SUNSET BOULEVARD (Paramount 1950): Film Noir or Hollywood Horror Story?

“I AM big. It’s the pictures that got small”

  • -Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD

I hadn’t seen Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD for quite some time until a recent rewatching. I’ve told you before how much I love a good Hollywood behind-the-scenes movie, and this one is no exception. But as I watched the tale unfold, I began to see the film in a different light. SUNSET BOULEVARD is always called a film noir classic, but this go-round found me viewing it through a lens of horror.

It’s certainly got all the elements of film noir. There’s protagonist William Holden, trapped in a bottomless downward spiral. Gloria Swanson is the femme fatale who ensnares Holden and pulls him into her dark web. The cinematography of John F. Seitz portrays a shadow-world of despair. And we’ve got Billy Wilder directing, the man behind noir masterpiece DOUBLE INDEMNITY, working from his and Charles Brackett’s extremely cynical script. All these ingredients certainly combine for a deliciously dark noir stew, right?

But there are other elements at play, horror tropes just as dark and disturbing. Swanson’s Norma Desmond, the faded silent film star, is obviously insane, driven mad by her tragic descent into obscurity and longing to claw her way back to the top of the Hollywood heap. Norma is the progenitor for all those Grand Guignol Dames to come, from Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson to Miriam Hopkins’ delusional Katherine Packard in SAVAGE INTRUDER . The grotesque former star plies the down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) with money and material things (though the seedy scenarist is at first a willing participant), keeping him a virtual prisoner in her isolated home, shared only by her loyal servant Max, who’s not what he seems and may be a bit loony himself.

Speaking of her home, the gloomy, decrepit mansion is run-down and dusty, cluttered with cobwebs and ancient artifacts from Norma’s past. It could fit right in next door to the Femm’s residence in James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE , or Castle Dracula itself! The horror in SUNSET BOULEVARD derives not only from that house, but from the actions of its inhabitants: Norma attempts suicide after Joe, repulsed by her demands for affection, rejects her at a New Year’s Eve party for two.  Finally, when Joe finally grows a set and tells her he’s leaving, Norma’s crack-up is complete, and she kills her jilting lover in cold blood. Her grand descent down the staircase and into a madness of no return, carefully choreographed by Max, is chillingly glorious, and worthy of any good horror movie.

Pioneering director Erich Von Stroheim as Max was no stranger to horror, having appeared in both THE CRIME OF DR. CRESPI and THE LADY AND THE MONSTER. Von Stroheim’s career took a nose dive in the talkie era due in large part to his excesses behind the camera; his 1932 QUEEN KELLY is shown during the film as Swanson watches herself, fascinated with her own onscreen image. Another fun part of the movie for me, having nothing to do with the horror aspect, is seeing silent stars of the past in small roles. Norma plays a weekly card game with Buster Keaton , Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner, who Joe callously  calls “her waxworks”. And Cecil B. DeMille , who was instrumental in Swanson’s career, plays himself in a poignant scene while filming SAMSON AND DELILAH (Henry Wilcoxon has a cameo).

So is SUNSET BOULEVARD a film noir, a horror movie, or some kind of hybrid? Cameron Crowe, in his book of interviews with director Billy Wilder, asked whether he considered the film a black comedy, to which the maestro replied, “No, just a picture” (1). Anyway you slice it, SUNSET BOULEVARD is a bona fide classic of American cinema, a film that can be viewed on many different levels, and enjoyed on all of them.

“Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there… in the dark”

-Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD

(1) from “Conversations With Wilder” by Cameron Crowe (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)


Bats in the Belfry: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (MGM 1935)

Tod Browning’s 1931 DRACULA is a masterpiece of terror, the film that launched the Golden Age of Horror and made Bela Lugosi a star. Four years later, Bela and Browning teamed again for MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, loaded with horrific atmosphere but staked through the heart by two fatal blows – too much comic relief and an ending that’s a trick, rather than a treat, for horror buffs.

