Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Great Movies: "Sunset Boulevard"

Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder, 1950

Preconceptions: I first saw Sunset Boulevard sometime in the late '90s and remember it as being a nice piece of film noir, minus the usual detective.

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Sunset Boulevard is a movie that people who love movies love, because it's about movies. That puts it at risk for being overrated, but it's not; it is a strange and terrific tale brought magnificently to life in black and white.

The film is dark and gritty without being particularly realistic. The three primary characters -- the faded star of the silents, her butler, and the younger man who passively ends up as the third person lodged in their lushly decaying California palace -- are all characitures of madness. The star is disappointed vanity made manifest; the butler is resigned obsession; and the young narrator is the very picture of giving up on hopes, settling for less, giving up on the hard work of retaining one's personal autonomy.

Do they behave realistically? Well, not especially. But since they represent elements of everybody's life experience -- anybody here who hasn't had their vanity disappointed, hasn't pursued an unhealthy obsession, hasn't settled for less? -- the movie works as a universal fable for loss and the feeling of being past one's prime. The characters are real enough that we cringe at their humiliations, but just unreal enough that we can laugh uncomfortably at their excesses.

Plot: Failing young screenwriter finds himself in a bizarre relationship with a former movie star who is pathologically unable to accept her fall into obscurity.

Visuals: Terrific sets, especially the megalomanical shrine of the star's mansion and its rotting exterior. Nice visual tricks in the scenes set at the studio. Great black and white filming of the primary characters in the light-and-dark of the mansion's interior.

Dialog: Witty and crisp, in the best noir tradition. Dialog is used as much in establishing the characters and relationships as it is advancing the plot -- a relatively great proportion of the script is taken up with demanding, insisting, and refusing.

Prognosis: The trick to Sunset Boulevard is to not assume that because it's an "old movie" in black and white, it must be literal-minded. Nah. It's SUPPOSED to be edgy, and when watched with that in mind it is strange and awesome. Recommended for anybody with any appreciation for dark drama.


Cartophiliac said...

And, believe it or not, the Broadway Musical version is pretty good too!

Elizabeth said...

Now THIS one sounds very interesting. Thanks for reviewing.