Category Archives: Classics

Sunset Boulevard (1950, Billy Wilder)

The third act of Sunset Boulevard just gets darker and darker. The film digs down into one level, then finds another, then another, then maybe even another. Director Wilder and co-writers Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. find a way to fully condemn the film’s setting–Hollywood, with Paramount Pictures (Sunset’s producer) being the generalized stand-in–while offering reprieve to some of its participants. That condemnation (and the conditional reprieve) comes through William Holden’s self-realization arc, which he doesn’t discuss in his full narration of the film. He doesn’t want to talk about it. Because Holden, playing a B-movie screenwriter down on his luck, isn’t so much a participant as a victim. But he’s a victim of the Hollywood dream, not Hollywood itself. Sort of.

The film’s final descents are real fast and one after another. If it weren’t for Holden’s narration, he might even get lost in them.

Sunset opens with Holden trying to hack out another script he doesn’t like and then having to dodge some repo men out for his car. There’s a quick trip through Holden’s Hollywood–begging for loans–culminating in a really fun car chase. Wilder keeps it light (even if the opening promises some darkness) and Holden’s a wonderfully affable lead. He ends up in the driveway of a rundown mansion, where he soon meets the estate’s Miss Havisham (a comparison in the very narration), Gloria Swanson.

Swanson is a silent film megastar, twenty years later. She has a single companion, butler Erich von Stroheim. Holden and Swanson’s first meeting is full of quips and barbs; Swanson’s very (intentionally) affected and intense, while Holden’s relaxed but pointed. There’s a rhythm to their scene, which maintains for a while as Holden becomes another resident of the mansion–seems Swanson’s written a comeback project for herself, a Salome adaptation. She “hires” Holden to get it into shape for the studio.

Eventually it becomes clear Swanson’s interest in Holden isn’t only in his copyediting. He’s initially resistant but acquiesces once he realizes Swanson’s mental health is more fragile than he thought. At this point, that relaxed but pointed Holden disappears. When he finally does return in the third act, it’s jarring. Not just because the temperament had been gone so long, but also because–when its aimed at someone else, it’s clear how it’d never been affable at all.

That someone else is Nancy Olson, who plays a young script reader at the studio. She goes from a professional detractor of Holden’s hackier work to an acquaintance (engaged to his friend, Jack Webb) to his collaborator on a new script. The film never has Holden’s two screenwriting projects concurrent. The kick-off of Holden and Olson’s collaborating comes immediately following the Salome project’s culmination. Swanson, von Stroheim, and Holden pay Cecil B. DeMille a visit on the Paramount set; there’s a lot of character and narrative development, plus important Hollywood commentary. That commentary will inform a lot later on.

At any given time in Sunset Boulevard, Holden, Swanson, or von Stroheim are giving stunning performances. Usually Wilder gives each actor a spotlight in the scenes; the script, which is wondrously plotted, keeps them from stepping on each other’s toes. Holden and von Stroheim always accompany Swanson’s presence, which–even with Holden’s narration sometimes in between the dialogue lines–never crowds out the other actors. Maybe because Swanson’s a star; her crowding out the characters is a given.

For the first act, it’s Holden’s movie. As an actor. His performance makes Sunset. Once he’s around Swanson more–and the plot perturbs–she becomes the essential factor. Even in the third act, when he gets his big scene and she gets a number of big scenes–even as the narrative focuses more and more on Holden and Olson, as their collaboration starts to become less professional than intended, Swanson’s still omnipresent. Olson doesn’t even know of her existence, which makes it all the more impressive. There’s a certain audacity to the film. There needs to be. And Wilder runs with it.

But then at the finish, turns out maybe von Stroheim’s been the essential factor all along. His background performance, which never gets a full spotlight, brings it all together.

Swanson gives the best performance, no doubt. She’s got the most to do, the hardest stuff to do. Obviously stuff like a Charlie Chaplin impression, not obvious stuff like building towards the dark finale… it’s phenomenal. Holden’s great too. von Stroheim’s great. Olson’s good, though–intentionally–it’s not like she’s got anything on the level of the three main stars. And then there’s pretty much no one else in the movie. Webb. He’s in it for a bit and he’s good but it’s less than five minutes. DeMille’s extended cameo is good. There are some smaller Hollywood cameos–Buster Keaton and Hedda Hopper make the most impression. But Sunset is all about Swanson, Holden, and von Stroheim. And their self-made Hollywood success prison.

Wilder’s direction is excellent. He and cinematographer John F. Seitz create these artificial realities–the one Holden lives in, the one Swanson lives in, the obviously artificial one Olson and Webb live in. Sunset’s all about not understanding make believe even if you make the make believe.

Wilder is restrained as far as composition goes. He saves his severe angles, waiting until just the right moment to cut to them. They’re release valves for built-up narrative intensity, something Franz Waxman’s score is always heightening. Great score.

