Sunset Boulevard (1950) - Billy Wilder
Ah what greatness lies in the old Hollywood. For many, including myself at one time, this was the finest Billy Wilder film, and still the champ of Hollywood on Hollywood pictures. It was perhaps Wilders harshest satire, full of his cruelest inside jokes. It is also the film that stands on both ends of nearly every issue. Everything in Sunset Boulevard is ironic, and it is from that which gives forth its greatest attribute.
After kicking around as a screenwriter for several years, Billy Wilder made a name as a director with Double Indemnity (1944) and the Oscar winning Lost Weekend (1945). He followed these with a few more less significant but still profitable films. His studio of the day, Paramount gave him all the room necessary to make this project. Had Wilder not been a critical and commercial success in the past, this picture would have probably never seen the day.
It was one of a string of Wilder and Charles Brackett collaborations. The two had written screenplays in the past for Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks among others, and had co-written all of their own pictures. Brackett served as producer while Wilder directed, very Coen brothers. Although one doesnt usually find too many Brackett supporters claiming he was really a co-director, and there has been no evidence brought to my attention as of yet to prove that. They werent alone this time though, as additional writing was done by D. M. Marshman. Like Casablanca (1942) which also benefited from numerous writers so does this. It is almost impossible to tell who wrote what, but it all works. I feel that perhaps there was some inside competition, hence the reason for so very much brilliant dialogue.
In terms of dialogue, this has no doubt earned comparisons to Joseph Mankiewicz All About Eve (1950). Both films were made the same year, and both expose the underside of their respected art forms, movies here and the stage in Eve. Both films have been known for their ingenious writing, but whereas Mankiewicz was somewhat limited as a director, Wilder is not. His films are full of that precision associated with only the finest perfectionists. Ironic in more than one way to cast Erich Von Stroheim, whose perfectionism was notorious. Eve may have won the Oscar, but for many this will always be the better picture.
The other more noticeable irony with Stroheim is that he plays a former director. A cruel joke after the near totalitarian control he exacted on his films. Unlike Wilder though, he had no commercial success, which forced his directing days to be put to rest by the end of the twenties. He did find success as an actor, with his other most notable success coming from Jean Renoirs the Grand Illusion (1937), where he played an aristocratic German soldier in charge of a prisoner of war camp. There is also the film of Gloria Swansons that they watch, Queen Kelly (1928) , a never finished flop directed by Stroheim.
Perhaps the only complaint may be in who the hero or heroine is. My heart was with William Holdens Joe Gillis the entire time. He begins by narrating from beyond. We then see his story from his eyes, which may leave it open to subjectivity. I believe that the real Joe Gillis was much more of a heel than we see. Since he is the narrator, we see his shame, his wounded pride, and his feelings of being trapped. We dont see just how much he accepted from Norma, and we know that he could leave at any time. Even though he is the narrator, he is still not the hero. Wilder and therefore Gillis seems to have a soft spot for discarded silent stars. Once Norma shows up on screen she is instantly the pitiful and sad case. She is the casualty of a timely industry.
Personally I dont by the poor and pitiful Norma Desmond. She is the victim of nothing. So her star didnt cross into talking pictures, neither did a lot of people. John Gilbert was perhaps the most famous casualty, but even Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd virtually vanished from the public eye when sound came about. So Desmond was one of those few, be content with your former celebrity and the large amounts of money you still have. She seems to be reminiscent of the modern Michael Jackson. As his star declines, he gets weirder and more secluded. He seems to be in need of adulation, and seems to miss the days when he had no privacy. The same is with Norma. She is happiest when she is surrounded in the Paramount studio by cast and crew, and at the end when she officially goes crazy to a house full of reporters and police officers. Even Gillis refers to her as poor Norma, yet he is the one who got shot three times by her crazy ass.
There is always a little debate about what type of film it is. When asked the question myself I sat in silence for a while. Stylistically it is pure noir. Low light and deep focus photography, plus the all too obvious narration, make this a key blueprint. Yet this is noir like Citizen Kane is noir. There may be many things to make it seem that way, but this doesnt have the seedy underworld vibe of Robert Aldrichs Kiss Me Deadly, or the socioeconomic indictments of Abraham Polanskis Force of Evil (1948) . It doesnt even have that touch of crime and passion like Wilders earlier Double Indemnity. Yet it still feels like noir, and one person when asked argued it to be a thriller. Which is to say the modern term for noir.
