Saturday, February 21, 2015


Paramount Pictures, 110m 17s

The film noir genre is a grim category in terms of its outlook on human existence, and director Billy Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD is one of the more depressing instances of an already dark tradition. Even if one is fortunate enough to carve out a career in Hollywood, what happens after one's starpower inevitably fades? SUNSET BOULEVARD offers no parachute after the ripcord is pulled, and it is a long way down.

Like Wilder's DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), two people who need each other are brought together in SUNSET BOULEVARD, but what seems expedient for both proves mutually disastrous. Wilder began DOUBLE INDEMNITY with narration from a dying man; SUNSET BOULEVARD's narrator Joe Gillis (William Holden) already is dead as the story opens! Most of the remaining narrative plays out in flashback form, with the dead man Gillis as humble narrator. An ex-journalist and former resident of Dayton, Ohio, Gillis is trying to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood. His financial position is such that his car has been targeted by fiercely determined repossession agents. Gillis reaches out in desperation to colleagues within the film industry for assistance, to no avail.

The dead pool

Gillis is resigned to a humiliating return to his home state, but the mysterious noir force of fate intervenes. Gillis suddenly finds himself at the dilapidated Desmond estate, where Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) reclusively resides. She was the goddess of silent films, thoroughly forgotten today. Her surroundings are in shambles, her swimming pool is dry. The only fan mail she receives is composed by her stone-faced manservant Max Von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), who does his damnedest to keep his employer feeling relevant. Desmond is in love with the idea of fans still in love with her. Based on the trustworthiness for which Sagittarians are noted, she offers Gillis a hopeless writing project, and he sees an opportunity to make ends meet. Desmond soon gets other ideas about the relationship that somehow come as a surprise to Gillis, who ultimately prostitutes himself in a sleazy attempt to advance his status in Hollywood.

"I am big. It's the pictures that got small."

Desmond cannot face the simple fact that Hollywood has moved on without its premier female star of the silent era. The castaway nonetheless maintains a pathetic pomposity, despite the 20-year lapse since her last feature role. She surrounds herself with images of her former celebrity, and screens her own silent films at home on a regular basis. Her touring car is monogrammed. The way she orders Max around is deplorable, especially in light of the long-term history between them. She is the most insufferable combination imaginable of bitchy and needy, a has-been with suicidal tendencies. Her only friends are bridge-playing "waxworks" left over from the silent era, tellingly portrayed by Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner. Current studio personnel who remember the fossil Desmond are old-timers. The only division of Paramount to take serious note of today's Desmond is Paramount News, whose agents descend upon the Desmond residence after she becomes a news story in about the worst imaginable way.

Without a doubt, Desmond is a contributory factor in the downfall of Gillis, but she is something other than a traditional film noir femme fatale. Though arrogant and painfully out-of-touch with reality, she begins to earn our sympathy when she plans a New Year's Eve party for two. When she expresses her genuine affection for an indifferent Gillis at poolside, the sequence is shot to make Gillis the heel. It is especially heartbreaking to witness Desmond’s delusional return to the Paramount lot, where Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) views her visit as an uncomfortable distraction from his work on SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949) on Stage 18. In a particularly insulting moment on the set, Desmond is bothered by a boom mic, one of the primary instruments of her career's destruction. Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) is more than just the youthful antithesis of the aging Desmond; Schaefer represents the ambitious new generation of Hollywood hopefuls who will replace the names of the past. Anyone who has held a long-term job can identify with the displaced relic Desmond. We would like to think we are indispensible in the workplace, yet in truth any of us can be replaced. That reality is disconcerting, but unavoidable. Every individual has a shelf life.

House of horrors

Eyes upon us

An indictment of the sometimes unfair Hollywood system, SUNSET BOULEVARD is a film noir that imports elements from the horror genre to meaningful effect. In terms of setting, a mansion in ruins houses an organ that is given a voice by the wind. Recreational areas have fallen into complete disrepair, surrounded by out-of-control vegetation. After he is shown to the spare room above the garage, where low camera positioning emphasizes his containment, Gillis describes what he sees outside:

"...the whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creepy paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion."

The same could be said about Desmond. As the sequence continues, animals are likened to people. In an extremely unflattering implication, Gillis is linked to the rats that infest Desmond's empty pool, where he ultimately finds the Hollywood fame he had found so elusive. Soon after the rats are shown, the burial of Desmond's monkey provides a disturbing metaphor for past and future husbands. Gillis is associated mistakenly with the expired creature when he first meets Desmond, but at this juncture effectively replaces the creature to become Desmond's new pet.

