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)


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!):

Mad Libs: Hope & Crosby on the ROAD TO MOROCCO (Paramount 1942)

Bing Crosby and Bob Hope travel the ROAD TO MOROCCO, the third in the “Road” series and by far the funniest. The plot involves two shipwrecked Americans who wind up in an absurd Arabian Nights style adventure complete with beautiful princess Dorothy Lamour and murderous desert sheik Anthony Quinn , but you can throw all that out the window as Bing and Bob trade quips, sing, and break down the Fourth Wall to let the audience know it’s all in good fun, so sit back and enjoy the zany ride.

Bob and Bing were already established superstars when Paramount teamed them for ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940), which was a huge box office hit and followed quickly by ROAD TO ZANZIBAR (1941). By the time they made MOROCCO, the pair had their act down pat, with Der Bingle the smooth-talking crooner who always gets the girl, and Ol’ Ski-Nose the cowardly wisecracker. Scripts were just a framework as the two hired their own gagsters to punch things up and ad-libbed madly, sometimes without even letting the rest of the cast and crew in on it. Their onscreen anarchy convulsed war-weary 1940’s filmgoers with laughter, as they skewered everything in their paths, including the hand that fed them, Paramount Pictures!

Some of their best gags are in this film: riding a camel through the desert while singing “The Road to Morocco” (“Where we’re goin’, why we’re goin’, how can we be sure/I’ll lay you 8 to 5 that we’ll meet Do-ro-thy La-mour”), Bob trying to get a free meal by acting like an idiot (not a stretch!), Bing selling Bob into slavery (which is how he ends up as Lamour’s concubine), trying to pull the old “pat-a-cake” routine on Quinn without success (he must’ve seen the previous movies!), stranded in the desert by Quinn’s army and seeing mirages, including one of Lamour where the trio sing “Moonlight Becomes You” in each others voices. The song, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, became a #1 hit for Bing that year, and is a standard today in The Great American Songbook:

The highlight comes when Bing and Bob attempt to rescue Lamour and handmaiden Dona Drake (who’s hot for Hope!) from Quinn’s clutches by sabotaging his party honoring a rival chieftain with whoopee cushions, a dribble glass, the old hot foot, and gunpowder-loaded cigarettes (as Crosby laces the tobacco, Hope quips “Hey, whaddaya doing, making reefers?”!!), all while being kibbitzed by a pair of talking camels! They escape for America, and all’s well that ends well, until bungling Bob goes for a smoke in the ship’s powder room and blows it to smithereens, an excuse for Hope to crack an Oscar joke to cap the shenanigans off.

From Hope playing dear, departed “Aunt Lucy” in drag to this exchange: Bob: “First, you sell me for two hundred bucks. Then I’m gonna marry the Princess, then you cut in on me. Then we’re carried off by a desert sheik. Now we’re gonna have our heads chopped off!” Bing: “I know all that”. Bob: “Yeah, but the people who came in the middle of the picture don’t”. Bing (flabbergasted): “You mean they missed my song!?!”, ROAD TO MOROCCO is tons of foolish fun, an enjoyable romp through the desert sands with two of the 20th Century’s greatest entertainers at the top of their game. If you’ve never travelled down the ROAD with Bing and Bob, this one’s a great place to start.

Goats and Nuts and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (Paramount 1932)

Hail, hail Klopstokia! MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is  total  movie anarchy, a throwback to the halcyon days of Mack Sennett. It’s a comedy cornucopia filled with sight gags and verbal nonsense, led by legendary W.C. Fields as president of the mythical country of Klopstokia, about to default on its loans until itinerant brush salesman Jack Oakie comes up with a plan to enter the hale and hearty Klopstokians in the 1932 Olympics and win the huge cash prize being put up by his employer!

Klopstokia is noted for “Goats & Nuts”, their chief exports, imports, and inhabitants! All political disputes are settled by arm wrestling, and President Fields is the strongest of all, though he’s constantly being challenged by his Secretary of the Treasury Hugh Herbert. Presidential daughter Angela (Susan Fleming, future wife of Harpo Marx) and brush salesman Migg Tweeny (Oakie) “meet cute” and immediately fall in love. When asking for her hand, Angela tells her dad she calls Migg “Sweetheart”, which the Prez mistakes for Migg’s real moniker! (Migg: “Listen, my name’s Tweeny” Prez: “You’ll always be ‘Sweetheart’ to me” Migg: “I know, I know, but there’s talk already…)

Secretary Herbert and his traitorous cabinet (including Keystone veterans Irving Bacon, Vernon Dent, and Billy Gilbert , who performs his comical sneeze routine) plot to put Klopstokia’s athletic team out of commission by hiring super-spy Mata Machree, “A Woman No Man Can Resist”! She’s played by luscious Lyda Roberti, parodying Garbo (who starred in 1931’s MATA HARI) and sings the risqué “When I Get Hot in Klopstokia”. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen lithe Lyda slink and wiggle her way to a man’s… err, heart.

