30 More Days of Noir #6: The Dark Past (dir by Rudolph Mate)

Now, this is an interesting little film noir!

This 1948 film stars William Holden, Lee J. Cobb, Nina Foch and Lois Maxwell.  William Holden is Al Walker, an escaped convict and a ruthless murderer.  Nina Foch is Betty, Walker’s devoted girlfriend and partner in crime.  Lee J. Cobb is Dr. Andrew Collins.  Lois Maxwell, years before she would be cast as Miss Moneypenny in the first Bond films, plays Ruth Collins, Andrew’s wife.  When Walker, Betty, and the gang break into the Collins home, they hold he doctor and his family hostage.

That may sound like a similar set-up to Desperate Hours and hundreds of other low-budget crime movies.  And, indeed, it is.  What sets The Dark Past apart from those other films is that Dr. Collins is a psychiatrist and his response is not to try to defeat or trick Walker but instead to understand him.  Even after Walker kills a friend of the family’s, Collins remains convinced that he can get to the heart of Walker’s anger and help the criminal start the process of reform.

When the nervous and violent Walker threatens the family, Collins calmly offers to teach him how to play chess.  When it looks like Collins might have a chance to escape, he instead stays in the house and continues to talk to Walker.  Eventually, he finds out about a recurring dream that Walker has been having, one that involves Walker standing in the rain under an umbrella that has a hole in it.  Collins links the dream to Walker’s traumatic childhood and he shows Walker why he feels the need to be violent and destructive.  But will it make a difference when the cops show up?

The Dark Past is an interesting relic.  Watching it today, it can seem a bit strange to see just how unquestioning the film is of the benefits of analysis and dream interpretation.  Nowadays, of course, we know that dream symbolism is often just random and that it’s impossible for a psychiatrist to “cure” a patient after only talking to them for an hour or two.  However, The Dark Past was made at a time when psychiatry was viewed as being the new science, the thing that that no one dared to question.  This was the time of The Snake Pit and Spellbound.  The Dark Past suggests that all any criminal needs is just a night spent talking to someone who had studied Jung and Freud.  Today, the film seems a bit naive but it’s still an interesting time capsule.

William Holden is great as Al Walker.  That, in itself, isn’t a surprise because William Holden was almost always great.  Still, Holden does an outstanding job of making Walker and his neurosis feel real and, like the best on-screen criminals, he brings a charge of real danger to his performance.  Lee J. Cobb has the less showy role but he also does great work with it.  It takes a truly great actor to make the act of listening compelling but Cobb manages to do it.

The Dark Past may not be as well-known as some film noirs but it’s an interesting and occasionally even compelling film.  Keep an eye out, eh?

Special Memorial Day Edition: THE DEVIL’S BRIGADE (United Artists 1968)

cracked rear viewer

In the wake of 1967’s THE DRITY DOZEN came a plethora of all-star, similarly themed films. THE DEVIL’S BRIGADE is one of those, though just a bit different: it’s based on the true-life exploits of the First Special Service Force, a collection of American misfits straight from the stockades and the crack, highly disciplined Canadian military, forging them into one cohesive fighting unit.

William Holden  heads the cast as Lt. Col. Robert Frederick, tasked with putting the units together. His seconds-in-command are the cigar chomping American Major Brecker (Vince Edwards) and proud Canadian Major Crown (Cliff Robertson). The Americans, as rowdy a bunch of reprobates as there ever was, include Claude Akins , Luke Askew, Richard Jaeckel, and Tom Troupe, while the Canadians are represented by the likes of Richard Dawson, Jeremy Slate, and Jack Watson , war movie vets all.  Andrew Prine is also aboard as an AWOL…

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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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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing (dir by Henry King)

(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1955 best picture nominee, Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing!)

Before I talk about Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing, let’s play a little trivia game.

I’m going to list ten films.  Your job is to guess what they all have in common:

Did you guess?  All ten of these films came out in 1955 and not a single one of them was nominated for best picture.  That’s something that I found myself thinking about quite a bit as I watched Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing on TCM last night.  Of course, at this point, everyone knows that deserving films are often ignored by the Academy and that what seems like a great film during one year can often seem to be rather forgettable in subsequent years.

