Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard

“Alright, Mr De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up”
Image courtesy: lagruyere

A Billy Wilder classic, "Sunset Boulevard", is famous for many things. It is rare for a film to have an astonishing opening scene and to end it with an equally astounding one. But between the two moments, there are many memorable scenes and delicious dialogues that steam up the screen.

The famous opening scene of a dead man floating in the swimming pool sets the dark and blackly comical tone of this film noir. It is his voice-over that starts the flashback of the story that explains how he ended up in there. "Sunset Boulevard" is a biting satire on Hollywood and while it takes the elements from the genre of film noir, the voice-over - a blend of tough talk and wisecracks - is a crafty way of lampooning the narration of more conventional Humphrey Bogart gun dramas.

The flashback shows Joe Gillis (William Holden) as a scriptwriter who has fallen on hard times. He meets Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a reclusive and forgotten actress of classic silent films. She spies an opportunity to use him to help orchestrate a career comeback (Norma Desmond would disapprove of this word, in one scene, she says that it's not a comeback but a RETURN). The two form an oddly intimate relationship, which is destroyed by Norma's delusions, possessiveness and insecurities.

The noirish elements are blended with humour and horror. The first time that Joe meets Norma, she is fretting over her dead pet monkey. This leads to a bizarre and surreal scenario where Joe watches Norma and her butler, Erich von Strocheim (Max von Mayerling) give the monkey a serious and sombre burial in the middle of the night. The horror is further amplified by the appearance of the mansion, a bleak and cheerless place. When Max shows Joe his room, he remarks, "This room hasn't been used for a long time". It's perhaps an insignificant remark but it epitomises the mansion and Norma herself - she is an actress and a person who has not felt alive for a long time. The combination of horror, comedy and bleak tragedy is the result of the Billy Wilder-Charles Brackett screenplay partnership. Wilder wanted it to be serious while Brackett wanted more humour. This is the last time the two worked together.

My favourite moment in the entire film is the sequence where Norma goes back to the Paramount studio to meet her director-mentor - Cecil B. De Mille. If you watch the part in the studio carefully, De Mille is introduced after a build-up. The camera pans along many faces and eventually leads up to the enigmatic director. Such a build-up is provocative and suggests that he is the cause of Norma’s vulnerable insanity. He lies to her that he likes her script but doesn’t have the integrity or honesty to admit otherwise. De Mille says of Norma “a thousand press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit” but what about him? If he is ready to tell a barefaced lie then who knows how many lies he spouted during the prime of Norma’s career. Maybe it is his lies that finally twisted Norma’s mind. The actor/director plays himself but was he aware that his character would appear in such a subtly unflattering light?

Gloria Swanson really was a famed actress of silent films and here displayed a theatrical mode of acting that contrasts sharply against William Holden’s natural performance. Her clothing and get-up has a comical touch and seems to be a tribute to Greta Garbo. While viewing one of her many films, she gives a hint of an admiration for Garbo – “We didn’t need dialogues, we had faces. There just aren’t faces like that anymore. Just one maybe – Garbo”. While Swanson’s hand gestures and incisive expressions are in place, there is also a natural and vulnerable facet to her performance. You get the sense of an inner pain that Norma is struggling to suppress. Gloria Swanson successfully merged the two different styles of acting to come up with a knockout performance. She truly was a great actress whose career could have gone on for longer had it not been for the big bad Hollywood system. .

The term ‘classic’ is an overused one but it is a term that this rich film definitely deserves. A masterpiece.


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