Drama, Films I Love, Noir

Sunset Blvd (1950)

Sunset Blvd poster

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!” These words are spoken by Norma Desmond, a former American screen queen who longs to be back in the Silent film era. Norma thinks longingly back to a time when actors used their faces and emotions to convey the plot. She also longs to be back in the era when dialogue and effects were not needed or relied upon on in films.

Photo0293
Norma Desmond is desperate to be back on screen. Screenshot by me.

Sunset Blvd is one of my favourite classic era films. It was one of the first classics that I ever saw and it really did make quite an impression on me. I love Sunset Blvd’s blend of drama and Noir. I love the stunning photography by John F. Seitz. I love the performances and the sad and tragic tale that the film depicts.

This film also opened my eyes to the darker side of the film industry, especially about how the people working in this industry can be used and then discarded. 

This is also the film that made me aware of Silent films. I was in my mid teens when I first saw this film. Before I watched this film, I didn’t even know that there had once been Silent films. I’m well aware that may sound pretty dumb to some reading this, but before this film, I had had no reason to ever imagine that there had even been a time when films were Silent.  I also love this film because it brought to my attention people like Cecil B. De Mille, Gloria Swanson, Billy Wilder and Buster Keaton. This film encouraged me to give Silent films a go, and I am forever thankful that I did, because I now love them to pieces. 🙂

Superbly directed by Billy Wilder, Sunset Blvd is a warts and all portrait of Hollywood. Wilder wrote the screenplay, along with Charles Brackett(who was the regular collaborator on so many of Wilder’s films), and D.M Marshman Jr. Billy Wilder’s depiction of the darker side to the glamourous perceived image of the American film industry, wasn’t very well received by Hollywood upon its release. I guess some people didn’t like, or simply flat out refused to acknowledge and accept the truth that Billy Wilder so boldly served up to them with this film.

Wilder’s film showed the Hollywood community the unpleasant truth about itself. The film shows us the sad truth that once great stars get tossed aside like rubbish, that people think only of themselves at the expense of others, and that people use others in order to further their careers and get to the top. The film also reminds us that fame and stardom rarely lasts all that long (no matter how much you believe otherwise when you are enjoying it). Wilder’s film is difficult to watch at times because it is so sad and dark. His film is spot on though and that is what makes it so worth watching. The film deals with ruined lives, damaged people and also looks at mental illness. 

Gloria Swanson steals the show as the damaged and deranged Norma. She cannot accept that her fame has gone, that she is all but forgotten about, and that everything she once held so dear has now vanished. Swanson was one of the biggest and most talented stars of the Silent era, she also had one of the most expressive faces and she uses that face to its full effect in this film.

Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson as Norma. Image source IMDb.

 

The irony of her playing this role can not have been lost on Gloria. This lady had once been one of the biggest stars in American Silent films.  Unlike Norma though, Gloria Swanson (thankfully)was able to work in films and on Television throughout the sound era. Gloria was also able to very successfully bring a blend of Silent and sound era acting techniques to her performance in this film. Gloria is phenomenal in this role and I consider it to be the best performance she ever gave.  Her performance is all in the eyes. Watch those eyes of hers, because they really do speak volumes when you look at them. 

William Holden is both likeable and not so likeable, as the down on his luck scriptwriter, Joe Gillis. Joe is a man who seizes on an opportunity with Norma and uses her to ensure he gets some money. Joe starts out eager, outgoing, and also with some degree of control over his own life. As the film goes on, William shows us Joe is becoming desperate, on edge and depressed. Joe becomes a man with no control and no power. He is being used by Norma to bring her soul back to life (watch how she brightens up once he comes into her life)and even if he is unhappy he now can’t be allowed to leave this woman. We sympathise with him for much of the film, but my sympathies start to wane when he uses Norma and can’t see how he much he is hurting her.

It should also be noted that as much as we may pity Norma, we should never forget that she is using Joe just as much as he is using her. Norma uses his script expertise to her own advantage, and she uses her position of power over Joe (as his employer) to call the shots and keep him near her. She sees him as as opportunity to get back into the film industry, and she also sees him as a source of emotional (and it is strongly hinted)physical pleasure for her. In this film everyone is using someone else for something. 

