Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Director: Billy Wilder                                        Writers: Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett
Film Score: Franz Waxman                              Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim and Nancy Olson

Most critics are generally reluctant to classify Sunset Boulevard as film noir. Perhaps it’s because it lacks the element of crime. But then that’s never been the exclusive definition of noir. What it does have is a man’s seduction that leads to self-loathing, a femme fatale who ensnares him, and his ultimate demise at her hands. Wilder’s film came at the end of the studio’s hold over talent and this led to a willingness for filmmakers to be more critical of their industry, and was the same year Joseph Mankiewicz directed exposé about actors in the Broadway theater, All About Eve. The result was more films of this kind, like The Bad and the Beautiful. But somehow Wilder’s film stands apart, not only because of the brilliant writing, but because the story encompasses so much more than just Hollywood. Ultimately it’s about human nature at its most elemental, and that has always been the place where film noir has been its most effective.

The story begins in flashback with William Holden as a struggling writer. The repo men come to take away his car and he tells them it’s in the shop, then heads over to the studio to make one last desperate attempt to sell his most recent script to producer Fred Clark. But reader Nancy Olson brings it in and tells him it’s no good. On his way home the repo men spot Holden and he manages to elude them, but when he gets a flat he’s forced to duck into the nearest driveway and hide the car in the garage. The house, however, is owned by former silent film star Gloria Swanson, and it’s here that his descent begins. She’s writing a script and he thinks he’s conning her into letting him help her. But before he knows it she’s had her butler, Erich von Stroheim, move all of his things from his apartment to her house. He chafes at first, but he has nowhere else to go and finally relents. It’s then that things evolve from just a working relationship to a sexual one. He tries to get away, at one point running into Olson who wants to be a writer herself, and the two embark on their own screenplay. Now Holden is leading a double life, but one that Swanson won’t put up with for long.

The opening of the film begins in true noir fashion, a gunshot and a death and a voiceover by Holden telling how all of it happened. Holden and Swanson and von Stroheim are the perfect love triangle. Her obsession with making a comeback--as much as Holden berates von Stroheim for deluding her--is just as much fueled by Holden’s deception. The real irony is that it’s his own greed that has really trapped Holden and once he realizes it, it’s too late. But a mere recounting of the plot does nothing to convey the magnificence of the film. First there is Wilder and Brackett’s incredible wit. The humor that comes out of the grimmest of situations is fantastic. The production design at the old house is the perfect setting for conveying the decay of Hollywood and its façade of its faux royalty. The deep, rich black and white photography is incredible when Swanson stands up in the light from the projector or when Holden is walking at night in the rain, all of them classic noir set-ups. The crowning touch is a magnificent score by Franz Waxman that is every bit as dramatic as the images on the screen.

In Morris Dickstein’s essay for The A List he begins by citing the eclectic nature of Wilder’s films that leaves the auteur theory in shambles. He also graciously acknowledges the film’s obvious noir affinity, but then takes it one better, tying it into Wilder’s German roots and the gothic sensibilities that informed the Weimar films of the twenties. In that way Swanson becomes much more than just a femme fatale of noir, more akin to the vampires of the gothic horror films than noir she-devils, more like the living dead of Nosferatu than a human being, a sleepwalker Holden calls her. Dickstein also makes comparisons to Citizen Kane that are far less convincing, especially when he accuses Wilder of imitation. He then, inexplicably, attempts to find an auteurist link between this film, Double Indemnity and Ace in the Hole but never really drives the point home. Still, it’s one of the best essays in the book, well deserved for one of the best films of the fifties, or of any period. Because Sunset Boulevard is that rarest of films, a truly creative and artistic masterpiece that delivers just as much entertainment as art.

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