Saturday, April 17, 2010

#8: Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

Released: August 4, 1950

a.k.a.: Sunset Blvd.

Director: Billy Wilder; Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.; Cinematography: John F. Seitz; Music: Franz Waxman; Producer: Charles Brackett; Studio: Paramount Pictures

Cast: William Holden (Joe Gillis), Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond), Erich von Stroheim (Max von Mayerling), Nancy Olson (Betty Schaefer), Fred Clark (Sheldrake), Lloyd Gough (Marino), Jack Webb (Artie Green), Franklyn Farnum (Undertaker), Larry J. Blake (Finance Man #1), Charles Dayton (Finance Man #2), Cecil B. DeMille (Himself), Hedda Hopper (Herself), Buster Keaton (Himself), Anna Q. Nilsson (Herself), H.B. Warner (Himself), Ray Evans (Himself), Jay Livingston (Himself)

- “I _am_ big… it’s the pictures that got small…”

Man, would I give anything to be able to hop into a time machine and go back to see firsthand the incensed reactions of entertainment insiders when they initially encountered Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. In one of the crowning achievements of his career, the accomplished Wilder turned his bitingly cynical perspective and wit on the very industry that he had become a leading figure in. The apocryphal stories that exist about some of the reactions from Hollywood players are not only hilarious to recount, but telling of how close to home the biting script hit for many of the city’s powerbrokers. Louis B. Mayer was said to have become so incensed after watching the film at Paramount’s initial screening that he approached Wilder and berated him, heatedly asking how he could make such a mockery of the industry that had made him. When these pleas failed to get through, Mayer was rumored to have tried to pool funds from other studio heads to purchase the film negatives and destroy them before they were released. Some contemporaries of star Gloria Swanson’s silent days were offended by the portrayal, thinking that it cast them all in a ridiculous light. Looking at things now, sixty years removed from its initial release, it is possible admit that the biting script Wilder authored with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman falls short of indicting everything about Hollywood, as was initially accused. But it comes very close to doing so, pointing out, as only Billy Wilder could, how unmerciful the movie industry could be.

Is it a depressing drama? Is it a comedy? A complete farce? Is it even a film noir? In all honesty, as are the best Wilder films, it’s probably a little bit of all these things. Whatever labels you apply to it, though, there’s no denying its greatness. Everything about it – from writing, to directing, to acting, to photography – is damn near flawless. The reason this one is not #1 is purely because of personal preference – I love it, but I slightly prefer a few others – because this might be the best made film in the entire countdown.

The story centers on two people struggling to remain relevant in Hollywood. Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a former newspaperman from Dayton who moves to L.A. in hopes of making a career as a screenwriter. After a few minor successes, his career begins floundering to the point that he is unable to pay the rent or afford the payments on his car, which is in the process of being repoed. The other key figure is Norman Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former star of silent films that at one time was the most popular actress on the planet. Her films were so successful that studios were built on the proceeds and in the process Norma herself accumulated a small fortune. But when talking pictures came into favor, Norma’s career was completely derailed. With her services no longer wanted, Norma went into seclusion on her Sunset Blvd. estate, living in a fantasy world, having contact with no one but her former director turned servant Max (Erich von Stroheim). The two cross paths when Joe swerves his car onto the Desmond estate while trying to avoid the repo men. When Norma learns that Gillis is a screenwriter, she floats the outlandish idea of the two working on a screenplay for her comeback. Joe plays along, hoping to earn some much needed cash, and stays on the estate rewriting the horrendous script that Norma had worked on for years. Things grow strange when the delusional Desmond develops a bizarre attachment to Joe, keeping him on the premises at all times and leading him to function as her male prostitute of sorts. So when Joe falls for another up-and-coming studio writer Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), the already fragile Norma completely loses it.

