Thursday, April 15, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

"I am big. It's the pictures that got small."

Among the most utterly enthralling 110 minutes you will ever spend watching a motion picture would be those you spent giving yourself up to Billy Wilder's masterful slice of film noir, Sunset Boulevard. From beginning to end, you are encapsulated within the sordid cocoon of the world created by Wilder and his co-screenwriters, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr., a faded Hollywood where dreams go to die and souls are lost like so much spare change.

William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who consents to rework the script of a secluded, highly eccentric, washed up silent film actress looking to make a comeback. Along the way, he becomes something of a "kept man", or gigolo for her, residing in her sad, dilapidated mansion with her and her mysterious butler, Max.

A movie star of middling status during the 1940s, Holden was catapulted to major celebrity and the heyday of his career thanks to Sunset Boulevard. Playing the character of Max is Austrian director-turned-actor Erich von Stroheim, who instills the part with a fascinating ambiguity suited to the bizarre secret he holds.

In the role of forgotten 1920s celebrity Norma Desmond is none other than actual 1920s leading lady Gloria Swanson, who won an Academy Award for her efforts, and rightfully so. An actor whose own path in life somewhat mirrored that of the character she played, Swanson brought a startling authenticity to the role.

As Norma Desmond, Swanson plays a woman so wrapped up in her own former glory that she literally loses herself within the alluring folds of vanity's cloak. She is delusional to the point of psychosis, carrying herself with a level of histrionics that belies her Silent Era roots. And although the character is decidedly over-the-top, that's entirely the point--Desmond has become a caricature of her former self. Much like Brando's Don Corleone, this is a role that has been often parodied, but if you strip away all that, you will find that it remains a raw and powerful performance.

All the elements of noir are in place, sucking the helpless viewer further and further in as the tale unfolds. We have Joe's hard-boiled narration, delivered despite the fact that he is already dead in the film's opening scene. There's the picture's hardened cynical presentation of life and love, both made into mockeries by the harshness of reality. Sexuality is dealt with in a fashion that was quite frank for the time--a fact that led some better-known actors to turn down the part prior to Holden's casting.

The noir phenomenon in American film had been gradually fermenting over the course of the 1940s, and this film represents something of a high watermark for the subgenre. Like a pulp novel come to life, Sunset Boulevard is brimming with unforgettable dialogue and sharply drawn characters. It's also shot with brooding brilliance by John F. Seitz, a cinematographer whose roots stretched back to the earliest days of feature films. He helps undeniably to cement the film's stylized quality with a keen sense of light, and most importantly, shadow.

One of the true auteurs of the golden age of cinema, Wilder is at his very best here, in what is arguably his finest hour. An Eastern European transplant who broke into Hollywood as a screenwriter in the 1930s, had made a name for himself as a director in the '40s with films like Double Indemnity (1944) and The Lost Weekend (1945), and would later distinguish himself with an astounding string of classics that includes Sabrina (1954), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960). Although nominated for Sunset Boulevard as both a director and writer, it would ironically be for his script that he won.

And what a script it is. One of the hallmarks of film noir is the importance placed on clever, fast-paced dialogue, and this film has it in spades. The twisted relationship of Joe and Norma is at the center of all the goings-on, and naturally, the scenes Holden and Swanson share are the highlights of the film.

Sunset Boulevard is the kind of film that stays with you. It's the kind of film that makes you forget everything while it's playing, makes you sit perfectly still in rapt attention, and as the credits roll after the gut-punch finale, makes you sit back and say, "That was one hell of a movie." Ready for a "close-up" that will never happen, the delusional Desmond waltzes towards us, her self-fabricated world in shambles, as we look on--dazed, spent, shaken to our core.

One hell of a movie.

NEXT UP: Scrooge (1951)


evilgenius333 said...

B- One of the greatest motion pictures ever produced - hands down. I have watched this film countless times and it draws me in every time - even the last time when I was watching on my iPhone at the gym.

There is so much to learn - as a filmmaker I find myself studying everything in every frame. It's just one of those perfect films where there is simply nothing that could or should be changed to alter the emotional, thrilling experience. Thanks for your great write-up!



Pax Romano said...

One of my favorite films of all time! A classic. Dark, comic, horrific and timeless.

I read somewhere that Mae West was offered the role of Norma Desmond and apparently she felt that no one would believe her as a "forgotten" star!

B-Sol said...

Thanks for reading, guys. I agree that watching this film is such an engrossing experience, you're just drawn into this sinister yet fascinating world every time. Can't take your eyes off it.
Mae West was one of a couple of old-timers who turned it down (Mary Pickford too, I think). In the end, Swanson was an ideal choice, because she really had faded as a star by that point.