SUNSET BOULEVARD (Paramount 1950): Film Noir or Hollywood Horror Story?


“Sunset Boulevard” airs tonight on TCM at 8:00pm EST

cracked rear viewer

“I AM big. It’s the pictures that got small”

  • -Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD

I hadn’t seen Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD for quite some time until a recent rewatching. I’ve told you before how much I love a good Hollywood behind-the-scenes movie, and this one is no exception. But as I watched the tale unfold, I began to see the film in a different light. SUNSET BOULEVARD is always called a film noir classic, but this go-round found me viewing it through a lens of horror.

It’s certainly got all the elements of film noir. There’s protagonist William Holden, trapped in a bottomless downward spiral. Gloria Swanson is the femme fatale who ensnares Holden and pulls him into her dark web. The cinematography of John F. Seitz portrays a shadow-world of despair. And we’ve got Billy Wilder directing, the man behind noir masterpiece DOUBLE INDEMNITY, working…

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #19: Sunset Boulevard (dir by Billy Wilder)


Sunset Boulevard

“All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up!”

— Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

First released in 1950 and nominated for Best Picture, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is one of the greatest and most influential films of all time.  It’s also something of a difficult film to review because, in order for one to truly understand its greatness, it needs to be seen.  A description simply will not do.  You have to experience, first hand, the performances of Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Eric Von Stroheim.  You have to see, with your own eyes, the way that Billy Wilder perfectly balances drama, satire, and horror.  I can tell you about how cinematographer John F. Seitz perfectly contrasts the empty glossiness of Hollywood with the dark shadows that fill the ruined mansion of Norma Desmond but, again, it’s something that you owe it to yourself to see.  You need to hear the perfectly quotable dialogue with your own ears.  You need to experience Sunset Boulevard for yourself.

And, while you’re watching it, think about how easily one bad decision could have screwed up the entire film.  Sunset Boulevard is famous for being narrated by a dead man, a screenwriter named Joe (William Holden).  When we first see Joe, he’s floating in a pool.  Originally, however, the film was to open with the dead Joe sitting up in the morgue and telling us his story.  Reportedly, preview audiences laughed at the scene and it was cut out of the film.  And Wilder made the right decision to remove that scene.  Sunset Boulevard may be famous for being a strange film but, when you actually watch it, you realize just how controlled and disciplined Wilder’s direction actually is.  Sunset Boulevard may be weird but it’s never less than plausible.

Joe Gillis is a former newspaper reporter-turned-screenwriter.  He may have started out as an idealist but, as the film begins, he’s now just another Hollywood opportunist.  While trying to hide from a man looking to repossess his car, Joe stumbles upon a dilapidated old mansion.  The owner of the mansion is none other than Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star who has sent been forgotten but who still dreams of making a comeback.  (When Joe tells her that she used to be big, Norma famously responds that she’s still big and it’s the pictures that have gotten small.)  Norma has written a script and the opportunistic Joe convinces her to hire him as a script doctor.

Joe moves into the mansion and discovers a world that has never moved past the 1920s.  Norma’s butler and former director, Max (played by Gloria Swanson’s former director Erich Von Stroheim) writes letters that he claims were sent by Norma’s fans.  Norma spends her time watching her old movies.  Occasionally, other forgotten silent screen stars (including Buster Keaton) drop by to play cards.

Encouraged by Joe’s vapid flattery and a mysterious phone call from a Paramount exec, Norma has Max drive her down to the studio.  Greeted by the older employees and ignored by the younger, Norma visits with director Cecil B. DeMille (who plays himself).  In a rather sweet scene, she and DeMille remember their shared past.  DeMille obviously understands that she’s unstable but he treats her with real respect, in contrast to the manipulative Joe.

