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!

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.

That Old, Familiar Song: MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (MGM 1934)

The plot of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA will certainly be familiar to movie lovers: there’s two kids, one rambunctious, the other studious. Rambunctious grows up to be on the shady side of the law, while Studious represents law’n’order. There’s Girl in the Middle, who loves Rambunctious but always winds up with Studious. Rambunctious perpetuates some evil deed, and Studious must now bring his old pal to justice. Girl in the Middle is torn between the two. In the end, justice prevails, and Rambunctious pays for his crimes, but not before making peace with Studious.

Sound familiar? Sure it does, having been rehashed umpteen times in countless westerns, gangster sagas, wartime dramas, and other genres. But MANHATTAN MELODRAMA was the first, even winning an Oscar for Arthur Caesar’s Best Original Story. Too bad Caesar didn’t copyright the idea; he’d have been a very rich man! The film also has that MGM shine going for it, with a stellar cast toplined by Clark Gable , William Powell , and Myrna Loy as Rambunctious, Studious, and Girl in the Middle, respectively. This was the first teaming of Powell and Loy, by the way, the beginning of a beautiful screen relationship that saw them paired in six THIN MAN movies and seven others.

Gable, Loy, & Powell

Gable’s quite the charmer as “rambunctious” Blackie Gallagher, the gangland gambler who’s never played by anyone’s rules but his own. He’s a likeable hoodlum, even though he’s also a stone-cold killer who commits murder not once, but twice during the course of the film. Powell’s “studious” Jim Wade is likeable, too… after all, how can you not like William Powell? He gets to strut his stuff in the courtroom scene that sends Blackie to the electric chair, getting himself elected governor in the process. Myrna Loy as socialite Eleanor Packer is simply divine, as always, and it’s not hard to see what attracts both men to her. The film runs along smoothly, but bogged down towards the end for me when the “melodrama” part kicked in and things got a little too sudsy. Still, I thought it was a great entry in the 30’s gangster cycle.

Nat Pendleton, Muriel Evans, & Isabel Jewell

I also loved the supporting cast, with Nat Pendleton as Blackie’s dimwitted right-hand man Spud and Isabel Jewell as his ditzy girlfriend Annabelle. Leo Carrillo plays Father Joe, who saved the two boys from drowning so they could grow up to be Gable and Powell. Speaking of which, young Mickey Rooney got a big break here playing young Blackie in the early scenes; not long after this picture, he became one of MGM’s top stars. And there are loads of Familiar Faces popping up in smaller roles: Oscar Apfel, Stanley Blystone, Muriel Evans, Donald Haines, Samuel S. Hinds , Leonid Kinskey , Noel Madison, Sam McDaniel, and Edward Van Sloan among them.

Powell says goodbye to old pal Gable

MANHATTAN MELODRAMA is historic on several other levels beside the plot and the first Powell/Loy teaming. It’s the only film to costar Gable and Powell, both of whom were married at one point to Carole Lombard. A scene set in The Cotton Club features Shirley Ross singing a Rogers & Hart composition “The Bad in Every Man”; after the film was released, Hart rewrote the lyrics and the song became the standard “Blue Moon”. And of course, the movie has become a part of American folk-lore as the film Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger watched before he was gunned down by the FBI outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater on 7/22/34. I wonder if he liked the film as much as I did?

“Other than that, Mr. Dillinger, how did you enjoy the movie?”

Fool’s Gold: BARBARY COAST (United Artists 1935)

BARBARY COAST probably would’ve been better had it been made during the Pre-Code era. Don’t misunderstand; I liked the film. It’s an entertaining period piece directed by Howard Hawks , with his trademark overlapping dialog and perfect eye for composition, rivaled by only a handful (Ford and Hitchcock spring immediately to mind). But for me, this tale of rowdy San Francisco during California’s Gold Rush was too sanitized by Hays Code enforcer Joseph Breen, who demanded major script changes by screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

The result is a film that’s just misses the classic status mark. It’s 1849, and Susan Rutledge arrives in Frisco to marry her rich boyfriend, who has struck it rich in the gold strike. When she finds out he’s been killed by gambling czar Luis Chandalis, owner of the Bella Donna saloon, avaricious Susan sets her sights on him. Chandalis becomes enamored of her, dubbing her Swan and putting her to work at his crooked roulette wheel. Some of the townsfolk, including newly arrived newspaper editor Col. Cobb, aren’t happy living under Chandalis’s thumb, but his gang of cutthroats and murders prove to be too much to handle.

When Cobb prints a story detailing Chandalis’s misdeeds, the crooked town boss threatens him, only to be saved by his friend Swan. The upset Swan rides out, getting caught in a rainstorm, and stumbles upon the cabin of young miner Jim Charmichael, who speaks with a poet’s soul. When the insanely jealous Chandalis hears Swan was seen with another man, he threatens to find out who it was and kill him. Of course, Jim comes to Frisco, promptly losing his gold at Swan’s crooked roulette wheel, and has to work for Chandalis, who puts two and two together and goes after Jim, just as the fed-up townspeople unite for some vigilante justice of their own.

