Quote of the Day! Love Has Many Faces (1965)

LOVE HAS MANY FACES 1965

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Hugh O’Brian as the smarmy Hank Walker“Haven’t I seen you around?”

Ruth Roman as the tough as nails Margot Eliot– “It’s possible. I’ve been there.”

Director Alexander Singer’s  melodrama (Singer’s Psyche 59 (1964) starring Patricia Neal who suffers from hysterical blindness, has a much more compelling frenetic slick psychology) Love Has Many Faces comes off as a meandering soap opera in balmy Acapulco Mexico… as Lana Turner plays Kit Jordan a millionairess who marries Cliff Robertson a self loathing malcontent who sold all 8 pints of his blood to be owned by her. Though her love is as ‘thin as ice…’

Enrique Lucero is marvelous as Lieutenant Riccardo Andrade a Mexican Columbo who is trying to get to the bottom of one of Lana’s young male lovers who apparently committed suicide over their break up.

Aside from wishing that the fabulous Ruth Roman and Virginia Grey had more of a presence in the film…

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Virginia Grey was the audacious Candy in The Naked Kiss 1964 … God she was gorgeous!

… I was struck by two things…

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If you’ve been following my blog you’ll know that I love Ruth Roman-she has a raw natural sensuality that dwells in her eyes and oozes out of her pores.
instant blackmail Hugh O'Brian and Ruth Roman Love Has Many Faces
“Instant blackmail”
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Kit is never without a drink or a flashy beach ensemble!

Beside the high melodrama… 1) Hugh O’Brian is a beach bum gigolo who spends the entire movie, well mostly… baring his sweaty hairy virile chest and 2) Lana Turner changes wardrobe more than there are cigarettes and cocktails in the picture… Wow that’s a lot of sexy beach wear and lamé, bare shoulders, back and leg… Lana! Thanks to Edith Head… you do look fabulous!

Turner & Garflied Postman Always Rings Twice
This is how I like my Lana Turner & my bare chested men (John Garfield) … from Tay Garnett’s noir masterpiece The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946

I’ll see you around… I’ve been there too! Cheers Joey

When the Spider Woman Looks: Two Glorias- “Wicked Love, Close ups & Old Jewels”- The sympathetically tragic villainesses of Sunset Blvd (1950) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

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This is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy* Shadows and Satin & *Silver Screenings from April 20th – 26th 2014

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”– T.E. Lawrence

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”- Mark Twain

IT’S ALL IN THE EYES! -THE LEGACY OF GLORIA SWANSON/NORMA DESMOND & GLORIA HOLDEN/COUNTESS ZALESKA

Gloria Swanson Norma Desmond

Gloria Holden as Dracula's Daughter

Are these wicked women? Do they exemplify the monstrous feminine? I dare say NO! They are sensual yet tragic figures!

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Gloria Holden’s Countess Zaleska is a victim of her bloodline (literally)–her father Dracula’s legacy, desperately seeking out redemption and’ release’ from the torture of her relentless desires. (lesbianism in the form of blood lust) And Gloria Swanson‘s enduring Norma Desmond an aging silent screen star pushed out by talkies-a victim of a punishing Hollywood institution that forces older women into self-delusion. Though her beauty did not fade, the praise and recognition has.

Both women are-literally immortal!

Ironically without realizing the connection there are two threads of synchronicity that revealed themselves after I decided to pair both Glorias. A) Both women have male servants who show a stoic undying co-dependent worship of their mistress and B) Hedda Hopper appears in both films….

“She gives you that weird feeling!” –tagline from Dracula’s Daughter

Two Glorias, two dynamic forces on screen- Written about endlessly, on the surface spider women, vamps and villainesses perhaps… but to the thoughtful observer and film fanatic like myself… they are sympathetic figures in a cruel world…

“Cast out this wicked dream that has seized my heart.”- subtitle from one of Gloria/Norma’s silent films.

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First let’s begin with our ‘close-up’- on Gloria Swanson as the eternally mesmerizing Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece! Norma is in actuality the one trapped in an orbit of ambivalence about her own primacy which ultimately devolves into a vulnerable, needy, discontented and brooding personality whose dependency upon men and (one opportunistic man in particular) is self-destructiveness turned outward.

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Written and directed by auteur Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity 1944, The Lost Weekend 1945, Ace in the Hole 1951, Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution 1957, Some Like It Hot 1959, The Apartment 1960 which won for BEST PICTURE that year, beating out ELMER GANTRY!).

Considered the last motion picture in the film noir cannon. The first being Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity 1944  with his notoriously sexified femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson who’s got a great pair of gams showcasing that diamond ankle bracelet, dark sunglasses and Barbara Stanwyck’s cool exterior. And Wilder’s last noir Sunset Boulevard that unofficially marked the end of classical noir’s heyday. Sunset Boulevard truly pushing the conventions of noir to it’s limits.

Written for the screen by Wilder and Charles Brackett (The Lost Weekend ’45, Edge of Doom, ’50, Niagara ’53).

Music by Franz Waxman  (Magnificent Obsession ’35, The Invisible Ray ’36, A Day at the Races ’37, The Man Who Cried Wolf ’37, Gone With the Wind -uncredited, Humoresque ’46 I Married a Monster From Outer Space, Home Before Dark, there’s so much more– see IMDb profile). Waxman’s score is superb, from the exhilarating opening sequence that accompanies the flurry of police and newsreel camera trucks racing to the crime scene, the vibrant strings and strident horns that accentuate modernity to the more subtle poignant moments that underscore Norma’s internal agony.

