Over at Past Offences, Rich has designated January as a celebration of the year 1950 and all the great mysterious books and films that came out of that year. To join up, simply go here: https://pastoffences.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/1950book-sign-up-page/
Turns out that 1950 was a great year for film noir. Wikipedia lists fifty-four titles, including In a Lonely Place, No Way Out, Gun Crazy, and Where the Sidewalk Ends. The year also produced two of my favorite noir films: D.O.A., one of the very best and purest noirs of all, and Sunset Boulevard, a rare occasion when a top drawer, A-list film also passes the noir test on every level. I thought it would be fun to explore these two films together.
Both center around two doomed heroes, who are, quite literally, dead at the start. Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien), the protagonist of D.O.A., is one of the walking dead, a man who has been mysteriously poisoned and has only 24 hours to live. The striking opening of the film shows Frank trudging down the long halls of police headquarters to report a murder – his own. The cops have already been alerted to his situation, and they allow Frank to sit down and tell his story in flashbacks.
Sunset Boulevard has an equally striking beginning, as police cars careen down the fabled L.A. street to the mansion of a long forgotten silent movie star named Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) after gunshots have been reported. A man’s voiceover sketches out the facts as the cops zero in on the swimming pool where a man’s corpse floats. We see a brilliant shot from the bottom of the pool of the dead man, who is none other than William Holden, and we come to realize that the dead man himself – a failed screenwriter named Joe Gillis – is narrating the details of his own murder.
The greatest difference between these two men is that Bigelow is essentially an innocent. His greatest “crime” is that he can’t seem to commit to the loving attentions of his secretary Paula (Pamela Britton), and one could argue that, if only he had allowed her to accompany him on his vacation to San Francisco, all of this tragedy might have been avoided.
Good Girl Good Guy
Once he discovers that he is, in essence, a dead man, Frank becomes obsessed with discovering the who, how and why of his own murder. Is he the random victim of a maniac, or was he deliberately poisoned with iridium, a radioactive substance that makes his x-ray glow ominously? As he pieces the events together, Frank’s determination to exact justice gives him strength even as the poison saps his body’s energy. It also ironically brings him closer to Paula who, stranded helplessly back in their small hometown of Banning, does everything she can to assist the man she loves in tracking down his quarry.
D.O.A. is not a particularly complex story, which makes our focus on Frank’s emotional predicament that much stronger. As he circles in on his killer, we never forget that, even if he succeeds, his life is over, making his journey suspenseful and bittersweet, a tone reinforced all the way to Frank’s dying words. The film succeeds as both a mystery and a tragedy.
Sunset Boulevard is imbued with that same sense of fatalism, although it is not really a typical noir crime story. Yes, there is a murder, yet although we don’t see the killer pull the trigger until the very end, there is perhaps little suspense as to whodunit! The film is really about the clash between “old” and “new” Hollywood. Old Hollywood is a fabled place, where movie stars ruled the city and great effort was taken to create fascinating mythologies around the lives of the Valentinos, Chaplins and Norma Desmonds, those larger than life faces that filled the screens and fascinated the common rabble who flocked to the movie palaces to worship them.
New Hollywood is ruled by the businessmen who run the studios. (Truthfully, they ran old Hollywood as well, but they let their stars run freer then.) It’s a world of decisions that arguably focus more on money than on creativity. Caught up in the middle between the stars and the producers are the writers, who slog through pitch after pitch, trying to strike a balance between well-worn but beloved clichés and “something new.”
Joe Gillis, once a screenwriter of promise, has sunk to pitching tired baseball story rehashes. His latest idea stinks, a pretty young script reader reads him the riot act about it, reminding him that he used to have brilliant and new ideas (to which he replies: “That was last year. This year I’m trying to earn a living.”), and his car is repossessed. Altogether, it’s a bad day that is about to get worse: fleeing from the car men, Joe speeds down Sunset Boulevard and turns into the driveway of a deliciously decrepit mansion belonging to Norma, who, as Joe tells her, “used to be big.” Norma represents both the mythological greatness of that early silent era and a symbol of its financial excess, which modern producers have since curbed. In one of her many quotable lines, she sums it up: “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small.” Living in the heart of Hollywood, Norma is a dinosaur, and her irrelevance enrages her. She is determined to make a comeback and has written a huge and execrable screenplay in which she will portray the young temptress Salome. (In a moment of rare candor late in the film, Joe tells Norma: “There’s nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25.”)
Norma is clearly living on the border of madness, with her pet monkey, her butler Max, who used to be . . . well, if you really haven’t seen the film, I’ll leave you to discover this . . . and her rotting house where she either labors on her horrible script or sits in the dark, watching her old movies over and over. She offers to pay Joe to look the script over, and the desperate Gillis worms his way into her life as resident script doctor and gigolo. Thus, Joe is not the innocent that Frank Bigelow is, and their noir journeys are almost the reverse of each other’s: one the victim, the other the victimizer, yet both are doomed. Joe, like so many of the best noir anti-heroes, makes one poor decision after another and falls into trap after trap, many of his own devising. Like Frank, he does arrive at a form of redemption by the end, but it is too late to save his life.
Good Girl Not so Good Guy (yet)
The female characters in D.O.A. conform to the tropes of noir: Paula is the good, marriageable girl who lives to serve her boss/boyfriend but to whom, for some reason, he cannot commit himself. In some noir tales, that obstacle comes in the form of a femme fatale. There is a character of that kind in this movie, and one could say she has something to do with blocking Frank’s further romance with his secretary, although Frank is never drawn to this seductress in the way that other noir heroes have been.
The women in Sunset are more complex. Betty is the “good girl,” but she is also an independent one, a working woman who does not let her love of a man stop her from seeking her own creative fulfillment. She does spend much of the film trying to help Joe be a better writer and a better person, but there’s something in it for her too, and it’s not just love.
Norma has certainly played the femme fatale in movies, and if you asked her, she might say that she seduced Joe. But Gillis enters into this arrangement with eyes wide open, and though he is occasionally softened by Norma’s plight, he is not fooled by her and uses her as much as she uses him. In the end, both Joe and Frank acknowledge the debt they owe to the “good girls” in their lives, but Frank’s act is a declaration of love given too late, while Joe’s is one of tremendous sacrifice that allows the viewer to see him in a brighter light by the end. But then, we need to see this in Joe if we are going to ultimately sympathize with him, while Frank has our pity throughout.
D.O.A. is the purer noir, Sunset Boulevard the greater film. The writing and direction by Billy Wilder are brilliant, and the casting lifts this film to the top of the A-list of classic films. (Interestingly, D.O.A.’s director, Rudolph Mate, released FOUR films in 1950, including the noir drama Union Station, . . . starring William Holden!) There is a great deal of wit in Wilder’s film, something you rarely find in a noir movie, but the first rate camera work and tone still places this fabulous film in the realm of noir, a genre Wilder had visited before in 1945 with Double Indemnity, a film that truly defines noir and another film that, like D.O.A. and Sunset Boulevard, is definitely worth your viewing.