Sunset Blvd. (1950, Billy Wilder)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
The thesis: Wilder mocks Hollywood mercilessly and Hollywood, for some reason, can’t get enough. The Hungarian director opens his biggest decade with a film that concisely signals much of what was to come: a lashing out against systematic “normalcy,” a revenge against those perceived bloodless, and cynicism on top of cynicism. But Wilder isn’t nearly so mean-spirited as his detractors would have us believe, at least no more than contemporary British directors like Alexander Mackendrick and Robert Hamer. As much as Some Like It Hot would be a celebration, Ace in the Hole and Sunset Blvd. are protests, carrying the ruthless underbelly-haunting of Double Indemnity into areas — journalism, filmmaking — that seem outwardly less murky and full of dread. But misery, Wilder argues, is everywhere, and always threatening to trap us. How intriguing that so dark a message would resonate enough for this bald indictment of Wilder’s own industry, studio-produced and studio-funded and completely explicit about it (Paramount and various other companies and industry figures have prominent placements in the story), to not only be welcomed with open arms by those it castigated (save the likes of Louis B. Mayer, who chided Wilder and was told to fuck himself) but still, even now, recognized as a top caliber example of the classic American cinema it seeks to demystify.
William Holden is a knowing wreck as the streetwise but hapless smartass Joe Gillis, an out-of-work screenwriter desperate to dodge creditors trying to repossess his car. As he moves from studio to studio trying to get them to buy one property or another, or at least secure an “additional dialogue” gig, he chances upon the old Hollywood mansion of washed-up silent screen actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, brilliantly multifaceted and shattered), whose delusions of grandeur have endured thanks in large part to the efforts of her live-in butler and longtime neutered companion Max (Erich von Stroheim, one of the key directors of the silent era). She screens her own 1920s films in haunting isolation and is perpetually, she believes, on the verge of returning to work at Paramount, where she’s convinced Cecil B. DeMille still has a place for her, ignorant to everything that’s changed in the intervening years. But Joe’s increasing reliance on Norma — she supports him financially — is finally just a symptom of his own fractured life, which starts to look up when he begins collaborating by night with studio script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). But when he looks into Betty’s face he sees a wide-eyed love and warmth that sends him into a classic Wilder awareness of his own moral inadequacy, of the ugliness of the world he’s steeped in — conflicted, like so many, between least-resistance obligation and being “alive.” Like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity or Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, he’s trapped — and as in the former film, the entire narrative line is inherently hopeless: the film opens with Joe’s death, and he narrates from beyond the grave.
A common thread in Wilder’s ’50s films is that they play tremendously well today because Wilder’s sense of irony and eloquent suspicion of all institutions and people are things that resonate even more strongly now; either we’ve caught up with him, thanks in part to later complex (but corporate-sponsored) institutions of skepticism like The Simpsons, or he was just that prescient. Like Hitchcock, he dispensed with many things that in the middle of the century were considered vital to commercial movies, perhaps coincidentally the very things (showcase acting, most but not all of the hackneyed-romance element) that have dated their peers’ work today. Of course, some would simply state that this is a testament to how much we’ve been overloaded with snide sardonics these last several decades, but who’s to say? The point is that Wilder’s work seems strikingly prophetic today and certainly of a piece to our contemporary understanding of comedy, satire, and characterization. That last point is key: Wilder’s relationship to his characters is unusual and intricate. He doesn’t tend to show much affection for the people he writes about, but he seems to know them completely, his interest lying in their totality rather than their placement or importance in a given story. He’s at his best when tackling characters rich with contradiction, which he strives — and usually succeeds — to investigate and explain.
Sunset is a deserved classic that impresses and reels in the audience on first pass with its sniping, devilish humor and the completeness of its dark, amoral message — making it a sort of peripheral film noir (though not, I would argue, a “classic” noir since it’s not a crime drama), then becomes more rich and enveloping on each repeated visit. Not unlike Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s concurrent All About Eve, it’s a film that rewards the audience by confirming their suspicions, upending their general impressions of what constitutes “movie” logic. In this sense, context is to Wilder’s advantage, then as now. The drift down expected-yet-unexpected avenues would reappear in Stalag 17 and Witness for the Prosecution, among others. The impulse one feels that Swanson is out to deprogram our hero, a man at the end of his rope, is satisfied by subsequent happenings, yet Swanson is sophisticated enough not to completely make Norma Desmond the caricature she could have been, the one Wilder periodically seems intent upon making her. But those are things you appreciate much more on revisiting the film; it takes her side more than you remember. She remains alluring and interesting and charismatic, and she’s quite wonderful — if manipulative — toward Joe. But the story is presented skillfully enough from his perspective that we do yearn for Olson’s wide-eyed, unconditional affection: not because she is younger or more “feminine” but because she represents escape, an escape that Joe needed long before he entered Norma’s web.
