Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunset Boulevard (1950) * * *

(first lines)
Joe Gillis: Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It's about 5 0'clock in the morning. That's the homicide squad, complete with detectives and newspaper men.

SUNSET BOULEVARD starts with its end, as we see a murdered corpse floating face down in a swimming pool at a Hollywood mansion. A narrator explains that the dead man was an unsuccessful screenwriter. The film fades into a flashback as the narrator takes us back to the beginning to find out what happened. We meet struggling hack screenwriter Joseph C. "Joe" Gillis (William Holden), who needs $300 to keep his car, so he hits his contacts to scrape up some work. He heads to Paramount to meet a producer named Sheldrake (Fred Clarke) where he pitches a baseball script he has written, "Bases Loaded". That fails because story consultant Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) dislikes his plot, dismissing it as mediocre work. Rejected, Gillis leaves and then manages to locate his agent, who's playing golf in Bel-Air and will not help Gillis with a personal loan. That and other attempts also flop, so Joe is just about ready to head back to Ohio and his old newspaper job.

Returning to Hollywood along Sunset Boulevard, Gillis is spotted by two auto repossession men and a chase ensues. Earlier, he had claimed the car was on loan to a friend. When a tire blows on Gillis' car during the pursuit, he swerves into a driveway of an old mansion in order to escape the repo men and discovers that he has entered the grounds of what he assumes is a deserted building. Hiding his car in the dilapidated garage, he is startled when a woman's voice from an upstairs veranda of the mansion summons him to come into the house. He meets faded silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her butler Max Von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). They live in this lavish abode and plan to bury a former resident, a chimp. Norma thinks Joe is there as the monkey's undertaker.

Norma Desmond: I'd like the coffin to be white, and I want it specially lined with satin. White... or pink. Maybe red! Bright flaming red! Let's make it gay!
Joe Gillis: I'm not an executive, just a writer.
Norma Desmond: You are... writing words, words, more words! Well, you'll make a rope of words and strangle this business! But there'll be a microphone there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongues!

When she learns he is a screenwriter, the pair chat, and we find that Norma wrote a screenplay based on the Salome story intended for her "return". Norma hates the term “comeback”. Joe reads the terrible text and pretends interest in it to gain a job as its editor. Eventually, this leads him to move in, and he quickly turns into Norma’s boy toy. The demented old movie queen lives in the past and Joe becomes her literary and romantic gigolo.

Joe Gillis: You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I am big. It's the pictures that got small. They took the idols and smashed them, the Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who've we got now? Some nobodies!
Joe Gillis: I didn't know you were planning a comeback.
Norma Desmond: I hate that word. It's a return, a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen.
Max Von Mayerling: She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn't know, you're too young. In one week she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later he strangled himself with it!
Norma Desmond: We didn't need dialogue. We had faces! You're a writer, you said.
Joe Gillis: Why?
Norma Desmond: Are you or aren't you?
Joe Gillis: That's what it says on my Guild card.
Norma Desmond: And you have written pictures, haven't you?
Joe Gillis: I sure have. Want a list of my credits?
Norma Desmond: I want to ask you something. Come in here.
Joe Gillis: Last one I wrote was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You'd never know because when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat.

Working out of Desmond's house, Gillis is soon financially dependent on Norma, who lavishes attention on him and buys him expensive clothing. While he occasionally shows discomfort, he makes no effort to change his situation. When he questions Max about why there are no locks in the house, he is told Norma suffers from occasional "melancholy" and has taken attempts on her life before, so he has taken precautions to ensure her safety. Gillis is then prepared for a New Year's Eve party at the house. He soon realizes that no other guests will be attending, and is horrified when Norma reveals that she is in love with him.

Rejecting her attempt at seduction, he hitches a ride to his friend Artie Green (Jack Webb), where he again meets Betty Schaefer. Although she’s dating Artie, some romantic sparks fly between Betty and Joe. A party is underway, and Betty tells him that despite the rejection in Sheldrake's office regarding "Bases Loaded", she has read some of Gillis' other submissions and one in particular shows promise. Inspired to continue his writing, Gillis phones the Desmond house to say he will be moving out, but Max tells him Norma has attempted suicide. He rushes back to the mansion, where he comforts her and stays. This puts him back into his old submissive position. Betty tries to get in touch with him to work on one of his story ideas, but he remains isolated in the mansion with Norma. Eventually, Joe does connect with Betty again, which complicates matters even more.

