Friday, July 8, 2011

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

A Reputation Too Big And An Impact Too Small

- I went into Sunset Boulevard very much aware of its reputation as a staple in director Billy Wilder's filmography, classic film, and specifically film noir - and I think it killed my viewing experience. Maybe my expectations were too high but Sunset Boulevard did not leave a huge impression on me.

The plot is engrossing enough to keep the viewer engaged - Joe Gillis (William Holden), a washed up writer, takes up with a disturbed, self-absorbed, and aged actress from the silent era, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Joe soon finds that leaving at all - let alone leaving to be with his true love Betty (Nancy Olson) - is not so easy. The story is engaging enough and the subtle surreal elements make it that much more interesting; however, I did not exactly buy Joe and Betty's romance though since it was born too quickly and was built upon nothing substantial.

The film is well put together overall - visually, that is; the film certainly has nice art direction and all that jazz. However, I have seen much darker NOIR before in film noir - Sunset Boulevard hardly makes the cut as a film noir as far as a certain quantum of contrast shadowing is concerned. A few excellent shots are sprinkled throughout the film but I felt that, overall, Wilder does not do half as much with the film that he could have. Sunset Boulevard does not hold a candle to Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), for instance, the latter of which has a far more atmospheric and stylish picture - Sunset Boulevard looks generally safe and mostly traditional in framing and movement.

I also have mixed feelings about the acting. William Holden is a fine actor and gives a real good performance in this film; do not get me wrong - I especially liked his dry sarcastic wit. But I feel that he lacks a strong enough screen cynical presence for a thrilling film noir; definitely not measuring up to the likes of Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, or any of the other great noir leading men.

Although Oscar-nominated and the seemingly more noted and talked about of the two lead performances in the film, I honestly cannot decide if I think Gloria Swanson does a good job in the film or not. She is creepy and it is interesting how the Norma Desmond character somewhat mirrored Swanson herself - I will give her that - but I also feel that she overdoes the role too often. I realize that Swanson plays an insane washed-up actress from the very theatrical silent era but that still does not help my thinking that her performance is too ridiculous too many times for me to be truly chilled or take the character truly seriously.

I liked the film overall but maybe the hype - and, subsequently, my expectations - were too high because I did not find Sunset Boulevard to measure up to its reputation as a brilliant masterpiece. Maybe I just need a lecture on how wrong I am about this film?

CBC Rating: 7/10

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