So, you can probably guess that I wasn’t terribly impressed with Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing but, before I get too critical, I want to start things off on a positive note.  William Holden was, without a doubt, one of the best actors to ever appear in the movies.  He started his film career in the 1930s and worked regularly until his death in 1981.  Just consider some of the films in which Holden appeared: Golden Boy, Our Town, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Sabrina, Picnic, Network, and so many others.  Of course, not every film in which Holden appeared was a masterpiece.  He made his share of films like Damien: Omen II and When Time Ran Out.  But the thing is that, regardless of the film, Holden was always good.

That’s certainly the case with Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing.  It’s not one of Holden’s better films but William Holden is his usual dependable self.  He plays Mark Elliott, a rugged American correspondent who is living in Hong Kong in the 1940s.  While the Chinese Civil War rages nearby, Mark deals with his failing marriage.  His wife is back in the States.  They’re separated but not quite divorced.  Mark owns a really nice car and, since he’s played by William Holden, he delivers the most world-weary of lines with an undeniable panache.  He also appears shirtless for a good deal of the film.  Between this and Picnic, 1955 was the year of the shirtless Holden.

The problem with Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing is not with William Holden.  Instead, the problem is with the miscasting of Jennifer Jones as Han Suyin, the woman with whom Mark Elliott falls in love.  Han Suyin was a real-life person, a doctor who wrote the autobiographical novel on which Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing was based.  Han Suyin was Eurasian.  Jennifer Jones most definitely was not.  Throughout the film, Han Suyin and Mark often discuss what it’s like to be Eurasian and to be in the middle of two very different cultures.  There’s even a discussion about whether Han Suying should try to pass as European.  It all has the potential to be very interesting except for the fact that Jennifer Jones, who was so good in so many films, is in no way convincing in her role.  Whenever she mentions being Eurasian, which she does frequently, the film come to a halt as we all stare at Jennifer Jones, one of the first film stars to ever come out of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It all leads to a rather strained movie, one that never really drew me into its cinematic world or story.  (For the record, a lot of people on twitter disagreed with me on this point.)  Ultimately, the main reason to watch it was for William Holden.  According to the film’s Wikipedia entry (how’s that for in-depth research), Holden and Jones reportedly did not get along during filming, with Jones apparently chewing garlic before their love scenes and there was a definite lack of chemistry between them.  Maybe I got spoiled by William Holden and Kim Novak dancing in Picnic but I never believed that Mark and Han Suyin were attracted to each other.  Interestingly, Jones and Holden would later both appear in another best picture nominee, 1974’s The Towering Inferno.  However, they didn’t share any scenes.

Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing was nominated for best picture but it lost to a far different love story, Marty.  This was also the final film directed by Henry King to be nominated for best picture.  Previous King films to be nominated included State Fair, In Old Chicago, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, The Song of Bernadette, Wilson, and Twelve O’Clock High.

Dances Scenes That I Love: William Holden and Kim Novak in Picnic

Hi, everyone!  Well, I just watched Sharknado 4 twice and I live tweeted it both times!  You can expect to see my review either tomorrow or on Tuesday, depending on how well I recover from tonight.

But, until then, it’s time to share this week’s final dance scene that I love.  This wonderfully sensual scene comes from the 1955 best picture nominee, Picnic!  Check out this wonderfully sensuous scene with William Holden and Kim Novak!

I hope everyone’s had a great July and I hope that August will be even better!

Love ya!

(Oh, at around the 18 second mark, the picture appears to freeze but don’t panic.  That’s a glitch in the upload and it only lasts for a second or two.)

Cleaning Out The DVR #2: The Bridge on the River Kwai (dir by David Lean)


Last night, after I watched Captains Courageous, I continued to clean out the DVR by watching the 1957 film, The Bridge On The River Kwai.

The Bridge On The River Kwai is a great film but it’s not necessarily an easy one to review.  It’s always easier to review a film when you can be snarky and dismissive but The Bridge On The River Kwai is one of the few films that can truly be called great.  Everything about it — from the directing to the cinematography to the script to the acting (especially the acting!) — works.  It’s a 3 hour film that never drags.  It’s a rousing and exciting adventure story that also works as an anti-war film.  As directed by David Lean, it’s probably about as perfect as a film can get.

