Silent screen star Norma Desmond gets one more close-up.
Sunset Boulevard—the story of Hollywood movies draped on a depressing sex affair—is an uncompromising study of American decadence displaying a sad, worn, methodical beauty few films have had since the late twenties. Its creators—pseudo-sophisticated Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, a mean director with telescopic eyes—are dispassionate observers rather than artists who dig inside their characters, and they make the melodrama even shallower by top-casting it with the superficial Gloria Swanson. My guess, though, is that this contrived but essentially uncorrupted journalism will live longer than a “great human” job like The Bicycle Thief, a film that hides the worst type of cheating sentimentality beneath its “untouched” surface.
The story, parading an unadmirable hero (William Holden) through ugly affairs with his best friend’s fiancee (Nancy Olson) and a rich neurotic of fifty (Swanson), amounts to morbid liaison between the “talkie” and silent film world, with Swanson doing a lot of ear-bending with a voice like a hollow stone wall, while Holden does an unemphatic version of the best silent-film pantomime. The tragedy inherent in his gigolo setup with the ex-star is largely muffed because the Brackett-Wilder combination—vague about the sunset period of an actress’s life—entwines Holden with a cliché of the frustrated middle-aged artiste and drenches them both in gimmicks and weird atmosphere. Holden occasionally escapes into a more accurately observed world of young Hollywood talent, before the Swanson character clobbers him with three incredibly well-placed bullets which skilfully nudge him to his final floating place, the swimming pool recently dredged for the body of Alan Ladd, the late star of “Gatsby.
The cold, mean Sunset Boulevard—a beautiful title, though I suspect it was shot on another boulevard—is further proof of the resurgence of art in the Hollywood of super-craftsmen with insuperable taste. American film makers have suddenly learned how to make movies work as plastically as Mondrian paintings, using bizarre means and gaucherie, with an eye always on the abstract vitality produced by changing pace, working a choppy sentence against a serene image extravagant acting against quiet. In this gimmick-ridden Sunset a corpse talks. The improbability bothers me less than the fact that he over-talks, explaining action—when Holden is delicately beached by the cops—that explains itself with a morbid realism about American scene. But his lines—spoken with a nice, trapped, Midwestern twang—work as wise-guy counterpoint to scene, building up each audience perception like a good tailgate trombonist. Study the silent close-up of Holden being needled by a lecherous clerk, and you must respect skill that compresses so much of the kept man’s malaise into a fraudulent secondary bit. This scene, with its lingering focus on a nauseated countenance, is a small horror movie that not only starts with an improbable, hammy cruelty by the clerk, but uses it to magnify Holden’s unhighlighted anguish. The upsetting fact about craftsmanship that always finds a way to out-maneuver criticism is that it is putting movies beyond the tastes of an audience that heretofore has judged films for elements—morality, sociology, message—no longer primary in such form-conscious art.
Save for one devilish axis, this would be a stiff, obsessively detailed record of corruption. Holden is one of the most quietly charming hard-luck guys a movie ever watched for his pinpoint reactions, which give the film its endless silent perceptions of the way an average studio worker thinks, moves, worries, day-dreams. As the murdered narrator, he spreads a dense poolroom pallor over the imagery (his lines operate like silent film titles), but the Hollywood tone of his tight gestures and pantomime—the bound-in floridity, jumpiness, and showy crispness—is what gives this movie its virulent snap. The load is entirely upon him because the other portraits, while blistering, run from good comic strip (Fred Clark’s safe-playing producer) through soggy urbanity (DeMille playing himself) to stereotyped abandon (Swanson).
The movie is stultified by spectacle, novelistic development, and a slow dismemberment of the human beings that are strictly from Von Stroheim’s day. It is hard to find any logic or life in Swanson’s grotesque because the director is too busy building baroque furniture for both her and her ménage. The illogicality of her mausoleum-like mansion, moldering outside while one butler keeps the inside jungle of rococo spotless, is less stultifying than the eclectic worship of forebodingly cluttered shots and dated insights about contaminated life. Where John Huston cuts a face into a mosaic of analytic shots, Sunset, without any short cuts, standoffishly views a butler descending eighty stairs, crossing acres of beefy carpet, to open a door. Just as laborious and frightful is the old single-alley focus on character. Save for one poignant, relaxed scene in bed, Swanson stays exactly as directed, and very like Theda Bara, within a nasty stereotype: she sinks talon-like fingers in her lover’s arm, telephones his other girl with a voice dripping demoniac evil, piles up straight gestures and exclamations that are the stock notions of the undersexed neurotic. This dated technique would sink the movie under minutiae if Wilder’s inveterate meanness didn’t turn every shot into a shocking, mad, controlled chewing of assorted twentieth-century cuds.