Sunday, 7 September 2008

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Yesterday, I revisited Norma Desmond. The BFI showed a print from the 2002 restoration (that's the one available on the fantastic DVD that Paramount released a few years ago) which despite the few scratches that it has earned still looks magnificent.

I can tell more or less when I saw it for the first time. It was around 1993, and in those days the newspaper my father bought had a TV guide where you could find decent reviews about one or two of the films that they'd show during the week. It was at that time that my curiosity about old films was becoming systematic, so I watched and recorded it off TV. I lost count how many times that tape was seen since, and afterwards the DVD. To say it is one of my favourite films is both a cliché and an understatement.

The film is the story of Joe Gillis, a out of job screenwriter who accidentally stumbles into a palazzo in Sunset Blvd. (Oh, and being very pedantic, the title of the film is "Sunset Blvd." not "Sunset Boulevard"). In it he finds Norma Desmond, a movie star from the silent era (which was then only 20 years away) who is planning her return to the screen through her own version of Salomé to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille. He is hired to revised the script, and if I say anything else I might spoil it for those out there who haven't seen it - and yesterday went with a friend who hadn't seen it and loved it (or so he said...)
This was the last script that Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett worked together (and they got an Oscar for the story) and I can only say, what a way to go! - and this from the people wrote among others "Ninotchka", the Oscar-winning "The Lost Weekend" and two of my Wilder favourites' "The Major and the Minor" and "A Foreign Affair", so they had to really top themselves. The story is so tight and so good, the ending so inevitable and yet surprising, that leaves me wishing for more screenwritting of this calibre.

But it's not only the story which is good. Everything that no-one ever notices is magnificent; the sets (Oscar winning, and I could spend hours in that house/set admiring every single detail, from the ever present face of Norma Desmond to the ceiling that came from Portugal), the costumes, the lighting, the camera work and shots, and Franz Waxman's haunting score (the film's third Oscar) come to mind as well.

And then there are the performances... That all four main actors got Oscar nominations is just a fact. You actually need to see how good they are. Erich von Stroheim as Max is never anything but chilling, and yet as the film develops you realise how touching his character really is. William Holden made a whole career out of this part, playing cynics forever, and yet, this is the best of them all. As his character progresses he simply gives one of the best performances I have ever seen, layered, complex, a man divided and slowly walking to the swimming pool where we meet him in the opening sequence, despaired and self-loathing, kind, trying to survive and finally recovering himself from the gutter where Wilder had placed him. And then there's Norma, or rather Gloria Swanson, herself a forgotten movie star from the silent era, as big or bigger Norma ever was. She is never anything less than mesmerising, capturing the silent era melodrama her character still emulates. And for this, if nothing else, she got the imortality that perhaps eluded Norma. It is one of the great injustices of the Oscars that two of the best performances by an actress competed against each other for an award (Norma and Bette Davis' Margo Channing). It's even a greater injustice that neither won, and that the winner was Judy Holiday for "Born Yesterday"...

Maybe it's the fact that Wilder's very dark humour and cinicism hit the right keys with me, but having seen most of his films bar four ("The Spirit of St Louis" and the last three) they make a considerable share of my all time favourites. This most certainly one of them...

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