Greed (1924)

Greed3With some cinematic endeavors, there is simply an aura that surrounds them which informs how we look at them. Erich von Stroheim’s ambitious silent film Greed is such a picture. To this day, a full cut of the film has never been found and perhaps never will be, but it has survived in two versions. A four-hour cut which attempted to maintain the original continuity through stills and then a 2 and a half hour cut which I saw. So you could question whether I got the full experience of Greed or not, but that is almost beside the point because the essence of this film is summed up in the title. True, it could just as easily be called sin, avarice, grudge, humanity, or all of the above. But allow me to explain more fully what I mean.

The narrative follows a slow-witted man named McTeague (Gibson Gowland), who picks up the dentistry trade from a traveling doctor. He moves to San Francisco and soon becomes smitten with the cousin of his boisterous pal Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Trina (Zasu Pitts) is quiet and a bit timid around a man as intimidating as McTeague, but they make it work. Soon enough they’re engaged and a lottery ticket Trina picked up on a whim pays off handsomely. $5,000 to be exact and this is the 1920s! They’re getting on alright because McTeague is still working and his wife is very, very frugal. But Marcus feels entitled and a grudge over the money ensues. He wants part of the cut because he thinks he deserves some good fortune too. Things between him and John finally reach the boiling point and there’s no turning back. Rather than try and patch things up, Marcus decides to get into ranching and says goodbye to his formerly close friend, but not before serving up a little revenge. He sets the dentistry board on McTeague and since he doesn’t have a true credential, his right to practice is terminated.

The loss of John’s job is aggravated by the fact that Trina is increasingly stingy, never wanting to dip into her big payoff, even when they really need it. Gold in many ways has become her master, and it leads to marital turmoil. McTeague was always a big man, but usually quite gentle. But his inner fury is finally uncorked and in one angry outburst, he goes so far as to bite his wife.

Mac leaves only to come back again and the results are not pretty. Soon he has a price on his head and he makes his way as a fugitive into the desert. And thus, the finale is shot on location in Death Valley, the perfect place for a climactic showdown between McTeague and his old pal Marcus. Of course, money doesn’t help much when you’re trapped in the desert, or when you’re dead for that matter.

Obviously, greed doesn’t bode well, but this story is an interesting inversion of the typical plot line, because in this case it is the woman who has the money, and she’s the one that the greed eats away at. She becomes obsessive and even bitter about every last piece of change. But her money also has a ripple effect that reveals the pettiness, avarice, and begrudging nature that plagues both her husband and cousin.

So in order to enjoy this film, you need to have an appreciation for the spectacle that von Stroheim has developed and the commentary he has weaved through his narrative about greed. That in itself makes this film one to truly ruminate over because it suggests so much about the ugly side of human nature, and that has hardly changed in the past century.

Grand Illusion (1937)

GrandeIllusionI’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been bred on a certain brand of war movie, but I naively went into Grand Illusion expecting a typical P.O.W. drama. In the back of my mind, I was even ready to compare this title to later works like Stalag 17 (1953) or The Great Escape (1963). Honestly, what was I thinking? With a Jean Renoir film no less.

But that’s the marvelous quality of this film. On the surface level, it looks like an archetype that we are used to. War is being waged. Soldiers are captured. Soldiers are trying to escape. In this case, the particulars are a group of French P.O.W.s in a German camp during WWI. You have the basic idea certainly, but you will not understand the power of this film with such a description. With such a set-up you expect Germans to be the craven villains and the French to be the courageous boys making their nation proud. But that’s not quite the case. It’s more complicated than that.

It’s no surprise that this film was banned by Mussolini, confiscated by Goebbels after the invasion of France, and shown in a private screening to FDR. Certainly, WWII had not started yet, but in 1937 Hitler was on the rise and a wave of fascism mixed with patriotism was flooding Europe. In the midst of such a climate, Jean Renoir, a master of so-called poetic realism, lays down a film like this. It has war, it has patriotism, and it even has enemy factions, but the difference is that Renoir gives them humanity. He casts even his “enemy” in a sympathetic light and suggests that there is a humanity that lies inside of human beings of all different classes, creeds, and nationalities (but he also acknowledges racial discrimination still exists).

Early on in the film von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) shoots down two enemy flyers in Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Marechal (Jean Gabin). However, instead of sending them away to the prisoner of war camp, he shows them the ultimate form of hospitality by inviting them to dine at his table. The cynic inside of me thought, “this must be a trap, a gimmick of some kind because he is a German after all, and they’re supposed to be the villains.” Pretty narrow-minded of me, and of course nothing happens. They share a meal and even find some common ground before going off to the camp.

