#102 Sunset Boulevard

Watched: April 30 2017

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton

Year: 1950

Runtime: 1h 50min

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Thematically linked to All About Eve, though centred on Hollywood rather than Broadway, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of broke screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) and former silent movie star Norma Desmond (Swanson), who embark on a strange and ill-fated relationship when he accidentally seeks refuge in her decrepit Hollywood mansion on the day of her chimp’s funeral.

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No, we did not make that up.

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When Norma learns that Joe is a writer, she asks him to read through and rewrite her script for her epic comeback Salome and, being down on his luck and about to return home to take an office job, Joe agrees and moves into the faded star’s equally faded mansion.

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Despite the state of the mansion, the floors are waxed to perfection and the quartet has been polished for the occasion

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Joe soon gets used to the lifestyle offered to him by the delusional Norma. Even though he understands that her aspirations to return to the screen are completely unrealistic and he knows that to the outside world she’s a has-been, he, like Norma’s creepy butler Max (von Stroheim), plays along and feeds into her false sense of relevance.

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That’s not all he feeds into if you get our drift… He’s a kept man, is what we’re saying.

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As Norma’s delusion of grandeur increases, Joe’s satisfaction with his life of leisure decreases, and he starts working on the side with Betty Schaefer (Olson) with whom he collaborates on an original screenplay. Norma starts to suspect that her boytoy is getting some on the side, and she is not happy…

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“I let him watch my movies with me and this is how he repays me?!?”

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Now, this film is a classic for a reason. It’s endlessly quotable with a Gothic setting and extremely memorable characters, in particular the unstable, possessive, explosive, toxic and fabulous Norma Desmond. Even our old favourite Buster Keaton makes an appearance, as do old-timey stars Hedda Hopper, H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson and, famously, Cecil B. DeMille.

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Guess who’s ready for her close-up…

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Sunset Boulevard is a sort of Gothic Film Noir and we loved it completely. It’s one of those films you’ve seen parodied, referenced and referred to, and heard quoted, so many times that you start thinking you’ve actually seen it, but in our case that turned out to be false (for some reason, although this is right up our alley). There’s madness, love, satire and men who (once again) feel they need to make hard decisions for women who love them, without giving them the unbiased facts and letting them choose for themselves. Loved, loved, loved it.

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Ah – Buster. We still love you dearly.

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What we learned: Great stars have great pride.

Next time: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

#89 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Watched: March 7 2017

Director: John Huston

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt

Year: 1948

Runtime: 2h 6min

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Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) is down on his luck, roaming around Mexico without a penny to his name. After finally being paid by a scam artist he worked for (a beating proved necessary to get the money he was owed), he teams up with Bob Curtin (Holt) and old prospector Howard (Huston) to dig for gold in the Sierra Madre.

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If you came to this film looking for a 1940s Brokeback Mountain you’ll be sorely disappointed. Despite the tension, the clothes stay on at all times.

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They head up into the mountains and within a few minutes of run time (though several days for the characters) they strike it rich. Setting up their operation, Howard warns the newcomers about the effects of gold on a man, but Dobbs shrugs it off, stating that he will never be corrupted. He could not possibly be more wrong.

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This perpetual scowl on his face is not the look of a man indifferent to the prospect of wealth

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The three gold diggers stay in the mountains for the better part of a year, and the tension and distrust between them grow exponentially in that time. When a fourth man shows up intent on joining their operation, they unite for a short while in the face of a common enemy, but their comradery does not last once the threat is gone. With each of them, especially Dobbs, growing concerned with the intentions of the others, they are soon fighting for their lives against both the elements and each other.

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And bandidos. They also fight bandidos.

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (or, as our DVD cover says, El Tesoro de Sierra Madre – thank you, Amazon Marketplace) is the first Western on the list and we loved it. There are saloon fights, shoot outs, bandidos, treacherous nature and friends, Indians, and Federales, and it’s tense, dark and dirty. There’s a lot of foreshadowing going on, so from the start you can make fairly educated guesses as to what will happen, but that doesn’t take anything away from the viewing experience. It’s a great watch, and we do love it when Humphrey Bogart plays slightly more villainous characters.

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Let’s just think back on the time before it all went wrong, shall we…

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What we learned: Gold will poison a man’s mind and heart.

Next time: Caught (1949)

#88 The Red Shoes

Watched: March 6 2017

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring

Year: 1948

Runtime: 2h 14min

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Victoria Page (Shearer) is a young, ambitious ballet dancer who, after a party, is invited by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Walbrook) to try out for his company. At the same time, young composer Julian Craster (Goring) gets a job with the same company coaching the orchestra. As Vicky rises to be the new prima ballerina (after the old one got married), Julian also rises through the ranks as a composer. The culmination of both their work is a new ballet, The Red Shoes, based on H. C. Andersen’s classic fairy tale. Julian composes while Vicky dances the lead.

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While the others work, Lermontov does his very best impression of a creepy old man

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The ballet is a great success, and its two rising stars fall in love, something Lermontov is none too happy about. He fires Julian, and Vicky, though torn, decides to go with her boyfriend. She marries him and he starts composing operas, also to great success. However, despite her meteoric rise to fame in Lermontov’s ballet, Vicky spends the following year out of work.

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We strongly suspect Julian didn’t like other men’s hands this close to his wife’s hoo-ha..

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Next season, Vicky goes back to Monte Carlo on holiday with her aristocratic aunt and runs into Lermontov again. He convinces her to dance The Red Shoes once more, but on the night of the performance, Julian comes and demands his wife choose between him and the ballet. Crazed (or possessed?) by this ultimatum, Vicky loses her mind and her control, just like the protagonist in Anderson’s fairy tale.

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Ah – innocence ruined by the lure of passion. It’s like the fairy tale reflects the fate of the innocent ballerina…

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It’s clear that Lermontov is supposed to be some sort of parallel to the shoe maker in the fairy tale, but honestly, he’s not the devil here. He encourages her ambition – an ambition that comes from her, not any outside force. Sure, his encouragement comes from mainly selfish reasons, and he may have some ulterior motive of his own, but at least he want her to follow her passion. Julian seems to think she should be content being the wife and muse of a talented composer, despite her own obvious talent which she is unable to develop once they leave the company. In our opinion, Julian is the bad guy here.

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It doesn’t help our impression that he shows up for her performance¬† wearing something very close to a Nazi outfit and goes straight for the boobs

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This film is spectacular and definitely a new favourite of ours. It’s an intriguing story with great, often eccentric, characters (we particularly love the other members of the ballet company), gorgeous costumes and breathtaking dancing. The performance of The Red Shoes – a ballet within the film – is wonderful and somewhat reminiscent of the Berkeley musicals from the ’30s, beautifully incorporating cinematic effects with amazing dancing to tell the story.

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We’re quite certain that the audience cannot be replaced by an ocean in a real live performance.

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It seems to us that women’s ambition is a dangerous thing (in which case Lermontov is the devil), although we’re not sure for whom. Is it scary for the men who lose control over them, or for the (fragile) women who will crack under the pressure of trying to balance a traditional role (doting wife and house maker) with a professional career? Possibly both, but it seems like women tend to pay the price – especially in morality tales and fiction (let’s not even go into the sexual undertones of this film and, indeed, the fairy tale on which it’s based).

What we learned: A happy and full life should have room for love and ambition. To have to choose is unfair (especially when it’s one gender asking the other to choose while they themselves can have it all..). Also, things haven’t changed much for ballerinas in the last 7 decades, judging from the parallels between this film and Black Swan (2010).

Next time: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)