The Bridge On The River Kwai takes place during World War II and really, it’s two films in one.  One film tells the story of Shears (William Holden), a POW at a Japanese prison of war camp in what was then Burma and what is now Myanmar.  Knowing that, under the rules of the Geneva Convention, officers are exempt from manual labor, Shears pretends to be a commander.  However, when the camp’s commandant, the harsh Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), announces the all prisoners — regardless of rank — will have to build a railway bridge over the River Kwai, Shears manages to escape.  With the help of local villagers, Shears makes it to an Allied hospital.

It’s at the hospital that Shears has a two-scene romance with a nurse because the film’s producer, Sam Spiegel, was worried that the film was too male dominated.  It’s also at the hospital that Shears is informed that he will be returning to the POW camp, with a group of British commandos, on a mission to destroy the bridge.  When Shears explains that he’s not even an officer, British Maj. Warden (Jack Hawkins) explains that’s why the Americans have agreed to let the British use Shears for their mission.

The film’s 2nd storyline deals with Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), the senior British officer at the POW camp.  When we first meet Nicholson, he’s in a battle of wills with Saito.  When Nicholson insists that no officer will work on the bridge, Saito first forces all of the British officers to spend an entire day standing in the heat.  When that doesn’t work, Saito has Nicholson locked in an iron box.  However, Nicholson refuses to back down and becomes a hero to the other prisoners.  Realizing that the bridge will never be finished on time and that he will be required to commit suicide because of his failure, Saito decides to take a different approach to dealing with Nicholson.

After releasing Nicholson from the iron box, Saito shows him the poor job that the British prisoners have been doing on the bridge.  Saito appeals to Nicholson’s vanity.

And it turns out that Col. Nicholson is a very vain man indeed.

Soon, Nicholson is ordering his men to do a good job on the bridge, announcing that they are going to show the Japanese what the British can accomplish.  Nicholson claims that the project will be a morale booster and that the bridge will be a permanent monument to British ingenuity.

This part of the film is an unexpectedly nuanced character study and Guinness gives a brilliant performance.  For the film’s first hour, Nicholson is our hero but then, just as suddenly, he reveals himself to be a far more complicated character and our feelings towards him become much more mixed.  We’re forced to reconsider everything that we previously felt towards him.  Was Nicholson standing up for his men because it was the right thing to do or was he doing it because he desired the camp’s adulation?  His motives are complicated and difficult to figure out and the implications are, at times, rather frightening.  About the only thing that can definitely be said about Nicholson is that he becomes so obsessed with showing what the British can do that he loses sight of what the Japanese are going to do with that bridge once it is complted. Nicholson’s short-sightedness become a metaphor for blind nationalism and war in general.

When these two storylines finally intersect, it leads to one of the most justifiably climaxes in cinema history, one that leads one of the film’s few surviving characters to exclaim, “The madness, the madness!”

As I mentioned earlier, The Bridge On The River Kwai won the Oscar for best picture and for once, not even I can disagree with the Academy.

Cleaning Out The DVR: Picnic (dir by Joshua Logan)


Tonight, I continued to clean out the DVR by watching the 1955 film Picnic.

Now, Picnic is kind of a strange film.  It’s one of those films from 50s that takes place in a small town where everyone is obsessed with sex but, since it’s the 1950s, nobody can just come out and say that they’re talking about sex.  So, instead, all of the dialogue is very discreet.  For instance, when Madge Owen (Kim Novak) talks to her mother, Flo (Betty Owens), about her date with her boyfriend, Alan (Cliff Robertson), Madge confesses that they spent the night kissing.  Flo asks if Madge if they have done anything more than kiss but, of course, she never comes straight out and says what “more” would be.  The audience knows what she’s talking about but it’s as if the world would actually end if anyone actually uttered the word.  “Oh mom!”  an embarrassed Madge says before confirming that she and Alan haven’t done anything more than kiss.