This next part of the film reminds me the most of a film like Stalag 17 because there is the camaraderie, the mixing of all sorts of different people, but they are all fighting against a common enemy so there is a solidarity between them. For instance, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) shares his lavish care packages from back home, Cartier keeps things lively as a former vaudeville performer who is constantly cracking jokes, and even Boledieu, who is of an aristocratic background is generally well liked by everyone. Together they undertake the project of escaping the camp.

Of course, there’s still time for musical performances with song and drag and impromptu renditions of “La Marseillaise.” For such a disturbance Marechal (Gabin) gets solitary confinement, but there never seems to be any malice behind it. It feels more like the protocol of war, and he is let out soon enough. The way things work out the gang is transferred all to different camps and their tunnel is utterly wasted.

De Boldieu and Marechal’s final stop is literally a fortress that is run by their old acquaintance, the now badly maimed Von Rauffenstein. He is as civil as he has ever was but still advises them not to try escape. All the same, he regrets his reassignment and seems generally wistful about the whole situation. Meanwhile, the two officers once again come in contact with Rosenthal. The trio puts together a planned diversion led by De Boldieu which will let the other two escape. It puts von Rauffenstein in another regrettable position, but Rosenthal and Marechal do get away.

As fugitives, their dispositions fluctuate from positivity to loathing, and finally a contented state of comfort when they stay at the farmhouse of a young German woman named Elsa (Dita Parlo from L’Atalante). This is another section of the film that highlights human relationships in an extraordinary way. We expect her to be totally poisoned against “the enemy” and yet she is not. Elsa seems to see the human beings behind the French uniforms and comes to trust and almost rely on their companionship. As Rosenthal recovers from a leg injury, Marechal and Elsa get closer and closer. The time comes for the two men to leave and it is an absolutely heart-wrenching goodbye. It’s so different than our initial preconceptions.

And soon after the film ends, not with some dramatic capturing or even really a chase. But the two men get across the border to snowy Switzerland and that’s where we leave them. Except not with the usual jadedness or even the adrenaline rush of a run-of-the-mill war thriller. Grand Illusion is more piercing than that, speaking to the relationships that can cross war zones if we are only willing to see them.

Jean Gabin is a wonderfully honest-faced actor and the closest description I can give is a man with a Spencer Tracy-like visage except more imposing. Marcell Dalio did some wonderful work with Renoir, and it is unfortunate that he was relegated to such small roles in films like Casablanca, but he is nevertheless even memorable in that. Erich von Stroheim was a titan in his own right as a director and actor, but he was somewhat of a fading star by this point. However, he plays his character with a civility and sense of honor which I have never quite seen equaled before. It was a special performance that reflects a dying breed. The aristocratic soldier of the highest order in all circumstances.

Renoir himself summed up the film years later as being about human relationships and fittingly said the following: “I am confident that such a question is so important today that if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say ‘goodbye’ to our beautiful world.” Here is a master recognizing such a vital key to our very humanity — our personal interactions with one another.

5/5 Stars

Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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“Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It’s about five o’clock in the morning. That’s the Homicide Squad – complete with detectives and newspapermen. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block. You’ll read about it in the late editions, I’m sure. You’ll get it over your radio and see it on television because an old-time star is involved – one of the biggest. But before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth.”

So begins one of the most caustic dramas ever constructed in Hollywood, or about Hollywood, and it was gifted to us by screenwriter-director extraordinaire Billy Wilder. His previous hard-edged film noir Double Indemnity had its own cynical narrator with a memorable voice-over of his own. However, Walter Neff was only on the verge of dying. When we hear the voice of Joe Gillis he is already speaking from the grave. It is a fantastic angle in which to look at this seemingly perfect Hollywood construction, and Gillis never ceases to tell his story until we wind up at the pool as the story comes to a close.

For now, we learn that six months back Joe (William Holden)  is a writer who is having difficulties being published, and some men want to repossess his car. Desperate, he pays a visit to a friend at Paramount named Mandrake to pitch an idea, but the script is of little merit according to a pretty young script reader. That’s a dead end so Joe leaves, but the men are waiting for him and he zooms away. A flat tire leads him to drive away into an empty garage connected to a dilapidated old mansion on Sunset Boulevard. 

There he is mistakenly introduced to drama queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who used to be big on the silent screen, back in the day. Now all she has is money, fan letters, and old memories to rehash, while her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) watches over her. The theatrical actress believes her big comeback is soon at hand, and when she learns Joe is a writer, she takes an interest. He needs the money so he takes a look at the rough script meant to be a vehicle for her. A small commitment turns into a life-consuming undertaking. Desmond constantly hovers and dotes over Joe, going so far as having his things moved into her home and buying him new clothes and trinkets. He reluctantly accepts the first class treatment, not minding the cushy lifestyle. But to Norma, it’s more. 