Lugosi and his “daughter”, Carroll Borland

The shadow of vampirism is terrorizing a small European village, as Sir Karel Borotyn is found murdered, drained of his blood! Inspector Neumann investigates, not believing in such supernatural hokum and suspecting everyone. Lovely young Irena Borotyn, engaged to handsome young Fedor, stands to inherit her father’s estate, with family friend Baron Otto serving as her guardian. When a peasant is found also drained of blood, the villagers suspect the evil Count Mora and his daughter Luna have risen from the dead to conduct a reign of terror.

The Two Lionels (l-r): Barrymore & Atwill

Occult expert Professor Zelen is called in to consult on the matter, and he concludes the vampires are real, despite Neumann’s protestations. Irena and Fedor are attacked by the undead creatures, and an exhumation of Borotyn’s grave finds his coffin empty. Fearing an infestation, Zelen leads the charge after sunrise to find and destroy Mora and his minions. Zelen then hypnotizes Baron Otto to confront the undead Sir Karol, but we find it’s all been an elaborate ruse to unmask Sir Karol’s real killer – Baron Otto!

The Great Bela Lugosi!

That’s right, the “vampires” have been nothing more than actors hired to smoke out the Baron. We do get a treat in Lugosi enacting the part of Count Mora, silently stalking his prey and skulking about among the cobwebbed, vermin-infested castle. Our favorite Hungarian almost gets the last, delicious word as the film ends on a comic note. But the “comedy relief” from Donald Meek as a local doctor and Leila Bennett as Irena’s maid are a bit too much for my dark taste in horror, and the trick ending spoils what could’ve been a horror classic.

Carroll Borland as Luna

Lionel Barrymore  gets top billing as Professor Zelen, working once again with Browning, as he would a year later in THE DEVIL DOLL. It’s always good to see horror regular Lionel Atwill , playing the first of many roles as an Inspector. Jean Hersholt portrays Baron Otto, and Elizabeth Allen makes a fetching Irena, but Henry Wadsworth is a total twit as Fedor. Carroll Borland, who played onstage opposite Lugosi in DRACULA, creates an iconic vampiress in Luna, and an inspiration for future TV horror “g”hostess Vampira. Miss Borland only appeared in a handful of films, but left an indelible mark on the horror genre with her creepy portrayal of Luna.

The gang’s all here!

James Wong Howe’s  photography is eerie enough, and reminiscent of the best of Universal. But the script by Guy Endore and Bernard Schubert is riddled with holes; Endore also wrote the script for THE STORY OF G.I. JOE and the novel The Werewolf of Paris, which was adapted into Hammer’s 1961 CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, so I’ll give him a pass. MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is a remake of Browning’s lost 1927 silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, but since I (nor anyone currently alive, far as I know) has seen that Lon Chaney frightfest, I can’t compare the two. Perhaps Browning was trying to make up for the stir he caused with 1932’s FREAKS by adding all that extra comedy and false ending; whatever the case, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is definitely a lesser entry in the classic horror canon. Without Lugosi and Borland, it would be even less, but as it stands, it’s worth at least one viewing.


Happy St. Patrick’s Day: THE IRISH IN US (Warner Brothers 1935)

Faith and begorrah! You can’t get much more Irish than a film featuring Jimmy Cagney , Pat O’Brien , and Frank McHugh all together. THE IRISH IN US is sentimental as an Irish lullaby, formulaic as a limerick, and full of blarney, but saints preserve us it sure is a whole lot of fun! The story concerns three Irish-American brothers, the O’Hara’s, living with their Irish mum in a cramped NYC apartment. There’s sensible, levelheaded cop Pat (O’Brien), dimwitted fireman Michael (McHugh), and ‘black sheep’ Danny (Cagney), who’s a fight promoter.

O’Brien, Cagney, and McHugh

Pat announces his intention to marry pretty Lucille Jackson (19-year-old Olivia de Havilland in an early role), while Danny’s got a new fighter named Carbarn Hammerschlog ( Allen Jenkins , who’s a riot), a punchy pug who “every time he hears a bell ring, he starts sluggin”! Danny and Lucille ‘meet cute’ while he’s out doing roadwork with his charge, not knowing Pat’s invited her over for dinner later to meet the family. Being the red-blooded Irish boyos they are, chaos ensues, especially after Carbarn hears a bell ring outside and “starts sluggin'”!

