Thursday, March 17, 2016
Noir Time! #3: Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Second Noir Time in a week! I kind of felt bad for the way I wrote that Maltese Falcon post. Even though I stand by everything I said, I feel like it came off as too crabby and overly pretentious. And while I acknowledge that a lot of times I can exhibit those traits, I felt especially bad since that movie is a classic, and it sounded like I didn't care for it much. So I wanted to make up for it by talking about a movie of which I have no bad things to say about. This film isn't the subtle detective thriller in the brimming post classical age, but a magnum opus work that represents the best of film throughout the ages. It's not my favorite movie, and it's not the best noir, but Sunset Boulevard could very well be one of the best movies ever made. Disclaimer: Don't read this post if you haven't seen this movie at least once before. Not only is it impossible to talk about the film with out spoiling it, but you're doing yourself a disservice on missing out on one of the best movies ever made.
We've seen Director Billy Wilder before with his other classic Double Indemnity, but this movie is a cut above in quality. Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) is a down on his luck screenwriter who is about to get his car seized for unpaid loans. As he evades the repo men, he pulls into a old, rundown, yet striking and beautiful house of a forgotten movie star of the silent area, Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson). Norma sees Joe as her chance to break back into the film industry and tasks him to write a screenplay, and in return, Joe gets to lay low from getting his car repossessed. Oh I forgot to say the movie opens up with Joe's dead body floating in Norma's pool, and he is narrating to us postmortem. Yeah. Man there's so much to say about this movie. I think this film has the best some of the symbolism and social commentary of any movie out there. This is a film noir, all of the elements are there, but that's not what anyone should be focused on when seeing this. This is Wilder's take on the movie industry and life in Los Angeles. Joe, being a screenwriter who can't get work despite having submitted many screenplays, is very representative of how hard it is to break into the film industry. He is also so fixated on his car, and how he needs it to go to work. He seems super do or die about it. The car is what got him in the mess he would soon find himself in. This is showing how having a car in Los Angeles is essential. It's not like other cities with good public transportation. If you don't have a car in LA you're basically out of luck. You need it to survive. At leas that's what Wilder is saying. It's also a jab at the petroleum companies who vetoed the construction of a proper public transportation in Los Angeles so people would be forced to own cars, and then buy gas. It's titled Sunset Boulevard almost like it's an allegory of living in Hollywood.
Joe is always fluctuating his feelings with Norma. First he's unsure about her, then he loves what she can provide for him, then he keeps trying to get away from her unsuccessfully until he drops everything to leave her and in turn is shot and killed by her. This is what Wilder is saying it's like working in the movie industry, its tough to get in, and once you're in too deep, it'll kill you if you get out. Joe is fascinating because he's interesting and not at the same time. He's a bland looking fellow with no interesting vices, yet you're incredibly sucked into him. It helps to know that he's dead and we want to see how he got to this point (see not about the destination, it's about the journey noir-ism) but I also think it's because there is a bit of Joe in each and every one of us. We all wish we could make it big, and even if it's not our calling, I'm sure we've all wondered what it would be like working in the film industry. Wilder needed this character to not disrupt the balance of the others (and by others I mean Norma), but still manages to have him resonate with each of us. Joe works hard and means well, but his death is semi-justified by his evasion of the repo men, his manipulation of Norma, and his adulterous relationship with another young but engaged screenwriter. Though all of this is redeemed for him right before he's shot, but it's worth noting. He's a great character, but Joe isn't the star of the show.