As for Joe, he’s fallen for a script reader named Betty (Nancy Olson) and wants to escape from being dependent on Norma.  However, Norma has invested too much in her “comeback” to just allow Joe to leave…

Sunset Boulevard is a wonderful mix of film noir and Hollywood satire.  And, though the film may be narrated by Joe and told from his point of view, it’s firmly on Norma’s side.  As easy as it is to be dismissive of Norma’s delusions, she’s right in the end.  It is the pictures that have gotten small and, as she proves towards the end of the film, she is still as capable of making a grand entrance as she ever was.

Joe may have been too stupid to realize it but Norma Desmond never stopped being a star.

Poll: Lisa Marie Submits To Your Will


Last year, I gave up control to the reader of the site and you know what?  I kinda liked it in a sneaky, dirty little way.  So I figured, why not do it again?

Of course, I’m sure you’ve already guessed that I’m referring to my What Movie Should Lisa Marie Review poll.  This is the poll that led to me reviewing Anatomy of a Murder. 

Here’s how it works.  Earlier today, I put on a blindfold and then I randomly groped through my DVD collection until I had managed to pull out ten movies.  I then promptly stubbed my big toe on the coffee table, fell down to the floor, and spent about 15 minutes cursing and crying.  Because, seriously, it hurt!  Anyway, I then took off the blindfold and looked over the 10 movies I had randomly selected.  Two of them — Dracula A.D. 1972 and A Blade in the Dark — were movies that I had already reviewed on this site.  So I put them back and I replaced them with two movies of my own choosing — in this case, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Between now and next Sunday (March 27th), people will hopefully vote in this poll.  On Sunday, I will watch and review whichever movie has received the most votes.  Even if that movie turns out to be Incubus. *shudder*  (Have I mentioned how much I love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?)

Now, of course, there’s always the possibility that no one will vote in this poll and I’ll end up looking silly.  Those are the risks you take when you set up an online poll.  However, I have a backup plan.  If nobody votes, I will just spend every day next week shopping for purses at Northpark Mall and then blogging about it.  And by that, I mean blogging every single little detail.  So, it’s a win-win for me.

Anyway, here’s the list of the 10 films:

1) Barbarella — From 1968, Jane Fonda plays Barbarella who flies around space while getting molested by …. well, everyone.  Directed by Roger Vadim.

2) Barry Lyndon — From 1975, this best picture nominee is director Stanley Kubrick’s legendary recreation of 18th-century Europe and the rogues who live there.

3) Caligula — Yes, that Caligula.  From 1979, it’s time for decadence, blood, and nudity in the Roman Empire.  Starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, John Steiner, and Theresa Ann Savoy.

4) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — Oh my God, I love this movie.  Jim Carrey breaks up with Kate Winslet and deals with the pain by getting his mind erased by Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and an amazingly creepy Elijah Wood.

5) Incubus — From 1969, this low-budget supernatural thriller not only stars a young William Shatner but it also features the entire cast speaking in Esperanto.  For.  The.  Entire.  Movie.

6) Inland Empire — If you want to give Lisa nightmares, you can vote for David Lynch’s disturbing 3-hour film about lost identity, sexual repression, human trafficking, and talking rabbits.

7) Kiss Me Deadly — From 1955, this Robert Aldrich-directed cult classic features hard-boiled P.I. Mike Hammer and a host of others chasing after a mysterious glowing box and accidentally destroying the world in the process.

8 ) Mandingo — From 1975, this infamous little film is a look at slavery, incest, and rheumatism in the pre-Civil War South.  Starring James Mason, Ken Norton, Perry King, and Susan George.  Supposedly a really offensive movie, one I haven’t sat down and watched yet.

9) Sunset Boulevard — From 1950, hack screenwriter William Holden ends up the kept man of psychotic former screen goddess Gloria Swanson.  Directed by Billy Wilder.

10) The Unbearable Lightness of Being — From 1988, Philip L. Kaufman’s adaptation of Milan Kundera’s classic novel (one of my favorite books, by the way) features Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, and Lena Olin having sex and dealing with ennui.  After I first saw this movie, I insisted on wearing a hat just like Lena Olin did.

Everyone, except for me, is eligible to vote.  Vote as often as you want.  The poll is now open until Sunday, March 27th.

