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The AFI Top 100 Films: Sunset Boulevard (#12)

Entertainment 150Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Starring Gloria Swanson, William Holden and Erich von Stroheim
Written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.
Directed by Billy Wilder

Hoo boy. There’s really no question why this is one of the greatest Hollywood films of all time — Gloria Swanson is completely magnetic as aging film-star Norma Desmond. The entire story shows us the process of her uncoupling from reality, and it’s at once fascinating and harrowing. Just when you think you have a handle on just how crazy Norma is, she surprises you with something else that gives her insanity a richer texture. She inspires revulsion, pity, bemusement and a sort of distant admiration by the film’s final image. She’s kind of a siren of insanity, pulling unwary men into the babbling brook of it so that they drown.

The latest (and final?) victim of Norma Desmond is a struggling writer named Joe Gillis (Holden, who was also in The Bridge on the River Kwai). He hasn’t written anything worthwhile in quite some time, and his situation has gotten desperate enough that repo men are coming for his car, and anyone who’s even seen LA knows what a nightmare it would be to have your car taken from you. He hides in the driveway of one Norma Desmond during the chase, and after some initial mistrust of each other they eventually strike up a business relationship (she wants him to work with her on her comeback screenplay) and then…something a bit more entangled.

Norma is a silent film star who started to fade as soon as talkies became popular. Her monstrous mansion is a testament to excess, a monument to herself that is far too large now that her stature has diminished. She lives a life of seclusion, relying on her butler Max (von Stroheim) for just about everything and playing bridge once a week with other old silent film stars. Fun fact: the “waxworks” she has over for bridge are all silent-film stars, including Buster Keaton. They say only one line a piece.

As Gillis becomes more involved with Desmond, he learns just how her downfall has ruined her. Her clinging to this increasingly inaccurate self-image of the young ingenue has created an elaborate self-deception that her butler is all too happy to encourage. Torn between participation in the charade and the hope of a normal life with a production assistant (Nancy Olson), Gillis straddles the line as much as he can. But of course, when you’re dealing with someone teetering on the edge of sanity you’re going to have to fall sooner or later.

Everything works in this film: Wilder directs with a supremely exact manner, striking every note and beat perfectly. He draws indelible performances from Swanson, who apparently didn’t have to do that much acting to play the role; Holden, who plays Gillis like a noir detective with no mystery to solve; and von Stroheim, whose stoic nature belies an unshakable passion for the woman he’s given his life to. The writing is crisp and pitch-perfect, and Wilder inhabits the film with so many touches of Hollywood history it’s easy to think this is a story that might have actually played out somewhere.

Desmond is a fascinating creation; she’s receded into the character of a starlet so deeply that there’s very little else left of her, and the “real” Norma bubbles up at the most disarming moments. You can hear her in the crack of her voice when she makes a quip, or the subtext of her manipulations of Gillis and Max. There’s a bewildered desperation that tints everything she does; somewhere under the glamor, the carefully maintained ice-queen demeanor, there’s a girl who can’t understand how she could be so revered and so thoroughly ignored in so short a time. It’s infuriating, how callously she treats people, but it’s also pitiful.

Her fall into madness is inevitable, I suppose, but it’s also perfectly horrific. The last line of the film (“Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”) points to a permanently shattered woman in much the same way the end of A Streetcar Named Desire does. All of the delusions and misdirections have been brought down, and rather than face the cold light of the truth Norma and Blanche both retreat permanently into their own fictions.

It’s tragic, but the horror comes from the recognition of that possibility within ourselves. We all deceive ourselves to some degree or another; could we ever go so far that when faced with the ultimate refutation of a deeply-held belief, we’d simply snap and go on living a life completely divorced from the reality staring us in our faces?

I think that’s one of the things that makes Swanson’s performance so impossible to look away from. She takes this very specific experience and somehow invites us to make it universal, to imagine ourselves in Desmond’s shoes by filling the cracks in her persona with a very human desperation. Swanson invites empathy for Desmond even while we’re recoiling in delighted horror as she pays the price for her clinging, her excesses. She takes someone who could easily be cartoonish and incomprehensible and brings her down to earth. It’s simply an amazing performance.

Billy Wilder also deserves a lot of credit here, as co-writer and director. His previous film on the AFI list (the excellent The Apartment) also showed a lot of surprising depth and wit while tackling a subject I’ve never seen handled in a 1950s movie. He displays a timeless understanding of the fragility of our emotions, which is all the more impressive coming from a society that urged the repression of many messy, complicated things. He engages with mental states so artfully; it’s really something else.

I can’t stop quite gushing about this film. The more I think of it, the more deeply I love it. If you’ve only heard a couple of quotes from it, or have a vague recollection of the story’s outline, I highly recommend that you discover Sunset Boulevard for yourself. It’s a wonderful surprise, and one of those films for the ages.


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The AFI Top 100 Films: Some Like It Hot (#14)

Entertainment 150Some Like It Hot (1959)
Starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe
Written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
Directed by Billy Wilder

I was immediately intrigued by this movie once I discovered it was co-written and directed by Billy Wilder, the gentleman responsible for the superb The Apartment. I was expecting another movie like it, a comedy that dealt with unexpected subject matter in a deftly-handled way. Some Like It Hot wasn’t quite like that, but it was still a really enjoyable farce that manages to surprise us every now and then.

Two musician friends, Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon) are down on their luck. To make matters that much worse, they accidentally witness the Valentine’s Day Massacre while making a quick delivery for a friend. The quickest way to get out of town is through a traveling all-women’s band, so they disguise themselves as girls and sign up at the last minute as Josephine and Daphne, respectively. They’re surprised by the treatment of the women on the train going to Miami, but they make a number of friends there — one of them is Sugar Kane (Monroe), the band’s lead vocalist and ukelele player.

