It's Noirsville, a visually oriented blog celebrating the vast and varied sources of inspiration, all of the resulting output, and all of the creative reflections back, of a particular style/tool of film making used in certain film/plot sequences or for a films entirety that conveyed claustrophobia, alienation, obsession, and events spiraling out of control, that came to fruition in the roughly the period of the last two and a half decades of B&W film.
This Blog post originally appeared Tuesday, March 13, 2018on Down These Mean Streets Musings of a Noir Dame - Margot Shelby
Sunset Blvd (1950)
"I AM big. It's the pictures that got small."
Sunset Blvd was written and directed by the great
Billy Wilder for Paramount. The picture is a scathing
indictment of Hollywood and the monsters it produces;
a macabre comedy, full of stick-the-knife-in-and-twist-it
slowly humor; sordid melodrama and Noir, from which
it borrows the flashback structure, fatalism,
the sucker and a different kind of femme fatale who lures
with money, not sex. As far as Noir goes, this is one of the
bleakest. The movie also has more quotable dialogue
than any other film I can think of.
It’s a Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie as brutal as any to
ever come out of Tinseltown. I think only The Player (1992)
can match it in cynicism. Sunset Blvdruffled the feathers
of a lot of Hollywood luminaries. Nobody likes to have his soul laid bare quite so savagely. Louis B. Mayer wanted to have the movie destroyed in the interest of industry honor. Lucky for Wilder his home studio Paramount held him in high
esteem. He had given them a few box office successes.
The movie isn’t quite a hate letter to Tinseltown, for that there’s too much compassion and
nostalgia in it. It stays just this side of outright condemnation, because the audience can feel
Wilder’s love for the Silent Age and the studio system which was coming apart at the seams
in the 50s. There’s also some positive portrayals in movie. Cecil B. DeMille for example,
playing himself, is shown in quite a favorable light.
The film opens with the spectacularly audacious shot - now considered one of the most iconic opening shots in movie history - of Joe Gillis’ dead body floating face down in a swimming pool. He then proceeds to tell the audience how he ended up there. The picture’s sardonic voice-over narration is provided by a talking corps. Now that’s creative.
Two-bit screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is down to his last buck and on the run from the repo men. By accident he ends up at the crumbling estate of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), former Silent movie star and now a recluse, who lives there with her strange and creepy butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). She’s desperately been trying to resuscitate her career and has been writing on a script for Salomé for years, impatiently waiting for that one coveted phone call from Cecil B. DeMille inviting her back to Paramount. Unfortunately the script is melodramatic tripe that nobody wants to read. Joe sees the prospect of some impressive
money looming in the future. He knows Norma’s script is useless but makes her believe
he can do a patch-up job on it and so accepts an invitation to stay at her house. But things
get weird quickly. Norma turns out to be the original cougar. She pays off his bills and he becomes her boy toy. His life gets even more complicated when he falls in love with fellow writer Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). But Norma’s possessiveness and jealousy know no bounds. Joe should have paid a little more attention to the fate of John the Baptist.
An icon of the Silent era, Swanson - like so many others - came close to being reduced to nothing when sound arrived. She continued to make movies, but her kind of films had simply fallen out of favor with the public. Thankfully she proved to be a shrewd and successful business woman so her life didn’t go off the rails.
Norma Desmond is a reminder that Tinseltown habitually treats its stars as disposable commodities, quickly kicking them to the curb to let them rot in obscurity if they don’t fill the studio’s coffers. When she was a star people worshipped the ground Norma walked on. “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit”, says DeMille of Norma. It’s hard to weather such unmitigated awe and adoration with any kind of cool aplomb. Fame is addictive. As a result, Norma has an ego the size of a small planet and it needs feeding constantly. Like a black hole, she consumes all light and life around her.
In a stroke of genius Wilder often photographs Norma’s hands like the greedy talons of a bird
of prey, desperately clawing at life but grasping nothing.
Norma used to be the brightest star of them all but now she’s been living in her decaying mansion
in self-imposed exile for over 20 years. She barely sees anybody and has cut herself off completely
from the real world while turning her mansion into a shrine to her lost fame and glory days, reliving
them over and over again. She surrounds herself only with other fallen idols long past their
expiry date who Joe calls disrespectfully “the waxworks”.
Her delusions aren’t helped by Max who’s enabling her. He’s forging countless fan letters to keep
her happy. And when Paramount finally calls - seemingly about her script that she mailed to them-
he hides from Norma the fact that it’s not her they want, just her exquisite vintage car.
The moment Joe sets foot on the dilapidated
estate he remarks on its rotting splendor.
Norma’s mansion is a mausoleum where
time stands still. “The whole place seemed to
have been stricken with a kind of creeping
paralysis - out of beat with the rest of the
world, crumbling apart in slow motion”. He’ll
soon find out that everything is rotten on
the estate. The decay has seeped
deep down into the foundations.
Many viewers likened Norma to a vampire.
