|SUNSET BLVD. (1950)|
Erich von Stroheim
|"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"|
|Time: 110 mins.|
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Film Noir/Romance/Drama
Won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Score and Screenplay. Nominated for 8 other awards including Best Picture.
Almost nothing gives me greater cinematic pleasure than watching a film directed by Billy Wilder. His characters are always well-developed, interesting and urbane. The situations they find themselves in are highly problematic, sometimes life-threatening and rarely end up for the best. SUNSET BLVD. is no exception. Here he explores the dark side of stardom how people will sacrifice everything to achieve it and subsequently do anything to hold onto it. On the surface this is a bleak tale, but the casting of sexy, smart and snappy William Holden, gives the affair a wry wit despite the tragic circumstances. What makes it great is the total lack of melodrama. The tale is told straight, with no punches pulled. It is one of the best film noirs ever made, even though it has nothing to do with mysterious dames and double-crossing murders. It does, however, have plenty of lies, obsession, jealousy and betrayal, as well as the unfortunate death of our lead male star.
Don't worry, I haven't ruined anything for you. The film opens with Holden dead, floating face down in a swimming pool. His spirit is still with us though as the narrator, taking us on the journey of his recent past and explaining how he wound up wet and deceased. It's the tawdry take of Joe Gillis, a hack writer trying to break into Hollywood. He's had some small successes, but things are getting rough and if he doesn't come up with a job ASAP, he's going to lose his car and wind up on the street. His agent is of no help and the only producer he knows, has nothing for him either. While trying to avoid repossession of his vehicle, he ducks into a seemingly abandoned driveway, only to find himself in the strangest predicament he's ever come across. It seems he's wandered into the over done mansion of the once-great silent movie queen Norma Desmond (Swanson). His intrusion is initially unwelcome until she learns that he's a writer.
Needing some quick cash, he manipulates her into hiring him to fix the script she's been working on for her "return" to the big screen. Unfortunately for him, she's no wilting flower and soon turns the tables on him. His life is turned upside down in an effort to satisfy her larger than life personality and outrageous demands. He knows that no matter how much he works on the script it's never going to be good enough, but is quickly no longer in a position to refuse Norma or her affections. He's unhappy with his "kept man" status, but is enjoying the life Norma's money provides. He no longer has to worry about working, so why not play along, let her believe what she wants to about their relationship and her comeback? Unfortunately, she's more unstable than he thought and by the time he discovers just how much, he's too emotionally attached to leave. He's not in love with her, but her vulnerability has captured his heart. In the end, his need for freedom, to make a name for himself, causes Norma's obsession to turn deadly.
It can't have been easy for Gloria Swanson to play Norma Desmond. Who could tap into the anger and self-delusion better than a woman who went through the highs of being "a face" to the lows of being discarded. Of course, Swanson is not Desmond, but she has to be given credit for seeing the irony and making the most of this part. It would be easy to just consider her crazy, but as we slowly learn, the way her life turned out wasn't always her fault. Nor is Joe completely without blame. He let his greed get in the way, his need to prove himself better than those measly copywriters he left behind. With Norma's support, who needs talent? There's something about William Holden that makes you like him regardless of how sleazy his character acts. He seems made for this part and he makes the most of it. One forgives him his little flaws, because you want to see him succeed. We should be disgusted by his behavior, but since he doesn't have a problem with it, why should we?
In any other director's hands this film would be downright lurid. Yet Wilder makes us hope for this doomed couple. It initially seems that they're going to be able to give each other what they've been longing for. They even find happiness for a time. However, both of them are too selfish to give in to the other, hiding their true selves until their secret desires collide. It's powerful stuff, made eminently watchable due to the talent of all involved. It's a cautionary tale that's as poignant and viable today as it was 50 years ago. On the surface, it's a story about the dangers of Hollywood, but it could have been placed anywhere. They rarely write characters this interesting and human anymore. With gorgeous sets, revealing dialogue, amazing acting and stunning cinematography, this is one of the all-time great film-noirs. Wilder is one of the only director's to master every genre from comedy to courtroom to concentration camp, his film's are some of the best ever made. Never dull, all unique, always entertaining. Especially this one. You're truly missing something if you've never seen it.