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

The Lost Weekend

  • Title:  The Lost Weekend
  • Director:  Billy Wilder
  • Date:  1945
  • Studio:  Paramount Pictures
  • Genre:  Drama, Film Noir
  • Cast:  Ray Milland, Jane Wyman
  • Format:  Standard, Black & White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I’m trying, I’m trying…”  — Don
“I know you’re trying, Don, we’re both trying.  You’re trying not to drink and I’m trying not to love you.”  — Helen

“Ever lie in your bed looking out the window?  A little daylight’s coming through and you start to wonder — is it getting lighter or getting darker?  Is it dawn or dusk?”  — Don

The words “film noir” usually conjure up images of PIs in fedoras walking down dark misty streets; femme fatales, and intricate plots about the darker side of  life.  But film noir also had another side, that of  films like The Lost Weekend – which is a realistic portrayal of an alcoholic on a bender.  The only other film about alcoholism that I can possibly think of is Sandra Bollock’s 28 Days — and that focused on recovery.  The Lost Weekend focuses on Don, an alcoholic, and his slide from taking one drink to a hopeless bender on a weekend.

When the film opens, Don and his brother Wick are in Don’s apt, packing for a weekend in the country.  Helen, Don’s girl arrives, and they quietly discuss how much Don needs the time away from everything, “after everything he’s been through”.  What Don has been through isn’t specified — the characters know but the audience doesn’t.  Don jumps through some hoops to get Wick and Helen out of his apartment. He’s hidden a bottle of  booze, and wants to sneak a drink.  But Wick finds the bottle and dumps it in the sink.

His brother and his girl leave, and Don is left alone.  The land lady arrives, saying that Wick should have left the rent for her ($10.00 !!!!!).  Don tells her he didn’t, then takes the money and goes out and buys two bottles of rye.  He then goes to his neighborhood bar, and starts drinking with the change.  He asks the bartender to tell him when it’s a quarter to six, so he can meet his brother for the train to the country. Needless to say, he misses the train.

Don continues to drink his way through the weekend, alternating between his apartment, Nat’s Bar (his neighborhood bar) and other establishments.  We discover that Don has always wanted to be a writer, and he even published an article when he was still in college, before dropping out.  He met Helen at the opera when their coats were mixed up by the coat check clerk.  Don has an issue with his self-confidence, his fears prevent him from even trying to be a writer.

As his weekend gets more and more hazy, and he becomes more and more desperate, Don decides to pawn his typewriter to get more money for booze — but all the pawnshops are closed because it’s Yom Kipper, and the non-Jewish pawnshops are closed out of courtesy.  Don goes to see Gloria, a woman who frequents Nat’s Bar and asks her for money.  She tries to throw him out, but at the last minute takes pity on him and gives him some money.  But as he’s leaving, he trips over an eight-year old coming up the stairs and falls.  He’s taken to the hospital, unconscious, and wakes up in the alcoholic wing.  After a harrowing experience, he goes home, exhausted and spent. (but he also steals a quart of rye on his way home).

By this time, his girl, Helen has gotten quite worried about him — she’d left a note for him on his door, tried Nat’s bar, and he even finds her in front of his apartment door asleep.  She tries to discourage him, but won’t leave.  Eventually, he takes Helen’s leopard coat, the one she was wearing when they met.  She thinks he’s going to pawn it for money, and blows up at him.  But then she finds out he took the coat to swap it for a gun.

Helen rushes to his apartment.  She tries to talk to him. Don keeps trying to throw her out of  the apartment, telling her goodbye.  Then there’s a knock on the door, it’s Nat, returning Don’s typewriter, which was left at Gloria’s.  Don finally calms down.  Helen tells him he needs to finish his novel, “The Bottle”, and the movie ends on an artificially happy note.

Overall, The Lost Weekend is a dark and depressing film.  But  the ending feels very tacked on, and very artificial.  I somehow think the censorship boards forced the “happy” ending.  Anyway, Billy Wilder’s direction is marvelous, and the story moves along at a good clip.  The dialog feels more real than other films of the period as well.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Lord of  the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring (2 disc Theatrical ed.)
Note on Lord of  the Rings — I have the 2 disc and the 4 disc versions of  all three films.  I will watch the two discs first of all three films in order, then the four discs of all three films.

Double Indemnity

  • Title:  Double Indemnity
  • Director:  Billy Wilder
  • Date:  1944
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Genre:  Film Noir, Drama, Suspense, Classic
  • Cast:  Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • Format:  R1, NTSC, Two-disc Legacy Edition

“I killed him for the money and for a woman.  I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”  Walter Neff

Double Indemnity is one of my favorite movies — because it is such a classic noir film.  And Wilder is a brilliant, brilliant director, especially when he directs dark film noir movies in black and white.  The film has it all – a cold, calculating, manipulative femme fatale, an innocent drawn into a web of crime that destroys him, snappy dialogue, brilliant black and white photography, and an intriguing crime that, in the end, falls apart taking it’s participants down with it.

Part of the brilliance of Double Indemnity is it’s choice of lead actor in Fred MacMurray.  Yep — the guy from Disney flicks like The Absent-Minded Professor, and Flubber, and the dad in My Three Sons (OK, yes, it’s true, all those roles were from the 1960s, or after this movie, but still) actually plays the bad guy in this film.  But, that’s part of  brilliance of the film — MacMurray looks like an average guy, he sounds like an average guy, and we can believe he’s an insurance salesman.  I don’t think the film would have been as successful with standard villian type or “baddie” in the role of  Walter Neff.