Photo0285
The body in the pool. Screenshot by me.

The film begins with a dead man floating in a swimming pool. The Police are gathered round the body trying to figure out what has happened.

This opening shot is one of the most impressive and memorable in film history. We see the body floating on the surface of the pool, then we cut to a shot seemingly from under the water looking up at it from underneath.

The dead man is Joe Gillis, and the film that we are about to watch will show us how he came to meet his watery death. Originally the film was to have opened in a morgue, with Gillis’s dead soul talking to the other dead people in the morgue, and explaining to them how he met his fate. This opening was scrapped in favour of the opening we see in the film.

Joe Gillis(William Holden) is a film scriptwriter who needs some money fast. By accident he meets former silent film star, Norma Desmond(Gloria Swanson). She has written the screenplay of a version of Salome, she wishes it to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille and to be her glorious return to the screen. Joe gets himself hired (to get some money)to work on her script for her. He works on it at Norma’s home(a fading luxury mansion, that I see as representing the luxury and excess of the 1920’s film star lifestyle.)

Photo0296
Norma and Joe enjoy their private New Year’s Eve party. Screenshot by me.

As he spends more time with Norma, Joe soon realises that she is falling in love with him and also that she is completely detached from reality.

Things get complicated when Joe falls in love with Betty(Nancy Olsen), who is an outgoing young studio writer. Betty offers Joe an escape from the possessive nature of Norma.

Betty offers Joe love, fun, friendship, and above all some happiness. Joe’s desperation for a career opportunity and for money, means that he leaves Betty and returns to the wealth, glamour and supposed opportunity that Norma can offer him.

Joe becomes Norma’s kept man. In many ways he becomes no different than the beloved monkey she once had as a pet. Norma dotes on Joe, splashes out money on him, and he can’t stand it.

As he spends more time with Norma, Joe soon realises that she is falling in love with him and that she is also completely detached from reality. Things get complicated when Joe falls in love with Betty(Nancy Olsen), a young and outgoing studio writer. Betty offers Joe an escape from the possessive nature of Norma. Betty offers Joe love, fun, friendship, and above all some happiness.

Photo0303
Joe and Betty fall for one another. Screenshot by me.

Joe’s desperation for a career opportunity and for money, means that he leaves Betty and returns to the wealth, glamour and supposed opportunity that Norma can offer him. 

Norma becomes suspicious of Joe and Betty, and her anger and distress begins to steadily build up within her and will lead to one of the most tragic and unforgettable finales in film history.

The scenes between Norma and Joe play out like some sort of  horror film. Norma appears almost vampire like in certain scenes, and many of her hand gestures appear claw like and grotesque.

Norma sucks Joe in with promises of fame and fortune, he gets caught up in her delusions, and he can’t escape her, no matter how much he might try to do so.Norma is also something of a grotesque character in as much as she is getting old, but she won’t accept it, and she still dresses and makes herself up to be young. Norma and her home(and it could also be said her acting style)are starting to fade away and crumble into non existence and irrelevance. 

Joe’s relationship with Norma becomes all consuming and changes who he is as a person. He becomes bound to Norma and cannot escape her, he may try to do so, but when he does he cannot find any peace or happiness because her shadow looms large over any joy he may find. 

I like how the film also shows us the two different acting styles of the silent era and the sound era. Holden and Swanson both deliver equally excellent performances showing us these opposite acting styles and techniques. Swanson and Holden get strong support from film director Eric Von Stroheim, who appears as Norma’s loyal butler Max.

Von Stroheim was one of the greatest Silent era directors and he famously made a film called Greed, which originally ran for nine or ten hours! His directorial career ended soon after he directed Gloria Swanson in Queen Kelly. That film is the film that Norma watches on her private cinema screen with Joe at her side.

Photo0307
Max. Screenshot by me.

Max was once married to Norma and he now works for her and cares for her. He fakes thousands of fan letters which he delivers to Norma, so that she actually feels like she is still remembered and valued by fans.

I think Max is a very interesting character because he still loves Norma very much, and he will do anything to keep himself near her.

Max doesn’t care about his low status, nor does he care that Norma views him as a servant only. He is happy to just be in her presence on a daily basis, even if she has no feelings for him anymore. 