Flo desperately wants Madge to marry Alan because Alan is rich and his father owns the town’s grain elevator.  Marrying Alan would allow Flo to move up in the town’s strict social hierarchy.  However, Madge isn’t sure that she loves Alan.  Certainly, Alan seems to be a good man with a good future but he’s not a romantic.  Instead, he is someone who has his entire life already mapped out for him.

On Labor Day, a stranger comes to town.  His name is Hal Carter and he shows up riding on a freight train.  He’s come into town to see his old friend, Alan.  It turns out that Hal and Alan went to college together and were members of the same fraternity.  Hal was a star football player but he eventually flunked out of school and has spent the last few years drifting around the country.  However, Hal is now ready to settle down and he wonders if his old roommate Alan can get him a job at the grain elevator.

Now, here’s the strange part.  Hal is played by William Holden.  When he made Picnic, William Holden was 38 years old and looked closer to being 45.  (By contrast, Cliff Robertson, in the role of his former college roommate, was 32 and looked like he was 25.)  Hal spends a lot of time talking about his traumatic childhood and how he is finally ready to settle down and start acting like an adult.  In short, Hal talks like a 30 year-old but he looks like he’s nearly 50.  It’s odd to watch.  But even beyond the age issue, William Holden was an actor who always came across as being both confident and cynical.  Hal is a secret romantic with a deep streak of insecurity.  As great an actor as he may have been, William Holden is so thoroughly miscast here that it actually becomes fascinating to watch.  It brings a whole new subtext to the film as you find yourself wondering why no one is town finds it strange that a middle-aged man is still struggling to deal with his childhood.  When all the town’s young women ogle that shirtless Hal, it’s as if he’s wandered into a town populated only by teenagers with daddy issues.

(Paul Newman played the role of Hal in a Broadway production of Picnic.  And really, that’s who the ideal Hal would have been, a young Paul Newman.)

The majority of the film takes place at the town’s Labor Day picnic, where almost every woman in town is driven to distraction by the sight of Hal dancing.  Even the spinster teacher, Rosemary (Rosalind Russell), is so turned on by Hal’s masculinity that she makes a pass at him and accidentally rips his shirt.  Of course, some of Rosemary’s behavior is due to the fact that she’s drunk.  Her date, the befuddled Howard Bevans (Arthur O’Connell), made the mistake of being whiskey to the picnic.

Hal also dances with Madge’s 13 year-old sister, Millie (Susan Strasberg).  I have to admit that, even though I related strongly to Madge, Millie was my favorite character in the film.  Millie wears glasses and can recite Shakespeare from memory.  She knows that everyone around her is full of it and she’s willing to call them on it.  Of course, Millie herself ends up with a crush on Hal and it’s a dream for her when she finally gets to dance with him.

(Strasberg was 17 years old but is believable as a 13 year-old.  At the same time, since Hal appears to be nearly 50, his sudden closeness to Millie carries an icky, if unintentional, subtext.)

But then Madge suddenly appears, wearing a pink dress and literally emerging from the black night.  She starts to sway to the music.  As she slowly approaches Hal, he forgets about Millie and soon is dancing with Madge.  It’s actually a rather striking scene, one that so full of dream-like sensuality that it almost seems more like it was directed by surrealist David Lynch as opposed to the usually workmanlike Joshua Logan.

(In the video below, the scene freezes about 12 seconds in, before starting up again at the 16 second mark.  This is a glitch with the upload and is not present in the actual film.)

Needless to say, a drifter can’t just come into town and steal his ex-roommate’s girlfriend without drama following.  Picnic starts out as a slightly overheated examination of small town morality and then, after about an hour, it goes the full melodrama route, complete with police chases, stolen cars, a fist fight in an ornate mansion, and a lot of big speeches about the importance of love.  Needless to say, it’s all a lot of fun.

Picnic was nominated for best picture of the year.  However, it lost to the far more low-key Marty.

Cleaning Out The DVR: Born Yesterday (dir by George Cukor)


After I watched Goodbye, Mr. Chips, I decided to watch one more film that I had recorded off of TCM.  The movie I chose was Born Yesterday.

