Sunset Boulevard

  • Title:  Sunset Boulevard
  • Director:  Billy Wilder
  • Date: 1950
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Genre:  Drama, Film Noir
  • Cast:  William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Jack Webb
  • Format:  Standard, Black/White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I just think a picture should say a little something.”– Betty
“Oh, one of the message kids, just a story won’t do.  You’d’ve turned down Gone with the Wind.”– Joe
“No, that was me.  I said, Who wants to see a Civil War picture.”– Sheldrake

“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”– Norma Desmond

“Still wonderful, isn’t it?  And no dialogue.  We didn’t need dialogue, we had Faces.”– Norma

“Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture.  They think the actors make it up as they go along.”– Joe

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is one of the best movies made about movies, ever.  It’s also an excellent Film Noir, filmed by one of Film Noir’s best directors, Billy Wilder. The dialogue sparkles, and much of this film is quotable.  The characters are sympathetic, but doomed – as is characteristic of Noir films.

Sunset Boulevard is the story of Joe Gillis, down on his luck Hollywood screenwriter, and Norma Desmond – once queen of the silent silver screen, now all but forgotten in her decrepit Hollywood mansion.  The film opens with a shot looking up at a dead body floating in a swimming pool. Narration sweeps the viewer into the story, telling us how Joe ended up in the swimming pool.  Yes, this is the second time Wilder’s started a film with his protagonist dead or dying and used narration to explain how he wound up in such a state (the other being the wonderful Double Indemnity).  Joe’s a writer, but he’s hit a “slow” point, so much so that he’s three months behind on the rent on his apartment, and his car is about to be repossessed.  Without his car, Joe’s in trouble, so he dodges the finance company, which leads him to Norma Desmond’s mansion — he gets a flat and pulls into her garage.

Norma, once Queen of Silent Films, has now gotten old and lives in seclusion with her butler, Max.  Joe introduces himself to her, recognizing her, but really has no interest, he only wants to hide out until he can get the money to pay what he owes on the car.  But Norma is fascinated by this young man, thrown into her clutches by fate.  When he tells her he’s a writer, she shows him her script for “Salome”.  It’s truly dreadful, and about 600 pages too long, but Joe reluctantly accepts a job as editor/re-writer/ghost writer.

And thus begins Joe’s descent.  He becomes a “kept man”, with Norma buying him gifts of fancy clothes, jewelry, watches, cuff  links, etc.  Joe, a “plain speaking” sort, isn’t impressed with Norma’s gifts, but he’s caught in her web and helpless to get himself out.

At the beginning of the film, just prior to meeting Norma, Joe has a meeting at Paramount Pictures with Mr. Sheldrake, to plug his new baseball picture.  The meeting goes nowhere, though he meets Betty Schaefer, a script reader with aspirations to be a writer.  They meet later in the picture, when Betty tries to convince Joe to develop about six pages of his failed script into a full-length movie.  They meet again and begin to work on the new script together, and even start to fall for each other.  But their relationship is doomed because she’s engaged to his best friend, Artie (Jack Webb); and Joe, though he’s not in love with the much older Norma Desmond, feels a certain responsibility to her.

Every time it seems that Joe might break away from Norma… and find happiness with friends his own age like Artie and Betty, he’s drawn back.

Meanwhile, Norma lives in the past, watching her movies on a theater screen in her home.  (Something Joe scoffs at… one wonders what he’d think of the VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray market today?)  She even performs live shows for Joe once in awhile.  Once a week, what Joe describes as “her waxworks” come to play bridge, they are cameos of other classic silent era film stars.  Norma is an aged beauty, and she hasn’t handled the fact well.  Partially because of Hollywood’s standards of young perfection, but also partially because she was never able to change with the times or re-invent herself.  Which is a fate of many Hollywood stars, especially women.

Norma finally drops off her script for “Salome” in person to Cecil B. De Mille (played by De Mille himself). When an aide at Paramount calls her, she instructs Max to hang up… playing hard to get.  She later goes to the studio in person and meets De Mille.  While he’s checking out the calls she’s received, an old lighting gaffer recognizes her, and turns a huge floodlight on her.  Soon behind-the-scenes people and actors alike are flocking around her with cries of, “Norma Desmond!” and “It’s Norma Desmond!” and “I thought she was dead!”.  De Mille, meanwhile, discovers that the calls were about her car… someone wanted it for a Crosby picture.  De Mille decides to save Norma’s feelings by not telling her, and even promises to shoot “Salome” after his current film.

Norma returns home and books every type of beauty treatment she can.   Joe gets even more frustrated, but won’t leave, he can’t leave.

