21 September 2010

20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 12, Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett

"I am big, it's the pictures that got small!"

Joe Gillis, a screenwriter down on his luck, hides out from some repo guys and winds up in the arms of Norma Desmond, a legendary star from the silent era. He slips into a new life as her gigolo, loathing himself even as he begins to admire the crazy extravagance of Norma and fear her fragility.  He has a shot at redemption. A young woman and he collaborate on a script; work and love might pull him out of the luxurious mire Gillis is stuck in. But as we know from the very opening shot of Gillis' being hauled out of a swimming pool, it ends badly.

Maybe it was coming off The Seventh Seal, but the Gothic elements of the script really stood out: the decaying mansion, the crazy lady in the attic, the mysterious manservant, the fog, the sepulchral gloom of the rooms, the truly amazing scene with the funeral for the dead monkey (not only Goth, but yet another omen of doom for Joe Gillis. And that's just for starters.

Yet, all that atmosphere, it's tightly structured.Wilder and Brackett are every careful in setting up Gillis' descent. Each step is logical, as methodical in its way as a geometric theorem.

The narration, caustic, cynical, and biting, is justly famous.
Well, this is where you came in, back at that pool again, the one I always wanted. It's dawn now and they must have photographed me a thousand times. Then they got a couple of pruning hooks from the garden and fished me out... ever so gently. Funny, how gentle people get with you once you're dead.
I was struck, too, by its fairy tale quality, the mythic feel of it with its mad sorceress and flawed knight.

This script feels . . . grand. Big. All the way around. I've been trying to put my finger on this specific quality of movies made in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. I watched In a Lonely Place recently and it had that same mythic grandness, something absolutely specific to the medium and the period. Parts of it are corny, there's no way around it. Melodrama lurks just at the edges of the action, and I doubt if anyone, even in the late 40s, really acted that way. But who needs clay-footed realism when the Queen of the silents is falling apart so beautifully?

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