This 1950 film was directed by George Cukor and stars three Academy Award winners.  The lead actor was William Holden, who would win best actor three years after the release of Born Yesterday.  The villain was played Broderick Crawford, just a year after playing his Oscar-winning role in All The King’s Men.  Finally, the true star of the film was Judy Holliday, recreating her Broadway role of “dumb intelligent blonde” Billie Dawn.  For playing Billie, Holliday would win the award for best actress of the year.

In Born Yesterday, Billie is the girlfriend of Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford).  The crude and not particularly intelligent Harry has made a fortune as a “junkman” and, though the film never comes out and explicitly says so, it is suggested that Harry may have ties to the Mafia.  Harry has come to Washington, convinced that he can buy his way into political power.  Harry’s lawyer (Howard St. John) suggests that Harry should marry Billie, specifically because a wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband.

However, there’s a problem.  Billie is uneducated and lacks formal manners.  Of course, Harry is even worse but then again, Harry is a rich white guy and, therefore, he doesn’t have to be polite or know what he’s talking about  After Billie embarrasses him during a meeting with a congressman, Harry hires journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) to teach Billie how to fit in with Washington society.  At first, Paul refuses but, ultimately, he takes the job because he needs the money.

As Paul teaches Billie, it quickly becomes apparent that Billie is not as dumb as everyone assumes.  In fact, she has an insatiable desire to learn.  When Paul takes her on a tour of Washington, Billie is excited to learn the story behind every monument and to take a look at every historical artifact.  (When Paul shows her the bill of rights, Billie immediately reads the 2nd Amendment and gets Paul to explain it to her.  As Paul explained that it meant that citizens had the right to bear arms, my sister walked through the room and said, “You got that right.”)  Judy Holliday perfectly captures Billie’s excitement as, for the first time in her life, she’s actually treated like someone with a brain.

Billie also starts to fall in love with Paul.  After reading one of Paul’s articles, an obviously impressed Billie tells him, “I think it’s the best thing I ever read.  I didn’t understand a word.”  At the same time, Paul starts to fall for Billie.

Meanwhile, Harry is not falling for anyone but himself.  He continues to bribe congressmen but now, Billie not only realizes what Harry is doing but also understands that it’s illegal and goes against everything that the authors of the Constitution envisioned.  After a rather nasty scene in which she is repeatedly slapped by Harry, Billie goes down to the Lincoln Memorial, hears the voice of old Abe himself, and is finally ready to stand up for herself, for Paul, and for the American way of life.

(“When you steal from the government, you steal from yourself, you dumb ox!” she yells at Harry.)

Born Yesterday was based on a stage play and, with the exception of the scenes where Paul and Billie explore D.C., the entire film takes place in Harry’s hotel suite.  The film never quite escapes its theatrical origins.  Broderick Crawford bellows his lines out to the last row and William Holden feels miscast.  (That same year, he gave a far more interesting performance in Sunset Boulevard.)

But ultimately, Born Yesterday is mostly designed to showcase Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn.  When the film first started, I have to admit that I had my doubts about Holliday’s performance.  Her character was so stereotypically ditzy and spoke in such a nasal whine of a voice that I found myself wishing that the film had been made with either Marilyn Monroe or even Jayne Mansfield in the Billie Dawn role.  But, as the film progresses, I started to better appreciate Holliday’s performance.  I started to notice the sadness and the insecurity lurking underneath the surface.  I discovered that there was unexpected nuance to both the character and the performance.  By the time she was running through the National Archives and asking Paul questions about George Washington, she had totally won me over.

Still, Holliday’s victory for best actress does seem a little strange.  After all, to win the Oscar, Holliday defeated All About Eve‘s Bette Davis and Anne Baxter and Sunset Boulevard‘s Gloria Swanson.  Holliday’s performance definitely deserved a nomination but it’s a bit more difficult to argue that it deserved the Oscar.  Of course, Davis and Baxter played two tough and sarcastic divas, neither one of whom depended on a man for their success.  Swanson, meanwhile, played an older woman who ends up murdering her much younger lover.  Billie, meanwhile, is never without a girlfriend and doesn’t murder anyone.  Perhaps it’s understandable that certain Academy voters would be more comfortable with Billie Dawn than they would with Norma Desmond or Margo Channing.

