Sunset Boulevard

Posted on September 25th, 2011 in 1950s, William Holden, Film Noir, Billy Wilder by Colin

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The Hollywood of the 1950s was a fascinating time from the perspective of movie fans. It was a period of innovation, upheaval, recrimination and soul searching. The decade counts as my favourite (although the 1940s runs it a close second) due to the consistent quality of product that it rolled out. It was very much a transitional era, when television would mount a serious and sustained assault on the movies in its effort to become the predominant medium for mass entertainment. When combined with the increasingly paranoid political climate, the looming break up of the studio system, and the fact that a new generation of filmmakers were beginning to assert themselves a certain maturity could be seen developing. As in all aspects of life, maturity often brings reassessment, an examination of self. So it’s hardly surprising that the 1950s saw a number of pictures where Hollywood turned the lens back upon itself. Sunset Boulevard (1950) - along with later examples such as The Bad and the Beautiful and The Big Knife - saw Billy Wilder casting a jaundiced eye over the industry.

The Hollywood of Sunset Boulevard is a far cry from the glittering glory days of the 20s, despair and the fear of failure having replaced the opulence and optimism of the early years. This is the world Joe Gillis (William Holden) inhabits; both his apartment and car are beyond his means while his career as a screenwriter has ground to a virtual halt. With the debts piling up, his attempts at hawking his hackneyed scripts coming to nothing and the repo men breathing down his neck, a sudden blow out on a tyre sees him taking an unscheduled detour into the driveway of a crumbling mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Despite appearances, this isn’t just some derelict throwback. It’s the home of former silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), living in decaying splendour with her butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), as her sole companion. To a man like Gillis, faced with the humbling prospect of slinking back to Ohio with his tail between his legs, Norma Desmond represents a second bite at the cherry. Cocooned from the modern world by both her wealth and the careful attention of Max, she has allowed her delusions to run wild and convinced herself that the world is waiting with baited breath for her return to the screen. She even has a script prepared, a retelling of the tale of Salome with her, naturally, playing the lead. When Gillis is offered the job of editing her screenplay into something presentable, he senses an opportunity; he knows it’s ludicrous trash but a drowning man will grasp at anything. Thus he finds himself drawn ever deeper into a macabre world as Norma’s companion, plaything and muse. Yet despite the comforts of his new lifestyle, Gillis finds himself repelled by the parasitic, introspective existence he’s tangled up in. The more Norma’s dependence on and love for Gillis grows, the greater is his need to break free of his gilded cage and return to the living. The stifling, closeted world of Norma, Max and Gillis can be seen as a microcosm of Hollywood itself: a self-contained community whose members readily humiliate and lie to themselves in order to perpetuate a dream, ultimately losing touch with that blurred line between fantasy and reality.

William Holden & Gloria Swanson - Sunset Boulevard.

I adore the films of Billy Wilder. His caustic take on life could strip characters and situations right down to the bone. Yet he also understood people, understood what made them tick and he sympathised with them. Even his grotesques and monstrosities have a human heart that can be wounded. For all the dark sourness of Sunset Boulevard, the main characters are all fully rounded people who earn our compassion at one point or another. Wilder doesn’t ask the viewer to stand in judgement of these damaged individuals but rather his criticism is levelled at the system that has brought them to this pitiful state. Even here, his vision of Hollywood is a complex one; on the one hand, he paints a depressing picture of the hazards of living in the past and subsisting on former glories, while he also takes merciless shots at the ephemeral nature of the motion picture business and its fondness for forgetting its roots and those who made it what it is. The film is full of innuendo and references: Norma sitting playing bridge with the ‘waxworks’ (Buster Keaton et al) and watching herself in Queen Kelly while Max runs the projector. The latter is a wonderful touch when you bear in mind that von Stroheim’s directing career came to an end when that film ran into difficulties - the irony becoming even more shocking when the true nature of Max and Norma’s relationship is revealed later on. And in the midst of all the tragedy and bitterness, there are moments of marvellous black humour too: Gillis arriving on the very day Norma’s pet chimp is to be laid to rest; one monkey coming to replace another.

Sunset Boulevard is one of those movies where almost everything seems to blend seamlessly. The script and direction are full of riches but the performances of the three lead players hold it all together. William Holden was a good choice as Gillis, the former golden boy whose career was just starting to languish must surely have identified with the character of the struggling writer. Superficially, Gillis may appear the least complex of the trio but there a number of sides to him. He’s both a chiseler and a dupe, initially weaseling his way into Norma’s household but then failing to appreciate how much she has come to love him. He’s also a cynic (his floating corpse’s narration is loaded with hard boiled idiom) while remaining a kind of noble innocent, his final actions being motivated by a sense of personal honour as much as anything else. Erich von Stroheim’s Max is a very restrained portrait of selfless devotion. I don’t want to say more than that in case anyone hasn’t seen the film - his conversation with Gillis in the shadow drenched garage is a powerful and quite shocking reveal that shouldn’t be spoiled. What I will say is that while all that stony Germanic reserve remains intact throughout the film, his eyes convey perfectly the depth of his feelings for his mistress. However, the real star of the show is unquestionably Gloria Swanson. Her features have all the dramatic expressiveness that befit a veteran of the silents and it’s entirely appropriate that she should make use of this quality in the context of the character she plays. Norma Desmond is a woman who’s never really moved on from her heyday in the 1920s, and Swanson’s incorporation of silent techniques into her performance captures that. There’s a larger than life theatricality about her because that’s the way Norma Desmond sees herself. Additionally, Swanson nails the brittle vulnerability of a woman who’s balanced on the very edge of reason. The final scene may well be a famous one, but it’s Swanson who ensures that its fame is justified.