Cagney’s ready to rumble!

The O’Hara’s attend the annual Fireman’s Ball, but when Pat catches Danny and Lucille kissing in the moonlight, he gets his Irish up and slugs his brother, causing Danny to leave the family home. Lucille confesses to Ma that she loves Danny, not Pat, but the fences still aren’t mended. Middleweight champ Joe Delaney agrees to a charity bout for the Policeman’s Benefit, and Pat suggests palooka Carbarn. The night of the big fight finds Carbarn with a bad toothache, which Michael tries to fix with a bottle of gin, leaving both men swacked! A phone rings in the dressing room as the champ meets Carbarn, and the plug takes a wild swing at Delaney, whom promptly knocks his scheduled opponent out cold. Danny subs for his fighter and takes a pummeling, until Lucille pleads with Pat to help his brother. Pat joins Danny in his corner, and tells him he’s stepping out of the way with Lucille. Danny rallies to win the match, and they all live happily ever after!

A meeting of the “Irish Mafia”: Spencer Tracy, O’Brien, McHugh, and Cagney

The three leads appeared together in HERE COMES THE NAVY, DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR, BOY MEETS GIRL, THE FIGHTING 69TH, and in various combinations for Warners over the years. Cagney, O’Brien, and McHugh were members in good standing of Hollywood’s “Irish Mafia”, a group of actors who’d known each other since their struggling days that met once a week for dinner and cocktails (presumably, LOTS of cocktails!). Besides those three distinguished gentleman, the club included Jenkins, Spencer Tracy, Ralph Bellamy, Louis Calhern, James Gleason, Bert Lahr, and Lynne Overman. Later in life, Cagney said, “Those were the finest and dearest men I ever knew. How honored and privileged I was to know them”.

Wonderful Mary Gordon, ‘the ultimate Irish mum’

Mary Gordon (1882-1963) is the ultimate Irish mum as the widowed Mrs. O’Hara. The Scottish born actress is usually seen in smaller roles, but she gets the chance to really shine here. Miss Gordon is best remembered for playing Sherlock Holmes’ landlady Mrs. Hudson in all those great Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce mysteries. Olivia makes a fine ingénue, and the cast includes former welterweight boxer-turner-actor/stuntman Mushy Callahan as the referee in the big bout. THE IRISH IN US, directed by Lloyd Bacon (42ND STREET, THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS ), was one of many programmers churned out by the Brothers Warner back in the 30’s, a very likeable film with a top-notch cast that’s perfect for your St. Patrick’s Day viewing. Slainte!

Lepre-Cartoon: THE WEE MEN (Paramount 1947) Complete Cartoon

THE WEE MEN is a wee bit o’blarney about Leprechauns, one of Paramount Picture’s Noveltoons series. It’s the story of Paddy, just turned 121 years old, and entrusted with the important task of leaving new shoes on doorsteps for St. Patrick’s Day… until the Greediest Man Alive captures him and demands to be taken to that fabled pot o’gold! Directed by former Disney animator Bill Tytla, enjoy THE WEE MEN (and yes, it’s in the Public Domain!):

Pot O’Gold: Robert Mitchum and the Ames Brothers Sing “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral”

TV impresario Ed Sullivan hosted an Irish-themed “really big shew” on St. Patrick’s Day in 1957. Among his guests were actor Robert Mitchum (promoting his new Calypso record!!) and musical quartet The Ames Brothers, who joined sleepy-eyed Bob for a rendition of “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral”:

Now you can begin your St. Patrick’s Day festivities… and remember, drink that green beer in moderation!

Cleaning Out the DVR #18: Remember Those Fabulous Sixties?