Max’s reasons for being in Norma’s life are certainly selfish ones, but I don’t think that he would ever knowingly hurt or betray Norma. He is really the only one in her life who knows full well her former high status in life, and he shares her view that she deserves to be back in the spotlight again. 

Von Stroheim is excellent as a proud man brought low. I think that Von Stroheim also cannot have missed the irony of his casting. He was once a man of power and influence and here he is now playing a former director, turned servant/carer working for one of his former stars.

Nancy Olsen is terrific as keen, pure, passionate and gentle Betty. She offers Joe an escape from Norma. Nancy’s character is a lifeline for Joe, and she lets us see that Betty is falling for Joe and that they would be good together. She isn’t on screen all that much, but when she is she sure makes a strong impression. Betty is an interesting character because she is seemingly the only truly decent character in the film. 

Silent era legends H.B Warner, Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson all have terrific cameos in the film playing “the Waxworks”. This group are some of Norma’s Silent era colleagues who drop in to see her. The irony of their appearance in this film cannot have been lost on any of these three actors. 

I also like how real people and films are mentioned and shown throughout this film. Greta Garbo is mentioned by Norma as being a current actress (Garbo had been retired for about a decade by this time, so this shows how out of touch Norma is with current events)who had the same face and acting style of the Silent era.

Interestingly Greta Garbo was one of the few Silent stars who successfully made the transition to the sound era, and she also retained the same level of fame from the Silent era to the sound era. Director Cecil B. DeMille (who appears as himself) is another Silent era individual who successfully transitioned and retained his fame and influence.

Photo0299
Norma and DeMille reunite. Screenshot by me.

The scene between Norma and Cecil B. DeMille (appearing as himself) is one that I’m not ashamed to admit always makes me tear up a bit.

Norma is warmly welcomed back by former colleagues, crew, and the studio staff. She sees that there are some who still hold her in affection and high regard.

This scene is also important because De Mille could easily have ignored Norma, or sent his assistants to deal with her when she comes to the studios, but instead he greets her with tenderness and affection. He respects Norma and he treats her as she deserves to be treated.

De Mille also utters a line of dialogue here that I think is quite interesting. When asked by an assistant if it was true that Norma was difficult to work with, he replies “only towards the end. A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit”.

To me those words from De Mille indicate that something in Norma’s life had been seized on by the press and that stories were being run. Press intrusion is another dark aspect of Hollywood(both then and now), with careers and reputations being ruined and lost due to scandals, and mere rumours and accusations being splashed over front pages and being believed as fact. Maybe this intrusion is what began Norma’s descent into madness?

Thanks to this film, we hopefully now have an understanding of how brutal Hollywood can be to its own, and how awful it must be when a big star falls from their pedestal and becomes yesterday’s news.

The final shot is one that stays in the mind long after the film has finished. In this scene the now truly deranged Norma gets the fame and attention she has been so long starved of. The trouble is it is the wrong kind of attention. We know that she now only has an institution to look forward to (unless Max can pull some strings and keep her at home being looked after there)and that she will certainly never be able to act again.  

Norma finally gets that close-up she’s been dreaming of. Screenshot by me. 

For one brief moment though, Norma shines again, and the cameras roll to capture her emotions and her every move. Her name will never be forgotten once this story makes the headlines. Is that a blessing or a curse though?

Norma will certainly get her fame back when this story breaks, but her illness and despair will be milked to sell papers, and she will most likely be ridiculed too. A sad end, and one that really makes you think about just what you are witnessing. In the end this is a film all about victims, and about how they are used and how they suffer. 

The film could almost be viewed as a warning about getting into the film industry. If you do get in you may well get fame and fortune, but at what cost will these be achieved? Can you stand what happens once your star starts to fade? I think this is one of Wilder’s best films. Sunset Blvd is certainly the best film about Hollywood that I’ve ever seen.

My favourite scenes are the following. Norma’s charades performance for Joe. The New Year’s Eve party with Joe and Norma being the only guests. Joe discovering what Norma has done to herself in her despair. The “I’m ready for my close up” scene. Joe at the crowded party in the apartment. Joe and Norma’s first meeting. Norma returning to the film studios and being warmly welcomed and getting to sit on the set of De Mille’s latest film.