You all know what a sucker I am for punny wordplay, and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is loaded with it, thanks to screenwriters Henry Myers and future Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz . Here’s a couple of examples:

Migg: “You know what? I love you!”

Angela: “In Klopstokia, we have another way of saying that”

Migg: “In public??”

Then there’s this: Angela: “All the girls in this country are named Angela, and all the men are named George”

Migg: “Why?”

Angela: “Why not!”

Fields is a riot, as always, whether having troubles with his top hat, juggling clubs to stay in shape, or performing as a one-man band. Cross-eyed silent comedian Ben Turpin keeps popping up (for no reason!) as a cloak-and-dagger spy, Andy Clyde as Fields’ Major-Domo could give The Flash a run for his money, and little Dickie Moore steals whatever scenes he’s in as Angela’s brother Willie – apparently the only male in Klopstokia not named George!! All this absurdity is expertly handled by director Edward F. “Eddie” Cline, who went back to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, and worked with nearly every great comic in history, from Chaplin and Keaton, to Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson, to the Ritz Brothers and the Andrews Sisters!

MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is sheer nonsense, and I mean that in the best way possible. Predating the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP by a year, the film shares its anarchic spirit, and the two together would make a great double feature when you need to just cut loose and laugh. And we all need that in this day and age!!

Halloween Havoc!: ALIAS NICK BEAL (Paramount 1949)

The worlds of supernatural horror and film noir collided to great effect in ALIAS NICK BEAL, John Farrow’s 1949 updated take on the Faust legend. The film wasn’t seen for decades due to legal complications, but last August the good folks at TCM broadcast it for the first time. I have been wanting to see this one for years, and I wasn’t disappointed! It’s loaded with dark atmosphere, a taut screenplay by hardboiled writer/noir vet Jonathan Latimer , and a cast of pros led by a ‘devilish’ turn from Ray Milland as Nick Beal.

The Faust character this time around is Joseph Foster, played by veteran Thomas Mitchell . Foster is an honest, crusading DA with political ambitions. When he says aloud he’d “give my soul” to convict racketeer Hanson, Foster receives a message to meet a man who claims he can help. Summoned to a seedy tavern on the fog-shrouded waterfront, he meets the dapper Nick Beal, who describes Foster as an “incorruptible enemy of the legions of evil”, with just a hint of disdain. Beal leads the DA to Hanson’s hidden ledger, containing proof of the gangster’s various crimes. While Foster looks it over, Beal mysteriously vanishes into the night.

Soon Foster’s party bosses offer him the governorship, and up pops Beal again. Foster’s wife warns him to stay away from the stranger, so Beal recruits a down-on-her-luck bar girl named Donna Allen to do his bidding. The Reverend Dr. Garfield, an ally of Foster’s, feels he’s seen Nick somewhere before, but can’t quite place him (Garfield: “Did anyone ever paint your portrait?” Beal: “Yes, Rembrandt in 1665”). Beal’s machinations, including a bargain with corrupt political boss Faulkner, put Foster in the governor’s chair, causing the party to disown the formerly incorruptible DA, accusing him of “misuse of unauthorized campaign funds”. Beal demands the office of Keeper of the State Seal, Faulkner demands his cronies get choice appointments, and the beleaguered Foster confesses all in his inauguration speech, resigning from the post. Politically and financially ruined, his marriage in a shambles, Foster is at his lowest ebb when Beal decides to cash in on their bargain, accompanying him to “los isla de las almos perditas”… Spanish for the island of lost souls!! Can Joe Foster be saved??

Ray Milland was one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, moving from romantic leading man to two-fisted hero to despicable villain with the greatest of ease. His Nick Beal is suave and sophisticated, cunning and cruel, and his sinister malevolence permeates every scene. He scares the hell out of Donna, manipulating a word-for-word dialog between her and Foster before it even happens. His whistling though the chiaroscuro shadows and fog bound wharf of DP Lionel Linden’s cinematography is eerie to behold, and Milland makes for one hell of an emissary of evil.

Thomas Mitchell as Foster is the film’s main focus, and the actor was a master of eliciting sympathy from an audience, as he proved time and again in classic movies from STAGECOACH  to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. His wife is played by Geraldine Wall, usually relegated to uncredited or bit parts, and she shows she could’ve done so much more if given half a chance. George Macready , of all people, plays the good Rev. Garfield, who stumbles on to the truth about Beal. This is probably my favorite performance by actress Audrey Totter , who plays the prostitute Donna, trapped in Beal’s dark web. Her early scenes as the hardcore hooker stand in sharp contrast to what happens when Beal glams her up and sics her on Foster, and her fear of the demonic Beal is palpable. Totter, one of noir’s best bad girls, really gets to shine in this part!

