After cresting with the acclaimed one-two punch of Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960), Billy Wilder’s monumental film career began a slow decline, despite a brief return to form with The Fortune Cookie (1966). And though Fedora was not actually Wilder’s last film—he persuaded Fortune Cookie costars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau to reteam for the pointless Buddy Buddy (1981)—Fedora is in many ways the nail in Wilder’s creative coffin. Everything in the movie is an echo of something Wilder did better earlier in his career. In fact, Fedora is so painfully old-fashioned that except for some coarse language and a brief nude scene, the movie feels as if it was made in the 1940s.
Frequent Wilder leading man William Holden plays Berry “Dutch” Detweiler, an independent movie producer whose career has hit the skids. Berry travels to Greece in order to contact reclusive movie star Fedora, with whom he had a brief affair in the 1940s. Although she’s unofficially retired from acting after abandoning her last movie midway through production, Fedora is as a legend from Hollywood’s Golden Age who, incredibly, still has her looks. Upon arriving in Greece, Berry discovers that Fedora is a virtual prisoner inside her estate on a private island, and that the people around her will use any means necessary to repel intruders. Nonetheless, desperation coupled with growing concern for Fedora’s welfare compels Berry to solve the mystery of her circumstances.
Fedora hinges on a massive plot twist that appears mid-movie, but the “twist” is obvious and predictable. Furthermore, the disastrous second half of Fedora comprises a lengthy series of dialogue scenes that trigger explanatory flashbacks. Alas, neither the dialogue scenes nor the flashbacks add much in the way of believability or dimension. Given the great heights to which Wilder and frequent writing partner I.A.L. Diamond had soared in previous films, the clumsiness that pervades their script for Fedora is shocking. So, too, is Wilder’s lack of directorial taste.
Excepting a pithy running gag involving an obsequious hotel manager, most scenes drag on at torturous length. The casting of the Fedora role is calamitous, with leading lady Marthe Keller stuck doing an anemic Dietrich/Garbo imitation. The score by Miklós Rózsa is musty and oppressive. And the hard-boiled voiceover delivered by Holden serves virtually no purpose, since most of the information contained in the voiceover gets repeated during regular scenes. Worst of all, the basic storyline—about a vain movie star who ruins peoples’ lives in order to fight the aging process—is a sickly cousin to the plot of Wilder’s behind-the-scenes masterpiece Sunset Blvd. (1950). Therefore, despite sleek production values and an enjoyably cynical performance from Holden, the experience of watching Wilder struggle to reclaim past cinematic glory is just sad.