He is her closest companion. Her love. Joe cannot bear to tell her that she is washed up and that there will never be anything between them. He ditches her intimate New Years party for a more friendly affair where he crosses path with his old bud Artie (Jack Webb) and his girl, the previously critical script girl Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olson). She takes an interest in a few of his past ideas, but he does not, and after getting shocking news from Max he is pulled back to his lavish prison.

Eventually, Norma is prepared to drop off her script with her former collaborator the great Cecil B. DeMille. However, it becomes all too clear that her story will amount to nothing, but her friend cannot bear to break her heart. She is sent off again with the strong conviction that her day is coming. Makeover’s, diets, and facials follow in preparation. Joe is indifferent to it all and secretly begins working at nights with Betty on a new screenplay. 

Desmond finds the script and jealousy takes over, causing her to call Betty to ruin the romance that is rapidly budding there. Joe hears it all and angrily tells the disbelieving Betty to come see his set-up on Sunset Boulevard. He acts as if he likes the life, and Betty leaves broken-hearted. Soon after, a fed-up Joe packs his bags to head back to Ohio. Thus, begins the systematic breakdown that we had expected for so long. Norma Desmond completely falls apart and does the one thing she knows to hold on. 

Back in the present the crowds and journalists have turned out to see the has-been movie star who is stark raving mad, and one last time Norma does not disappoint. She glides seamlessly down the stairs with a serenely ethereal look on her face before preparing for her closeup. So ends the career of one Norma Desmond and the life of Joe Gillis. We can only hope that Betty got together again with Artie, otherwise this would remain one of the bleakest tales of all time.

However, that is part of the power of this film. It is strangely dark and ominous. Franz Waxman’s score is fit for a Gothic melodrama and Desmond’s mansion is a creaky old foreboding castle that hardly sees the light of day. Max is a solemn figure who we learn brought Norma stardom, married her, got divorced, and then could not live without her. Joe Gillis gets caught in a cycle he cannot get out of, and in the middle of the whole mess is Desmond herself. She is so preoccupied with herself, so obsessed with her own former glory, and yet she is a lonely, insecure aging actress. In many ways, she is Citizen Kane’s female counterpoint. A person with so much money, prestige, and power who slowly drifts away into oblivion without anyone caring except ravenous journalists. Much in the same way, although Norma is so petty and vain in so many ways, I cannot help but feel sympathy for her sorry existence. She is an utterly pitiful person in the end. No one deserves her fate.

In this way, Sunset Boulevard seems to critique Hollywood, a place that makes stars like Norma Desmond and spits them back out just as easily. It is not easily figured out or understood it just does at is pleases. For instance, Billy Wilder became an immigrant writer and director of great repute. Cecil B. Demille was a longtime respected director. Erich von Stroheim had early success with silent films then had to turn to acting. Gloria Swanson was a silent star then struggled in the 1930s. William Holden broke out in the 30s, hit his peak in the 1950s and continued to act into the 70s. Nancy Olson went on to make a few classic Disney movies and Jack Webb, of course, went on to create the TV Show Dragnet. Each Hollywood career starkly different from the others. 

 There is also such an authenticity in this film so much so that sometimes the line between fiction and reality is blurred. First, Wilder cast Gloria Swanson to play former silent star Norma Desmond in the film, so it seems like she is playing herself (Complete with old promotional photos and silent footage). He also had appearances by both von Stroheim and Demille, who had each directed Swanson in her silent days. Some of Desmond’s bridge friends include other real silent stars including Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and the legendary Buster Keaton (His career had also crumbled). Even gossip columnist Hedda Hopper gets into the mix to tell the tragic story of Desmond, and it all works. 

So whether you watch Sunset Boulevard for the Hollywood angle, or as a film-noir, or a love story, or a tragic drama, the beauty of it, is that it functions as all of those things simultaneously. Gloria Swanson is absolutely loopy, William Holden is as cynical as ever with his smoked-out gravelly voice. Von Stroheim is haunting as the faithful Max, and Nancy Olson is the one young friendly face in juxtaposition with Swanson. Billy Wilder’s script with Charles Brackett is inspired a multitude of times, but instead of telling you I will give you a taste: 

“There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!”

That’s Norma Desmond in a nutshell for you. That’s Sunset Blvd.

5/5 Stars