She feeds on other people and sucks them
dry. In her clinging need to be loved, she
even goes so far as attempting suicide
to blackmail Joe into staying. In fact
Sunset Blvd. plays very much like a horror
movie. We have a haunted house complete with big pipe organ where a strange butler plays eerie
music at night. There are the ghosts of Hollywood past, the undead - Norma, Max and the
“waxworks” - forever damned to walk the earth in search of something long vanished. And weirdest
of all there’s the midnight funeral for Norma’s feverishly beloved pet monkey that’s right out of a
freak show. That alone would have been most people’s cue to leave, but Joe doesn’t heed the
warning signs. He stays and so becomes Norma’s replacement chimp. The poisonous spirit of the
mansion will possess him too. Horror movies don’t need blood and gore. Monsters come in many
different shapes and sizes.
Swanson is phenomenal in her role. She gives a gutsy performance which could easily be
dismissed as campy and close to parody. But she plays it exactly right. It’s a performance within a
performance. Norma is always in front of an audience, always posing for the cameras. She
cannot let go. A theatrical acting style was part of the Silent Age and Norma never made it out.
Holden’s natural acting contrasts sharply with hers.
Von Stroheim’s story in Sunset Blvd. is actually the one that comes closest to reality, lending the movie an air of uncanny authenticity. A once-great Silent director, he had a reputation for extravagance and a fanatical insistence on perfection regardless of costs. He and Swanson had a history. He had directed her in Queen Kelly in 1929, but was dismissed from the set after a disagreement with her. The movie was never finished and lost an astronomical sum. It is Queen Kelly that Norma screens nightly at her house. The film ruined von Stroheim’s career and Swanson’s suffered too. He made only two more talkies, and was then reduced to playing self-parodies in other directors’ movies. It was a spectacular fall from grace. When Max says to Joe, "There were three young directors who showed promise in those days, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Max von Mayerling,” we’re supposed to substitute von Stroheim for von Mayerling. That is how famous he was in the 1920s.
Von Stroheim brings great pathos to his role. Max,as it turns out, is not only Norma’s butler but her
former director and former husband too. He was the man who made her, and is now reduced to
lackey status because he still loves her. The man’s a masochist. He thinks he’s helping her, but no
doubt he’s partly to blame for Norma’s mental state, letting her live in a phantasy world, feeding her delusions, her denials and ultimately her illness.
Joe Gillis is a stand-in for all those wide-eyed
hopefuls coming to Hollywood, just to be
chewed up and spit out again. At the time
William Holden was a bit like his character.
After he had exploded onto the
Hollywood scene in 1939 with Golden Boy,
his career was going nowhere for the next 10
years. Holden was bored with his roles and he
literally leapt at the chance of playing Gillis.
He made the right choice. Sunset Blvd
made him one of Hollywood's greatest and
revitalized his career for the next 15 years.
Joe thinks he’s found himself a cushy setup,
but he gets a lot more than he bargained for.
In true Noir fashion, he's doomed the
second he sets foot on Norma's estate. She
has her own ideas about their future. Joe is a chump who fatally underestimates Norma’s
combustible mix of neurosis, fear and insecurity. He despises himself for being a gigolo, but still
can’t bring himself to leave. Every once in a while he ponders going back to Ohio where he came
from but that would mean admitting defeat. The question is does he really want to leave? He likes
the lifestyle despite his claims to the contrary. Such is the corrupting nature of easy living. A
gold cigarette case, expensive suits, shoes and watches are better than the poor house even if it
means prostituting more than just his art. Roger Ebert suggested that he is content being a prisoner
and I’m inclined to agree.
It all changes when he falls in love with Betty. She’s all good, sweet and pure and may have been
his redemption. But Norma finds out and tries to disclose Joe’s dirty secret to Betty. It doesn’t
work. Joe’s finally had enough and invites Betty out to the mansion to see the situation for herself.
Unwisely Joe then throws the brutal truth in Norma’s face. About the fan letters, her script, DeMille
humoring her and hating the mere sight of her. But Norma can’t handle the truth. She has been
teetering on the brink of madness for years and this is the last straw. Her world comes crashing
down. She sends Joe on his way…with a few parting shots. Nobody leaves a star.
The final scene shows true cinematic genius, an image that sears itself into the brain. It is truly disturbing and a master class on brilliant acting. The homicide squad has arrived to take Norma away but she has slipped into complete insanity. Her big day, her big return, has finally come. Max tells her that she’s filming Salomé’s climactic scene, convinces her to come down the stairs as if it’s a grand entrance, not a descend into police custody. It is his last act of love for her. Joe comments: “Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.” She graciously addresses “the crew” - assuring them that they’ll make many more movies together - and the big man who’s finally come to see her. “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” The cameras keep rolling in her alternate reality, she’s back on top again where she belongs. Then mercifully the shot fades into hazy oblivion.
Madness can be a blessing. All is best in the best of all possible worlds. Norma got her comeback
with Mr. DeMille, Max could direct her one last time, Joe got the pool he always wanted.
Sunset Boulevard, the boulevard of broken dreams. Only the chimp got off easy. He’s the only one