Sunset Blvd. (1950)

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By Scott Ross

Billy Wilder’s savage, yet deeply felt, black mass on the Hollywood he both loved and — on the basis of this one — must have loathed a bit as well.

Few talking pictures crammed in so many quotable lines, but John Seitz’s visuals are equally striking: William Holden, face-down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool; the celebrated monkey funeral; Swanson standing up amid a projector’s beam and swirling cigarette smoke like some demented harpy direct from Hell; and that long descent down her mansion’s rococo staircase at the finale. (Wilder to Seitz on the set: “Just your standard monkey funeral shot, Johnny.”)

Holden’s performance as the doomed, tawdry screenwriter was his breakout, and 55 years later it’s still riveting. This was the movie that finally put an end to Wilder’s fertile partnership with co-scenarist Charles Brackett; D.M. Marshman Jr. shares a screenwriting credit, largely on the basis of having helped Wilder over a narrative hurdle by observing, “What if the old dame shoots the boy?”

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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