The authentic atmosphere of it all bears testament to the accomplishment of Wilder as both writer (along with longtime collaborator Charles Brackett) and director. I haven’t the slightest idea if Hollywood of this era was as petty and unforgiving as it is painted in this movie – my impressions of the studio system of this time come from films like Sunset Boulevard. So I have no clue if this is how the industry really treated past stars. What I do know is that Wilder makes me believe it to be true. After watching Sunset Boulevard – and particularly after hearing how people like Louie B. Mayer reacted – make me think that it _has_ to be true. Even with all of the theatrics and over-the-top performances, it is still that convincing. It has long been put forth that the genesis of the project stemmed from the sad tale of one-time titan D.W. Griffith, who by the 1940s was unsuccessfully begging for work in film. Wilder and Brackett saw this and were shocked, wondering what actually did happen to stars that had fallen from grace. This real-word connection, and its inclusion into the actual film, only adds to the authenticity. When you see what Gillis calls “waxworks” in the film played by the likes of Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson, even if they aren’t necessarily playing themselves, it carries a ring of truth.

The number of memorable scenes that make up the film are almost too countless to name. Is there a more unforgettable opening sequence? Our narrator leads us to his final resting place, letting the audience know that the body they see floating in a pool is his. Norma descending the stars for her close-up. Joe’s first glimpse of the grounds that make up Norma’s mansion is technically flawless, proving once again that the team of Wilder and director of photography John Seitz were among the finest duos in Hollywood history. If John Alton is the greatest cinematographer to ever work in noir, then surely Seitz has to be a shoo-in for the runner-up position. And it’s not just individual scenes that give the film such charm. It’s the minor touches that Wilder and company add to it all. It is things like the organ in Norma’s parlor that howls as the breeze hits its pipes. It’s the wonderful effect of something as simple as turning on the light in Norma’s recently restored pool. Minor details like these stick with you as much as the great individual scenes.

I don’t have the space to properly address the quality of the performances from the principal actors, but fortunately other more accomplished writers have given them their due. What I will say is that the acting is completely on another level in comparison to nearly any other film. Gloria Swanson, whose career mirrored the similar fall of Norma Desmond, gives the performance of a lifetime. The case can be made that it’s the finest performance by an actress in Hollywood history. William Holden is wonderful as well, but the other role that I always fall for is Erich von Stroheim as the loyal Max. He too plays a character whose story mirrors his real-life experiences and does so with equally spectacular results.

Excuse me for the gushing, but it’s a movie that justifies such fawning. I would guess that everyone reading this has seen it, but if you haven’t, stop reading this now and do so immediately. If you realize that you are unsure whether you’re supposed to be laughing or horrified, then you’ll know that you have properly understood the movie.


  1. Dave, I think of this film as a gothic, but I suppose you can argue that noir as a whole is a sort of, dare I say, American gothic. But however we define it, it's a great film with an amazing finale in which Franz Waxman's music really comes to the fore. I also get a kick out of any appearance by Jack Webb outside of his Joe Friday persona, and this film has lots of nice touches like that.

  2. Dave, a terrific review there.

    In my opinion, Sunset Blvd doesn't just rank as the greatest noir ever made, but also among the greatest movies ever made. But then, this is your list and not mine. Further, there's hardly much to choose among the top 10; so, as you mentioned, it really boils down to your personal preferences at the time of composing this list.

    What a biting, acerbic, caustic movie this is. In fact howsoever strong an adjective does one choose from the thesaurus, it will still fall short of the pitch-black and caustic humour of the script. The biggest irony of the film was not just in casting Gloria Swanson in casting in the role of Nora Desmond - a role that forms a cruel allegory for her own career, but also (and perhaps, more so) in casting Erich von Stroheim as her servant/silent lover. Man, what was Wilder thinking when he made this movie!!!

    Further, the cynical voiceover, used very effectively in the movie, forms the perfect counterpoint for the film, as well as, Wilder's vitriolic attack on the inherent hollowness within the glamour and showbiz of the dream factory of Hollywood (and for that matter, any film industry), and the accompanying narcissism, self-delusion and loneliness.

  3. The book that I closely associate with the movie's theme is Harold Robbins' The Dream Merchants - one of my favourite books and an unforgettable expose of the Hollywood (and American) film industry.