Sunset Boulevard is an ambitious, difficult film. But it’s difficult not in how Wilder constructs it–in fact, the script’s anything but; there’s obvious foreshadowing and forecasting. It’s just hard to get past being starstruck. For Holden, for Swanson, for the viewer. It’s exceptional; in fact, to succeed, it couldn’t be anything but.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Billy Wilder; written by Charles Brackett, Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr.; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Arthur P. Schmidt; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Brackett; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Joe Gillis), Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond), Erich von Stroheim (Max Von Mayerling), Nancy Olson (Betty Schaefer), Jack Webb (Artie Green), and Cecil B. DeMille (Cecil B. DeMille).


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Naked Alibi (1954, Jerry Hopper)

The first half hour of Naked Alibi–the film runs just under ninety minutes so the entire first third–is separate from the remainder. Set in a small city (shot on the backlot, but rather well thanks to Russell Metty’s glorious photography), chief of detectives Sterling Hayden has been getting a lot of heat over police brutality. The bleeding hearts just don’t understand how hard it can be. Not even after someone starts killing cops.

The film is really, really spare. There’s not just no fat on the script, there’s not always enough meat. So there’s no reconciliation between police commissioner Fay Roope riding Hayden for police brutality–even though Hayden’s tactics appear just to be due process and self-defense–with Hayden’s inability to catch the cop killers. Hayden’s got a prime suspect–local baker Gene Barry, who threatened the lives of each of the murdered cops. But Barry says he’s a good guy and everyone (meaning wife Marcia Henderson and lawyer Paul Levitt) agrees.

Of course, Barry’s exceptionally suspicious, has no real alibi for the murders–it’s never clear why his alibi is Naked–and appears to be at least psychologically abusive to Henderson. It turns out she’s the luckier of his two ladies, but more on that development in a bit.

The first half hour introduces Barry, introduces Hayden, introduces the cops, kills the cops, starts Hayden’s investigation, fires Hayden, brings in P.I. Don Haggerty to assist Hayden in an off-the-books investigation, and ends with Barry running off to the Mexican border to destress.

Barry’s not just suspicious, he’s violent, controlling, and manipulative. Though the manipulative stuff doesn’t really work because he’s not coy about it. He manipulates through violence and enforced control. The script asks way too much in the way of disbelief suspension. Director Hopper is no help with it either. For whatever reason, he can’t direct interiors. He does the most boring composition inside. Outside, Naked Alibi looks great. Inside, it’s a complete yawn.

Worse, he’s got forceful performances from both Barry and Hayden and doesn’t showcase them in those boring interior scenes either. There’s all this energy present, with Hopper seemingly disinterested in framing it well.

When the film gets to the Mexican border, there are big changes. The exterior shots are even better–Tijuana stands in for “Border City”–with these deeply composed shots. Metty’s photography gets even better and the script slows down enough and focuses; it doesn’t matter if Hopper doesn’t direct exposition or banter well.

Gloria Grahame plays a nightclub singer who Barry romances, terrorizes, and physically abuses. No longer trying to play evil but nice and instead just evil, Barry is terrifying. Especially since things never go Hayden’s way. He’s not particularly good at the detective stuff and he’s got the street smarts of a three-card monte mark. He’s just right.

But Grahame ends up being the closest thing to a main character. She gets the most character development, which Grahame ends up essaying far better than the film deserves. By the end, the script’s caught up with her and holds her back, but for a while, Grahame transcends the spare, sometimes lazy material.

The filmmaking and acting make Naked Alibi. The script’s got a decent enough detective investigation, but very little else. The finale is–while extremely effective and beautifully shot–a complete disappointment. There’s been no character development on Hayden. He’s not a cipher, he’s a blank. Hayden brings a lot of righteousness and enough hints of charm to it, but there’s nothing there. Whether he’s succeeding, failing, or bleeding to death, Hayden’s always exactly the same.

Grahame’s got stuff going on under the surface, Barry’s just getting more and more dangerous. And there’s really no one else. There are some recurring supporting cast members–Chuck Connors, Billy Chapin–but they don’t have much to do. Naked Alibi doesn’t need them to do much. It’s got one thing; reveal Barry enough Hayden can arrest him.

Things get really good about an hour in and it seems like Naked Alibi might add up in the end. Plotting overcomes problematic scene details. Then the finale disappoints, even though it features Hopper’s best direction (of an action sequence anyway), and is beautifully shot.