Cynicism is one thing, of course, and hostility is another. With this film and its follow-up, Ace in the Hole, we must consider how much post-adolescent value we can find in a cinematic world so unforgivingly nasty; that’s why one comes to appreciate those notes of levity and sweetness in the characters later on, because Wilder has succeeded at seeping us completely in the all-consuming murk of The Business, or The Business as an outsider, a frustrated castaway, or a tabloid might have seen it. The transition to sound is thus far the only truly sweeping one that’s ever taken hold in the film industry, Hollywood in particular (two-strip color films were being made as early as 1932, black and white wasn’t even beginning to grow uncommon until the mid-’60s), and it’s no shock that there are so many self-reflexive films about the change, up to and including last year’s The Artist. But the fashionable comparison to make is Singin’ in the Rain, which portrays and dramatizes the volatile years of the changeover rather than approaching it from a distance of decades. Many silent buffs will give you a deathly glare if you admit to an allegiance to either of these films; both are certainly rife with surprisingly pointed mockery and jabbing at Hollywood filmmaking, but my argument would be that they also treat the industry as a continuum: the commercial motives and silly ideas triumphed in the ’20s as they always would, and if anything Sunset Blvd. explicitly suggests that artistry in the belly of the machine is a thing of the past.
Extrapolating from that point, it’s not going out on a limb to argue that the surreal world Norma and Max inhabit is a paragon of misplaced creativity: monkey funerals and screening rooms and big empty dance parties, and of course the game nights attended by the likes of Buster Keaton, his face still as expressive and elastic as ever. Sunset Blvd. aches with loss, not just for the youth that’s rapidly running afield of Joe, but for ghosts of the past that already elude and taunt Norma and, the film warns, will one day leave us all behind, past glories and opportunities as permanently out of reach as the world to which Norma reaches out in vain in the final scene, after she’s killed Joe. Wilder, for his part, meant for his sensationally harsh attack to be taken seriously; it seems almost a deliberate de-glamorizing of the system in which he arguably held as much influence as any director of the period. The participation of DeMille (in a fascinating, revealing sequence on the Paramount lot), Paramount Pictures itself as the film’s backer and as a self-referential fixture in the story, and even Hedda Hopper provide the acidic deconstruction with the stamp of authenticity and unabashed self-effacement. Sure, you could argue that the film is a wind-up whose only pitch is the ruined life of a once-beloved superstar, just a chance for us all to participate in Wilder’s contempt, but Norma escapes, at least, into her mind. Sunset Blvd. means to tear itself down (even Franz Waxman’s score plays, at least today, as a parody of itself), not the people wandering in it, and not the people gazing at it from afar. Stay away, it screams, from this dirty town.
There are many other, smaller ways that Wilder might have taken easy ways out of his story: for instance, by allowing Joe to find himself immune to Norma’s impulses — all of the power in the screenplay is emitted from the way she pulls him farther into her bleak, desolate world — or by rendering Joe a plastic enough character to get down on his knees and plead to explain everything to Betty when she discovers the way he lives. But that doesn’t happen. Joe calmly takes Betty on a tour of the house, packs his bags and gets ready to move on with life, expecting nothing of himself or those around him beyond what he knows them to be capable of; it’s hard to discern if he already knows he is to be murdered that night. And is Norma Desmond a true portrait of a specific starlet from a bygone era? It’s most popular to attribute her as a caricature of Norma Talmadge, making Max a fusion of von Stroheim himself (as commonly believed) and Talmadge’s producer-husband Joseph Schenck. But Talmadge lived her last years in quiet and never expressed any desire to return to show business — between this and her more mean-spirited translation into Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, it all seems as unfair as the misconception that Susan Alexander is an unadorned evocation of Marion Davies. But these movie-people are based on our ideas, on our cinematic perception and flights of fancy about the way of the world in Hollywood. In some sense, Wilder’s gritty Hollywood is as fictitious as that of old MGM “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” newsreels — and no less memorable or affecting for it.
It’s bound to become routine in this blog as we explore Wilder’s films to refute the idea that he wasn’t much of a visual stylist, but it bears repeating: the look of Sunset Blvd., in its dense layers of black, its sense of atmospheric foreboding, the imprisoning nature of its compositions, is distinctive and extraordinary. Cinematographer John Seitz worked as well on Wilder’s Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend; in the claustrophobia of these films, the pair defined the language of noir. Wilder might have argued that the dialogue was what matters most, but he gives the lie to that conclusion here — this is a story told visually, and powerfully so.
Sunset Blvd. could easily have been just a black comedy about Hollywood misfits, or a drama about avoidance and wasted opportunity. Oddly enough, it is the element of the macabre bubbling just below the surface that gives it its power. The voiceover allusion to Miss Havisham, though laid out a bit too explicity (the voiceover in general overreaches a bit), is more than appropriate. This is a horror film disguised as a bitter slice of anti-nostalgia, one that keenly observes the romance of movietown circa 1950 and anticipates it circa today to craft storytelling that knows how to shock, and scar.
[Portions of this are lifted from a review I wrote in 2005.]