Sunset Blvd. (Blu-ray Review)26 Nov, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Stars Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Nancy Olson, Erich von Stroheim.
Billy Wilder’s final collaboration with his then producer/co-writer Charles Brackett was already regarded as a legend a mere handful of years after its release — a film then spoken of in the reverent tones reserved saved for classic silents that were famous but almost impossible to see outside of New York (if then). I know this because I started my readings about Sunset Blvd. (which I’m pretty sure is the correct title rendering, despite what the box art employs here) when I was no older than 12. It ended up becoming close to my most wanted-to-see film from that era in my life — so much so that I de-pledged a college fraternity just three days after my acceptance when some upperclassmen instructed me to go on some useless social hayride instead of finally getting my first chance to see it, Holy Grail style, during its network TV premiere on NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies” in fall of 1965. Fat chance, dopes, and while we’re at it, don’t mess with me.
Sunset Blvd. may be the greatest movie about Hollywood ever made, but it is also film noir (a potent combo of cross-genres if there ever was one). And a new Blu-ray where the print that has just enjoyed some serious “work” (which plot-central Norma Desmond likely would have had as well) is beyond welcome; please, please, let’s have Wilder’s Double Indemnity issued in the U.S. as well. This is a movie where even the plot-central swimming pool is noir-ish and perhaps even the most noir-ish one ever, though I recall a memorable daylight pool scene in noir royalty Kiss Me Deadly and another one in Deadly director Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves. The cinematographer was Paramount’s great John F. Seitz, who also shot Indemnity and The Lost Weekend for Wilder and one who must have been the on-demand choice of significant Paramount money-maker Alan Ladd, who later employed Seitz on the films the by then fading DP later did at Warner Bros. You know you’re good when people want to work with you again.
But it is, of course, the movie’s originality, audacity and imaginative casting that still makes it work. First, of all Brackett-Wilder’s cheeky achievement is still a brutally honest portrait of Hollywood — despite the fact that we now have life achievement awards (something that was far more rare when Blvd. was made) that fail to soften the reality that members of the industry establishment awarding them are giving them to you in lieu of offering work. Then, there’s the portrayal of the discomforting gigolo-ism of the young screenwriting hopeful played by William Holden — subject matter we’d never have seen at, say, 1950 MGM, whose not-for-long production chief Louis B. Mayer let Wilder have it an a pre-release screening for biting the hand that fed (Wilder retaliated by telling L.B. where to put it). Then, we get the gonzo casting gifts that Wilder always had: Gloria Swanson and Holden; Nancy Olson and Buster Keaton; and (my favorite) Erich von Stroheim and Jack Webb — to say nothing of Cecil B. De Mille playing himself. Plus, an Oscar-winning score by Franz Waxman (he repeated the very next year with A Place in the Sun, which would make a welcome Blu-ray release itself).
Would the movie have been better with Montgomery Clift, who bowed out of the Holden role just before shooting commenced? Well, it would have been great to see, but Clift couldn’t do self-revulsion the way Holden could. (Would Kirk Douglas, Wilder’s original choice for Stalag 17, been as good as Holden, who won an Oscar? Yes, almost certainly.) Despite giving Swanson the role of a lifetime (notwithstanding her many silent triumphs), the long-term legacy of Sunset Blvd. was to rescue Holden from a litany of indifferent roles at Paramount and Columbia post-World War II and launching him into superstardom. He then became, along with Jack Lemmon in a later era, the consummate Wilder actor via Stalag, Sabrina and, not long before his death, Fedora.
This lovely release imports a ton of extras from a previous deluxe standard Blvd. DVD, adding a musical number about studios and producers of the day that Wilder excised and replaced because it was too inside-baseball for the general audiences who did make the picture a hit — not a monster one but definitely a box office success from a time when general audiences (there was only a barely specialized “niche” demographic) were a lot sharper than they are today. On one of the carried-over extras, the late Andrew Sarris talks of how he argued even at the time about Blvd.’s superiority to All About Eve, which beat it for the 1950 Oscar. For all of Eve’s still socko entertainment value, I think time has borne out this judgment due to the way Brackett-Wilder’s achievement gets under your skin. I think that for 1950, I’d go Blvd., The Asphalt Jungle and then some kind of squeezed-together ranking of Eve, Wagon Master and The Gunfighter — leaving the foreign-language rankings to another day (probably Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados at the top or maybe Rashomon, depending on what I think after seeing Criterion’s new Blu-ray of the Kurosawa latter). Not a bad movie year, before we even get to Winchester ’73, In a Lonely Place, Night and the City and Disney’s Cinderella.