But MacMurray isn’t the only piece of reverse casting:  Edward G. Robinson was famous for playing gangsters, tough guys, and baddies.  Yet, in Double Indemnity, he’s practically the good guy.  He’s Neff’s boss Keyes, who ends up investigating the husband’s “accident”.  There’s also a very close friendship between Neff and Keyes.

Double_Indemnity_Neff-Keyes

As with Wilder’s other brilliant Film Noir picture, Sunset Blvd, Double Indemnity is told back to front, and thus it’s the tale of a man’s slide into destruction and death.  The film begins with Neff returning to his office at Pacific All Risk Insurance, and using a dictating machine to record his confession (the line quoted at the beginning of this review is practically the first line he speaks).  The film then cuts to scenes showing us what’s happening and winding back to the start.  And somehow, the audience almost forgets that Neff is a dying man as they are completely entranced by the story.

Interestingly enough, the actual murder goes off almost perfectly.  But as the second half of the film develops, the characters’ own guilt (especially Neff’s) and Keyes own intuition and experience at spotting insurance fraud leads, Tell-a-Tale-Heart-like to the downfall of both Neff and Phyllis.

The filming and cinematography are brilliant — the use of  light and shadow to highlight and conceal detail, and the suggestion, as the film moves along, of characters trapped by their own actions, is highlighted by the black and white photography.  It’s a dark film, and only black and white really captures that, especially at the time the film was made.   It’s really only been rather recently that very dark, yet color, films have been possible, previously the amount of light required for the film to properly develop, especially for Technicolor films, made filming in color with the amount of darks in this film, impossible.

There’s also a lot of very fast, very snappy dialogue.  The double entendres fly fast and furious, but even the cut and parry of the dialogue between Neff and Phyllis (Stanwyck) works to emphasize their hot and steamy relationship without actually ever showing you anything.  (Likewise, one thing that makes the murder in this particular film so effective is that it is off-screen, letting your imagination fill in the blanks).

Overall, if  you want to know what film noir is all about — this film, more so than even The Maltese Falcon, is the one to see.

Recommendation:  See It
Rating:  5 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Dracula (1931)

The Apartment

  • Title:  The Apartment
  • Director:  Billy Wilder
  • Date:  1960
  • Genre:  Drama, Romantic Comedy, Classic
  • Studio:  United Artists / MGM
  • Cast:  Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, David White
  • Format:  Black/White, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  NTSC, R1

The Apartment is a genre-stretching, masterwork directed by Billy Wilder.  Though billed as a comedy, and having a strong romantic comedy sub-plot, the main body of the film is very dramatic and almost depressing.  In a sense, rather than a Romantic Comedy — this film is Romantic Film Noir.

The film also puts paid to the idea that only women can be taken advantage of by their bosses in corporate society.  CC Baxter, “Bud”, to his friends, is a good guy — but in order to rise in the corporate world, he’s found a little secret — he lends out the use of his apartment to the advantaged jerks who happen to be over him in the corporate hierarchy, so they can fool around without their wives getting suspicious.  Whenever he tries to assert himself – the carrot of a promotion is held out, and Bud hands over his apartment key.  ‘Til one day he gets the call upstairs for what he thinks is a promotion – he gets the promotion, but only if he also allows the head boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), in on the use of his apartment.

Meanwhile, Bud has started to fall for the elevator girl, Ms. Fran Kubelik (MacLaine).  However, she confesses to him that she’s in love with the married man she’s been having an affair with.  On Christmas Eve, she and the Married Man, who turns out to be Bud’s boss (Sheldrake), have a fight – and she takes an overdose of sleeping pills in Bud’s apartment.  Bud comes home, finds her, gets his neighbor the doctor over, and rescues her.  What looks like the start of a promising relationship ends when her brother-in-law shows up and takes her home to her sister, after decking Bud.  Later, Bud decides to tell Sheldrake he wants to marry Ms. Kubelik, but before he can, Sheldrake announces his wife has left him after finding out about his affairs, so he’s going to take Fran.  He offers Bud an position as his assistant, deputy director.

Later, Fran and Bud run into each other in the lobby and Bud remarks, “Well, we both got what we wanted.  I have a corner office, and he left his wife for you.” (or words to that effect).  At New Year’s, Fran figures it all out, goes to find Bud who’s quit his job and may be thinking about quitting his life.  And they end-up together.

But unlike many fluffy romantic comedies, there’s more tragedy and drama in this movie than comedy or even romance.  And Wilder’s beautiful direction adds to the sense of urban isolation.  That is, how a person can be surrounded by people but be completely alone — as Bud, Fran, and even Sheldrake all are.  Scenes like Bud being alone in the office – with the white lights on the ceiling, and the endless identical desks, all stretching out into the unseen distance emphasize how alone Bud is.  Or the play of light on Fran’s face in the bar on New Year’s as she figures out just what a louse Skeldrake is.  Even the various infidelities referred to seem to emphasize the isolation of the characters.  And what can I say?  The film is written, produced, and directed by Billy Wilder – one of my favorite directors, ever.

The-Apartment_office_small

The cast is excellent.  Jack Lemmon really pulls off the character of a complete nebbish perfectly, and we cheer for him when he stands up to Skeldrake.  Fred MacMurray  is a complete slimeball (surprisingly for the guy later known for My Three Sons and tons of Disney flicks), though he’s not as traditionally bad (yet strangely sympathetic) as in Double Indemnity.  Shirley MacLaine, extremely young and a burnette, does a brilliant job playing an incredibly deep character – the movie is as much about her as it is about Bud.  Overall, a film that very much needs to be seen.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 Stars
Next Film:  Austin Powers:  International Man of  Mystery