Sure, it’s melodramatic as hell, but Hawks and his excellent cast kept me glued to the screen. Miriam Hopkins (Swan) is one tough cookie at first, caring only for gold and the finer things in life. The tough cookie begins to crumble though when she meets Jim, and allows Miriam to engage in some dramatically weepy histrionics. Edward G. Robinson (Chandalis), despite his puffy ruffled shirts and dangling earring, is basically doing a variation on his gangster parts (“You work at the table, see”) – which isn’t a bad thing! Handsome he-man Joel McCrea (Jim) and his easygoing charm certainly fills the bill as Miriam’s poetry spouting romantic interest.

The supporting cast includes then 41-year-old Walter Brennan as the cantankerous old coot Old Atrocity, Brian Donlevy in one of his patented bloodthirsty henchman roles, Frank Craven as the crusading editor, and Harry Carey Sr. as leader of the vigilantes. Other Familiar Faces in smaller parts are Herman Bing, Clyde Cook, Ed Gargan, J.M. Kerrigan, Frank McHugh , Donald Meek, football legend Jim Thorpe, and Hank Worden . An uncredited David Niven appears early as a drunken sailor getting thrown out of Robinson’s saloon. Veteran cinematographer Ray June, whose career stretched all the at back to 1915, perfectly captures the mise en scene Hawks wanted. June’s work can be seen in such diverse films as HORSE FEATHERS, TREASURE ISLAND, CHINA SEAS , STRIKE UP THE BAND, H.M. PULHAM ESQ., A SOUTHERN YANKEE, THE COURT JESTER, FUNNY FACE, and his final feature HOUSEBOAT.

All this is set to a sweeping Alfred Newman score that features cues from old-time favorites like “Oh Susanna” and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”. BARBARY COAST is a fun film, full of romance, action, and humor, made by a cast and crew of professionals who knew what they were doing, and did it well. I’ll hold off on calling it a classic, however; now, if it had been made in the Pre-Code era, with just a tad more spice…      


Ulmer Out West: THE NAKED DAWN (Universal-International 1955)

A Technicolor modern-day Western noir directed by legendary low-budget auteur Edgar G. Ulmer ? Count me in! THE NAKED DAWN probably wouldn’t be remembered today if it weren’t for Ulmer, who had a knack for making silk purses out of sow’s ears. Ulmer uses the outdoor locations and his trademark tight shots to disguise the budgetary restrictions, and creates a small gem of a movie. It’s not THE SEARCHERS  or anything, just a compact little drama with a rare starring role for actor Arthur Kennedy .

Kennedy plays Santiago, an ex-revolutionary turned bandito. He’s a drifter, unfettered by societal norms, whose lust for life and freedom are constantly threatened by the powers that be. A metaphor for Ulmer himself, perhaps? Santiago robs a train of some merchandise, and his friend Vicente is killed in the process. Stumbling upon God-fearing Maria and her husband Manuel on their modest farm, Santiago’s roguish charm enchants both. Manuel is struggling to make a go of things; he’s sunk his life savings into the farm. The purchase price included Maria, unhappy with her lot in life and longing to experience the outside world.

Santiago persuades Manuel to drive him to Matamoros to sell his ill-gotten gains, and the crooked customs agent tries to rip him off. But sly Santiago is no easy mark, and he quickly turns the tables, grabbing all the cash and leaving the agent standing on a chair with a noose around his neck! The two men celebrate at a local cantina (where we’re treated to some singing and dancing by the lovely Charlita of BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA fame!), getting drunk on tequila and involved in a barroom brawl. Manuel, tired of working like a dog, plots to kill Santiago and take the money for himself. Meanwhile, Maria has grown tired of being slapped around and treated like a servant, and throws herself into the arms of the carefree bandito…

Kennedy was usually relegated to second leads, and takes this opportunity to shine as the lusty Santiago. His Mexican accent may be a bit on the hokey side, but his performance is well nuanced enough to make up for it. There’s no denying Kennedy was a great actor – after all, the man has five Oscar nominations on his resume (though he never won)! Betta St. John (Maria) was a good actress who never quite got that one role that would put her over the top; the closest she came was probably in DREAM WIFE, opposite Cary Grant. She’s better known for her parts in a pair of horror flicks, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD with Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee , and HORROR HOTEL, again with Lee. Eugene Iglesias’ Manuel is written as a coward, and elicits no sympathy whatsoever – at least not from me!

THE NAKED DAWN won’t show up on any “Ten Best” lists, but it did have one very influential fan – French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, who claimed he based his characters in JULES AND JIM on Santiago, Maria, and Manuel. Edgar G. Ulmer may not have had large budgets to work with, but his films were admired by those who know good filmmaking when they see it. Include me among them!