Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Sunset Blvd. (1950): Billy Wilder's All-Time Classic Explored

As a caustic, cynical take on Hollywood and the nature of fame, Billy Wilder's 1950 classic is perhaps the definitive movie about the studio system of that era, shot in a distinctive, neo-gothic Film Noir style. From the first frame, we are presented with an unconventional story, narrated by an already slain man, seen from beneath the waters of a pool; his unblinking, dead gaze assuring us of an inevitable, unhappy outcome.

Sunset Blvd. - The Plot

We soon learn that our narrator is Joe Gillis (William Holden), a washed-up writer who accidentally stumbles across a decaying mansion off Sunset Boulevard, home to former silent era queen, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).

Ducking from creditors, he slips into her drive, then into her house, discovering the two sole inhabitants: Desmond, plus her faithful butler/driver/servant, Max (Erich von Stroheim), surrounded by the dusty trappings of a former life. You see, Norma was a star, once - back before the vulgarity of the talkies ("We didn't need voices. We had faces!" she protests), an already bygone era; hers, a forgotten name.

When Desmond discovers that Joe is a writer, she insists he pens her screenplay, one that will serve as her grand return to cinema and to her adoring public. Joe witnesses the extent of her delusion but regardless, sniffs a buck and agrees to move in and develop her project, soon becoming her gigolo.

Tensions mount as Joe meets Betty (Nancy Olson), a studio staff writer, then begins a relationship with her, enraging Norma's jealousies. Max reveals his earlier status as Desmond's former director and husband, still very much in love with her.

A confrontation ends when a pistol rings out in the night, resulting in Norma's final, grotesque return to some kind of fame. As she prepares to descend the vast staircase one last time to meet the throng of gathered press and flashbulbs, she famously announces: "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."


Its All in the Detail

Astonishingly, the images adorning the walls of the mansion are of Swanson in her (younger) glory days, herself a victim of the demise of silent movies. The movie Max screens for Joe was an as-then unreleased film directed by Stroheim himself, starring Swanson. As a director, Stroheim was another refugee of that silent era.

Continuing this theme, we are presented with a wealth of detail: in one scene, Norma has visitors over for a game of cards; the players are from that same bygone era, esteemed company that includes Buster Keaton.

 Buster Keaton in Sunset Blvd.

When Desmond is granted brief audience on the sound stage of a Hollywood studio, Cecil B. DeMille cameos as himself, directing the movie Samson and Delilah. He successfully makes the transition into modernity whilst observing her descent.

Holden himself was out of favour when Sunset Blvd. was greenlit for production, struggling with a drinking habit that would blight his career, mirroring the plight of his character Joe, further galvanising the art-imitating-life undercurrent.

As a film in it's own right, Sunset Blvd. is classic cinema. Closer examination however reveals a wealth of clever complexities, elevating the movie to a masterpiece, perfectly encapsulating the pernicious nature of fame and success.

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