Of course every house of horrors requires a resident crazy, and Desmond doesn't disappoint. With her large eyes wide open, head tilted back, and claw-like hands, Desmond hardly could pass for anyone's definition of normal. The exaggerated acting style of the silent cinema has taken over her mind and body, to the point Desmond doesn't really exist anymore, other than as a mechanical walking-dead figure who no longer functions in the outside world. The film's conclusion, which emphasizes Desmond's connection with the audience, anticipates Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) speaking as his mother at the end of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960). Both Wilder and Hitchcock recognized something perversely binding about a theatrical audience's shared connection with a disturbed protagonist. In both cases, the characters register awareness of the audience eyes upon them, and seek some form of acceptance from a world that has, foolishly it seems, relegated them to isolated old houses other people only encounter by accident. We may not want Desmond or Bates for a neighbor, but as viewers of SUNSET BOULEVARD and PSYCHO, we are forced to confront the existence of such people, and perhaps even empathize with them to some degree. The closing sequence of SUNSET BOULEVARD is even more disheartening when one considers the public humiliation of Desmond, a once beloved movie star now reduced to murderess, is what finally gives a teary-eyed Max the opportunity to direct again.

The proper on-screen title

The horror tropes notwithstanding, SUNSET BOULEVARD is a film noir through and through, with perhaps the most sustained downbeat tone of any example of the genre. The presentation of the film's on-screen title (SUNSET BLVD.) comes in the form of curb identification, one step away from the gutter. Clearly what follows will not be a red carpet review of Hollywood. Compared with classic film noir blueprints like DOUBLE INDEMNITY and OUT OF THE PAST (1947), SUNSET BOULEVARD represents an evolutionary step for the genre, especially in regard to cynicism. Now most everyone puts his or her own interests ahead of someone else's, and not without penalty—there is a persistent sense of self-loathing that informs the narration by Gillis. He is the noir sap who only too late becomes aware of how flat on his face he has fallen, and why. In a morbid sense, everyone gets what he or she wanted in SUNSET BOULEVARD.

In his oft-cited essay “Notes on Film Noir” (Film Comment, Spring, 1972), Paul Schrader observes, "There seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water. The empty noir streets are almost always glistening with fresh evening rain (even in Los Angeles), and the rainfall tends to increase in direct proportion to the drama." That last idea certainly empowers the SUNSET BOULEVARD narrative. It is invasive rainwater that forces Gillis from the room above the garage to the "husbands" room within the gloomy mansion. Rain again impacts the complicated romantic life of Gillis when Schaefer's fiancĂ© Artie Green (Jack Webb) must extend his stay in Arizona when rainfall delays the production schedule of his current project. This circumstance allows the professional relationship between Gillis and Schaefer to become personal. In noir fashion, Gillis covertly develops his relationship with Schaefer exclusively at night, the most common timeline for noir activity. Of course the recurring motif of water begins and ends with death in the swimming pool.

Another familiar noir motif is the use of mirrors. The mirrors of SUNSET BOULEVARD reflect the truth that Desmond would prefer to suppress. This point is illustrated when Max notes a flaw in Desmond's appearance via her car's rear-view mirror. The mirror motif recurs throughout the film, interwoven with another noir staple:  idealized images of the past. A vast collection of framed pictures mark Desmond's days as a popular silent film actress and stand in direct contrast to the current image of Desmond that various mirrors reflect. And in the tradition of the expository camera placement established in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, the same dynamics inform SUNSET BOULEVARD, with Desmond framed in her home to suggest control over men, particularly in relation to the mansion's elaborate staircase, another common noir motif that so often leads to danger.

The woman dominates the man in this composition

As was the case with DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SUNSET BOULEVARD experienced some alterations after audience testing. At a test screening in Evanston, Illinois, the original opening sequence set in a morgue of conversing corpses elicited raucous audience laughter of the unintended kind. But apart from the original morgue concept that was replaced with the now iconic opening pool sequence, Wilder never deviated from the finished screenplay according to Nancy Olson. Swanson recalls a 12-week, chronological shooting schedule, during which cinematographer John F. Seitz established the Hollywood setting with location footage from Alto-Nido Apartments, Schwab's Pharmacy, the Getty Mansion, as well as Stage 18, the Dreier Building, and the very recognizable Bronson Gate at Paramount Pictures.

Though he definitely paid his dues, Billy Wilder was a success at the time of filming SUNSET BOULEVARD, so it is somewhat ironic he would provide such a scathing review of his industry. The director collaborated on the screenwriting of 13 films with Charles Brackett between 1936 until 1950. SUNSET BOULEVARD would be the final project they would work on together. THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) may be the writing team's most celebrated production, the winner of Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay. SUNSET BOULEVARD racked up 11 Academy Award nominations, but won just three, including Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (Brackett, Wilder and D.M. Marshman Jr.), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White (Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Sam Comer, Ray Moyer) and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Franz Waxman).