There’s a lot of good stuff being broadcast this month, so it’s time once again to make some room on the ol’ DVR. Here’s a quartet of capsule reviews of films made in that mad, mad decade, the 1960’s:

THE FASTEST GUITAR ALIVE (MGM 1967; D: Michael D. Moore) –  MGM tried to make another Elvis out of rock legend Roy Orbison in this Sam Katzman-produced comedy-western. It didn’t work; though Roy possessed one of the greatest voices in rock’n’roll, he couldn’t act worth a lick. Roy (without his trademark shades!) and partner Sammy Jackson (TV’s NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS) peddle ‘Dr. Ludwig Long’s Magic Elixir’ in a travelling medicine show, but are really Confederate spies out to steal gold from the San Francisco mint to fund “the cause” in the waning days of the Civil War. The film’s full of anachronisms and the ‘comical Indians’ aren’t all that funny, but at least Roy gets seven decent tunes to sing. Familiar Faces Lyle Bettger, Iron Eyes Cody, John Doucette , Joan Freeman, and Douglas Kennedy try to help, but the story kind of just limps along. Worthwhile if you’re an Orbison fan, otherwise a waste of time. Fun Fact: Roy’s MGM Records label mate Sam the Sham (of “Wooly Bully” fame) has a small part as a guard at the mint.


KILL A DRAGON (United Artists 1967; D: Michael D. Moore) – Minor action yarn with ruthless Fernando Lamas out to hijack a load of nitroglycerine washed upon a small Japanese island, and the villagers hiring soldier-of-fortune Jack Palance to protect them and their bounty. Palance gives an engaging, tongue-in-cheek performance, Lamas makes an evil adversary, and Aldo Ray is among Jack’s mercenary crew… seeing Aldo in drag is something you won’t wanna miss!! Nothing special, but an adequate time filler for action fans. Fun Fact: Director Moore (who also helmed FASTEST GUITAR) was a former silent film child star (his first film was 1919’s THE UNPAINTED WOMAN, directed by Tod Browning ) who began working behind the scenes in the 1940’s. He became one of Hollywood’s highest regarded Assistant and Second Unit directors, and worked on films ranging from THE TEN COMMANDMENTS to GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, KING CREOLE, BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, PATTON, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (and it’s two subsequent sequels), and NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN. His last was 2000’s 102 DALMATIONS before retirement; Moore passed away at age 98 in 2013. His contributions to Hollywood movies may be unsung, but for people like Cecil B. DeMille and Steven Spielberg, Michael “Mickey” Moore was the go-to guy for action scenes. Job well done, Mr. Moore!

PSYCH-OUT (AIP 1968; D: Richard Rush) – A Hippiesploitation classic! Susan Strasberg stars as a runaway deaf girl looking for her brother Bruce Dern in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love. She hooks up with pony-tailed rock musician Jack Nicholson and his bandmates (Adam Roarke, Max Julien) in a drug-soaked film full of far-out thrift store fashion, plenty of hippie-dippie jargon (“Peace and love, baby!”), LSD and STP induced nightmares, and classic rock from bands Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Seeds (featuring their immortal lead vocalist Sky Saxon!). A group called Boenzee Cryque (with future Poco members Rusty Young and George Grantham) plays a sideways instrumental version of “Purple Haze” called “Ashbury Wednesday” during Henry Jaglom’s trip scene, and the cast includes Dean Stockwell as a philosophical, groovy satyr, future producer/director Garry Marshall as a cop, and low-budget stalwarts John ‘Bud’ Cardos, Gary Kent, and Bob Kelljan in support. Director Richard Rush went on to films like THE STUNT MAN and COLOR OF NIGHT, and the cinematographer is none other than Laslo Kovacs (EASY RIDER, FIVE EASY PIECES, PAPER MOON). It’s a psychedelic artifact of its time, and a treat for exploitation fans. As Stockwell says, “Reality’s a deadly place”! Fun Fact: One of a handful of late 60’s youth films produced by the legendary Dick Clark, of TV’s AMERICAN BANDSTAND and NEW YEAR’S ROCKIN’ EVE fame.

