Combustible Celluloid
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With: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, Jack Webb, Franklyn Farnum, Larry J. Blake, Charles Dayton, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton
Written by: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Directed by: Billy Wilder
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 110
Date: 19/03/2013

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Of all Billy Wilder's cinematic creations, the most inspired is arguably the device of having Sunset Boulevard (1950) narrated by a dead man. The movie opens with the unforgettable image of screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating upside down in a pool, while he speaks to us on the soundtrack. He has the ultimate gift of hindsight as he tells his bizarre story that could only have happened in Hollywood. (Sunset Boulevard plays May 5 - 12 at San Francisco's Bridge Theater.)

Gillis is something of a hack and is unable to pay his bills. Escaping from creditors, he pulls into the driveway of a dilapidated old Hollywood mansion, which, to his surprise, is still occupied by a formerly great silent film star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). She hires him to re-write her voluminous script of Salome, which is to be her big comeback. (Rita Hayworth played in a film of Salome just three years later.) Gillis agrees for the money and for the hiding place.

Sunset Boulevard is arguably Wilder's best film, although it's got stiff competition from such works as Double Indemnity (1944), Ace in the Hole (1951), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960). It's often called "cynical" but I think the word is just "clever". It's astonishing that a man who taught himself English through comic strips was able to master such a wit and a searingly intelligent outlook on American life. Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett (along with D.M. Marshman Jr.) were the first to notice the horrible fate of the old-time silent stars, many of whom were still alive in 1950. How much more terrible it must be to be on top of the world, and then forgotten; to have known a taste of heaven before being dumped into hell.

Indeed, Sunset Boulevard was perhaps the first film of the second generation of Hollywood, and like Jean-Luc Godard's self-referential works, it closed the door on the first generation. The movie takes place mostly in Desmond's old mansion and the studio lot. It's constantly fading back and forth between the old and the new, the fake and the real. The few scenes that take place in the real world, i.e. Desmond buying new clothes for Gillis, feel somehow dreamlike, as if they're tinted with a ghostliness.

Inside Desmond's mansion, we're treated to all kinds of sights that don't seem real; the funeral for the monkey, the wheezing organ, and the New Year's party for two. These are the things that are happening in the present day. Yet the events having to do with past years are more vivid; Desmond showing Gillis her old movies, and the "waxworks" (including the great Buster Keaton) playing cards. When Gillis begins meeting a lovely young screenwriter (Nancy Olson) on the studio lot at night, they take walks around the cardboard western sets. Again, it feels both real and fake.

The three great silent movie directors featured in Sunset Boulevard have fallen to different levels. Cecil B. DeMille is still making films at the studio, and is still well respected. In real life, he was still going strong. He had yet to make two of his biggest hits, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and The Ten Commandments (1956). Buster Keaton was simply forgotten by then, invited to play cards once in a while. But Erich von Stroheim -- not playing himself, but simply a version of himself -- has sunk to being Desmond's servant, his hopes for romance and power forever lost. When Desmond shows Gillis her old film it's Queen Kelly (1929), a real, although incomplete, film directed by Stroheim and starring Swanson. It's interesting to look at these three and wonder about their fates. Is DeMille still working because he was mainstream and commercial, while more personal artists have fallen?

Desmond herself is a great character. She's full of flourishes and vanity, trying to remain the movie star. She's so completely phony that the phoniness is stretched thin and the truth is revealed. It's a great performance by Gloria Swanson. Ironically, Desmond, the silent movie star who never spoke onscreen, has all the best lines, "we didn't need talk; we had faces" and "I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille."

Sunset Boulevard is a high-style movie, not meant to unleash any emotional revelations. It's meant to give us a kick with its sights, sounds, shadows, and light. It's all image -- from Gillis floating in the pool to Desmond leering at the camera, coming in for her closeup. It's a perfectly controlled masterpiece that captured a peculiar moment in movie history.

DVD Details: Wilder would be proud to see the new DVD of Sunset Boulevard (1950, Paramount, $24.99), which contains the absolute finest digital black-and-white transfer I've yet seen. Do not pass this one up.

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