A plethora of Familiar Faces parade across the screen on the sides of both good and evil. Among them you’ll recognize Henry O’Neill as Judge Hobson, Fred Clark as the crooked boss Faulkner, Daryl Hickman as a teen involved with Foster’s Boys Club, and Danny Borzage, King Donovan , the ubiquitous Bess Flowers , Maxine Gates, Theresa Harris , Percy Helton, Nestor Paiva, Tim Ryan, Douglas Spencer, and Phil Van Zandt. ALIAS NICK BEAL works on so many levels, as fantasy, as film noir, as a political expose’, and as dark horror, and reminded me so much of the works of Val Lewton. With that excellent, powerhouse cast and timeless story, it’s a classic that will fit well into your Halloween viewing season, but can be enjoyed any time of year.

Halloween Havoc!: THE BLOB (Paramount 1958)

Teenagers save the world from the outer space menace known as THE BLOB in this 1958 indie-made sci-fi classic. The stars are a 28-year-old Steve McQueen (billed here as ‘Steven’), channeling his inner James Dean and cool as ever, and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW’s  future Miss Helen, lovely Aneta Corsault. The cheaply made BLOB became a huge hit, and remains one of the best-loved sci-fi flicks of the 50’s.

After the peppy title tune “Beware the Blob!” (written by Burt Bacharach and Mack David), we find teens Steve (McQueen) and Jane (Corsault) out parking, as 50’s teens do, when a mysterious flying object crash lands in the distance. The curious kids investigate and come across an old man (veteran Olin Howland ) in the road, his hand covered with a purple gelatinous goo. The  geezer’s in obvious pain, so our young couple take him to Doc Hallen, who’s baffled as the goo creeps up the geezer’s arm.

Steve and Jane go back to where they found said geezer to look for clues, but The Blob engulfs the geezer, a nurse, and the doc, which Steve witnesses in horror. The kids go straight to the cops, who naturally are skeptical. They all head for Doc’s house, finding it in disarray  but with no bodies. The cops think Steve and Jane are pulling a prank, and no one believes he saw “a monster!”. Meanwhile, The Blob oozes its way around town, eating whatever’s in its path, until Steve recruits his hot-rodding buddies to warn the town there’s a Blob on the loose!

The malleable monster is among the coolest of cool 50’s aliens, a living blob of protoplasm that slimes through the streets gobbling up earthlings like Goobers and Raisinets at a drive-in show. This Incredible Bulk was really nothing more than a ball of silicone, made to look massive thanks to the genius of SPFX man Bart Sloane and DP Thomas Spaulding. They replicated some of the films’ locations in miniature and plopped the silicone into the picture, tilting the table it sat on back and forth to give the impression of movement. Red dyes were used to make Blobby seem blood-gorged as it grew larger. Simple and primitive yes, but effective as hell!

Those locations I mentioned were mainly in the small town of Phoenixville, PA, which now holds an annual “Blobfest” every July commemorating the movie. The scene of scared patrons running out of the Colonial Theater is reenacted, Chef’s Diner (where McQueen and company were trapped by Blobby) is open for business, there’s a BLOB screening along with other sci-fi shockers of the era, and special genre guests appear. Sounds like a good time to me, and Pennsylvania’s not THAT far of a drive from Massachusetts! Maybe next year…

Speaking of that iconic Colonial Theater scene, the marquee heralds a ‘Midnight Spook Show’ featuring DAUGHTER OF HORROR and BELA LUGOSI!! The former was a 1955 low budget item producer Jack Harris owned the distribution rights to, a surrealistic little number with no dialog narrated by (of all people) Ed McMahon! Lugosi’s name is up in lights because Harris also owned OLD MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE, a 1952 British production teaming the Hungarian legend with cross-dressing comedian Arthur Lucan. The movie was known variously under the titles VAMPIRE OVER LONDON, MY SON THE VAMPIRE, and here as THE VAMPIRE AND THE ROBOT. Since there was no poster for it available, Harris simply had the title plastered onto a poster of FORBIDDEN PLANET ! Again, simple but effective.

THE BLOB was made in a simpler era, where teens and cops got along, small town life was cut and dried, and citizens rallied together to confront any enemies… even giant gelatinous aliens! Many have tried to read a bit too much into THE BLOB, but to me it’s just an entertaining drive-in flick, made in a can-do DIY spirit. Enjoy it for what it is, folks, good, clean American low-budget fun!



Happy Friday the 13th!: THE STUPIDSTITIOUS CAT (Complete 1946 Cartoon)

October is usually reserved for all things Halloween, but today just happens to be Friday the 13th! Originally considered a day to avoid bad luck, the superstition has been superceded by Jason Vorhees and the FRIDAY THE 13TH series of slasher films. ‘Triskaidiskaphobia’ runs rampant in the 1946 cartoon THE STUPIDSTITIOUS CAT, a Paramount entry starring Buzzy the Crow, voiced by Jackson Beck as an Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson parody and directed by Seymour Kneitel. Toss some salt over your shoulder and enjoy THE STUPIDSTITIOUS CAT!:

  What do you think of that, Jason?