What are your thoughts on Sunset Blvd?

 

Advertisements
Comedy, Drama, Romance

The Apartment (1960)

I love this film. I love the performances, the story, the characters, and most of all I love the bittersweet blend of laughter, cynicism, and tragedy that the film depicts. This is Billy Wilder at his best. What’s not to love?

There is a great story out there about just what it was that inspired Billy Wilder to make this film in the first place.

The story goes that he was quite intrigued by the man in Brief Encounter who lets his friend Alec (Trevor Howard)use his apartment to bring Laura (Celia Johnson) back to. Billy was completely fascinated by this man loaning his home out, so that this couple could basically get together to meet there for sex. He wanted to know more about that man, and more about what would make someone do that. Thus The Apartment was born in Billy’s mind.

Photo0569
Baxter. Screenshot by me.

The Apartment is a perfect mix of cynicism, comedy, tragedy and romance. The film focuses on the best and worst of humanity. The film is all about men and women using others and being used, and in some cases continuing to allow themselves to be used.

The film looks at why some people use others, and why some let themselves be walked over (they have no choice, they like the control their actions give them, they want the outcome their actions will deliver etc).

At the time this film was set, stories like this one(hopefully not loaning out your home for passionate rendezvous)were commonplace. Bosses slept with their secretaries, women were judged on their looks, and some men thought that women were only around so that they could have sex with them. Drinking, lying and cheating were as common as drawing breath. Billy’s film captures all of that perfectly, he holds up a reflection of life to us that would have been very familiar to many in the audience of the 1960’s.

The film also shows us that there is goodness to be found in such a world, even if you sometimes have to dig a little deeper in order to discover it.

C.C Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a clerk at an insurance company in New York. Baxter wishes more than anything to climb that corporate ladder, and he will do whatever it takes to get up it quick. Baxter lends his apartment out to senior male staff at his company so they that they can go there and be with their mistresses. Due to his seedy service Baxter is soon promoted in the company, and he is feeling very pleased with life indeed.

When Baxter lends his apartment to the boss of the company, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray),it suddenly dawns on him just what he has been doing. Very soon he starts to hate himself for his actions. Why the change of heart? Because Sheldrake’s mistress is the fragile elevator girl, Fran Kubelik(Shirley MacLaine). Baxter likes Fran very much, and when he sees how badly Sheldrake uses her something inside of him snaps.

When Fran attempts suicide in his apartment, Baxter must choose between his career, or looking after Fran and being a good guy. There are two key sequences in the film which I think signal Baxter’s self revulsion. In these scenes we see him slowly begin to change and become a decent guy. The first is the famous mirror sequence. He sees Fran’s broken hand mirror, and when he tells her it’s broken, she says ” I know, I like it like that. It makes me look the way I feel.”

          The famous mirror scene. Screenshot by me. 

When Fran says those words, the look on Baxter’s face speaks volumes, he looks like he’s just been punched in the stomach. He sees the pain he is helping to inflict by allowing these men to take the secretaries and other women to his apartment to use for sex. Baxter has never thought about what happens to these women afterwards, but when he sees Fran’s state of mind it dawns on him what the reality is. Straight after those words the phone rings and it’s Sheldrake asking him if he’s remembered to stock up on some food and drink in the apartment. When Baxter answers him it is with a tone of revulsion and hatred. Slowly he is beginning to change to a decent man.

The second is when Baxter comes home to find Fran unconscious after taking an overdose. She has finally figured out that Sheldrake won’t leave his wife for her. At that moment we see he is torn apart with worry and fear. With the help of his neighbour Doctor Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), Baxter helps save Fran’s life and nurses her back to health.

Jack Lemmon is at his best here as the selfish man, always happy to oblige his bosses who suddenly develops a conscience. If anyone other than Jack had played this role, I’m really not sure how well the film would have turned out. One moment we hate Baxter with a passion, the next we’re laughing at or with him, the next he’s breaking our hearts and ours are breaking for him. That is all because of how Jack plays the role, the looks on his face (particularly the scenes of self loathing later in the film when what he’s been doing finally reaches home to him.) As the film goes on Jack conveys to us how his experiences and realisations are making him more aware and less self centred.