Finally, Joe starts sneaking out during the evening to meet Betty and work on their script, “Dark Windows”, a romance.  They start to fall for each other.  But Joe doesn’t want to break up the engagement between Betty and Artie.  Norma also becomes jealous and even calls Betty to tell her “what kind of man he is”.  Joe catches Norma at this, invites Betty over, then cruelly explains his circumstances.  He’s driving her away because Artie’s a nice guy.  After Betty leaves, Joe goes to his room, grabs his suitcase, and begins packing – taking only his own clothes, and leaving the rest.  Norma has a fit… and in her anger, shoots him three times (and thus, Joe winds up in the swimming pool).  Later, reporters, police, detectives, and others gather.  By this time, she’s gone completely mad and has no idea where she is or what’s going on.  Max, her director, and first husband, directs her down the stairs, and with newsreel cameras rolling, she delivers her speech about how great it is to be back in pictures, and the film’s immortal last line:  “Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark.  All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Sunset Boulevard is brilliant.  It’s dark, and chilling, and Joe, a perfectly nice guy, a writer from Ohio who came to Hollywood to make it big, and died in a swimming pool, is both a warning and a ideal protagonist.  The film’s theme is broken dreams:  Norma became a star at sixteen, but now she’s fifty and has no one, and no concept of how to live in the world.  Joe only wanted to become a working writer in Hollywood, and, well, didn’t.  The film is the antithesis of  the rags-to-riches tale that is so popular in the American psyche and in Hollywood films and musicals in particular.  It’s also a tale of  how Hollywood uses beautiful women and then spits them out to replace them with someone younger, and more beautiful (though that’s implied not explicit).  I love this film, and Billy Wilder’s directing.  And, again, as in most Film Noir films, the dialogue sparkles.

I highly, highly recommend Sunset Boulevard.  If you’ve never seen it, make a resolution to watch it, you won’t be disappointed.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  5 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Superman/Batman:  Apocalypse

Sabrina

  • Title:  Sabrina
  • Director:  Billy Wilder
  • Date:  1954
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Genre:  Romance, Drama
  • Cast:  Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, William Holden
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Oh, I’m not telling you that you have to be a cook as she was, or that I want you to marry a  chauffeur like me, but you know how I feel about it.  Your mother and I had a good life together, we were respected by everyone.  That’s as much as anyone can want in this world.  Don’t reach for the moon, child.”  Fairchild, Sabrina’s father

“It’s all beginning to make sense — Mr. Tyson owns the sugar cane, you own the formula for the plastics and I’m supposed to be offered up as a human sacrifice on the alter of industrial progress — is that it?”  — David

“So strange to think of you being touched by a woman – I always thought you walked alone.”  — Sabrina
“No man walks alone by choice.”  — Linus

Sabrina, cannot in truth be called a “romantic comedy”, because the storyline is, in many ways, quite dark, though the second half of the film does turn into a typical romantic triangle.  Hepburn is Sabrina, the daughter of the chauffeur, living on the very large, Long Island estate belonging to the Larrabee family. She’s quite young, and quite taken with David (Holden), the younger of the two Larrabee brothers.  David, however, barely knows she exists.  When Sabrina sees David romantically involved with another woman, she gets so upset, she decides to commit suicide.  And even though she’s scheduled to go to France for cooking school the next day, she goes to the garage, starts all the cars, closed all the doors and tries to kill herself, after leaving a note for her father.  Sabrina is rescued by Linus (Bogart) the older Larrabee brother, and nothing more is said about what happened.

After the incident, she’s sent off  to France, and cooking school.  In France, at first, Sabrina can think of nothing but David, and even her classes don’t distract her.  And given that the classes start with “How to boil water” and “how to crack an egg” – you can’t really blame her for being bored.  But soon she’s taken under the wing of an old baron who teaches her about style, and grace, and she returns to New York two years later an outwardly changed women – full of  style and sophistication.  But, inwardly, she’s still obsessed with David.  Upon learning he’s engaged, she still plans to ensnare him.

Sabrina’s plans, however, are somewhat derailed by Linus, the older Larrabee (Humphrey Bogart), who’s arranged his brother’s marriage to a sugar cane heiress to cement a business deal to make bullet-proof plastic from sugar cane.  (Don’t ask, just like you don’t want to try and figure out how the daughter of the chauffeur can afford the prestigious Cordon Blue cooking school in France).  Linus arranges his brother’s match, but playboy David thinks that this is one girl he’s not interested in.  And when he sees Sabrina in all her finery at the train station, he’s hooked.  But, Linus, most to save his business deal, and partially because he’s also intrigued by this sophisticated woman in his midst, also starts to date Sabrina.

And thus, we have the triangle, who will end-up with Sabrina?  Like many movies from the 1950s, it’s the men in her life — her father, the two brothers, and the two brothers’ father, who seem determined to make Sabrina’s choice of a husband for her, rather than letting Sabrina choose.  Still, it is a good movie anyway, and the first time I watched it I was genuinely surprised who she ends up choosing after all.

