Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Directed by Billy WIlder
Starring Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Eric Von Stroheim

"Shhh, you might wake the chimp." 

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a two-bit heel slash hack screenwriter on the lam from various debtors. One day he spies some repo men aiming to take back his wheels, so in desperation, he pulls into an empty garage and stashes his car. He notices that he happens to be in the courtyard of a once-luxurious, currently decrepit old mansion. Before he's able to slink off into the night, he's accosted by a grumpy German butler (Eric Von Stroheim), who ushers him into the house and shoves him upstairs, where a batty old lady is awaiting him.

Said bat is Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former silent film star now aging disgracefully among her faded photographs in her crumbling mansion. She thinks Joe is here to help her bury her dead monkey. Initially, Joe just wants to bail out of this freaky scene, but once he figures out that she's flush with crazy money, he decides to stick around for awhile. She convinces him to help her write a screenplay that will usher in her comeback. Joe knows the script is hopeless, but does it for the paycheck. She falls in love with him, and he falls in love with the easy money.

Along the way, Joe's best friend Artie (Jack Webb) introduces him to his fiance, Betty (Nancy Olsen), another aspiring screenwriter. Together, they start fleshing out one of Joe's stories. It's a lot more promising then Norma's kooky project, so he begins spending more time with Betty, which infuriates jealous old Norma. And if Artie knew just how close Joe was getting Betty, he'd be pretty furious, too.

Norma decides she's finished with her comeback script, and brings it to CC Demille (played by the real CC Demille!), who basically pats her on her head and sends her on her way. Between this gentle rejection and Joe's philandering, Norma goes right over the brink, into a new realm of crazy that still hasn't been matched in sixty years of woman-gone-mad cinema.

Even if you haven't seen  Sunset Boulevard, you're probably familiar with some of Norma's more notorious lines ("I am big, it's the pictures that got small!", "We didn't need dialogue, we had faces!", "Mr Demille, I'm ready for my close-up!"). It's one of the most quotable films I've ever seen. Ostensibly a film-noir, it often verges into deep black comedy, and the campy vamping is just relentless. The fact that Swanson really was a silent film star, who actually worked with Demille, just makes the whole thing even more delirious. Wilder keeps things at a breakneck pace and his script veers expertly between hardboiled and hilarious, but it's Swanson's go-for-broke performance that really puts this one over the top. Her loony glares alone are worth the price of admission.

Great stuff, highly recommended. Just be forewarned that you'll be quoting crazy old lady dialogue to anyone within earshot for days after watching.

- Ken McIntyre 

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