(Edit: Voting is now closed but check below for the results! — Lisa)

Film Reviews: The Airport Terminal Pack


 Sometimes, you have to be careful which films you choose to watch over the course of the day. 

Such as, last Friday night, I heard the news that Jill Clayburgh had died and I ended up watching An Unmarried Woman.  This, along with the fact that I also watched the Black Swan trailer, led to me dancing around the house in my underwear, en pointe in bare feet, and doing a half-assed pirouette in the living room.  And I felt pretty proud of myself until I woke up Saturday morning and my ankle (which I don’t think has ever properly healed from the day, seven years ago, that I fell down a flight of stairs and broke it in two places) literally felt like it was on fire.  That was my body’s way of saying, “You ain’t living in a movie, bitch.  Deal with it.”

So, come Sunday, I decided to play it safe by watching something that I was sure wouldn’t lead to any imitative behavior on my part.  Since I had previously reviewed Earthquake on this site, I decided that I would devote some time to the movies that started the entire 1970s disaster movie genre — Airport.  Watching Airport led to me watching Airport’s three sequels.

I was able to do this largely because I own the Airport Terminal Pack, a two-disk DVD collection that contains all four of the Airport films and nothing else.  There’s no special features or commentary tracks.  That’s probably a good thing because these films are so extremely mainstream that I doubt the commentary tracks would be all that interesting except to people who love “Me and Jennings Lang had the same lawyer…” style stories.

The movies are a mixed bag of ’70s sexism, mainstream greed, and casts that were described as being “all-star” despite the fact that they featured very few stars.  They’re all worth watching as time capsules of a past time.  Some of them are just more worthy than others.

Below are my thoughts on each individual film in the collection…

Airport (directed by George Seaton)

First released in 1970, Airport was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including best picture), broke box office records, and started the whole 70s disaster movie trend.  It also has to be one of the most boring, borderline unwatchable movies ever made.  The fact that I managed to sit through the whole thing should be taken as proof that I’m either truly dedicated to watching movies or I’m just insane.  Take your pick.

Anyway, the film is painstakingly detailed account of the every day operations of an airport.  Yeah, sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?  Burt Lancaster runs the airport.  His brother-in-law Dean Martin flies airplanes.  Both of them have mistresses but we’re told that’s okay because Lancaster’s wife expects him to talk to her and Martin’s wife is cool with him fucking around as long as he comes home at night.  I would be tempted to say that this is a result of the film having been made in 1969 and released in 1970 but actually, it’s just an introduction to the sexual politics of the typical disaster film.  Men save the day while women get in the way.  And if you think things have changed, I’d suggest you watch a little film calledf 2012

The only interesting thing about the film is that Lancaster’s mistress is played by Jean Seberg who, ten years earlier, had helped change film history by co-starring in Jean-Luc Godard’s classic film Breathless.  Nine years later, after years of being hounded by the American press and the FBI for her radical politics, Seberg committed suicide.

Airport 1975 (directed by Jack Smight)

As opposed to its predecessor, Airport 1975 is actually a lot of fun in its campy, silly way.  This is the one where a small private plane (flown by Dana Andrews, the star of the wonderful film noir Laura) collides with a commercial airliner.  The entire flight crew is taken out and head stewardess Karen Black has to pilot the plane despite the fact that she’s obviously cross-eyed.  Luckily, since Black is a stewardess, she has a pilot boyfriend who is played by Charlton Heston.  Heston talks her through the entire flight despite the fact that she was earlier seen trying to pressure him into not treating her like an idiot.  Anyway, Heston does his usual clench-jaw thing and if you need a drinking game to go with your bad movie, just take a shot every time Heston calls Black “honey.”  You’ll be drunk before the plane lands.

There’s some other stuff going on in this movie (for instance, Gloria Swanson appears as “herself” and doesn’t mention Sunset Boulevard or Joseph Kennedy once!) but really, all you need to know is that this is the film where Karen Black acts up a storm and random characters keep saying, “The stewardess is flying the plane!?”