Billy Wilder directed Sabrina, which accounts for it’s dark tone, and I’m not just talking about the black and white filming.  Wilder’s direction is incredible, especially his use of deep focus and shots of the characters completely isolated from each other, surprising in a romance (but not surprising coming from Wilder – an accomplished Film Noir director).  Even in what would normally be a very romantic scene, Linus and Sabrina boating, she’s on one end of the boat, he’s on the other.  The boat’s only about 15 feet and the two “lovers” are sitting as far apart as they could possibly get without one of them being in the ocean.  When Sabrina confront Linus in his office – the lighting is used to great effect and further isolates the characters.

Recommendation:  See it! (At least once)
Rating: 3.8 Stars Out of  5
Next Film:  Same Time, Next Year

Network

  • Title:  Network
  • Director:  Sidney Lumet
  • Date:  1976
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Cast:  Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • Format:  R1, NTSC

“The American people are turning sour, they’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression. They’ve turned off, shot up, and they’ve f…ed themselves limp and nothing helps.” — Diana

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everyone’s out of work or scared of losing their job. A dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust … We know the air is unfit to breathe. And our food is unfit to eat.”  — Howard Beale

“I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now, and go to the window.  Open it, and stick your head out and yell:  I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  — Howard Beale

Network, in a way, is bizarre and weird sort of film. On the one hand, it’s a “typical” 1970s heavy-hitting issue-oriented drama, warning of the dangers of corporate takeovers of television news, especially when news is asked to serve a corporate balance sheet rather than take seriously it’s duty to inform the public. But whereas other 70s dramas, such as Norma Rae, Silkwood, and The China Syndrome all feel somewhat dated now – Network, if  anything feels somewhat precognitive. Large sections of Network remind me of the television series, Max  Headroom:  20 Minutes into the Future (made in England, but aired as first run in the US in 1987). Network has some very funny moments, but it also has some very sardonic moments. In a sense, the characters aren’t really people you root for or against, rather the film manipulates its audience to understand the point of view of the character speaking at the moment, only to reject that character’s argument a moment later and agree with the opposite viewpoint.

Network does have a lot of speeches, but they are often great. Not just Howard Beale’s speeches, which are memorable, but Ned Beatty as the chairman of CCA has a marvelous, scary, chilling speech about not just the world consisting of corporations instead of countries — but of money instead of idealogies. He sees a world of systems, not a world of people. A de-humanizing viewpoint, that seems all the closer now  than in the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, Beale calls for people to protest – not to march in the streets, but to yell out, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” When people do, he gets his own show which becomes a sideshow circus masquerading as News; but this actually shows “the masses” as just so many sheep, doing what they are told, believing what they are told, dressing as they are told, buying the things they are told to buy, etc. Beale blames all of this conformity on television, and even has speeches against it; yet, I think that message of “manipulating the masses” cannot be laid solely at television’s doorstep. There are two reasons for this. One — similar messages come from other places: magazine ads, newspapers, even movies and pop fiction books; it’s not a message that solely comes from a single medium, though that medium is so prevalent that it can be easy to notice and point to. And, the second reason, is historic. Great social leaders of the past (even those on the “wrong side”) often had a way of articulating the feel in the air of the masses and manipulating that into action. So, Beale is, in essence, a fictional modern-day version of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, or even the American Revolution. The difference with Beale is we, as an audience, expect him to be stopped. And he is. Though by the end of the film, there is no feeling of  “something terrible has happened to a great man who could have changed things”, rather his viewpoint, and his message are changed by the president of CCA to his philosophy – and that message is so unpopular with viewers, and lowers the ratings so much (and thus profits, since ratings determine the cost-per-minute of advertising) that Diana, the programming manager, and her cadre resort to desperate measures to get rid of Beale. The other aspect is, other than the shouting, and the rise and fall of Beale’s show’s ratings/popularity, no actual social movement ever develops. Beale even says, in various ways, “I don’t know what the solution is – I don’t know what to do to change things.” So, other than two distinct instances, his audience doesn’t know either, and no solutions, or social change is ever made.

The story of Network, is that of a fourth-place television network, that is going through major changes because they are losing so much money. On the one hand, a corporation called CCA has bought the network and in order to save money, moves the formerly independent News Division to programming. The news division itself  is also gutted. People are fired, whole entire foreign news correspondence desks are closed, and then, making it almost impossible for the reporters and producers to actually report the news accurately and without bias — it’s moved to Programming. Programming is the entertainment department of the network. Diana is a bright young thing, desperately trying to show her stuff, to be hard hitting (in a male-dominated environment, she’s the only woman and cannot ever afford to show her femininity), and desperately trying to pull the network out of it’s financial hole by trying anything. It’s very much the idea of – well, things cannot possibly get worse, we’re already in last place, we’re in the red, let’s try this. Only “this” is the craziest stuff you can imagine.  (Her other idea is a dramatic series featuring the weekly real crimes of a counter-culture-terrorist-criminal-“Marxist” organization.) Howard Beale has spent his entire life in network television news. Because his ratings are low, and he’s perceived as “old and stodgy” he’s given the news at the very beginning of the film that he’s to be fired, and he only has two weeks left on his show. He goes out with an old friend, the two get really drunk, and Howard says he’ll kill himself. His friend, not taking him seriously, says, “well, if you’re going to do it — do it on camera, I’m sure it will raise the ratings,” or words to those effect. The next day, during his regular broadcast, Howard threatens suicide, live, on the air.

