Robert Ack­royd, gui­tarist with Florence And The Ma­chine, watches Billy Wilder’s blackly comic satire

Empire (UK) - - REVIEW -

IT TAKES ABOUT 45 min­utes ev­ery night to find a film you haven’t seen. Scrolling through the new dross, with a feel­ing you’ve al­ready found the only hid­den gem in Wind River. So you fil­ter your search. Pop into gen­res; in­die — scroll on… still don’t think you can han­dle Paddy Con­si­dine’s Tyran­nosaur…

Twenty min­utes later you’re in Clas­sics and re­con­sid­er­ing TV al­to­gether.

I must have pon­dered over watch­ing Sun­set Boule­vard more than any other movie, or it feels that way. Maybe I just no­tice it more. It’s the le­gendary ar­che­typal Hol­ly­wood ‘pic­ture’, chap­ter one in ev­ery Film Stud­ies text book.

Film writer and Wrath Of Khan di­rec­tor Ni­cholas Meyer pro­claims it in­ter­est­ing that Billy Wilder, hav­ing “made the great­est movie in ev­ery genre, should have also made the great­est movie that is No-genre with Sun­set Boule­vard”. Hmm… Meyer goes on, “So you have the great­est POW es­cape movie, Sta­lag 17. You have the great­est com­edy, Some Like It Hot.

You have the great­est film noir, Dou­ble In­dem­nity…”

First of all, the great­est com­edy is Trad­ing Places, and sec­ond, it’s dusty old rhetoric like this that has al­ways turned me off. I rarely go in for olde Hol­ly­wood. On The Wa­ter­front was a joy­ous sur­prise in how con­tem­po­rary it felt, none of that Pro­hi­bi­tion/gumshoe par­lance or tap-danc­ing mu­si­cal skits, seeee. I mostly at­trib­uted that to Mar­lon Brando, and de­cided on ’54 be­ing about as old as I go — ad­vice maybe Joe Gil­lis would have ben­e­fited from.

At face value Sun­set Boule­vard is about a screen­writer be­ing run out of town by repo men, and a for­got­ten star of the si­lent screen suf­fer­ing from clin­i­cal de­pres­sion. Joe Gil­lis (Wil­liam Holden) is a clas­sic man’s man in that he’s a mid­dle-class, phi­lan­der­ing, misog­y­nist ego­ist with spu­ri­ous tal­ent. The stu­dios aren’t in­ter­ested in his scripts, so in­stead of get­ting a day job he de­cides to head back east. As chance would have it, he runs into reclu­sive and age­ing for­mer child star, Norma Desmond (Glo­ria Swan­son), and fig­ures he can con her into some quick cash by edit­ing a script of hers.

You quickly re­alise, with the aid of a la­bo­ri­ous nar­ra­tion, that this is of course the Hol­ly­wood cau­tion­ary tale of the fame ma­chine. The open­ing shot is of a gut­ter strewn with dead leaves in Bev­erly Hills. As Franz Wax­man’s fa­mous or­ches­tra shrieks bloody mur­der, we get the feel­ing it

is from this very gut­ter that all movie stars must emerge and where they are all cer­tain to be re­turned (Film Stud­ies de­gree kick­ing in!).

The sets are in­cred­i­ble, lav­ish and au­then­tic. Some of the set-pieces, like the eerily caught wind in the bro­ken pipe or­gan in Desmond’s pala­tial din­ing room, or the in­ex­pli­ca­ble chim­panzee funeral, are en­chant­ing and sin­is­ter at the same time. The di­a­logue is ra­zor-sharp, in an ex­haust­ing way. Ev­ery line is so slick, so metic­u­lously com­posed, it just feels un­can­nily un­nat­u­ral at the rate at which they are de­liv­ered. Or maybe that’s the de­sign; af­ter all, our two leads both live on ei­ther side of dis­il­lu­sion. Gil­lis speaks like a bud­get Os­car Wilde, which would per­haps ex­plain his pro­fes­sional strug­gle.

Norma Desmond ex­ists in the emo­tional red zone for the en­tirety of the movie. Scream­ing at her but­ler, reen­act­ing her clas­sic roles or plead­ing for love from a well of tears, it is this per­for­mance on which the whole movie hangs. A lot has been made about the unique suit­abil­ity of Glo­ria Swan­son to her role as Norma Desmond. Swan­son was her­self a star of si­lent cin­ema, and although she hadn’t quite Howard Hughes’d her­self, her film ca­reer had cooled to a de­gree that play­ing such a washed-up char­ac­ter wasn’t as an of­fen­sive propo­si­tion as Pola Ne­gri had felt it was when she was ini­tially of­fered the role. Nev­er­the­less, she is quite amaz­ing. The per­for­mance is ir­refutable in its craft — Norma Desmond is so ut­terly un­bear­able, this must be in­dica­tive of a com­pelling per­for­mance.

Sun­set Boule­vard is inar­guably an all-star pro­duc­tion equipped with a le­gendary cast and crew at the peak of their pow­ers. It’s just so ar­chaic, and pre­dictable; I mean, the end­ing is given away in the first two min­utes! It’s dif­fi­cult to fairly judge a film like this: how am I ex­pected to ret­ro­spec­tively ap­pre­ci­ate how ground­break­ing it was? Sim­i­lar to when peo­ple re­count how they swerved off the road in 1963 when they heard ‘Please Please Me’ on the ra­dio for the first time. My brain seemed to love it, but in my heart of hearts I was un­moved. I’ll give it a few years and try it again.

Sun­set Boule­vard is out now on DVD, blu-ray and Down­load. Florence and the Ma­chine’s new al­bum, High as Hope, is out now

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