Joe Gillis: Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.
Norma Desmond: Don't be silly. (she hands Joe a present) Here, I was going to give it to you at midnight.
Joe Gillis: Norma, I can't take it, you've bought me enough.
Norma Desmond: Shut up, I'm rich! I'm richer than all this new Hollywood trash! I've got a million dollars.
Joe Gillis: Keep it.
Norma Desmond: Own three blocks downtown, I've got oil in Bakersfield, pumping, pumping, pumping! What's it for but to buy us anything we want!
Joe Gillis: Cut out that "us" business!
Norma Desmond: What's the matter with you?
Joe Gillis: What right do you have to take me for granted?
Norma Desmond: What right? Do you want me to tell you?
Joe Gillis: Has it ever occurred to you that I may have a life of my own? That there may be some girl I'm crazy about?
Norma Desmond: Who? Some car hop, or dress extra?
Joe Gillis: What I'm trying to say is that I'm all wrong for you. You want a Valentino, somebody with polo ponies, a big shot!
Norma Desmond: What you're trying to say is that you don't want me to love you. Say it. Say it! (slaps his face and threatens suicide again)
Joe Gillis: Oh, wake up, Norma, you'd be killing yourself to an empty house. The audience left twenty years ago.

Norma continues preparing for her movie "return". When she considers her "Salome" screenplay to be complete, the plot thickens when Max delivers the script to Paramount, and they need to deal with its reception. She receives telephone calls from Cecil B. DeMille's office at the studio and assumes he is interested in filming the project. Norma travels to the studio and meets with him. Gillis and the butler learn the studio only wants to hire her vintage Isotta-Fraschini car for use in a film and has no interest in her script. The two of them keep this from her. By now, Max has revealed he was the first of her three husbands, and is a former film director who had discovered her.

(Norma Desmond has come to see Cecil B. DeMille)
First assistant director: I can tell her you're all tied up in the projection room. I can give her the brush.
Cecil B. DeMille: Thirty million fans have given her the brush. Isn't that enough?
First assistant director: She must be a million years old.
Cecil B. DeMille: I hate to think where that puts me. I could be her father.
First assistant director: I understand she was a terror to work with.
Cecil B. DeMille: Only toward the end. You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.

Meanwhile, Joe has secretly begun meeting with Betty to work on a screenplay together, and they fall in love. When Norma discovers this, she phones Betty and insinuates what sort of man Joe really is. Joe returns to the house in time to hear what Norma has said and takes the phone from her. He tells Betty to come to the house, where he explains his side of the situation before turning Betty away. Misunderstanding his actions, Norma is grateful to Joe, but he brushes her aside and begins packing to leave. Norma threatens to shoot herself but he does not take her seriously. As he walks away, she follows and shoots him three times before he falls into the pool and dies.

Joe Gillis: (narrating) Well, this is where you came in, back at that pool again, the one I always wanted. It's dawn now and they must have photographed me a thousand times. Then they got a couple of pruning hooks from the garden and fished me out... ever so gently. Funny, how gentle people get with you once you're dead.

Having explained the corpse in the pool, the film returns to the present, where Norma, seated before a mirror in her bedroom, appears to be lost in a fantasy. The house has been flooded with reporters and curious passersby. News cameras arrive to film her and she thinks she is on the set of her new film. Norma slowly descends her grand staircase and makes a speech declaring her happiness at making a new film. It culminates in the film's most famous line: "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." She reaches for the camera, the screen fades to white and the narrator concludes that Norma's dream of performing for the cameras has in an unexpected way come true for her.

(last lines: to newsreel camera)
Norma Desmond: And I promise you I'll never desert you again because after "Salome" we'll make another picture and another picture. You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!... All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.

Director Billy Wilder's noir-comic classic about death and decay in Hollywood remains as powerful as ever in its ability to provoke shock, laughter, and astonishment. This lively, creepy, and cynically compelling film is one of those great movies that has become a part of popular culture. It may not be as obsessed with the topic as THE BIG PICTURE (1989), but it delves into that subject in a vicious way. It doesn't treat Hollywood with kid gloves. Instead, it launches into a bitterly comedic exposé, and it doesn’t succeed just because it bites the hand that feeds it. From it's bold introduction to its unforgettable ending, SUNSET BOULEVARD is a well-crafted masterpiece. The structure is classic and the execution is flawless.

The movie features a confrontation between styles. Holden’s naturalistic approach is butted up against Swanson’s lavishly theatrical tendencies, and the results are surprisingly well integrated. Dialogue alternates between hard-hitting and florid. Most of it doesn't seem like speech you’d hear in real life. Swanson made Norma a force of nature. If nothing else, she offered some of the most fascinating line deliveries in history, with pronunciations like “sit dowwwwnnn” and “gay-rage”. Swanson has always come across as an unappealing pretentious snob in real life and in her movies, so she is perfect for the role of Norma Desmond.

Surprisingly cynical and blunt given its era, the movie shredded the movie industry and also offered a deep and vigorous character drama. The best work created by a legendary director, SUNSET BOULEVARD deserves its status as a classic. William Holden's dead-pan narration as a hack screenwriter of B-movies is as sad and funny as it ever was. This scathing portrait of Hollywood shows how it discards people when they are no longer useful. The casting of the film is inspired, as if the parts were written specifically for them. However, SUNSET BOULEVARD was actually written for Mae West, who rejected the role of Norma Desmond because her art requires her to play a beautiful young woman in her 20's. At age 83 she played a woman in her 20's in SEXTETTE (1978). Mary Pickford also rejected the role because she was afraid it would destroy her wholesome image. The street after which the film is named has been associated with Hollywood film production since 1911 when the town's first film studio opened on Sunset Boulevard. And this movie features an impressive parade of movie star cameos that creates a realistic Hollywood setting.

