Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Billy Wilder's background in Weimar Berlin served him well even if he had to suffer the inconvenience of fleeing. He's cynical, bitter, and funny, pretty much in all the right proportions, and his talent as a screenwriter is at least as abundant as his ability to work with actors and frame visuals. In a list of 50 I was never going to name any more than two titles by any one director, even for my favorites, and Wilder is certainly on the short list of my favorites. I was happy to see Phil pick The Apartment earlier, because that was one it pained me to omit, and I was sorry Phil felt constrained to drop Double Indemnity just because I got to it first. Like other pictures that have been mentioned here twice, I think it's one that's always worth talking about some more.
But Sunset Blvd. is my favorite Wilder. It's frequently characterized as a noir, and indeed one of the great ones. Its various deep shadows and the incidental crime in the frame make that appropriate enough, I suppose, but its black absurdity makes it seem to me more of an American gothic—or even more specifically a Hollywood gothic. A lot of unexpected faces come floating out of it: Erich von Stroheim as the dour butler; Cecil B. DeMille in a cameo; even Buster Keaton's stone visage turns up, aged a couple of decades and sitting at a table playing cards. The most cheerful, healthiest version of Jack Webb I've ever seen is there in a small role too.
But Gloria Swanson is the star, as she deserves to be, playing a leading light of the silent era, passed over when the talkies arrived. Independently wealthy now—with oil wells somewhere "pumping ... pumping ... pumping"—she seethes with resentment and broods in her creaking old Addams Family mansion, scheming an impossible comeback. The force of her personality is such that she can still reach out, almost as if casually, and destroy lives.
William Holden is nominally the other star, and he's good, but really it's Gloria Swanson and the bizarre trappings (such as the dead monkey in the clip at the link) that make this, along with Billy Wilder's wickedly malicious wit and sharp eye for the smug complacencies of the film industry. It's another one of those with a seemingly endless supply of lines made familiar by their entry into the common lexicon, such as "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." But it's no camp exercise. The story plunges right in and remains engaging, even harrowing, every step of the way.
"I am big. It's the pictures that got small." [video deleted]
Phil #13: The Heart of the Game (Ward Serrill, 2005) (scroll down)
Steven #13: Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
Phil takes a turn as iconoclast this time. I still haven't seen The Heart of the Game—I forgot he had it this high. Better get on that pronto. Also, as it turns out, Phil did not drop Double Indemnity at all, but rather put it quite high. I don't know why I keep forgetting that; he's already had to remind me about it once.