The Hollywood Century project has been primarily concerned with charting the history of the major Hollywood studios, but it has also been an attempt to track the evolution of American filmmaking over a one-hundred year period, and as we make our way through the '50s, we have come across one of the truly seismic events in both of those histories. For it was in the '50s that the Hollywood studio system began to crumble from the industry-defining behemoth of the pre-World War II era, to the... okay, so the Hollywood studios have always defined the industry, and continue to do so even as the American marketplace itself no longer has nearly the international significance it did even as recently as ten years ago.

But the point is, there came a time when the studio system realised that it was weak: it was when the directors and stars who had till then been contracted for their entire lives to crank out movies like engine parts, and when antitrust laws broke the back of the top-down production/distribution/exhibition structure. It was when independent cinema and more importantly, independent filmmakers became a force: when indie filmmaking wasn't just a fringe wilderness where minorities and subcultures had a cinematic voice if not necessarily an audience, but when indie filmmaking became an outlet for some of the most visible talents in American film.

We are now arrived at one of these huge, polished indies that looks for all the world like it should be one of the many studio pictures of the same era: 1957's Love in the Afternoon, directed by Billy Wilder, co-written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, in their first of 12 collaborations, and starring Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn. Shot entirely in in France, it acts like a well-heeled glamorous production, but it was entirely financed by Wilder's company and by Allied Artists, which had formerly been Monogram, the most prominent of all the Poverty Row production companies.

You'd never know it: in terms of the way it was put together, the way it treats the taboo subject of sex, and its starry cast, it's not meaningfully different from Wilder's production of The Seven Year Itch for Fox, two years prior. And this is exactly my point: the directors-gone-rogue like Wilder, Otto Preminger, John Ford, and so on, had largely succeeded in stealing the bag out from underneath Hollywood and making films that you'd have never been able to tell apart from the "real thing", if you will, and they could do it without the lumbering apparatus and the cost. And through the '50s but especially into the '60s, that apparatus became quite lumbering and costly indeed. It takes only a very tiny imagination to see the equivalent in the explosion of indies in the 1990s, and even moreso the rise of digital distribution and Kickstarter and microbudgets in the late 2000s and the 2010s, in tandem with the increase through every year of the 21st Century of high-budget tentpoles that grow more expensive and more burly with every year. But as we do not know when our own equivalent to the New Hollywood Cinema of the late '60s will arrive, or what form it will take, it is better to leave this comparison as an open-ended topic of discussion.

So much for the history lesson, and the speculative fiction. At some point, we need to actually butt heads with Love in the Afternoon, which for all its value in illustrating the shifts the film industry was going through in the '50s - and we haven't even exhausted that part of it yet! - is very unmistakably minor Wilder; the comparison to The Seven Year Itch is neither idle nor accidental, because both feel cut from similar cloth, that of a director who had proven a lot in the early stage of his career and would find interesting new ways to challenge himself in the very near future - later in '57, in fact, with the sterling Witness for the Prosecution - seemed stuck in a place of uninspired regurgitation and autopilot gags. Mind you, Wilder and Diamond on autopilot are still Wilder and Diamond, and I'd rather watch Love in the Afternoon than a great many comedies of the same kind from the same period, even as I'd rank it much nearer the bottom of Wilder's career than the top.

The film is straightforward sex farce: Claude Chavasse (Maurice Chevalier) is a private investigator in Paris, with a powerfully innocent daughter Ariane (Audrey Hepburn), who studies cello and learns the ways of the world from her father's sordid case files in the off-hours. It happens that one particular case - in voiceover, Chavasse only refers to the client as "Monsieur X" (John McGiver), to avoid scandal - results, like so many, with a devastated husband convinced of his wife's infidelity, and ravings about how he's going to go and shoot both of the guilty parties. This particular time, Ariane happens to hear, and horrified by the thought of murder, she manages to infiltrate the adulterous wife's date with legendary American lothario Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) in time to avoid tragedy, letting Monsieur X live the rest of his days in beatific contentment and belief in spousal fidelity. Claude is confused by the extreme failure of his research, particularly as it involved such a notorious playboy as Flannagan; he's even more confused by the change in attitude that sneaks over Ariane, who has of course fallen instantly in love with the shallow American. Looking to inoculate herself against his casual attitude towards sex, she builds herself a past of extraordinary debauchery, weaving together the history of her father's cases into a single narrative of one young woman's astonishingly prolific sexual history. Flannagan is intimidated and outraged as only a man so deeply invested in male sexual dominance could be, but he has enough doubt that he decides to hire a private investigator to find out if his lover - whom he knows only as Thin Girl, since she refuses to share her name - is treating him as shabbily as he has planned to treat her. And of course, he would end up requesting the assistance of no other investigator than a certain Claude Chavasse.

Fleet, fizzy, delightful nonsense, right? Right, except that the one thing Love in the Afternoon absolutely is not, is "fleet". It clocks in at 129 minutes, in keeping with many of Wilder's later comedies: the magnificent Some Like It Hot is only nine minutes shorter. But most films are not Some Like It Hot. And while we're still ages away from the likes of the burdensome Irma la Douce, there's really not a single moment in the entire first hour of Love in the Afternoon where it doesn't seem obvious that it could be tightened up to its extreme benefit. Ariane and Flannagan don't even meet for something close to a half of an hour; the development where she decides to fake a complicated sexual backstory isn't until the backside of a year-long gap in the narrative, and the twist that her father is to start investigating her happens over three-quarters of the way through. I don't possess the imagination to not compare this to The Lady Eve, which presents a superficially similar scenario (woman gets back at the guy who wronged her by inventing an overzealous history of sexual partners) and rockets by at 94 minutes, only pausing for a short break midway to let us catch up and catch our breath.