Still, it’s an engaging noir, with good (but unfortunately uneven thanks to the script and Hopper) performances. And it’s got that Russell Metty photography. Hopper’s direction doesn’t deserve that photography.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jerry Hopper; screenplay by Lawrence Roman, based on a story by J. Robert Bren and Gladys Atwater; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Al Clark; produced by Ross Hunter; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Sterling Hayden (Joe Conroy), Gloria Grahame (Marianna), Gene Barry (Al Willis), Marcia Henderson (Helen Willis), Don Haggerty (Matthews), Billy Chapin (Petey), Max Showalter (Det. Lt. Parks), Chuck Connors (Capt. Kincaide), Stuart Randall (Chief Babcock), Paul Levitt (Frazier), and Fay Roope (Commissioner O’Day).


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Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)

Lifeboat never feels stagy, which is one of the film’s greatest successes. The entire thing takes place in a single lifeboat, with director Hitchcock not doing many medium or long shots of the lifeboat exterior. All the action is with the actors, Hitchcock using distinctive composition–Glen MacWilliams’s glorious photography helping quite a bit, of course–to work up a visual rhythm. Jo Swerling’s screenplay is mostly dialogue, but the narrative rhythm isn’t in the cadence of the lines or even in what character gets what material, it’s in the characters themselves. The script’s narrative focusing is its greatest strength and greatest asset to the film.

Because there’s only so much the characters in Lifeboat can do to influence events. They survive the ship’s sinking by chance, they survive on the lifeboat by chance. There is a certain predictability to the film and the characters. But then the first act does everything to establish them as not being predictable. Lifeboat’s biggest twist–maybe only twist–is one of the characters not being predictable. Hitchcock and Swerling aren’t so much fooling the audience as not even trying to give them enough information.

There’s almost no minutiae in Lifeboat. There’s sometimes expository dialogue covering what’s happened offscreen since a scene transition, but Hitchcock and Swerling have zero interest in showing the characters’ daily chores to maintain on the lifeboat. Lifeboat isn’t about minutiae, it’s about big ideas and as big of character drama as Hitchcock can do in confined space.

The survivors on the lifeboat are a swath of Allied civilians. Tallulah Bankhead is a celebrity columnist, John Hodiak is one of the crew, so are William Bendix, Hume Cronyn, and Canada Lee. Mary Anderson’s a nurse. Henry Hull’s a millionaire industrialist. Heather Angel’s British and heading back from New York. And Walter Slezak is the Nazi sailor they rescue.

One of the script’s nicest tricks is having Hodiak, Bendix, Cronyn, and Lee all have an indeterminately long history together. They’ve known each other for years. Helps when revealing character backstory. It can come up in conversation naturally. Bankhead and Hull know each other too. And then it turns out Bankhead speaks German and offers Slezak a sympathetic ear.

Lifeboat keeps petty in-fighting to a minimum. The characters are too desperate to be petty (even when it seems like they might be acting so). And everyone gets a nice arc. Nine characters, nine separate arcs (with some overlapping); all in ninety-six minutes. Hitchcock and Swerling seem to know they can only last in such a confined space for so long.

The big dramatic in-fighting scenes–the film’s set pieces (an argument is more compelling than a storm hitting the boat)–are fantastic. Sometimes character development points with intersect in these scenes. Eventually there’s some pairing off amongst the survivors and it changes how things play, not just to the audience, but to the other characters. And never stagy.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to as much as Hitchcock and Swerling might hope. The ending is large scale action, followed immediately by a large scale morality message. Because Lifeboat is about big ideas, particularly in the treatment of Nazi Slezak–Hodiak, Bendix, and Cronyn are on one side, Bankhead and Hull are on the others. It’s the snobs versus the slobs. Hodiak has some great scenes arguing with the snobs at the beginning. And it turns out to develop into a lot more.

Anderson, Lee, and Angel are basically on the sidelines during the big idea scenes. There’s even some commentary about why they’re on the sidelines, when Lifeboat still seems a lot more ambitious in its progressive presentation of reality than it turns out to be. There are some great approaches and details in the film, but they’re not the point. With nine characters and ninety-six minutes–and maybe four bigger parts–the supporting material needs to be good. Appearing ambitious and being at least somewhat successful makes a lot of impression.

And it sometimes gives the actors great material.

Bankhead and Hodiak are the stars. Bendix and Hull are the main support. Slezak next. Then everyone else. Though Cronyn (doing a totally fine but peculiar English accent) does go sweet on Anderson, which gives them a little more time.

Bankhead’s good. Her character’s wobbly at times–particularly at the end–but Bankhead’s good enough to cover. Hodiak’s similiar, though it’s his dialogue–he has some big speeches–to wobble. Hitchcock doesn’t direct for the performance and the dialogue sometimes needs that touch. Bendix is awesome, but his part’s not great. Hull’s fine. He always comes through. Same with Slezak.

