Sunset Boulevard

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

Poster

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.

Escape from Fort Bravo

Posted on October 17th, 2009 in 1950s, William Holden, Westerns, John Sturges by Colin

Poster

Often a film will stick in one’s mind because of a certain scene or sequence. That’s certainly the case with Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), a movie I first saw many moons ago but whose climax lingered on as a fond memory down through the years. Under such circumstances revisits are a delicate matter, best approached with caution as disappointment is always ready to pounce. When I eventually got the chance to see this western again last year I was pleased to find that my memory hadn’t been playing tricks on me - I enjoyed it immensely. Digging it out and giving it a spin the other day, for the purposes of this piece, allowed me to recognise some of its weaknesses more clearly but still didn’t dilute any of the punch of the ending.

The action takes place in Arizona during the Civil War, where a group of Confederate prisoners are cooped up in the dusty Fort Bravo. Among the jailers is Captain Roper (William Holden), a hard-bitten man who thinks nothing of marching a recaptured prisoner back through the blazing desert heat as an example to the others. While such actions naturally stir resentment among the southerners, his own commander and peers don’t shirk away from expressing their disapproval either. The tensions within the stockade are only one aspect of the problem though, as the fort is right smack in the middle of hostile Mescalero territory. The threat posed by the Apache is an ever present one and is highlighted early on when a detachment is sent out to locate a delayed supply convoy, finding only burned wagons and dead drivers. On the return leg the troop encounter a stage and escort it back to the safety of the fort. This stage contains one Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker), who’s using the cover of a wedding invitation to facilitate the escape of the Confederate OC, Captain Marsh (John Forsythe). This leads into an unconvincing and undeveloped love triangle which, in combination with the less than riveting escape plan, could well have sunk the picture. Fortunately, the addition of some ripe dialogue and good support playing (William Demarest in particular) just about keep things afloat. The resulting escape and pursuit get things back on course again, and by the time Roper, Marsh et al find themselves surrounded by some of the most cunning Apaches ever seen on film the tension has been wound tight. Those scenes in the latter half of the film are worth the price of admission alone. Watching the small, isolated group, huddled in a desert crater, move from defiance to fearful realization and back again is quite powerful stuff. Adversity is said to bring out the best and the worst in men, and the sight of Roper striding out at dawn, a revolver in both fists, to meet fate head on is a marvellous image.

William Holden takes a lonely walk.

William Holden was arguably in his prime when Escape from Fort Bravo was made (the same year as Stalag 17) and he gave a very strong performance as the practical and ruthless Roper. He was ideally suited to playing tough cynics with a deep set yet true sense of personal honour. Watching Holden’s honest, warts-and-all portrayal of Roper really shows up the inadequacies of his co-star. John Forsythe is a likable enough actor but there’s a lightweight quality about him (it worked well enough in a movie like The Trouble with Harry, and Hitchcock obviously thought enough of him to cast him again in Topaz and in his TV show) that’s not quite right for the part of a tough veteran. I’ve always enjoyed watching Eleanor Parker, she had a sassiness that suggested she could hold her own in any company and give as good as she got. However, she’s poorly served by her role here and the aforementioned “love triangle that really isn’t” is largely responsible for that. It seems odd to refer to a director’s twentieth picture as his breakthrough, but in this case I believe that’s actually the case. John Sturges would go on to make a string of ever more successful films after this and showed that he was highly capable when it came to action. His best work is in the early and latter stages, when he made effective use of the Death Valley locations and avoided the studio mock-ups. It’s also notable that he wisely chose to shoot the key scenes without any musical accompaniment and they’re all the better for it.

When Warner released Escape from Fort Bravo in their Western Classics box there was a good deal of griping about the quality of the transfer. It seemed to be the general consensus that much of the blame could be laid at the door of the poor condition of the Ansco Color elements. In truth, the transfer isn’t that bad and the colour is actually fairly strong. The real problem is that the print used is very dirty and obviously had little or no work done on it. It’s available in the R1 box (probably the best value), and individually in both R1 and continental R2. Escape from Fort Bravo belongs to that small category of westerns, along with Two Flags West and Major Dundee, that has Yankees and Rebs fighting side by side against the Indians. I think it’s a fine little western whose strong opening and blinding finish certainly shore up a slightly sagging middle section. Recommended.

The Revengers

Posted on June 8th, 2008 in 1970s, William Holden, Westerns by Colin

Poster

The Revengers (1972) is a movie that I picked up some time ago and then just left it sitting on the shelf. I can remember seeing it offered for a bargain price and thinking that anything which had Bill Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Woody Strode in it must be worth at least a look. How very wrong I was. Having just had the misfortune of sitting through this turkey, my dearest wish is that I had let it alone on the shelf or, better yet, had never parted with cash for it in the first place. I think I’m usually fairly generous in my assessment of movies and can find something positive to take away from most of them. With The Revengers, I really tried to find something - anything - of worth, but ultimately, struck out.

I had a bad feeling right from the off, when the credits appeared to the accompaniment of the kind of theme music that screams “made-for-television” movie. However, one can’t judge a film on the basis of its title sequence and I just wrote this off as a particularly pungent slice of early 70s cheese. For a time (about a half hour or so), I thought this might turn out to be a moderately entertaining little flick - something I’m happy to settle for any day. The plot didn’t promise anything original - the family of Civil War hero John Benedict (Holden) are massacred by a bunch of comancheros during a raid on his ranch and he sets off in search of revenge - but I was okay with that. In order to assist in the pursuit of the killers he recruits a band of six ne’er-do-wells (Borgnine and Strode among them) from a Mexican prison. The fact that there are seven gunmen on a mission south of the border, and the casting, automatically evokes thoughts of both The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch. But there’s nothing remotely magnificent about the events that follow. The main problem is that the comanchero camp gets attacked too early and leaves the movie thrashing around in need of direction and drive. None of the characters behave in a rational manner and their motivations are weak in the extreme. There’s an interlude in the plot where the wounded Benedict rests up in the home of an Irish nurse (Susan Hayward) that, while kind of sweet, serves only as padding. I suppose I could go into the script’s twists and turns in more detail but I honestly can’t be bothered; it’s just too dispiriting. As for the ending, the less said about that the better.

William Holden, probably wondering how he got talked into doing this movie.

I would count myself a fan of Bill Holden and I’ve enjoyed about every performance I’ve seen him give. He could usually be depended on to provide some grit and world-weary realism but in The Revengers he just looks old and tired, although not as old and tired as I felt at the end of it. You might have thought that The Wild Bunch would have resulted in his landing more plum roles but it wasn’t to be - at least not until Network came along a few years later. Ernest Borgnine basically just chews up the scenery and Woody Strode shows his customary quiet dignity in what is a bit of a non-role. Susan Hayward’s part is a small one and, as I already mentioned, doesn’t add a hell of a lot to the story; if it weren’t for the fact that this was her last cinematic appearance it would hardly be worth noting. Whatever talents director Daniel Mann possessed, they didn’t lie in the western genre and it shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that this was the only one he made. 

The Revengers is available on DVD in R2 in continental Europe but not in the UK. The transfer of this Paramount release is merely passable, and is presented in its correct scope ratio but without anamorphic enhancement. I believe the movie can be obtained in R4 on an anamorphic disc, however, I wouldn’t advise anyone to seek it out as the enhanced picture isn’t going to make an essentially lousy film any more pleasurable. Not recommended.