What follows is the slow break-up of  a man. He continues to break-up, on camera, delivering these wonderful, crazy speeches. His friend, Max, is appalled and wants him committed, perceiving that Howard is truly losing it and having a breakdown. Diana, however, now running the programming department, discovers that Beale’s rants are having a positive effect on the ratings (again, ratings determine the profitability of the network by determining the cost-per-minute of advertising fees for selling ad-time). She manages to first get Beale a regular “Commentary” block on the news. As Beale’s ratings soar, and Diana’s influence grows, she eventually turns the news broadcast into a circus. Besides Beale’s rants, which are the centerpiece of the new “Howard Beale Show”, there’s “Sybil the Soothsayer” who predicts the next week’s news; Jim Webbing and his “It’s-Emmes-Truth” Department; and Vox Populi. This isn’t news — it’s a game show, a circus, but instead of being a disaster — it’s very popular, and again the ratings soar. Eventually, Beale starts attacking television itself, telling people to “turn off the tube”. You’d think this would be the moment where the ratings drop – but it isn’t. Then Beale discovers that CCA is being bought out by foreign nationals, specifically the Arabs, whom Beale had been blaming for weeks for the Oil Crisis (in the 1970s), and the resulting depression, and inflation (also in the 70s). He urges people to send telegrams to the White House to stop the deal.  The telegrams are sent by the bushel load. Eventually millions of telegrams arrive.

This one piece of actual social action, stopping a foreign power from controlling the news, actually works. However, the chairman of the board of CCA is angry. He knows the deal is important. He sees Arab investment in American holdings such as shipping, GM, CCA, etc. as a necessary way to put money back into the system. He basically forces Beale to change his tactics and his speeches and his rants, and speak “his truth”, “his philosophy”. Beale does, but in such a way that he depresses people and they tune the show out, and stop watching. The ratings drop drastically.

Diana is then thrown into a tizzy. She tries to find a replacement for Beale, to no avail. She tries to convince her bosses to cancel or fire Beale, and that doesn’t work. She then finally resorts to desperate measures.

Network also has a quasi-documentary feel because of the use of a narrator all the way through to report on exactly what’s going on, and to at times explain the plot. The narrator also gets some very sardonic lines, lines that almost make you laugh and then you realise that what you are laughing at is in no way funny. That device works extremely well in the film.

I highly recommend Network. Many of  the concepts of the film, such as foreign investment and control of the networks and the news have actually happened  (ABC for example is owned by Sony, a Japanese company). Even the idea of corporations and systems and that fight with people and individuals is very modern. And, as the quotes above show, certainly the true state of affairs, such as the frequent mentions of the depression and inflation of the 1970s, which are historic facts, should feel familiar to today’s audiences. The language of the film is a bit rough – there’s a lot of  swearing, and there’s also a affair between Beale’s friend Max and Diana. However, those scenes outside the network, such as the scenes between Max and Diana, tend to be slow, until he actually finally breaks up with her because he sees her as very artificial. Beale, also is not a sympathetic character because he is just a tiny bit too nuts. But his speeches are certainly great. And the nature of the masses is also commented on in a political sense rather than in any sort of real sense. But still a film that deserves to be seen. It’s one of  those films that could probably spark endless debate.

Finally, this is a very, very, intelligent film. That is not meant to suggest “boring”. The language itself, and the dialogue, is notable for it’s complexity and intelligence. Often television people are dismissed as idiots; in this film that is far from the case. One reason that all the opposing speeches seem so very convincing is that they are spoken by intelligent people who have reasons for their own viewpoints. The things Diana says, the things the chairman of  CCA says, the things Max says (representing the old guard), even Beale’s speeches give the audience something to think about, something to explore, something to further argue for or against or in the middle or even to suggest, “Well, how about this”. Network never talks down to its’ audience, even when explaining necessary plot points such as the Ratings system and its’ ties to revenue. Even the narration, which could have been very much a “talking down” voice, is rather a very sardonic one, used solely to add explanation to the plot, even dates. This is so refreshing compared to what is so common now where often television and film executives seem to not trust their audience, and to assume the audience (that is, the masses) is stupid. I love that about Network.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 out of  5
Next Film:  North by Northwest