Born Yesterday was also nominated for best picture but it lost to All About Eve.

Lisa Reviews an Oscar Nominee: Our Town (dir by Sam Wood)


(SPOILERS BELOW!  THE END OF THIS FILM WILL BE REVEALED!  I will also be revealing who played George Gibbs but that’s probably not as big a spoiler.  It depends how you look at it.)

I was only 15 years old when I first read Our Town.  Because I was a theater nerd, I knew a little about the play.  For instance, I knew it took place in a small town.  I knew that it was narrated by a character known as the Stage Manager.  I knew that the play was meant to be performed on a bare stage, with no sets or props.  What I did not know, as I innocently opened up that booklet, is that Our Town is probably one of the most traumatically depressing plays ever written.

When the stage manager appears at the start of the play and talks about the town of Grover’s Corner, he lulls you into believing that you’re about to see a sentimental, comedic, and old-fashioned celebration of small town life.  We meet the characters and they all seem to be quirky in a properly non-threatening way.  Joe Crowell shows up delivers a newspaper to Doc Gibbs.  The stage manager mentions that Joe will eventually grow up to attend to M.I.T.

“Awwwww!  Good for Joe!” the audience says.

And, the Stage Manager goes on to inform us, as soon as Joe graduates, he will be killed in World War I, his expensive education wasted.

Okay, the audience thinks, that was a dark moment but this play was written at a time when World War I was still fresh on everyone’s mind.  Surely the rest of the play will not be quite as dark…

And fortunately, George Gibbs and Emily Webb show up.  They’re young, they’re likable, and they’re in love!  George and Emily get married and they’re prepared to live a long and happy life in our town!  Good for them!  YAY!

And then Act III begins…

Oh my God, Act III.  Act III begins with almost everyone dead.  Emily died in child birth so she hangs out at the local cemetery and talks to all the other dead people, the majority of whom only have vague memories of their former lives.  Emily relives the day of her 12th birthday and discovers that it’s too painful to remember what it was like to once be alive.  Emily asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly appreciates life.  The Stage Manager replies, “No.”  In the world of the living, George Gibbs sobs over his wife’s grave….

And the play ends!


Seriously, reading Our Town was probably one of the most traumatic experiences of my life!

The 1940 film version of Our Town is a little less traumatic because it changes the ending.  In the film version, Emily doesn’t die.  She nearly dies while giving birth to her second child and the entire third act of the play is basically portrayed as being a near-death hallucination.  But, in the end, she survives and she comes through the experience with a new found appreciation for life.

And it’s certainly the type of happy ending that I was hoping for when I first read the play but, as much as I hate to admit it, the story works better with Emily dying than with Emily surviving.  The play presents death as being as inevitable as life and love and it makes the point that there’s nothing we can do to truly prepare for it.  By allowing Emily to live, the film gives us a ray of hope that wasn’t present anywhere else in Our Town.  The happy ending feels inauthentic.  If Emily could live then why couldn’t Joe Crowell?  For that matter, why did Emily’s younger brother have to die of a burst appendix on a camping trip?

But, other than the changed ending, Our Town is a pretty good adaptation of the stage play.  While the film features an actual set (as opposed to the bare stage on which theatrical versions of Our Town are meant to be performed), director Sam Wood does a good job of retaining the play’s surreal, metatheatrical style.  Making good use of shadow and darkness, Wood and cinematographer Bert Glennon made Grover’s Corner seem like a half-remembered memory or a fragment of a barely cohesive dream.

Frank Craven, who originated the role on Broadway, is properly dry as the Stage Manager and, in the role of Doc Gibbs, Thomas Mitchell is so sober and respectable that it’s hard to believe that, in just 6 years, the same actor would play the delightfully irresponsible Uncle Billy in It’s A Wonderful Life.  Emily and George are played by Martha Scott and an impossibly young William Holden, both of whom give wonderfully appealing performances.

With the exception of that changed ending, Our Town is a worthy adaptation of a classic play.  It was nominated for Best Picture but lost to another literary adaptation, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

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.