|“Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.”—Billy Wilder, talking about the audience.|
The Major and the Minor, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and The Fortune Cookie are just some of the classic films co-written and directed by the great Billy Wilder.
This list does not even include the classics he wrote as a screenwriter before he became a director. You could do worse than studying the work of Wilder and I could talk about many of his films, but one of his best is Sunset Boulevard.
What’s so great about it? What isn’t?
The film is about a young and struggling Hollywood screenwriter in the 1950s who is in debt and desperately needs a job. Through happenstance he ends up the kept man of a movie star whose best days, during the silent era, are behind her.
The film starts with the young screenwriter, Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), floating dead in a swimming pool as his voice-over narrates the scene. He explains how he always wanted a pool, but that the price proved to be too high. Then he says he will tell us the story of what really happened here and the story flashes back to the true beginning of the story.
Here’s what’s great about this opening. It starts with a great “outer boundary” as I call it. That is right away the story lets you know what can happen, and will happen, in this story’s world. It lets us know the most extreme thing that can happen in this reality.
The classic It’s a Wonderful Life begins with angels, depicted as pulsating stars in the sky, talking to one another. It is a long time before anything else supernatural happens in the film. But when it does happen the audience has been primed for it and has no problem believing the fantastic.
This is the same trick used in the opening of the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. We see that character is fantastic situations and so we believe it later. We have been primed.
The other thing these scenes do is whet our appetites for what is to come. We want to know how this fantastic thing links up with the rest of the story.
In the case of Sunset Boulevard, we want to know how Joe Gillis ended up dead in a pool. This is a very smart way to open a film. It grabs the audience.
In Act One we see Joe Gillis being hounded by repo men for his car. He spends the first act looking for money and/or a job so that he can pay to keep his car. While trying to outrun the repo men in a car chase, he ducks into the garage of an old dilapidated mansion. He thinks it is abandoned. It is not.
This is what I call the Land of the Dead. All stories have a point where characters enter the Land of the Dead. These are places where things are in disrepair. Things may be rotting or in decay. Sometimes there is death or the very real possibility of death in these places. Or people may hurting physically or emotionally or spiritually. There is often isolation or loneliness. One or all of these things may be present in the Land of the Dead.
Wilder makes sure that this house is a dead place. It feels like a mausoleum. There is death here, as you will see when you watch the film.
It is here that Joe Gillis meets Norma Desmond, the old silent movie star played by the real-life silent movie star Gloria Swanson. This is a woman who will not let go of the past. She lives in the Land of the Dead.
In stories, the Land of the Dead is no place to live. One may visit to learn the story’s lesson, but in order to be healthy the hero must leave this place.
Because Joe Gillis needs money he ends up the kept man of this woman. He is her pet. She has money and he has none, and so Joe feels trapped in this dead place. At one point the house butler, Max, tells Joe that Norma Desmond is suicidal and in order to protect her from herself there are no locks on any of the doors.
This may seem like a detail that doesn’t matter, but think about it. Joe feels trapped here and is expressly told that there are no locks here. Thematically it means he can leave whenever he wants.
There is a great scene where, on New Year’s Eve, Norma throws a party, but Joe is surprised that by design he is to be the only guest. This is a dead place without life. No guests at a party. Frustrated, Joe leaves the mansion to find a party with life in it, but as he tries to leave his clothes get caught on the door handle. This is a perfect thing for the story thematically, for a man who feels trapped.
This is the story of a man who learns to that living as a poor man is better than being wealthy in the Land of the Dead.
There are about a million good things to say about this film, but the main thing is that every element in this film is there to help tell the story. The mansion is not creepy for the sake of being creepy. It has to be a mausoleum. There are no guests at the party not to have an odd scene, but to drive home that this is a place without life. What could say that better than a party without guests?
Everything in Wilder’s films in there for a reason. No fat.
If you have seen this film watch it again and see what you notice that you didn’t before. If you have never seen it, you are in for a treat.