Odd trivia fact: Airport 1975 was released in 1974.

Airport ’77 (directed by Jerry Jameson)

In Airport ’77, a group of art thieves attempt to hijack an airplane which, of course, leads to the airplane crashing into the ocean and somehow sinking down to the ocean’s floor without splitting apart.  The crash survivors have to try to figure out how to get to the surface of the water before they run out of oxygen. 

In this case, our resident sexist pilot is Jack Lemmon who has a really ugly mustache.  He wants to marry head stewardess Brenda Vaccarro.  Vaccarro doesn’t understand why they have to get married to which Lemmon responds, “Because I want a wife and kids!”  The film also gives us Lee Grant as a woman who is married to Christopher Lee but who is having an affair with another man.  She also drinks a lot and dares to get angry when she realizes that the airplane is underwater.  While this sort of behavior is acceptable from Dean Martin, Charlton Heston, and Jack Lemmon, the film punishes Lee Grant by drowning her in the final minutes.

Technically, Airport ’77 is probably the best of the Airport films.  The cast does a pretty good job with all the melodrama, the film doesn’t drag, and a few of the scenes manage to generate something resembling human emotion.  (For instance, when the blind piano player died, I had a tear in one of my freaky, mismatched eyes.)  Unfortunately, the movie’s almost too good.  It’s not a lot of fun.  Everyone plays their roles straight so the silly plot never quite descends into camp and the key to a good disaster film is always camp.  This film also has the largest body count of the series, with most of the cast dead by the end of the movie.  (And, incidentally, this film did nothing to help me with my fear of water…)

The Concorde: Airport ’79 (directed by David Lowell Rich)

The last Airport movie is also the strangest.  Some people have claimed that this film was meant to be a satire of the previous Airport films.  I can understand the argument because you look at film like Concorde and you say, “This must be a joke!”  However, the problem with this theory is that there are moments of obvious “intentional” humor in this film (i.e., J.J. from Good Times smokes weed in the plane’s bathroom, another passenger has to go to the bathroom whenever she gets nervous) and none of them show any evidence of the type of wit and outlook necessary to come up with anything this silly on purpose.  Add to that, the film’s story is credited to Jennings Lang, a studio executive.  Studio execs do not take chances.  (Plus, the actual script was written by Eric Roth, who went on to write the amazingly humorless The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

No, this film is meant to be taken seriously and oh my God, where do I start?

Our pilots are George Kennedy and Alain Delon.  The head stewardess (and naturally, Delon’s girlfiend) is played by Sylvia “Emanuelle” Kristel who, at one point, says, “You pilots are such men!”  “Hey, they don’t call it a cockpit for nothing, honey,” Kennedy replies. 

Meanwhile, Robert Wagner is trying to destroy the Concorde because one of the passengers is his girlfriend who has proof that Wagner has been selling weapons to America’s enemies.  So, he attempts to blow the plane up with a guided missile and when that fails, he sends a couple of fighter planes after them.  Kennedy responds by opening up the cockpit window — while breaking the sound barrier mind you — and firing a flare gun at their pursuers.  

After this, there’s stop over in Paris where Delon arranges for Kennedy to sleep with a prostitute who assures Kennedy that he made love “just like a happy fish.”

The next day, everyone returns to the exact same Concorde — despite the fact that just a day earlier they’d nearly been blown up by a squadron of fighter planes — and take off on the second leg of the flight.  Let me repeat that just to make sure that we all understand what this film is asking us to believe.  After nearly getting blown up by a mysterious squad of fighter planes, everybody shows up the next morning to get on the exact same plane.

Oh, and it never occurs to Wagner’s ex-girlfriend that Wagner might have something to do with all of this.

Now sad to say, Concorde is the one of those films that’s a lot more fun to talk about than to actually watch.  It should be a lot more fun in its badness than it actually is.  Still, the movie has just enough camp appeal to make it fun in a “what the fuck…” sorta way.

And that’s how the Airport series comes to an end.