our crazy concept, we’re going to use it smartly.
In fact, that’s not just directorial restraint. That’s pure confidence.