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Monday, April 9, 2007

Retro Cut!! SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) - Billy Wilder

In 1950, Paramount Pictures released Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's savage indictment of the studio system. Fifty seven years later, Sunset Boulevard still packs a punch, and remains one of the most important films ever to be released about the film industry.
The film opens with the discovery of a dead body in a swimming pool on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard. As the police stare at the corpse and camera bulbs flash, the corpse's voice over takes us back to how he, Joe Gillis came to his watery end. Gillis is a Hollywood screenwriter, once a golden boy, now struggling to make ends meet. On the run from the repo men, intent on recovering his car, Gillis pulls into a dilapidated mansion on Sunset Boulevard. There, he meets Norma Desmond, once a famous silent era movie star, but having faded into obscurity with the arrival of the talkies. Norma has a grand plan and a weak screenplay to get back into the movies and she ropes Gillis into writing the screenplay. She becomes more and more dependent on Gillis to be her friend and more and more obsessed with regaining her former glory.

For the roles of Gillis and Desmond, Billy Wilder sought out William Holden and Gloria Swanson. Both actors had careers which in some way mirrored their characters. Holden had arrived on the Hollywood scene with some recognition in Golden Boy in 1939, but his reputation had suffered due to his problem with alcohol. Swanson, once a famous silent era star, had herself been forgotten by audiences of the late forties. Both actors were perfect for their roles. Their acting styles were quite different, Holden showing some restraint, but still able to pull off the tough-guy lines. Swanson, on the other hand, is wonderfully dramatic. She is over the top, but not in a manner that doesn't suit the film. Her character is embittered due modern films focusing on the voice and not the performance, and she reacts in a way that suits this way of thinking. As the film progresses, she becomes more and more deranged, finally reaching her zenith with the famous line 'All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.'

Paramount must have had some confidence in Wilder and (co-writer) Charles Brackett's screenplay. The film wickedly satirizes the film industry and star system of the time, while at the same time depicts the impotence of the job of the film writer in the industry. As Gillis works for Desmond, he becomes more and more emasculated, almost becoming her play-thing. In a sub-plot, Gillis and his best friend's fiancee, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olsen) struggle to co-write a screenplay that may never be made.
The cinematography and direction are one of the fine examples of noir filmmaking. The close ups on Swanson's manic face are quite creepy, yet at the same time, Wilder is able to give her a vulnerability which makes it easy to engage with the character. But what's really great about the film is that it's quite funny. After, all it is a dark comedy. You wouldn't expect a film of it's age to retain a sense of humor that would appeal today, but the one liners and that run through the film remain very amusing. One of the best movies I've seen from the era, and probably the best film you're likely to see that deals with the film industry.

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