AFI #16: Sunset Blvd.

Joe Gillis: “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
Norma Desmond: “I *am* big. It’s the *pictures* that got small.”


I have mixed feelings about 1950’s Sunset Blvd. On the one hand, Gloria Swanson’s performance as aging silent film star Norma Desmond was brilliant. On the other hand, the story is far-fetched and a little trite. The writing is sophomoric, yet the screenplay won an Oscar. I sort of have mixed feelings about writer/director Billy Wilder as well. I loved The Apartment, but was lukewarm on Double Indemnity and Some Like it Hot. I’d say Sunset Blvd. is somewhere in between. It certainly doesn’t belong at #16 on the list of best American films.

Sunset Blvd. is really a tour de force by Gloria Swanson. She was 50 when she played Norma Desmond, herself an aging silent film star. Given that, her over the top performance was one for the ages. The way she used her facial expressions as if she was in a silent film was wonderful, albeit really creepy. In fact, everything about Norma Desmond was creepy, which I guess was the point. She was lonely to be sure, but she was also certifiable and perhaps the only reason she wasn’t locked up in the loony bin was because she was being taken care of by her butler/ex-husband Max.

William Holden was also quite good as hack screenwriter Joe Gillis. As the narrator you initially relate to him and even feel a little sorry for him as he gets caught up in Norma’s craziness. But at some point you stop sympathizing with him because he starts to rely on Norma’s money and hospitality and whatever weird “relationship” they have. Had the film been made today we’d have surely seen some freaky sex scenes between Norma and Joe, but in 1950 it was okay for us to assume they were “lovers” without having to see the sex. In fact, perhaps they didn’t engage in a sexual relationship — maybe companionship was enough for Norma to feel like she was in a relationship. Still, it’s creepy.

Sunset Blvd. is also unique in that it’s one of the only films in history narrated by a dead person. The film starts with Joe floating in Norma’s pool having been shot and killed. I can think of only one other well-known film in which the narrator is dead — Kevin Spacey narrated American Beauty (Bruce Willis was in fact dead during the majority of The Sixth Sense but he didn’t narrate). Holden did a great job as the narrator, giving the film a noir quality (even though I found the script to be ridiculous).

Another cool thing about Sunset Blvd. is that several major silent film stars made cameos in it, including Buster Keaton. And of course, the film includes the famous line spoken by Norma as she’s about to be hauled off to jail or the loony bin, thinking the cameras are there for a movie when in fact they are there for the news of her arrest: “I’m ready for my closeup Mr. DeMille.”

Next on the list: 2001: A Space Odyssey

AFI #36: The Bridge on the River Kwai

“Madness! Madness!” — Major Clipton

OK, now we’re starting to get into the great ones! The Bridge on the River Kwai is a tremendous film that took home multiple Academy Awards in 1958 and set a standard for hundreds of anti-war films to come. The film is based on the novel by Pierre Boulle and tells the story of a company of British prisoners of war during World War II who are forced to build a bridge by a Japanese Colonel who has some unique ways of motivating his prisoners. The prisoners are led by the overly proper Colonel Nicholson who at first inspires his charges by not giving into Colonel Saito’s demands, then further inspires his troops to build a bridge that will stand the test of time and serve to honor the spirit and work ethic of the Brits. Unbeknownst to Nicholson, the Allies are planning to blow up the bridge as soon as it’s complete.

There are so many great aspects of this film it’s hard to know where to begin, but I will begin with what I think is one of the main themes of the film — the futility of war. Major Shears, played by William Holden, sets the tone early on by questioning Nicholson’s motives when he first arrives at the camp, and then later in the film when he returns to help blow up the bridge he tells his commander:

“You make me sick with your heroics! There’s a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L-pills – they go well together, don’t they? And with you it’s just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman… how to die by the rules – when the only important thing is how to live like a human being.”

The bridge itself is a metaphor for the irrationality of war. The prisoners are there to build the bridge and they build a great bridge, only to have it destroyed as soon as it’s complete. In other words, what was the point? Major Clipton says it in the quote above when he watches the bridge crumble and sees the death all around him.

Another theme of the film is courage. Saito and Nicholson have different definitions of courage, and Saito thinks the British have none. But Nicholson believes courage comes from doing what is right in the face of adversity and he literally proves his point by challenging Saito at the risk of death. Saito learns to understand Nicholson’s courage and finally gives in and in return Nicholson rewards Saito by building a wonderful bridge. Saito and Nicholson are equally stubborn, but to what end as Major Clipton reminds us.

The Bridge on the River Kwai also delivers several spectacular acting performances, especially by Alec Guiness as Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa as Saito. Guiness was rewarded for his work with a Best Acting Oscar and Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. It was Sir Alec’s only Oscar win over a tremendous acting career and one of the best performances you’ll ever witness. The film also won Best Picture and five additional Oscars.

Next Up: #35 Annie Hall (my all-time favorite movie!)