  4. Sunset Blvd. #8? Oh well... It's my #1 movie, maybe.

  5. Wilder, Wilder, Wilder! Dave, a superb essay on a film that will appear in my own top 10! A wonderful acidic script filled with black humor. Holden, Swanson, Von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark and the great stars of the silent era who play themselves all are wonderful. The film acting truly belongs though to Holden as Joe Gillis who sells himself out, and to Swanson in a perfect over the top performance that matches her characters personality (I am big!, it's the picture that got small!). Then there is the brilliant cinematography of John Seitz and the music of Franz Waxman all contributing superlatively. This is classic Wilder slapping Hollywood in the face exposing the reality behind the facade.
    In the near future I will be doing my own review of this masterpiece!
    I suspect strongly we will be seeing more Wilder in the remaining few to be counted down!

    BTW - Totally agree on RIFIFI (did not get a chance to get on line yesterday), one of Dassin's greatest!

  6. Samuel - I can see this, and would probably agree that it's almost in a class by itself in terms of classification. It's another case where it is so well accepted as being part of the noir canon, that I just go with it. One could argue it is almost as much of a black comedy as it is a noir, but I think it's a little bit of everything - noir, comedy, drama, tragedy. It's quite the accomplishment.

    Shubhajit - Hall of Fame worthy comments here and we are certainly on the same page. As you say, it's basically all personal preference at this point in terms of ranking, even down to something as minor as _when_ the list is being made. Everything about this film is top notch.

    Quirky - Hard to argue with that assessment... I wouldn't disagree with anyone who has it as their #1 film of all time.

    John - Awesome stuff here. I know that you are another HUGE Billy Wilder fan, so I thought that this would be a top choice for you as well. Seitz and Waxman certainly make significant contribution, and as I say in my piece, Seitz continues to blow me away.

    And glad to hear your high esteem of Rififi... if memory serves me right, I think that you also chose it as your top film of 1955.

  7. SUNSET BOULEVARD is one of the greatest of all American films in any category, and for me Gloria Swanson's performance is one of teh greatest by a lead performer in movie history. Von Stroheim's performance is unforgettable, the framing device a movie landmark, and the corrosive underpinn9ing and dialogue models of their. All that adds up to an easy Top 10 placement.

  8. Oh, and Holden was definitely robbed of the Oscar that year.

  9. I feel almost bad for not liking the movie as much as any of you gentlemen do (though it is great), but it did manage to get a powerful response from me. I found the movie hard to watch, the character of Norma Desmond is so sad and pathetic it hurts, you want to hate her for her all her faults, but you just can't, not only because she's pathetic, but because the way the movie industry dealt with her seems so cruel.

    Maybe I'd like it more on a second viewing. And great review, as always.

  10. Sam - Wonderfully succinct response here that is spot on.

    QuebecGuy - I think Billy Wilder may have taken your comment here as compliment. Even though you don't particularly like the movie, you recognize that Norma Desmond is actually a sad commentary on the industry. I completely understand where you are coming from though and can see this response.

  11. I have to join the choir and praise the greatness of this film. It is one of my favorite films ever in any genre. I also agree with you Dave that Wilder would take Quebec's misgivings as a compliment lol. As sad as Swanson may be in this film the real heartbreak for me is seeing the great Keaton being acknowledged as a forgotten figure in Hollywood. The man was so brilliant that his discarding from the spotlight is more painful than even this film can convey. He deserved better.........M.Roca

  12. Oh, but don't get me wrong, I loved the character exactly for those reasons. It's just that I found it so heartbreaking and plausible, mix that with all those contradictory emotions you feel for one character (hell, I really didn't know how to feel about Joe either), that I had an hard time actually enjoying the film! And it's not like I don't enjoy movies that make you uneasy, but like you pointed out, this one seems so awfully true (as if it really was about some forgotten actor).

    But that said, I recognize it's greatness and the fact that it had such an impact on me is a proof of it, but I'll need time to really digest all of it and fully appreciate the movie. Haha, I bet I seem really confused, but in a way, I guess I am.