Once the band arrives in Miami things get even more complicated. Joe falls in love with Sugar, and decides to woo her by donning a second disguise — this time as the heir of Shell Oil. The ruse works for the most part, though there are plenty of close calls. Daphne, meanwhile, is being aggressively pursued by Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), an actual millionaire who isn’t used to taking no for an answer.

The film is breezy and light, but what makes it impressive is the way it piles lies on top of lies at a breakneck pace. It’s over two hours long, but it really doesn’t feel like it — every scene moves at the speed it needs to, slowing down so the characters can get to know each other, or at least become familiar with the face one character is presenting above their own, then speeding up when the carefully constructed lie falls apart. Both Joe and Jerry are in over their heads and they know it; nothing is planned but their wits manage to keep them one half-step ahead of utter disaster. Both Curtis and Lemmon are pretty game for what the script asks them to do, and there’s a surprising amount of sympathy for women and what they have to deal with in a male-dominated society. It pulls back the curtain without condemning; this is a farce, after all.

Monroe is magnetic here as Sugar, the unlucky-in-love good-time girl. When she sings “I’m Through With Love” near the end of the film, she’s surprisingly sincere; the heartbreak exudes from her, as if she’s not even trying to project it. It’s kind of stunning. Her lightness, her easy charm, suffuses the whole movie. Lemmon and Curtis are precise with their comedy, and under the steady direction of Billy Wilder they weave through the tangled plot of the script without a knot.

Considering the plot — that two men dress as women to escape witness-killing by the mob — is so dark, it would be incredibly easy to get this movie wrong. I’m not sure if the “men-in-drag” genre is permanently through or if the most recent examples have simply been that poor, but Some Like It Hot actually works incredibly well. I’m positive that in the hands of lesser collaborators, the machinery would have fallen apart. It’s a testament to the talent of everyone involved that it purrs along as easily as it does.

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Posted by on November 26, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews


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The AFI Top 100 Films: Double Indemnity (#38)

Entertainment 150Double Indemnity (1944)
Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson
Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
Directed by Billy Wilder

Holy cats, do the two main characters in this movie do terrible things. That’s actually what makes it so fascinating — this is a film noir that’s actually more Fargo than The Maltese Falcon. The main character isn’t a hard-boiled detective on the case of some twisty mystery; he’s a smooth-talking insurance salesman who gets up with the wrong bored housewife. Even though the stakes feel a bit lower, it’s still engrossing thanks to wonderful writing of Wilder and Chandler and the great performances of the leads.

MacMurray plays Walter Neff, a man who falls in love with Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck). Phyllis is lonely, tired of being ignored and mistreated by her husband. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that she’s sick enough of him to want him out of the picture, and from there it’s off to the races. To Neff’s credit, he rejects her advances at first. He wants no part of murdering someone just to collect the insurance money. But then he starts to think about it. What would be the perfect way of committing a murder, making it look like an accident, and collect the most money from your insurance policy? Intrigued by the possibility and spurred by his attraction for her, he decides to go for it.

He decides that Mr. Dietrichson should die by accident on the train, activating a double indemnity clause that pays double on the policy. With the money, Neff and Phyllis will be rich and together. It’s a great idea, of course, but the great hand of karma comes down to make sure nothing breaks their way after a certain point. That’s how these things go, after all. And the pressures of holding a crumbling plan together take their toll on the fledgling couple, causing mistrust and dissention. Once that trust goes, things fall apart quickly. Long story short, it doesn’t end well for our two lovebirds.

What’s impressive about the downfall is how inevitable it seems even while Neff and Phyllis take every precaution to make their getaway clean. While they’re obviously not good people, they’re reasonably intelligent and actually cool under pressure. What makes them crack, eventually, is Neff’s best friend and claims adjuster, Barton Keyes (Robertson).

Robertson steals every frame he’s in, chewing the scenery with the best character actors out there. He’s also incredibly smart and intuitive, stubborn and moral, and that’s what proves to be Neff’s undoing. When a false claim is made, Keyes has what he calls a “little man” in his gut that keeps him up at night. It goes sour on him with this case, and he suspects Phyllis of foul play. He trusts Neff as his best friend, while working as hard as he can to uncover the scheme he’s cooked up.

MacMurray and Stanwyck have a great, twisted chemistry together. and even when Neff and Phyllis turn on each other they’re arresting to watch. Phyllis is a hell of a femme fatale, completely sociopathic even though she’s in a bad situation; she’s not a woman caught in the balance of good and evil, she’s just evil with enough charisma to fool people.

Neff is a good guy, though. His libido and ego are fatal flaws, to be sure, but he seems to be a nice enough person who’s unfortunately caught up in a gravity well of crazy that he learns too late there’s no escape from. Even while you’re watching him deceive his friends and coworkers, you’re caught between two impulses — the desire to see him caught for what he’s already done, and the desire to see him squirm out of his predicament a better man for the experience. Unlike Phyllis, he begins to show remorse once he learns the extent of what he’s done and who he’s hitched his wagon to. That goes a long way in my book.

But alas, it’s not to be. Keyes is too dogged, Phyllis is too crazy, and the noose around Neff’s neck grows far too tight. The end result is an enjoyable ride down the ruins of a man’s life, tightly-plotted and filled with rich, complicated characters that the actors bring to life quite well. Wilder and Chandler do a great job working from James Cain’s novella, incorporating classic noir elements to a situation that doesn’t seem to be what we think of at all when it comes to the genre. What we get is something that’s at once classic and unique, in a realm all its own.

Rating: 7/10.

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Posted by on March 12, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews


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