THE BIG CUBE (Warner Brothers 1969; D: Tito Davison) – Glamorous Lana Turner plays a glamorous stage actress who marries rich Dan O’Herlihy against the wishes of his daughter Karin Mossberg. Dad drowns in a yachting accident, and daughter conspires with LSD-making gigolo George Chakiris to drive Lana mad by slipping acid in her sleeping pills! This awful attempt at mixing Lana’s Ross Hunter-era soap operas with 60’s “youth culture” features bad acting, a putrid script, heavy-handed direction, and is a total mess all around. Even the presence of Lana, O’Herlihy, Chakiris, and Richard Egan couldn’t stop this movie from stinking up my living room! No redeeming qualities whatsoever (except the fact that the wooden Miss Mossberg was never heard from again!) Fun Fact: As I sat watching this bomb, slack-jawed and shaking my head, I kept muttering to myself, “This is bad. Just… bad”. The film’s worse than a bad acid trip, but I stuck with it for this review. You have other options. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!!

I hate to leave you on such a sour note, so here’s Roy Orbison doing “Pistolero” from Mickey Moore’s FASTEST GUITAR ALIVE! Take it away, Roy:

Rockin’ in the Film World #15: THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – THE TOURING YEARS (Apple Corps/Imagine Entertainment 2016)

Beatle fans will have a blast watching THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – THE TOURING YEARS, director Ron Howard’s 2016 rock doc covering the Fab Four’s career from their earliest club days through the height of Beatlemania, until they stopped touring for good in 1966. The film features rare and classic footage of The Beatles live in concert around the globe, juxtaposing their rise with news events of the day and interviews with all four members.

Howard conducted brand-new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and included archival interviews with the late John Lennon and George Harrison. Through these and behind the scenes clips and press conferences, we get a sense of what it was like to be at the center of all the Beatlemania  madness. Ringo says it best: “We just wanted to play… playing was the only thing” far as these talented musicians were concerned, but the hype and hysteria, with screaming teenage fans drowning out the music, led the boys to stop touring and become a studio only band. George: “There wasn’t any joy in it, the music wasn’t being heard… it was just a freak show”.

We also get a sense of the camaraderie between the four lads from Liverpool, thrust from their working class roots into the spotlight of stardom. If you weren’t around then, I don’t think you can fully comprehend how big they were… all in a time before social media and the 24-hour news cycle. The Beatles’ popularity was strictly organic, and spread like wildfire not only in America, but globally. It took a wry, cheeky sense of humor to cope with the craziness surrounding them and trying to stay true to their art. That didn’t always go over well, as there was a Beatle backlash when John made the remark they were “more popular than Jesus” to a magazine writer, a quote that saw many Bible Belt states holding Beatle record burning parties.

The band always said it’s all about the music, and this film has plenty of it, from seldom seen performances of “She Loves You”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”,  and “Twist and Shout” to more familiar ones to fans like their rendition of “All My Loving” on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. There’s clips from the movies A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP!, and tunes such as “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Boys”, and “Day Tripper”, among others. The film covers their final ’66 stadium tour, the first of its kind in rock history, from the insanity at New York’s Shea Stadium to their farewell to concerts at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. By this time, the band had had enough, and retreated to the studio, evolving into a more experimental, avant-garde style, culminating with their masterpiece “Sgt. Pepper” .

Credit is given to manager Brian Epstein, a visionary who knew The Beatles had that something special and groomed them for success, and record producer George Martin, who became their musical mentor and guided them through their career. The film has some talking head sequences (no, not David Byrne and company), including famous people like Elvis Costello, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Izzard, and Sigourney Weaver. It concludes with The Beatles’ last live performance on the rooftop of their Apple Corps building (used in the 1970 doc LET IT BE), singing and playing “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I Got a Feelin'” like it was 1964 all over again. But  by this time, the band was being pulled apart by internal egos and outside influences, and the entity known as The Beatles was dissolved. The band is gone, Lennon and Harrison are dead, but the music remains eternal, a joyful noise that rocked the world for a brief, shining period of the 1960’s. Ron Howard has put together a film Beatle fans of all ages will cherish, whether you were there at the beginning or discovered them after the fact. It’s one of the best rock docs I’ve seen, mostly because of the music.