Movie review: Sunset Blvd.
Re-release of classic 1950 film in cinemas captures magic and despair of yesteryear
Posted: January 23, 2013
A pool of sorrows. A scene with a dead writer in a swimming pool bookends this classic film about idealism and the film business.
It's not every day one gets the opportunity to review a Billy Wilder film for a print medium. For the most part, it's because Wilder hasn't made a film for more than three decades. (His last film was the widely panned Buddy Buddy in 1981.) Another reason, perhaps the more important one, is that Wilder died in 2002.
If you are one of that handful of readers who have never heard of Wilder, we will merely state that he was one of the most notable writer-directors of the 20th century, with at least four confirmed classics under his belt - Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Some Like It Hot and The Apartment - and many more often found in the upper echelons of the "best of" lists. If you've ever seen the picture of Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grate, her dress flapping in the wind blowing up from underneath, you have Wilder to thank for that image in his 1955 film, The Seven Year Itch.
Sunset Blvd., released in 1950, is a film about a profession Wilder himself participated in - that of screenwriter - and the town he knew all too well: Hollywood. It is the latest to be released under the auspices of the Association of Czech Film Clubs' (AČFK) Project 100, run since the mid-1990s.
Project 100's works have been meticulously restored and reproduced in digital format. The AČFK's Jan Jílek says the project's mission is to "project the most important works of film history in the best quality and give today's audiences the chance to see them in their truest, most 'natural' environment: at the cinema."
Directed by Billy Wilder
With William Holder, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson
Other films in the lineup this year include Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, the Coen brothers' adventures with The Dude in The Big Lebowski and the 1968 Czech film Všichni dobří rodáci (All My Compatriots).
In the opening scene of Sunset Blvd., we find a screenwriter floating in a swimming pool. It is Joe Gillis (William Holden), and we quickly find out that he will also be our smooth-talking narrator as the film cuts to six months earlier, when the now-deceased Gillis was struggling to make ends meet as nobody at the big studios had any interest in his psychological screenplays. They are all only interested in simple, entertaining stories that satisfy the viewer's most superficial desires.
On the verge of losing his most precious possession, his car, Gillis meets Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former actress of the silent era whose name is known to many but whose face and voice belong firmly in the past. Desmond has a bad case of delusions of grandeur, as is to be expected when one lives alone in an enormous villa, albeit falling apart, with vines creeping along the walls making their way to the ceiling, surrounded only by pictures of oneself.
She takes a liking to the young screenwriter, believing he will help her get back into the pictures thanks to the volumes of handwritten drivel she dubs a screenplay, and she persuades him to move into her mansion. The penniless Gillis decides to go along because this means he no longer has to worry about paying rent, but he very soon feels himself trapped and it becomes abundantly clear that Desmond, despite her narcissism, has fallen in love with him, too.
The film contains a few big-name stars of the era playing themselves, most notably the director Cecil B. DeMille, and Swanson herself plays a kind of auto-parody, as she had also been a star before the arrival of the "talkie."
One of Sunset Blvd.'s most interesting aspects is the role played by two well-known directors. DeMille plays himself, a man who used to know Desmond but now that she has lost her mind he prefers to tell her she is still a star rather than break her heart. The other is Desmond's majordomo Max von Mayerling, played by one of the greatest directors of the silent era, Erich von Stroheim. Knowing they are incredibly influential directors, it is distressing to see them bend to the will of a self-involved actress past her prime, but Wilder knew of what he spoke, having dealt with his fair share of divas during his career.
Sunset Blvd. is an incisive look behind the scenes at how quickly Hollywood forgets those no longer on the screen and therefore no longer in the news. It doesn't have the same irony or wit as Double Indemnity nor is it as funny or engaging as Some Like It Hot, but, despite her lunacy, it is impossible to take our eyes off of Desmond whenever she opens her mouth. And that is exactly how she would want us to react.
Sunset Blvd., out Jan. 24, screens in English with Czech subtitles at the Aero, Oko and Světozor movie theaters.
André Crous can be reached at