By 1950 that type of picture was growing out of style. The past five years had seen a slew of films of that sort flood theaters. It is because of this that Andrew Sarris believes it lost the Oscars to Eve. I think that it was because Hollywood wasnt quite ready to accept what they had done. I have also read that Sunset Boulevard is a clear cut horror film. Although Franz Waxmans score can have horror tones to it, and the first time we hear the organ played, Max (Stroheim) is playing Bachs Toccata and Fugue in D minor, or the Phantom of the Opera music for those who know. There is also the comparisons between Norma Desmond (Swanson) and the vampire from Draculas Daughter (1933) Norma never leaves the house, except in large quantities of makeup. She hides in her run down mansion. She even holds a funeral for a chimpanzee. At times this can get a little creepy.
Knowing Wilder though, he never lets us go without a laugh. This time though it takes a while to find one. It is a black comedy in the stretching the term sense. Noticing though with a bunch of ignorant movie goers though, that they thought some of it funny, and they probably werent supposed to. I noticed that Wilder did use a few melodramatic cliches. That might have been done in mockery of this film so against Hollywood, but I just think it came out that way. Joe Gillis (William Holden) makes a comment to Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) about having her wonderful dialogue drowned out by music. At times Wilder does just that. In particular after Max tells Joe that he was Normas first husband, cue dramatic strings. At times the accented music seems near comical.
I also noticed a room full of chuckles as Norma began going officially crazy. Her crazed looks in the screen, the ridiculous narcissism, and her grand silent film gestures. All of this pulled off with the utmost perfection by Swanson. She was the best actress that year, although All About Eve had a gala of great actresses, and winner Judy Holliday was excellent in Born Yesterday (1950). Swanson topped all though in her return to the screen, in honor of Norma disliking comeback. Another irony of the film is that despite Normas great case against talking pictures, she still gets the best lines of dialogue in the film.
There were a few other cruel inside jokes. Normas waxworks were all former silent stars, including the now legendary Buster Keaton. They all play themselves, although none of them are officially introduced. Only Hedda Hopper and Cecil B. De Mille are acknowledged as themselves. Hopper arguing that her gossip column took precedence over the coroner. Another irony being that the film De Mille was shooting at the time, the set visited by Desmond was for Sodom and Gomorrah (1950). The irony being that Normas film was also a biblical epic.
It is from her Salome that another homage was found. In Peter Jacksons Forgotten Silver (1997), Colin Mackenzie spent the better part of fifteen years making a large scale adaptation of Salome. That too never made the screen, and was probably too long. There were also a slew of misquoting Normas final line. That you can blame on Bugs Bunny who probably misquoted it for the first time. I sometimes get confused myself over which is the right version. Not to mention the string of Hollywood on Hollywood pictures that emerged in its wake, and the eventual return of noir.
One last irony is that everyone wins. Max gets to direct once more, something that didnt happen to Stroheim. Norma gets her press and gets to act again. Joe gets his pool that he always wanted. Then there is Betty, who ends up with Artie (Jack Webb), who we all know is the nicest guy around. So each of them had to pay a little. Norma is going away permanently, despite her line that shell never leave them again. Max has lost Norma forever, perhaps making himself go a little crazy. His goal to keep the truth from her has finally backfired. Joe gets the pool at the cost of his life, and his pride. Betty gets Artie and the script, but at the cost of Joe.
In more ways that one Sunset Boulevard is a film that demands your attention. Wilders films always benefited from being seen through the looking glass. This picture gets better with each viewing, because of what is behind the film. The mise-en-scene is so engrossing that we may forget were watching a movie, just like we may forget Joe is dead right from the beginning. The camera work is seamless, shots are held for the right time, and never does the editing distract. My only beef then is with the score. Waxman usually does good work, but the score seems at times to be overdone. It is the only thing that reminds you this is a movie. I must also make a final note of the brilliant deep focus cinematography. It seems like a lost art, but it is slowly making its way back. Hopefully theyll be films of this quality to go along with it.