The cast also includes: Lloyd Gough (Morino), Franklyn Farnum (animal undertaker), Larry J. Blake (First Finance Man), Charles Dayton (Second Finance Man), Cecil B. DeMille (Himself), Hedda Hopper (Herself), Buster Keaton (Himself), Anna Q. Nilsson (Herself), H.B. Warner (Himself), Ray Evans (Himself), Jay Livingston (Himself), Fred Aldrich, Joel Allen, Gertrude Astor, Ken Christy, Ruth Clifford, John Cortay, Archie R. Dalzell, Eddie Dew, Peter Drynan, Julia Faye, Al Ferguson, Gerry Ganzer, Kenneth Gibson, Joe Gray , Sanford E. Greenwald, Creighton Hale, Chuck Hamilton, James Hawley, Len Hendry, E. Mason Hopper, Stan Johnson, Tiny Jones, Howard Joslin, Arthur Lane, Perc Launders, Gertrude Messinger, Harold Miller, John "Skins" Miller, Ralph Montgomery, Bert Moorhouse, Jay Morley, Bernice Mosk, Howard Negley, Ottola Nesmith, Eva Novak, Frank O'Connor, Robert Emmett O'Connor, Jack Perrin, Virginia L. Randolph, Bill Sheehan, Sidney Skolsky , Emmett Smith, Roy Thompson, Archie Twitchell, Yvette Vickers, Edward Wahrman, and Henry Wilcoxon. Franz Waxman composed the original music score. Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman Jr. wrote the screenplay. Billy Wilder directed.

The DVD offers good picture quality with decent audio and a fairly positive roster of supplements. It's case indicates that the film is presented in "full screen" format, which is somewhat misleading. It gives the false impression that the film has been "formatted" to fit a standard television. While the image does fit the screen without black bars on the top and bottom, the original aspect ratio of the film has been preserved. That is because it is not a widescreen film. SUNSET BOULEVARD was not shot in widescreen, but in the only format used for studio pictures before the end of 1953--now known as the "Academy" or "Standard" aspect ratio. It was designed to be shown in 1.37:1, which is just about the ratio of most TV screens. The movie looks gorgeous. The black and white picture is rich and crisp, the sound is re-mastered and the story is as compelling as ever.

On this single-sided, double-layered DVD, several extras are included. Some are standard like the inclusion of the film's theatrical trailer, English subtitles and a French language track. Another is a map of actual locations used in the film. For example, the exterior of Norma Desmond's home was not located on the 10000 block of Sunset Boulevard as depicted in the film, it was located on Wilshire Boulevard near the corner of Irving Blvd. Ed Sikov's scene-by-scene commentary on the film is very good. He provides many insights into the making of the film and the presentation is generally well-organized and carefully thought out, but a bit dry.

The documentary on the disc does a good job of demonstrating just how unique the tone of this story is, how it perfectly navigates between funny and sad. Not everyone in Hollywood saw the funny side when it was released, and it lost to ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) at that year's Oscars. Besides the documentary, you can read two screenplay drafts of an excised opening sequence, explore 1950's Hollywood with an interactive map and watch the film with audio commentary by a critic and historian. The special features add to the richness of the film. You may already know that Eric von Stroheim directed Gloria Swanson in silent films. But did you know that the drugstore where all the screenwriters hang out in the movie is the drug store where F. Scott Fitzgerald had a heart attack in 1940? This extra is rich with Hollywood history.

Though not immaculate, the movie has relatively few source flaws. There is some light grain on occasion, a few print defects, a smattering of specks, hairs and marks as well as sporadic blotchiness. Overall it's a fine transfer. The monaural soundtrack of Sunset Boulevard also is acceptable. Speech is reasonably accurate and distinct, although lines sound a little flat at times. Music comes across as fairly bright and lively, but with a limited dynamic range. Effects also display generally accurate tones but lack very clear highs or tight lows. Some bass response sounds a bit boomy and heavy. There is some light background hum and a little noise, but the audio is decent although not spectacular. The synopsis on the back of the DVD reveals some important "spoiler" information that doesn’t come out until the third act.

Praised by many critics when first released, SUNSET BOULEVARD was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won three. It is widely accepted as a classic, often cited as one of the most noteworthy films of American cinema. In 1998 it was ranked # 12 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American films of the 20th century, however dropping to # 16 on the 10th Anniversary edition published in 2007. The movie's line "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." was voted as the # 6 of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" by Premiere in 2007. Deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the U.S. Library of Congress in 1989, SUNSET BOULEVARD was included in the first group of films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

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