Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Sunset Blvd.



aka Sunset Boulevard : USA 1950 : Billy WILDER : 111 mins

Pedants corner: title is spelled Blvd, not Boulevard just as Mulholland Dr. isnt Mulholland Drive. David Lynch presumably among admirers of SB: named the Twin Peaks character he played Gordon Cole, a character referred to here, but who never actually appears. Apparently TP is peppered with allusions to Sunset Blvd. If so, part of illustrious club of SB influencees: most overtly Veronika Voss, plys Billy Wilders own Fedora, even What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? and Psycho.

Endures as classic 50+ years on still fresh, ahead-of-its-time, Hollywood insider pic unmatched until The Player (and even that’s debatable). Mythic: the shoddy Lloyd Webber musical is merely a summary of films events. Not the first Hollywood-on-Hollywood film by any means, but there can’t have been many before or since in acknowledging the falseness of the process of movie-making and watching. Crew and lights reflected in the big dark glasses of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, amazing): everything else so precise, leaving this flub in can hardly be accidental. Cecil B DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton as themselves. Key line of dialogue from narration by Joe Gillis (William Holden): Well, this is where you came in. Even ends with Norma referring to the audience out there in the dark.

But more than just self-referential insider movie (though terrific fun on that level: key line of dialogue in party scene: the budget only calls for three drinks per extra): oddball mix of comedy, horror, film noir, romance, proto-camp. Several romances on view: Joe & Norma, Joe & Betty (Nancy Olsen), Norma & Norma and, strongest of all, Joe & Joe! Maybe they aren’t such a bad match at all, these solipsistic egotists, both prisoners of their delusions, both dreaming of escape (Norma from obscurity to stardom again, Joe from Hollywood to his home town of Dayton, Ohio).

No argument who’s the more talented of the pair from what we see, he’s a fairly poor writer (which calls into question Bettys judgement, who praises him). But Normas abilities are outmoded in post-war Hollywood: she burns up as much petrol as her unwieldy charabanc-sized Italian car. Her glaring-eyed intensity still potent, but reminds us why silents became so rapidly outmoded. Then again, at least she’s got no shortage of energy to keep movie going: he’s more passive, often to be seen slumped in chairs. Bland as Joe Cotten in The Third Man: flowery narration indicates how far he’s also out of step Hollywood in transition, and even the idea of narration (never mind this much) seems anachronistic (this in a movie defiantly black-and-white, with a proper old-school melodramatic orchestra score).

As he concedes, he’s not very admirable. In fact even a heel never says please or thank you, whereas old money Norma is always polite with servants, etc. Joe even leaves the big party without saying goodbye to his pals basically steals his best friends girl while his back is turned. Little indication of guilt or remorse to puncture his self-obsession. However, style and structure of film is always trying to skew us over to his side, against her: when he gives in to her on New Years Eve, thriller music makes it seem like an ominous moment of defeat/degradation.

Then again, narration is so incessant that the usual movie technique of making the audience sympathise with the narrator-hero is subverted: he seldom shuts up, and of course we never hear direct from anyone else in the same way. Even the romance with Betty isn’t really what we want emphasises his status as a heel: were told that when together they end up not talking much. Chat about their joint project Dark Windows is the least interesting part of the movie: Normas Salome script sounds as it might at least be enjoyably bonkers.

24th October, 2003
(seen 20th August : Lonsdale Cinema, Carlisle)

For other films rated 9/10 and 10/10 check out our Hall of Fame.

by Neil Young