Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The best Golden Age film noir movies such as Sunset Boulevard (1950) rank among the favourites of all movies lovers.

The best examples of the film noir style remain as the greatest examples of cinema as a whole, and the most popular. 

Given that as the Golden Age of Hollywood closed, nobody was specifically aware as such of there being a style or a genre called 'noir', it is surprising how cohesive the style was. Film noir really was a thing, and Sunset Boulevard is a classic example, of classic film noir.

That 'Golden Age' is usually said to be from 1930 until 1945, but it's hard to pin these things down.

Consistent to movie storytelling is time. Time in classical Hollywood is continuous, linear, and uniform, since non-linearity calls attention to the illusory workings of the medium. The only permissible manipulation of time in this format is the flashback, which is a staple of film noir, and comprises the entirety of Sunset Boulevard.

What's fascinating is that we can perhaps ask what it was that the makers of classic film noir era thought they were making? What were the workmanlike film noir cycle movies of the era aimed at; and what were the common reference points that allowed the style to develop?

We might never know, and this is because the limitations of film noir as a style are not clear; not in the way a Western is clear about its status and origins, and what it portrays; similar to the idea of the musical. It is easy to state whether a film is a musical or not; is it not?

Voiceover Spoiler! The art of the voiceover in film noir was perhaps never better honed than in Sunset Boulevard. This is a straight-up riff on the classic noir trope of starting with a dead body too. So many of our beloved films noir do. Providing framing, tone and a curiously effective disembodiment, the voiceover is one of the great conceits of this great movie:

Well, this is where you came in, back at that pool again, the one I always wanted. It's dawn now and they must have photographed me a thousand times. Then they got a couple of pruning hooks from the garden and fished me out... ever so gently. Funny, how gentle people get with you once you're dead.

Famous opening moments of Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The term film noir is normally credited to French critic Nino Frank, who apparently made up the phrase in a 1946 essay published in the magazine L’Écran français

The braw catch-all term film noir was here used by Nino Frank to describe four American crime films he had singled out: these were John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Otto Preminger’s Laura, and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet.

Location photography became another innovation widely used by film noir stylists

“These ‘noir’ films no longer have anything in common with the usual kind of police reel,” Nino Frank wrote. “They are essentially psychological narratives with the action — however violent or fast-paced — less significant than faces, gestures, words — than the truth of the characters.”

Quick cameo shot of Paramount Studios in Billy Wilder's
Sunset Boulevard (1950)

This early description of film noir does at least point to a certain sensibility; there is something smart as well as something dark; there is something transcendent that more than many other types of film, pulls the audience further and further from the mundane and closer to the secret heart of the screen magic.

Golf course face-off; the life of a Hollywood writer in
Sunset Boulevard (1950)

That secret heart is best imagined as a dream, and the layers and confusions of film noir are above all else, dream territory.

Because of Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), Billy Wilder is responsible for some of the greatest, if not the very greatest moments of film noir; these moments are all around the deepest sorts of capture; Walter Neff captured in his own murderous sex-mad web of lies; or gigolo Joe Gillis trapped in the decaying Hollywood mansion of his dreams turned nightmares. All end the same way. Captivity, death.

The road to captivity and death
Sunset Boulevard (1950)

This sense of magical captivity is easily film noir's strongest suit. Billy Wilder, in these two films and in many other film noirs, expressed this captivity brilliantly, and it is enough to make of Sunset Boulevard a whirlpool, from which there is no escape.

Sunset Boulevard benefits from a murderously strong premise and great storytelling; of course told in flashback, and grimmer yet, told by a dead body — beautifully grim and humorous in a way that is irrepressible. A further element which is less common to the style, is the gothic.

Gloria Swanson and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

As much as film noir is a style, it does tend usually to focus on criminal enterprise, whether it be a heist or a fixed boxing match, or the regular police procedural of a classic era crime film, or police procedural. 

Where the style stands out however, is on the margins of genre and often in drama, sometimes amplified as here by the gothic. Like film noir itself as a critical concept, the idea of the gothic is very much a style element, certainly insofar as there is not really such a thing as 'gothic cinema'. Like film noir, the term gothic captures something that is suggestive across the genres; and in Sunset Boulevard, as in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945) the genre if anything must be named as that of drama — with the needful style elements of the gothic and the noir, spread like a canopy, permeating like a mist, framing the action, often with the doom-laden assertions of their own fate — which we can't identify, and yet which we can see coming.

Willian Holden and Gloria Swanson
Private cinema in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The gothic in cinema as in fiction is characterised by an environment of fear, perhaps by the threat of supernatural events, and the intrusion of the past upon the present. Gothic cinema is distinguished from other forms of scary or supernatural stories, such as fairy tales, by the specific theme of the present being haunted by the past, never better expressed on screen in the Golden Age than by Gloria Swanson's portrayal of the fading and delusional star of the Silent Era, Norma Desmond.

The fatally fallen star's gothic delusions are of the most deadly type, also. The gothic delusions of Norma Desmond spell death for the young scriptwriter Joe Gillis, who never does anything much wrong, other than finding himself wound up in debt and out of work; still chasing his dream; trapped by something the audience start to suspect will kill him. 