And it's not simply that such a fluffy pastry of a story is dragged out to lack the headlong spark which might put the whole thing over: most of the individual moments are sluggish. Like an opening montage, great, vintage Wilder in many ways, which finds Chevalier expressing in the romantically slutty way that he did so well that Parisians like to fuck and fuck and fuck, with dashed-off images of kisses and hugs blithely illustrating his recitation; there's a particular moment where we see a young couple on a street corner making out, as one of those big street cleaners that shoots water all over the curb approaches them, and we can tell, of course, they're going to get blasted by the street cleaner and keep on making out without even noticing. Simple, straightforward, pleasingly corny gag. Except the shot goes on for just, I swear to God, hours, like you could run into the kitchen and whip up a batch of croissants from scratch all while waiting for that damn street cleaner to catch up to those kids. It's just not funny. Funny is hearing Chevalier say something dirty, bang, water, bang, punchline, move on. This is just sluggish.

The movie doesn't pop, is the problem, and Billy Wilder comedies need to pop. Even Billy Wilder dramas need to pop. Worse still, Love in the Afternoon is fairly transparently his attempt to pay homage to his mentor and creator of the greatest sex comedies in sound cinema, Ernst Lubitsch; the film's best moments (and it actually has many best moments, despite all the shitty things I'm saying about it) are all obviously taken from the Lubitsch handbook, like a fantastic sequence in which a depressed Flannagan gets increasingly drunk while shoving a cart full of champagne to his omnipresent romantic string quartet of gypsies, who keep shoving it back for refills - it's hard to describe it and make it sound funny, let along Lubitsch-like, but the way it's cut is beautiful. Or the unforced way the film allows us to notice how Ariane changes her hair to a more grown-up style every time she wants to impress Flannagan, but goes back to pigtails to be around her father. Or the film's highlight, where Ariane stares at her father's scrapbook of Flannagan's exploits while playing cello, and her increasingly toneless scraping exactly maps to her blossoming interest in the man.

Lubitsch films aren't exactly fast-paced in the way that I'm arguing Love in the Afternoon needs to be; but they did have a quickness and refusal to let the wrong moments bog down. They are light, some of the lightest movies ever made. Wilder could do that; it's not his only Lubitsch riff, though it is his most sustained and his most obvious. But he wasn't doing it here, and the movie just drags on - there are enough absolutely wonderful moments at just the right places to keep the film from ever turning into a full-on slog. And Lubitsch veteran Chevalier is at his most smutty old man charming. Still, it drags.

I'm inclined to say that this logy pace is the real culprit that keeps the film mired securely in borderline-mediocrity, and not the flaw that's almost always cited as its biggest problem: the 28-year age gap - and more importantly, how impressively visible that gap is onscreen - between the romantic leads Cooper and Hepburn. For reasons that remain mystifying to me even as they are disgusting, Hepburn was peculiarly prone to getting paired with men old enough to be her father: Fred Astaire, Rex Harrison, and Cary Grant (who actually turned down the Cooper role in this film, on account of feeling too old for her; guess something changed his mind) were among those that Hepburn had to feign some kind of sexual attraction for, and Buddy Ebsen (younger than any other man I've named - besting Harrison by less than a month) played the older husband she ran away from in the backstory of Breakfast at Tiffany's. Wilder himself had pushed her towards an epically craggy Humprey Bogart four years earlier, in Sabrina (another role Grant passed on). And all of these are better films, or at least are perceived as being better films (I have my grave doubts about My Fair Lady). Certainly, while there's not a one of them where the relationship between Audrey and whatever granddad is making passes at her feels anything but vaguely icky, and heck, this isn't even the worst of them (Bogart is, like, really worn out in Sabrina, and obviously not enjoying himself), but it's certainly the one where the least amount of distraction comes in between us and the May-December shenanigans onscreen. There's no momentum to carry us over the worst parts.

When Love in the Afternoon slows down, it seems at times to be doing it to engage in some kind of romantic gauziness, but it's only really allowing us to fully marinate in Ariane's self-loathing, hopeless long for Flannagan, and whenever the film showcases Cooper in his full maturity next to Hepburn's bright youthfulness, it's really damn hard to believe. It's one thing to have a Cary Grant oozing charm; Cooper was reserved and plain enough that just playing a legendary lover would be a stretch in the best circumstances. But doing it in a way that could plausibly convince us that a stereotypical Parisian gamine would turn herself inside out over him? I don't see it. Love works in mysterious ways, but despite all of her careful effort to make Ariane plausibly aware that she's in over her head with a far more practiced and dangerous lover, Hepburn never convinces that this lover in place of any other would generate that kind of loyalty and passion.

The film moves slowly enough to make sure that we have plenty of time to notice all that; it moves slowly enough that the jokes don't have a chance to build up a head of steam and turn into outright comedy, instead of the nonstop charming register that the film seems quite happy to reside in for most of its running time. I think I liked it, overall: there are a good number of inspired scenes, and plenty of spiky lines of dialogue, but for the most part, Love in the Afternoon is simply too damn sleepy to have any electricity, and that sleepiness comes at a dire cost in selling the human element of the film.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1957
-Years after destroying everyone's childhood by killing Bambi's mom, Disney goes at it again, with the quintessential Sad Dog Movie Old Yeller
-Columbia teams with Australian-born British producer Sam Spiegel to give the world the first David Lean epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai
-Former animator Frank Tashlin brings a cartoon sensibility to the world of media satire with Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1957
-After a decade in the trenches, Sweden's Ingmar Bergman finds his career explode with the one-two punch of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries
-The internationally renowned Hindi megahit Mother India opens
-Ill Met by Moonlight is the final collaboration by the superb British filmmaking team of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger