Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sunset Boulevard (1950) A Film by Billy Wilder

There's something sweetly ironic about seeing the end title of Sunset Boulevard slapped on top of the Paramount Pictures logo. The juxtaposition is the culminating frame in a film that is held taut by its indictments of Hollywood's numerous corruptions, set around (and sometimes within) the Paramount Pictures Studios. Sunset Boulevard is typical of Billy Wilder's penchant for risky subject matter, but it's also more visually appealing than some of his films combined. It's a film that succeeds on many levels of production; the script is intricate and boldly conceived (if at times melodramatic), the set design is marvelous, Wilder's direction is fluent, and the lighting and camera movements are stately. Aside from these concrete elements, the film also seduces the viewer into its own special world that is rather indescribable; if you don't believe me, ask the devout admirer David Lynch, who will tell you so in one of his famously vague ramblings.

In a passage that is pure Golden Age Hollywood, screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) escapes his shadowy creditors to the side of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles where he unearths the crumbling mansion of the equally crumbling, self-proclaimed silent film "star" Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Well, Desmond truly was a star; her heyday was marked by several memorable collaborations with director Cecil B. DeMille, who even makes a cameo showing in the film. However, her problem is that she hasn't come to accept the reality of her current situation, which manifests itself into the several misshapen aspects of her life: the "fan letters" she believes she receives (but which are actually sent by her butler Max, another has-been filmmaker, Erich Von Stroheim), the general otherworldliness of her mansion, which seems to be fusing into the shrubbery that surrounds it, or the lack of locks on her vast doors as a safeguard for Max in the instance of a possible suicide attempt. "I am big. It's the pictures that got small," Desmond claims. She's an extremely fascinating screen persona, and the scene where she revisits DeMille at the Studio to consult him about a poor script she wrote for herself stirs up feelings of both pity and compassion.

While her personal corruption seems to be associated with her loss of fame and aging body, Gillis is on the opposite side of the spectrum. He's a writer who has frequently been on the cusp of a big hit, but whose minor failures have progressively made him more and more cynical. When asked by Norma to assist her in writing her script, he jumps at the opportunity, being well aware of the status she had reached as an actress. Creepily however, Norma takes hold of Gillis, scrutinizing his every move, an action that eventually turns for the worst when Gillis begins a love affair with an engaged script reader. When ambition runs in Sunset Boulevard, self-absorption is not far behind. Gillis seems to lose his identity, grabbing hold of the promise of money over a more worthwhile situation. The fact that we too lose a connection with Gillis speaks to the power of the film; he narrates the entire film with gusto (from what we perceive as the afterlife) but Wilder spins the plot around so deftly that eventually even we are unaware of who he is morally or professionally. Sunset Boulevard is certainly one of the most handsome productions of the 50's, and Wilder's knack for weaving a complex psychological tale while also keeping his taboos close to mind is undeniable.

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