Saturday, November 23, 2013

2013 Blind Spot Series: Sunset Boulevard

Directed by Billy Wilder and written by Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman, Jr., Sunset Boulevard is the story of a lowly screenwriter who tries to write a script for a fading silent star actress in the hope to revive her career. The film is an exploration into the world of Hollywood and how it treats those whose time have come and gone as it’s told in a film-noir style. Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, and Nancy Olson. Sunset Boulevard is a spectacular film from Billy Wilder.

The film is the story about a debt-ridden B-movie screenwriter who finds himself at the home of a fading silent star actress who is convinced that she will return as she hires the man to help her shape her script and become her lover while her loyal butler watches closely. It’s a film that explores the world of Hollywood and how fickle it can be as times have changed as there’s a man trying to make a break as a screenwriter though he has ideas that aren’t so great. There’s an aging actress who hadn’t been in the films for years yet is convinced that she is still a movie star that gets fan letters all the time. All of it is told by the screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden) who is first seen lying dead on a swimming pool as he narrates the entire story trying to figure out what he got himself into.

The film’s screenplay has this unique narrative that is told by its protagonist who is found dead at the beginning of the film as it’s a narration that is sort of reflective but told in a noir-like language to give a sense of style where Gillis definitely has some regrets over the way he handled things and as well as the mess he got himself into. It starts off as someone who is full of ideas but not a lot of them that Hollywood wants as he owes money where he tries to hide from repossession men where he finds himself in a mysterious mansion that turns out to be the home of the once great silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Desmond is convinced that she will make a grand return to the big screen as she has created a project that will put her back on top despite not having been in the films since the emergence of sound in films. Still, she is still convinced that she is a star as she also waits for a phone call from Cecil B. DeMille whom she had worked with.

Another person that is crucial to the story is Desmond’s loyal butler/driver Max (Erich von Stroheim) who is also Norma’s great protector as he shields her from the reality that she’s unaware of. Especially as knows a lot more than one wants to think as Gillis is suspicious about Max as he finds himself trapped in Desmond’s home yet has no choice but to be with her. Still, he finds it suffocating an encounter with a script-reader named Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) leads to a script collaboration between the two that makes Desmond very suspicious about Gillis’ frequent departure from the house. All of it would lead to some conflict over what is really going on around Desmond and how out of touch she is.

The direction of Billy Wilder is truly stylish from the way he opens the film that includes the shot of Gillis’ body lying face down in the swimming pool as he’s narrating the film. While some of the compositions are quite simple and to the point, there is that element of style that Wilder wants in terms of close-ups and slow zooms as well as some extravagant crane shots. Much of it is to display a world in Hollywood that is changing where a lot is happening where there are those that have no clue of the past though there are some who do recognize Desmond despite the fact that she hasn’t been around for years. There’s also some cameos that appear in the film to play up into a world that Desmond wants such as a bridge game with other silent film stars who don’t say anything yet there’s an element of meta-acting in their appearances.

There is also some satire that explores the way Hollywood is and such as Wilder showcases a place that Desmond doesn’t recognize yet is convinced that people know who she is. Even as the big scene where she arrives at Paramount studios showcases that sense of disconnect that she is unaware of where she meets Cecil B. DeMille who is surprised by her arrival as he is someone who doesn’t have the heart to disappoint her. Things do get darker in the third act when Desmond learns about Schaefer and Gillis where it all plays to something that is wild and melodramatic that would one of the most unforgettable endings in film. Overall, Wilder creates a very sensational yet dark film about the fickleness of Hollywood and a woman’s loss with reality.

Cinematographer John F. Seitz does brilliant work with the film‘s black-and-white photography from the bright look of its daytime exteriors to some of the stylish lights for the scenes at night including the scenes outside of the house to showcase a world that seems long and gone. Editors Doane Harrison and Arthur Schmidt do excellent work with the editing by going in a straightforward approach with the editing though infusing the film with some style in its transitional dissolves and montages. Art director Hans Dreier and John Meehan, along with set decorators Sam Comer and Ray Moyer, do fantastic work with the home of Norma Desmond with its old-school look and a room full of her photos to showcase the sense of disconnect in her life.

Costume designer Edith Head does wonderful work with the costumes from the suits that Max and Gillis wears to the lavish dresses that Desmond wears throughout the entirety of the film. Sound recorders John Cope and Harry Lindgren do superb work with the sound to play into the tense atmosphere of the Desmond home as well as the raucous nature of some of the party scenes and such in the film. The film’s music by Franz Waxman is amazing for its bombastic yet thrilling orchestral score to play out some of the suspense and melodrama that just adds a lot of power to the film.

The film’s cast is incredible as it features some appearances from Cecil B. DeMille as himself as well as silent film stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner as bridge players, and famed gossip writer Hedda Hopper as herself in the film’s final scene. Fred Clark is terrific as Paramount producer Sheldrake while Jack Webb is excellent as Schaefer’s fiancĂ©e in assistant director Artie Green. Nancy Olson is wonderful as Betty Schaefer as script-reader who wants to write her own scripts where her strong opinions as her teaming up with Gillis where she finds herself falling for him. Erich von Stroheim is marvelous as Norma’s longtime assistant Max as a man who is her great protector as well as a man who knows more about her than anyone as there’s a lot more to him that makes von Stroheim’s performance far more entrancing.

William Holden is amazing as Joe Gillis as this lowly and unlucky screenwriter who arrives into the Desmond home by accident as he is someone that is just trying to catch a break only to become Desmond’s new companion for better or worse as he also drives the story to unveil all of the mistakes and such that he’s made. Finally, there’s Gloria Swanson in an astounding performance as Norma Desmond. Swanson brings a sense of terror and melodrama to the role as someone who believes she is bigger than life as well as someone who has lost touch with reality. It’s a truly tour-de-force performance that is really unlike anything or anyone as it’s definitely one that no one will forget.

Sunset Boulevard is a magnificent film from Billy Wilder that features phenomenal performances from Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich von Stroheim. It’s a film that explores the dark side of Hollywood and how one so desperately craves to be in the spotlight again no matter how much things have changed. It’s also one of Wilder’s most entrancing films for its striking visuals and witty satire on Hollywood’s fickleness. In the end, Sunset Boulevard is a triumphant film from Billy Wilder.

Billy Wilder Films: (Mauvaise Graine) - (The Major and the Minor) - (Five Graves to Cairo) - Double Indemnity - The Lost Weekend - (The Emperor Waltz) - (A Foreign Affair) - Ace in the Hole - Stalag 17 - (Sabrina) - (The Seven Year Itch) - (The Spirit of St. Louis) - (Love in the Afternoon) - (Witness for the Prosecution) - Some Like It Hot - The Apartment - (One, Two, Three) - (Irma La Douce) - (Kiss Me, Stupid) - (The Fortune Cookie) - (The Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes) - (Avanti!) - (The Front Page) - (Fedora) - (Buddy Buddy)

© thevoid99 2013


Unknown said...

Great post! I'm preparing a Billy Wilder watchlist for December and I'll make sure to add this one to it. By the way, I've given you a Sunshine Award Keep up the great postings! :)

thevoid99 said...

Thank you. I hope you enjoy those Wilder films as he's certainly one of the best.