Generally, I write about movies that I’ve been watching at home. In this case, however, I had the pleasure of seeing Sunset Boulevard projected on the big screen at an outdoor cinema in Athens last night. There’s always something that bit special about seeing classics presented the way they were supposed to be viewed, and it was particularly enjoyable to be part of a full house too. There was a very nice and clean print used - the old R1 DVD (I can’t speak for the newer Centennial Edition) from Paramount is said to suffer from compression issues, although I can’t say I ever noticed anything especially bad about it. The movie is easily one of Willder’s best in a long line of first class pictures - rewarding, satisfying and oozing class.

The Naked Spur

Posted on September 18th, 2011 in 1950s, Westerns, Anthony Mann, James Stewart, Robert Ryan by Colin

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Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart - one of the three great director/actor partnerships (the others, of course, being John Ford and John Wayne and Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott) that made such an impact on the western and how it was to develop. The importance and the legacy of their collaborative body of work is undeniable; I think it’s safe to say there’s consensus on that. A thornier issue, or at least a more subjective one, is attempting to settle on their best work. When it comes to Stewart and Mann I reckon a case could be made for any one of their westerns - although I do feel that The Far Country is probably the least of them - which is a testament to the consistency of their quality. However, having given it a good deal of consideration, I feel The Naked Spur (1953) just about gets its nose in front. There are two major, interdependent, factors for this: the obsessive and relentless tone that never lets up, and a lead performance by Stewart that I can only describe as magnetic in its intensity.

That this is going to be a dark and tense affair is evident right away as Bronislau Kaper’s moody score plays over the blood red credits. A solitary rider slowly dismounts and ever so cautiously picks his way towards some target he’s spotted up ahead. This is Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a man who’s been doggedly pursuing a wanted murderer all the way from Kansas. On this occasion he doesn’t have his man, it’s merely an old prospector, Tate (Millard Mitchell), he’s stumbled upon. However, the two men strike a bargain to track what may be Kemp’s quarry. Before they can run down their man though they’re joined by another traveller: a flashy young man, Lt Anderson (Ralph Meeker), who’s just been drummed out of the army with a dishonourable discharge. Immediately, the viewer is caught a little off guard as there’s no clearly identifiable hero figure: Kemp is a driven, secretive man who’s exhibiting signs of instability; Anderson is a vain, amoral criminal; and Tate is a sly opportunist. When we finally see the fugitive, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), he’s all smiles and affability, and he’s even got a beautiful young girl called Lina Patch (Janet Leigh) as company. Who are we to root for here? As the story progresses it does become clearer where our sympathies are being drawn. Nevertheless, at no point does it become a simple black hat vs white hat exercise. Apart from one short skirmish with a party of faceless Blackfeet, it’s these five, disparate characters who dominate proceedings as they trek across a breathtakingly beautiful landscape towards Kansas. The real conflict of the picture is contained within this tight group, and more specifically within the heart of Howard Kemp.

The eyes have it - James Stewart in The Naked Spur.

Anthony Mann’s direction is tight as a drum, never slackening the pace for more than a moment or two at a time and maintaining the high pressure atmosphere right to the end. He keeps the viewer on edge throughout with a bombardment of disorienting high and low angle shots and extreme close-ups, yet intersperses these with enough long range views to ensure that the geography of the action remains apparent. Even here though, where William C Mellor’s camera showcases the natural beauty of Colorado, the binding together of the five travellers is highlighted - simultaneously dwarfed by the towering mountain backdrops and still hemmed in by their need keep each other as close as possible at all times. There are also examples of what Jim Kitses refers to as Mann’s visual motif of a man straining to scale a high place. Kemp is the one who struggles, and fails initially, to reach that higher ground. By the end he succeeds, he’s no longer overreaching himself and consequently achieves the redemption he’s been searching for all along.

It’s the redemptive quest that marks The Naked Spur out as a genuine classic western, but what ensures its successful execution is the power of James Stewart’s performance. Stewart’s wartime experiences gave him a quality that’s very difficult to define but very easy to discern. He could still draw on and display the old geniality of his earlier years, yet there’s an edge there too. His eyes could suddenly fill up with doubt and paranoia, and that “aw shucks” drawl could just as easily strangle itself into a choked stammer. Both Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock got him to tap into this and coaxed performances from him that are almost painful in their honesty. Stewart’s Howard Kemp is a real three dimensional character, a man who marched off to war to do his duty yet finds that in so doing he has ended up at war with himself. He’s driving himself to reverse the mistakes of the past while also loathing the kind of man he’s forced himself to become in the process. In contrast, Robert Ryan’s Vandergroat is a man at peace with himself; he knows he’s no good, he feels no regret for his past actions, and has no hesitation in turning any situation to his own advantage. Ryan was usually best when he was bad, and in this movie he turns on the charm as the unscrupulous student of human weakness to whom manipulation is second nature.

It’s always disappointing when a top movie is handed a less than ideal presentation. The R1 DVD of The Naked Spur from Warner Bros is not a terrible transfer, but it is weak. Clearly, there was no restoration done on this title, and while there isn’t any significant print damage visible there is a softness and lack of detail in the image. These muted visuals are especially noticeable in the long shots. Extras on the disc are confined to a couple of shorts and the theatrical trailer. Anyway, I feel this film remains the pick of the Mann/Stewart westerns, although that’s not to be taken as a criticism of the other films they made together. I’d just place it at the top of an already highly elevated group of films.