Interestingly, Swanson was not the first choice to portray Desmond. Mae West and Mary Pickford were approached, among others. George Cukor advised Wilder to pursue Swanson, a star of the silent era who had not appeared in a film for almost a decade. In probably the most striking case of intertextuality on display in SUNSET BOULEVARD, the silent film Desmond presents to a bored-looking Gillis is QUEEN KELLY (1929), a silent film directed by von Stroheim, with Swanson in the title role! After he was fired from the production, von Stroheim's career as a director never would recover. He essentially plays himself in SUNSET BOULEVARD, and even laments his unrealized promise as one of Hollywood's most talented filmmakers; he even mentions his real-life contemporaries D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille actually directed some of the most notable silent films that featured Swanson, such as DON'T CHANGE YOUR HUSBAND (1919), MALE AND FEMALE (1919) and WHY CHANGE YOUR WIFE? (1920). She received a nomination for the very first Academy Award in the Best Actress category for her title role in SADIE THOMPSON (1928). William Holden claimed the role of Gillis after Montgomery Clift bowed out only weeks before filming was to commence. Wilder and Holden would re-team for STALAG 17 (1953), SABRINA (1954) and FEDORA (1978). Nancy Olson would be paired with Holden three more times:  the fine film noir UNION STATION (1950), and the war dramas FORCE OF ARMS (1951) and SUBMARINE COMMAND (1951).

Other films critical of Hollywood that soon followed in SUNSET BOULEVARD's wake included director Vincente Minnelli's THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952) and SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952), directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. The following decade, director Robert Aldrich's WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) features an even more exaggeratedly horrific washed-up star than SUNSET BOULEVARD's Desmond, but the ancestry of Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) is obvious. The early 70s brought the darkly comic SUNSET BOULEVARD remake HEAT (1972) directed by Paul Morrissey, and produced by Andy Warhol. In the early 90s, SUNSET BOULEVARD opened as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, perhaps the ultimate tribute.

The finest home video presentation of SUNSET BOULEVARD to date is the dual-layered Blu-ray released in late 2012 by Paramount. The disc contains a1080P transfer, digitally restored frame-by-frame, presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The feature film is unlikely to look significantly better in the near future, so this Blu-ray is well worth the upgrade for owners of the prior DVDs. The main audio track is English Mono Dolby TrueHD.

The Blu-ray's packaging promises "Over 2 1/2 Hours of Special Features," but the supplemental material is frustratingly redundant and mostly culled from past DVD editions, released in 2002 and 2008 respectively. The deleted musical number, "The Paramount Don't Want Me Blues" (2012, 1m 26s) is a new addition for the Blu-ray, everything else has been ported. The audio commentary track (2002) from Ed Sikov, author of ON SUNSET BOULEVARD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BILLY WILDER (1998), is one of the most informative of the supplements, even if he starts to run out of things to say during the film's third act. "The Noir Side of SUNSET BOULEVARD" (2008, 14m 19s) features Joseph Wambaugh, a former LAPD detective and author of THE ONION FIELD (1973), THE BLACK MARBLE (1978) and THE BLUE KNIGHT (1972), the latter was adapted as a made-for-TV movie that starred Holden. The other supplements:
•"SUNSET BOULEVARD:  The Beginning" (2008, 22m 47s).
•"SUNSET BOULEVARD:  A Look Back" (2002, 25m 52s).
•"SUNSET BOULEVARD Becomes a Classic" (2008, 14m 29s).
•"Two Sides of Ms. Swanson" (2008, 10m 37s).
•"Stories of SUNSET BLVD." (2008, 11m 22s).
•"Mad About the Boy:  A Portrait of William Holden" (2008, 11m 13s).
•"Recording SUNSET BLVD." (2008, 5m 51s).
•"The City of SUNSET BOULEVARD" (2008, 5m 36s).
•"Franz Waxman and the Music of SUNSET BOULEVARD" (2002, 14m 27s).
•"Morgue Prologue Script Pages" (2002) accompany the opening footage (without audio) that was scrapped.
•A Hollywood location map (2002) with information on the Paramount Pictures lot, the Gillis apartment building, Schwab's Pharmacy, the Getty Mansion, and Desmond's customized Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A luxury vehicle.
•"Behind the Gates:  The Lot" (2008, 5m 5s).
•"Edith Head:  The Paramount Years" (2002, 13m 43s).
•"Paramount in the 50's" (2000, 9m 33s).
•Three photo galleries (2002), and a theatrical trailer (2002, 3m 16s).

Fan poster by Eric Knaus (5/24/2016)