More sympathetic direction would probably have helped Hull. It’s the big idea speeches. Hitchcock can’t figure out how to do them. They need to be rousing and patriotic while still vaguely humanist and he sort of just pauses for them. He makes up for it in the next scene, usually with some great overlapping dialogue shots, but Lifeboat’s a propaganda picture. Hitchcock tries to ignore the propaganda instead of accepting it.

The uneven tone hurts the end of the film, which has already been through a way too rushed second-to-third act transition.

Excellent direction from Hitchcock, great photography, great performances. Fine script. Lifeboat’s about as good as a straight propaganda picture can get.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Jo Swerling, based on a story by John Steinbeck; director of photography, Glen MacWilliams; edited by Dorothy Spencer, music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Kenneth Macgowan; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Tallulah Bankhead (Connie Porter), John Hodiak (John Kovac), Henry Hull (Charles J. Rittenhouse), Walter Slezak (Willi), Hume Cronyn (Stanley Garrett), Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), Canada Lee (Joe Spencer), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higley), and William Bendix (Gus Smith).


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The Gay Falcon (1941, Irving Reis)

The Gay Falcon answers a question I never thought to ask. Can George Sanders flop a part? The answer is yes. There are extenuating circumstances to be sure, but Sanders flops the lead in Falcon. He’s a skirt-chasing, playboy criminologist, which ought to be a natural fit for Sanders. Instead he comes off as a so callous he doesn’t recognize his misogyny nitwit.

Most of the problem, besides director Reis’s inability to get the cast above it, is the script. Lynn Root and Frank Fenton only have to fill sixty-six minutes and they barely come up with enough to cover.

The films starts with Nina Vale visiting fiancé Sanders in his office. He’s given up international adventuring and detectiving and skirt-chasing to be a stock broker. He brings along his faithful sidekick from his detective days, expert locksmith Allen Jenkins, on the stockbroking venture.

Maybe ten minutes later Sanders is charmlessly enamored with Wendy Barrie, who’s trying to hire him to look into jewel thieves. Barrie’s secretary to high society party planner Gladys Cooper and someone’s ripping off her parties. Won’t Sanders help?

Of course he will. It’s off to a party–maybe the only time Falcon has the scale it needs. The budget’s another issue, even if the RKO backlot looks great thanks to Nicholas Musuraca’s gorgeous photography.

Pretty soon Jenkins is in jail for a murder he didn’t commit, Vale is mad at Sanders, Barrie is lovestruck at Sanders, and Sanders is on the case.

The mystery isn’t mysterious and only goes on so long because Sanders and Jenkins don’t appear to be very good at international adventuring and detectiving. Sanders is theoretically better at the skirt-chasing but the film would be less obvious about it if he turned into a cartoon dog and his tongue fell onto the floor whenever a woman walked past.

Except, of course, Lucile Gleason, who isn’t beautiful so Sanders is a boar to her. Gleason and Willie Fung (as Sanders’s jawdroppingly yellowfaced butler) are always played for jokes, which just makes the film look all the more desperate. It’s like it knows it can’t connect with Sanders and Barrie’s banter so it tries Jenkins’s lovable oaf, fails, tries Vale’s jealous, silly female hysterics, fails, tries dumb cops Edward Brophy (who isn’t lovable, which is the film’s greatest crime) and Arthur Shields (who gets worse the longer he’s in the film), fails. Casual sexism and racism… they don’t work either.

So it all rests on Sanders being a skirt-chaser and a genius detective. Except he’s a dimwit detective. And his performance as a skirt-chaser is so exaggerated it’d be better if he’d at least chew some scenery.

There aren’t any good performances in the film. Vale’s better than most. Jenkins and Sanders can’t sell their stupid actions. Once Barrie becomes Sanders’s sidekick, she becomes the butt of the script’s jokes. She wasn’t very good before, but she’s worse then. Cooper’s maybe the best. Brophy should be so much funnier, but the writing is bad and Reis doesn’t direct the actors. At all.

Or, worse, he does and Falcon is the result.

Aside from the Musuraca photography and morbid curiosity, there’s nothing to The Gay Falcon. No sixty-six minute movie should be tedious. Falcon gets tedious from the fourth or fifth scene.

And George Crone’s editing is terrible. Maybe Reis didn’t get coverage, but still, terrible editing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Irving Reis; screenplay by Lynn Root and Frank Fenton, based on the story by Michael Arlen; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by George Crone; music by Paul Sawtell; produced by Howard Benedict; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Sanders (Gay Laurence), Wendy Barrie (Helen Reed), Allen Jenkins (Jonathan G. ‘Goldie’ Locke), Nina Vale (Elinor Benford), Arthur Shields (Inspector Mike Waldeck), Turhan Bey (Manuel Retana), Gladys Cooper (Maxine Wood), Edward Brophy (Detective Bates), Eddie Dunn (Detective Grimes), Lucile Gleason (Vera Gardner), and Willie Fung (Jerry).


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