Saturday, February 2, 2013

229. Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Running Time: 110 minutes
Directed By: Billy Wilder
Written By: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr., from the story A Can of Beans by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
Main Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Jack Webb
Click here to view the trailer


"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

Surprisingly, it looks like I'm actually going to wrap up "Wilder Week" in about one week - an anomaly that usually never happens. Today it's "Sunset Blvd." and you can expect "Some Like It Hot" on Monday or Tuesday.

On the run from a couple of debt collectors, down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden), pulls into the driveway of a Hollywood mansion. I guess you should know that our story takes place in California, but more specifically, the place where stars call home and even more specifically, Sunset Boulevard. When Gillis pulls into that driveway, he thinks that the mansion is abandoned and decides to stash his car away in the garage, where another old car with 1932 tags is parked, looking like an artifact from an age gone by. It isn't long before Gillis realizes that the house isn't abandoned and is actually occupied by two people: ex-silent film star Norma Desmond (Swanson) and her butler/chauffeur/assistant Max (von Stroheim). After their initial meeting, in which Desmond mistakes Gillis for an undertaker (who is expected - to bury her dead chimp), Desmond finds out that Joe is a screenwriter and propositions him to rewrite her script - an adaptation of Salome, which she intends to deliver to Cecil B. DeMille and star in it. Needing the extra dough and a place to hole up for a few days, Joe takes the job, but soon finds that he's being kept around as much more than a script doctor. It seems that Desmond is prepping Joe to be her next husband and is already treating him like her boy toy, buying him expensive clothers, jewelery and treating him like a trophy. It also needs to be noted that Norma Desmond is completely off her rocker and believe that she's still a somebody, when in fact, she's clearly a has-been, that no one really cares about anymore - an extinguished star. Meanwhile, Betty Schaefer (Olson), a reader at Paramount, has happened upon one of Joe's original scripts and wants to rewrite it and petition to have it shot, but Joe can't be found and seems to have fallen out of the loop.

What to say about "Sunset Blvd.", a picture that many people cherish and very few dislike. Well, I'll tell you one thing - this is the second time I'd seen "Sunset Blvd." and the first time I saw it, I was one of those few that disliked it. I can't quite remember my reasons, I'd probably chalk it up to not being in the right mood at the right time, but I remember jotting it down as a '1/10' and vowing never to watch it again...or something like that - it all sounds a lot more dramatic than it really is. However, thinking back, I knew my reaction was a little overboard, because I didn't dread watching it this time around, in fact, I was really excited to give this picture another shot. My tastes have changed so much that I rarely dread watching movies that I once wrote off as tripe. So last night, I watched it again and my final opinion is....that the "Sunset Blvd." is just pretty good. Allow me to explain, won't you?

There are certain aspects of "Sunset Blvd." that ARE must see and that ARE really well done. The fact that it's a film noir, but doesn't submit to the usual film noir requirements, is something I enjoyed. There are no detectives, insurance investigators or haggard ex-cops and the cigarette dragging is kept to a minimum. However, at the same time, the use of shadows is prevalent and the fact that the story is told in flashback form also works for me. I enjoyed that the film was really one big tribute to a Hollywood that didn't exist anymore. The film was produced in 1950, perhaps at a time when the tide in Hollywood was turning? New directors and actors on their way in and old ones being forced out? I don't know if 1950 brought those changes or not, but that's certainly one of the themes in "Sunset" and I found it all very fascinating. The whole eeriness of the picture is also fantastic and "Sunset" actually comes really close to being classified as a horror picture and had they pursued the thriller element a little more, I think I'd have taken to it a lot better. Plus, you have to remember that this film was shot in the late 40s and despite that, the film still covers some pretty risky topics, most notably the relationship between a younger man and an older woman.

The film reminded me that even the stars of yesteryear had their troubles. Sometimes I, and I think most others, tend to think that older stars were more classy and dignified and that when they watch "Extra" or "The Insider" today and hear scandalous stories, that it's just today's crop acting out. When doing some research for this film, I chased link after link and found some fascinating stories: Cecil B. DeMille was a notorious foot fetishist and Clara Bow apparently had all sorts of problems. And, of course, there's Norma Desmond, a murdering megalomaniac who can't let go of the past.

As far as my mediocre opinions on "Sunset Blvd.", I just couldn't get all the way lost in it for some reason. For one, I didn't like the subplot with Nancy Olson and found her to be a small fish, swimming with some very big and talented fish. In other words, I found her to be dreadful and would have much preferred to focus on the Holden/Swanson/von Stroheim stuff, exclusively. With Betty Schaefer left out of the mix, they would have had more time to focus on the insanity of Norma and the tense situations between her and Joe and this only would've added more terrifying, uncomfortable and gripping scenes.

RATING: 6.5/10  In all honesty, I can actually see myself warming up to this one, once I've had some time to mull it over. For now, we'll play it safe and I'd still call it a "must see", if only for the stellar performance of Swanson. Next up in "Wilder Week": "Some Like it Hot" - the conclusion...but not till, at least, Monday.


February 2, 2013  11:40am


  1. I really was slacking for a while wasn't I?
    I missed a reply to this, one of my favourite films.
    Relieved you changed from the dreaded '1', and hey, you still are open to going higher one day.
    As will all Noir - or noir-ish, it was the atmosphere that grabbed me. Norma's gloomy, dusty old house.. you could feel the depression and despair that had seeped into the walls, like some modern day House of Usher.
    And such control by Stroheim.. letting Swanson do all the overacting, letting her have the limelight.
    A winner for me.

    1. Yep, this didn't make it on to my last TOP 20 list, but it could definitely use one more look.


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