The gothic setting in cinema, as with the classic gothic novels, typically includes physical reminders of the past, especially through ruined buildings which stand as proof of a previously thriving world which is decaying in the present. Of course, one of the clinching factors which makes Sunset Boulevard so very immersive is the house of Norma Desmond, where Joe Gillis accidentally washes up while being pursued by a couple of vehicle repo-men.

The mansion is perfect, and gives Sunset Boulevard its overarching gothic feel. There is nothing quite like it in terms of atmosphere in the cinema; it is a genuine artefact when it comes to creating the needful environment for this story of fateful captivity, fateful comedy; while also most fortuitously telling a story of the cinema, which will be echoed so many times in the future, in The Player, and in Barton Fink, and in other film noir masterpieces.

Gothic acting style: Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Given there was little in the way of definition of a film noir style at this stage, the fascinating question remains as to who it is that we owe our debt of gratitude; and Billy Wilder must be among these. He gave us not only Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, but one of the other capstones and cornerstones in the film noir cycle; in the form of The Lost Weekend (1945).

These are not cop films, or crime films, or boxing or caper movies. They are dramas which have been granted a sensibility far wider-reaching than their basic premises, thanks to either the film noir style, and in this case too, the gothic.

Buster Keaton in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

If we were to therefore use a film like Sunset Boulevard as a marker of the style, we'd see what really matters, crime notwithstanding. What matters it would seem is the descent of the hero towards some fatal goal; what matters is the captivity of the hero as he makes his anti-heroic slow motion fall into the clutches of what is usually a murderous end point; what matters is that even though the hero may try, he can't see how far lost he is in the solid sliding motion to the bottom; that is for us to see, and for us to enjoy. As the film noir anti-hero crashes into the rock-bottom of his fate, so we escape.

Film noir and the challenge of sleaze
Sunset Boulevard (1950)

There are of course many variations on noir, and very often people escape death and find romance. These are conventions which pertain to the movies in general, and are suggestive of the heroic escapism promised once the lights dim and the silver screen lights up. 

They are just conventions though, and as true noir in its most distilled form; as here and as in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and The Lost Weekend (1945); as in this complete and fatal form expressed by Billy Wilder, the ending is black, sadly black, and no one survives.

What can be pulled from that can be enjoyed in many other forms, and is perhaps shared by the majority of the over 600 films from between 1939 and 1957 that are regularly classified as film noir.

It isn't right or wrong to use that description; so long as we remember where that came from. It came from the sublimely unhappy endings offered in this case by one of the style's earliest master's, Billy Wilder.

The Best of Film Noir, the black-hearted apotheosis of film noir, those tales of weak-minded heels, dangerous dames, told by cameras posed at strange angles as the shadows loom, it's all in film noir, and the best of film noir.

Film noir was never a consciously used term, not at least by those who made film noir, but it is still our best psychological portal to the USA in the 1940s and 1950s.  Noir's films if watched closely, show the profoundest anxieties of America in the era.  Film noir at its best began around 1940 with films like The Maltese Falcon, Shadow of a Doubt, Laura, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, The Lost Weekend, Detour, Gilda, The Big Sleep, The Killers, Out of the Past and Force of Evil.

Finally, Hollywood has a certain passion for describing itself in its movies. Right up until the era of Barton Fink (1991), The Player (1992) and LA Confidential (1997), film noir does lend itself quite well to depiction of the industry itself. Along with Nicholas Ray's In A Lonely Place, also released in 1950, Sunset Boulevard revels in revealing the sublime madness of the inner workings of the dream machine itself.

This is achieved with horrific aplomb in Sunset Boulevard, which goes so far as to feature cameos from Cecil B DeMille and Buster Keaton, but more than any other movie depicts the emptiness and psychological excess that Hollywood inspires.

Leavin' on a Hollywood stretcher in film noir
Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Film noir at its best, ended with the the detonation of a nuclear device on Malibu beach in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly. 1950 is however a half way through the cycle, and everything is at its peak; the incapacity for action, the 

Best Film Noir finds us here in contemplation of these many faceted aspects of American cinema of the 1940s and 1950s and although complex, it is still possible to trace every aspect of this film noir movement, from its origins in the gangster movies of the 1920s and 1930s, through the effect of World War 2, to the increasing paranoia of the 1950s, when the House Un-American Activities Committee began its purging of the left wing in Hollywood.

Wilder and Brackett, nervous about a major screening in Hollywood, held a preview in Illinois, in late 1949. The original edit opened with a scene inside a morgue, with the assembled corpses discussing how they came to be there. 

The story began with the corpse of Joe Gillis recounting his murder to the others, but the audience reacted with laughter and seemed unsure whether to view the rest of the film as drama or comedy. 

After a similar reaction during its second screening in Poughkeepsie, New York, and a third in Great Neck, the morgue opening was replaced by a shorter poolside opening, using footage filmed on January 5, 1950.

Ride Sunset Boulevard to Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. Highly interesting and informative article. Thanks.