Photo0564
Fran. Screenshot by me.

Shirley MacLaine makes your heart break as the mistreated Fran. Shirley lets us see the inner pain this woman carries around with her, but which she doesn’t show to the world (until the famous mirror sequence.) From the way Shirley plays the character, I believe Fran knows the men she goes with are heels, but for some reason she can’t stop herself from going with them.

Fran loves Sheldrake and it really damages her when she realises she is just the latest in a long line of meaningless conquests to him. Shirley’s performance is all in her eyes, we see how weary and depressed she is, and we see the brave face she puts on each day pretending all is well in her life.

Fred MacMurray is cast wonderfully well against type here, as the sleazy, hardhearted boss who treats women as objects for his pleasure only. He doesn’t care about their feelings, but he can make them believe he does. MacMurray is loathsome here and it is only the second time in his entire career he was cast in such a role.  The first against type performance was also for Billy Wilder, in the Noir classic, Double Indemnity. On the strength of his performance in both films it is very strange to me that he never again got roles like this. He proves what a talented dramatic actor he was. There was much more to MacMurray than comic performances. He conveys to us that his character is selfish and will never change. Remorse? That’s a word this guy doesn’t even know exists.

Jack Kruschen is hysterical as the bemused neighbour of Baxter’s who thinks his neighbour is some sort of playboy. Why does he think that? Because of the different women coming in and out of his apartment all the time. Kruschen knows that this man is a good guy really (a Mensch)and his belief in this is proved right at the end. Jack is very good in the scenes where he is treating Fran, making you believe he knows what he is doing as a Doctor.

Edie Adams steals every scene she is in as Sheldrake’s secretary, Miss Olsen. She tells Fran that Sheldrake won’t care about her and is just using her. Miss Olsen used to be his lady and has never gotten over her time with him. Edie shows us this woman’s pain and depression and her despair at seeing what she went through happening to someone else. Like Shirley’s performance, Edie’s is another that is all in the eyes. Keep an eye on her when she is in a scene.

I like how the film shows how messy relationships are, and that heartbreak and disappointment is sadly more commonplace than lasting happiness. The film shows us that happiness is possible though. Live in the moment, value every shared moment of joy, don’t hurt one another, be there for each other through the good and bad, and really work at building trust and a bond, then you will know happiness. At the end of the film we see Baxter redeemed, and are left feeling more positive having seen some good people and good actions in this world.

Photo0573
“Shut up and deal”. Screenshot by me.

I have to mention the famous ending to the film. Many take the ending to be a romantic one. I actually have a different view. It is clear that these two love each other very much, and Baxter admits as much in the final lines. I actually think that these two are soulmates and are that special person that the other needs in their life. I don’t think romance is on the cards for them though.

I think they are and will always remain the best of friends. They will always be there for one another and will support and help each other. A bond of friendship is love too, and I believe friendships are as meaningful and deep as any romance can be.

When Fran says “shut up and deal”, I think she is saying lets just take things as they are. Maybe we will progress to romance, maybe we will just stay as friends, but for now lets just stay as we are and enjoy this moment. Somewhat similar to the ending of Now Voyager “don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”  Basically, they have everything they want and need right there, they don’t need to be romantic in order to love each other. So what that they don’t kiss? They are happy, and we know they will always be there for each other. That’s a happy ending if ever I saw one. It always leaves me with a smile on my face.

The film won five Oscars, including one for best picture. Sadly no awards were given to any of the actors.

My favourite scenes are the following. Baxter trying to watch Grand Hotel, only to grow more and more annoyed by the adverts that keep playing on the TV (if he watched TV today, he’d throw the set away I’m sure.) 🙂  The mirror discussion. The sequence involving the woman who looks like Marilyn Monroe. The entire final part of the film. Miss Olsen speaking to Fran.

I have to say as well, that I always get a real laugh from the scenes where Baxter is waiting outside his own building! Because his apartment is in use! How much of a pushover do you have to be to actually agree to something which stops you from being able to go into your own home? Baxter got wise in the end though, so I’ll forgive him for his stupidity.

What are your thoughts on this film? Please leave your comments below.