Saturday, December 16, 2006
Sunset Boulevard (1950) ****
Sunset Boulevard is the ancestor of all films David Lynch.
It's impossible to watch it without thinking of Lynch and realizing it must have inspired many of his films. In many Lynch films, a character who seems innocent is pulled into a dark vortex, while the entrance they came through seems to get further and further away.
Joe Gillis (William Holden) isn't innocent, but that's where the differences are left behind. As soon as he parks his car in what appears to be an abandoned building he steps into a quicksand pit of darkness, delusion, eventually insanity, and eventually death.
I guess I don't really need to tell you about how great this film is, or what great acting it has. I don't need to tell you how Gloria Swanson's career mirrored her characters (she is even watching one of her own silent films in one scene - if I remember correctly, it was Queen Kelly). I don't need to tell you than Von Stroheim was in real life a legendary director of the 10's and 20's who in fact directed many of Swanson's most famous movies, inlcuding Queen Kelly. I don't need to tell you what a brilliant script this film has. I guess I don't need to tell you the plot either - I assume you know it since you got past the spoiler warning.
Instead, I want to focus on a few details that make the movie brilliant for me.
For instance, take when Joe first "escapes" from Norma's house on New Years Eve. Somehow the scene doesn't relieve us at all, and the reason why is a subtle touch by legendary director Billy Wilder - Joe is still wearing his black suit. He looks completely out of place. He tried to escape the mansion and it came with him.
Or what about that moment when Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim, who directed the classic silent film Greed) picks up Norma's veil while she and Joe Gillis are dancing - watch his face! Watch how his eyes are cast downward in an expression that suggests not only jelousy but also guilt, shame, and regret.
And what about the music? Most people who have only seen the film once only think of those corny, melodramatic DUN DUNNNNNS whenever a twist is revealed, but it's better than that. Take the scene where Joe wakes up after his first night at Norma's and crosses the lawn to her house to ask why his things have been moved. Or at the party when he learns she tried to commit suicide - the tune suddenly turns dark and foreboding - yet the party music plays as loudly as ever in the backround, creating a swirl of insane, indistinguishable sound. And when Joe arrives at her house Mayerling insists: "The musicians musn't know what's happened!" And on they play, as Joe confronts her upstairs, a sort of elevator music party waltz quartet.
Or what about the sets? The brilliant Art Decorators and Set Decorators who gave the house a personality to imply...a dead monkey.
And what about Swanson! I said I wouldn't discuss the performances, but hers is something else entirely. Rarely do film characters intimidate the audience, and make them afraid with simply their presence. She does this and more - she doesn't just think of herself as a movie star, she thinks of herself as a godess, someone who is above everything and more. Watch her face when she first sees Joe packing - she's out of focus, and in the back of the shot - but we can see her face crumple. Her voice is a bizzare contrast to her perfectly graceful, silent-movie tuned body.
And what of the legendary, beautiful final shot? Norma Desmond descends the staircase as an awestruck audience seems frozen in time watching her. She doesn't just walk, she flows through the air. And the camera descends dreamily, flowing with her, until she at last advances towards it and shields her eyes with a flourish of her wrists.
Yes, David Lynch clearly takes much inspiration from this movie, especially in the character of Nancy Olson, the most innocent of all who's presence simply does not seem to make sense in this film. How can she co exist with this darkness? She is very much Laura Dern in Blue Velvet.
How many times can I watch this film and find yet more to discover in every strange detail, details that expand the frame to surround the vision and engulf the senses. If we could smell detailed films then I think I could smell this one, and I nearly can. In fact, I can detect just the slightest whiff of peeling paint...