Friday, October 28, 2011

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

USA, 110 minutes
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Photography: John F. Seitz
Music: Franz Waxman
Editors: Doane Harrison, Arthur P. Schmidt
Cast: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Jack Webb, Lloyd Gough, Cecil B. DeMille, H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, Buster Keaton, Hedda Hopper

Billy Wilder is one of my favorite film directors, and Sunset Blvd. happens to be my favorite picture by him, so naturally I'm happy to see it placing so high on the list of all-time greats at the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website. Wilder is 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. Nowhere does he bring all that together in a more dazzling confection than here.

Sunset Blvd. is frequently characterized as a film noir—indeed, one of the great ones. It's good to see it lauded for any old reason, and all the various deep and angled shadows, along with the incidental crime in its story frame, make the designation 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. Is there any other noir that makes such flawless use of not only a dead chimpanzee, but a pipe organ that catches the wind in a way that makes it sound as if it is on its deathbed of lung cancer? Or any other one even like it?

It's packed full with endless inside Hollywood touches, pitch meetings, sweet-talking agents on the golf course, name-dropping brainstorms, thoughtful budget considerations, and incidental glitzy insider lore. "You'd probably have turned down Gone With the Wind," says an angry Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) to the script reader, Betty Schaefer (played by Nancy Olson), who's just deep-sixed his pitch. "No, that was me," says the glum producer who's about to turn him down. "I said, 'Who wants to see a Civil War picture?'"

The great lines come fast and frequently. "Then I talked to a couple of yes-men," says Gillis, describing his desperate attempt to raise the money to stave off repo men. "To me they said no." Or, describing his screen credits as he begins to feel out the possibilities for work from Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), into whose home and life he has just randomly wandered: "Last one I wrote was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You'd never know it, because when it reached the screen the whole thing played on a torpedo boat."

The initial premise is perfectly endemic to Hollywood, by way of Los Angeles, where a car is an absolute necessity of life. Gillis, spotted by the repo men to whom he has earlier lied about the whereabouts of his car, finds himself literally taking it on the lam from them and forced to park his car in an empty garage of what he believes to be an abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard when one of the tires inconveniently blows.

I'm not sure any film has ever been more aptly cast. The Joe Gillis part calls for a handsome, vaguely idealistic guy who's just desperate enough to make a few wrong decisions and William Holden is more than up to it. The apple-cheeked Nancy Olson as Betty Schaefer, the girl next door—next door literally, that is, if you come from Hollywood—couldn't be better.

And a lot of unexpected familiar faces come floating out of this: Erich von Stroheim as the dour and mysterious butler, Max Von Mayerling, who comes with a highly significant past; Cecil B. DeMille in a cameo as a director of the silent era who survived the transition to talkies; Hedda Hopper as the glib, fast-talking reporter at the end, dictating the story by phone; and Jack Webb perhaps as cheerful as anyone has ever seen him. Even Buster Keaton's stone visage turns up, as an old friend of Norma Desmond's, aged a couple of decades and sitting at a table playing cards.

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 ("I hate that word!"). The force of her personality is such that she can still reach out, almost as if casually, and destroy lives.

The shrewd play of casting figures such as her and von Stroheim and DeMille is in how naturally plugged in they are to the larger themes, a kind of mocking yet somehow sincere lament for the grand Hollywood tradition that was swept away with the Depression, various returns to morality, and the advances of technology.

Swanson in particular brings her natural talents to bear. "We didn't need dialogue," she says at one point to Gillis. "We had faces." She goes on to prove the point all through, particularly in the ending, where her character's crazed madness is full on display in the leering set of her mouth, the tilt of her chin and slope of her shoulders, the arch of her eyebrows, the way she plays so cannily, and so constantly, to the camera.

The final minutes, of course, are famous, with her declaration, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," and the way she slinks forward, literally shoving her mug right into the lens. But for me she's even more poignantly on top of her role in the scenes just before that, when she and Holden are having it out, bitterly hashing through all the fantasies and resentments of their grotesque relationship, which is dying at that moment. She's so great, amped up and making her tragic faces, turned directly at the camera rather than Holden and with a spotlight full on her. At that moment, she really is as nearly completely lost in her role as any other player anywhere. It's funny and terrifying all at the same time.

Movies as famous for being famous and well-regarded as Sunset Blvd. often carry the burden of their reputations, and for everyone who knows the line about Mr. DeMille and the close-up there are probably hundreds who have forgotten how effectively tragic and genuinely sad the story is, and how expertly and economically the screenplay puts it all together. Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond are doomed souls from the first we see them. Their relationship never had a chance—Gillis, at least, had some understanding of that. Norma Desmond, never.

Billy Wilder's wickedly malicious wit and his sharp eye and ear for the smug complacencies of the film industry make the whole production a lot of fun. It's another one of those with a seemingly endless supply of lines made familiar by their entry into the common lexicon. But it's no empty camp exercise. The story plunges right in and remains engaging, even harrowing, every step of the way, and it's operating at high levels from its first shot to its last.

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