Norma Desmond. One of the most memorable characters in movie history. Oh my goodness she's crazy, she insipid, she's striking, she's narcissistic beyond belief, and yet you love every single second of her when she's on screen. Gloria Swanson gives one of the best performances of all time in my opinion. You see, Norma used to be the biggest movie star of the silent era (in this movie's world). The expressions Swanson makes with her face are so poignant and vivid, they're exactly what a silent star would have to do to act since they could only use their face to emote and not their voice and tone. It's the same with her hand gestures, they're so fluid and graceful, like she's perpetually posing for a silent film. It's brilliant. It's no secret that her character is representative of an age gone by. She's so stuck in the past, so in denial about her dilution from fame, that she constantly puts herself in a position to perpetuate her stardom. Her narcissism is over the top, and the way she treats Joe and Max, her butler, is so deplorable that you're disgusted at her presence at times. Kind of like mainstream audiences were done with the silent films. But yet. you see her reality, you see how lonely she is (that new years party) and the lengths she goes through with her denial, that you can't help but feel sorry for her at the same time. And when she finally snaps and shoots Joe at the end, you're almost certain you hate her and want her to go down with him. But Wilder throws a 180 at the audience and has the press and police the following morning pretend that she's acting out the climactic scene in the screenplay she was writing, and she has that famous line "Alright Mr. Demille, I'm ready for my close up" and she looks right at us with her beady, deranged eyes, as she inches closer and closer into the camera. She's so broken off from reality that she's still trying to convince us, the audience, that she's still relevant, that she still stars in movies, and that she'll get away with this crime. When in fact it's just delusions. In an ironic twist she IS the star of this movie, just not in her world.
There are other little hints at the film industry in this film aside from our two main characters. Max the butler (and Norma's first husband) used to be her old director. He's a foreign fellow, and while his nationally is never stated, it can be presumed that he is German. Germans dominated the silent era with the German Expressionist movement, a movement that directly inspired noir. Before many German directors fled their Nazi infest country to Hollywood, Germany was actually the king of the film industry. Having Max play the butler shows that that's what's become of those great silent era directors. Many of them didn't have any successful "talkies." They merely served the industry now, instead of contributing to it. Him also being married to Norma at one point in their lives kind of shows how the two were essentially permanently tied together and coexisted each other. He could never leave her side. It's also worth noting that Billy Wilder was actually German himself, and was one of those who fled to Hollywood. He didn't make silent films, but perhaps he was portraying a bit of himself in this character. Another tidbit is the character of Cecil B. Demille is actually a real director and played by the real Cecil B. Demille. He was fabled director at the time, and made successful movies that spanned from the late twenties all the way to the mid 1950's. So he worked with Swanson's character in the movie, but in real life he also worked with silent era stars. He's one of the few in the industry who managed to stay in that long and see it change. His presence in the movie is an outright acknowledgement that the film industry is a mean, fickle, and unforgiving work place that can spit on the very same people it paraded in years past.
Sunset Boulevard is THE movie about movies. Even though it was made in 1950 it still somehow manages to remain relevant today. I'm not even talking about it holding up and not being dated, I mean it's themes and messages are still almost the same in 2016. It's a movie you would think would have been made in 1970 at the very earliest, but Wilder was such a visionary and so ahead of his time that he pulled it off in an era where people still at least decently remembered going to see silent movies in theatres. As for its connection to noir, like I said it has everything that makes a noir a noir, yet it doesn't feel that way. The feeling you get is almost one you get in a horror movie. It's not the moody, hazy, mystery solving feeling you get out of a good noir, its genuinely chilling and unnerving. You're watching a deranged person entertain her delusions to the fullest extent, and we get to see from an outside unbiased perspective what that looks like. A big lonely, overgrown house, covered in pictures of Norma Desmond. She watches her movies by herself every night, and autographs head shots that she sends to fans which turns out just to be Max pretending she has people writing to her. And that shot at the end sends shivers down your spine erry time. There's so much I didn't even talk about (the dead monkey, the coworkers, ect.) which goes to show how deep this movie is. Maybe you'll catch something that I missed! Which is what I love about discussing movies. I included this as an extra Noir Time bonus because while it is noir, it's not the ones I'm going normally write about. But I'll talk about those few unique ones now and again. This one however deserves to be talked about at length. I'll end it with an all too true quote from the film with Norma saying, " I AM big! It's the pictures that got small."