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John Seitz is responsible for the evocative and quirky noir-esque cinematography (Sullivan’s Travels ‘4I, Double Indemnity ’44 , The Lost Weekend ’45).

The use of light in key frames showcases Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond who exults whenever she is either watching herself or is thrust into sudden illumination renders her as somehow lost. The use of shadows and oddly lit spaces evoke the sense of her tragic misconstruction of reality. 

Bruce Crowther on- Cinematographer Seitz who helped to define some of the memorable images of Sunset Boulevard“Rarely does full light intrude upon this movie… Seitz handles the often cluttered sets using lighting to direct the eye to each scene’s key areas. Even when light is used fully, as when Norma steps into the beam of her home movie projector or when a lighting technician at the studio turns the spotlight on her, it serves a dark purpose… Here it shows with appalling clarity the incipient madness that will eventually destroy Norma.”

Arthur P Schmidt, the film editor, died at age 52 (worked on Ace in the Hole and Some Like it Hot with Wilder).

Art direction by Hans Dreier and John Meehan, fabulous mise-en-scéne by set designers  Sam Comer Ray Moyer who both worked on (Read Window 1954, Vertigo 1958, Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961) Which arranges the landscape of Norma’s world with Art Deco style furnishing, elaborate candelabras, wrought iron scrolled staircases, tapestries and ornate lighting fixtures. Norma’s bedroom is something out of a Gothic fairytale with it’s superfluous ruffles and claustrophobic pageantry.

Wilder and his artistic design team create an atmosphere of decadence and decay. Using an ornate baroque visual style that puts emphasis on the surroundings which are careful set pieces of time-worn opulence. The scenes are filled with a cluttered and suffocating mise-en-scéne. Sunset Boulevard reveals the conflict of the old grandeur of the silent era with the hollow clamor of modernity, as a ‘clash of styles and eras.’

Once Joe walks in from the brightly lit Los Angeles hustle and bustle, the tone turns darker, as he steps inside the confines of the mansion crowded with the serpentine wrought iron staircase, large yet dim light fixtures and ancient looking columns that appear to be disintegrating in small scattered parts. Set against the crispness of Max’s white gloves and Norma’s black sateen lounging pajamas, it offsets the sense of a perishing house in an odd and creepy way. Again this is where noir meets horror by the elements combined in the visual style.

Most effectively is the central character of Norma Desmond who’s electrifying intensity and melodramatic flare projects an other-world style in contrast with the biting and cynical, dispassionate humor of the younger screenwriter from the age of talkies.

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According to Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair many of the film’s props came from own Swanson’s home and scrapbooks. “One shot pans across the table covered with Swanson’s film stills, the photographs in old frames capturing her young face and heavily painted eyes.”

The portrait in Norma’s living room was painted by Geza Kende. Wilder also borrowed a film clip of “Norma” in her prime from a Swanson film Erich Von Stroheim directed, Queen Kelly 1929.

From Foster Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen- he cites Amir Karimi in Toward a Definition of the American Film Noir as the true period of noir beginning with Wilder’s Double Indemnity and ending with the same directors Sunset Boulevard 1950. He goes on to say that Wilder’s noir drama’s contain “the biting social comment, the stinging disapproval of the American way” Sunset Boulevard “transfers noir psychology to a novel setting, the decaying mansion of a once-grand film star. Wilder’s portrait of the megalomaniacal Norma Desmond is etched in acid; she is the embodiment of Hollywood’s rotting foundations, its terminal narcissism, it’s isolation from reality.”

Norma’s sensational costumes were created by prolific designer Edith Head who resurrected Swanson’s silent era look, the exotic and exaggerated costumes and fashions of an ex-screen Goddess, which point back toward Swanson’s past. She wears a hat, adorned with a peacock feather in the scene where she is reunited with Cecil B. DeMille. This is a visual homage to a headdress she wore in Male and Female 1919 one of the first films he directed her in.

The silent movie queen Norma Talmadge is reportedly “the obvious if unacknowledged source of Norma Desmond, the grotesque, predatory silent movie queen” Dave Kehr,An independent woman, nobly suffering in silents”, New York Times, 11 March 2010.

Sunset Boulevard could not have been cast with anyone better than the dynamic and grande actress who in 1919 was signed to a contract by Cecil B. DeMille. With this, her come-back role Gloria Swanson ignites the screen with her eponymous Norma Desmond -star of the silent screen -Norma Desmond, the tragic central satellite of the story who herself is dreaming of a comeback. Swanson’s performance is as much transfixing as it is exquisite.

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The intoxicating beauty of Gloria Swanson from the silent era

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Swanson herself was a very hard working actress in 1910s and 1920s with Mack Sennett before joining Paramount studios. She started her own production company in the mid ’20s but only made a few talkies in the 1930s. She made six silent films with Cecil B. DeMille.

As Leo Braudy says in his insightful book- The World in a Frame: What We See– Aesthetically, Swanson faces into the film as the fictional character Norma Desmond and faces outward toward us as the star. He calls her role a ‘meditation’ on her screen image and the relationship between the old world of silent films and the new world of 1950s Hollywood. He refers to the other actors who were her contemporaries playing themselves as ’embalmed’ with her in the past, losing their relevance to the audience and ultimately their power.

Billy Wilder’s film is as James Naremore says in his book More Than Night- Film Noir in its Contents- is an “iconoclastic satire” and “a savage critique of modernity.” Much like Aldrich’s The Big Knife it is a condemnation of Hollywood in the cycle of films released in the 1950s, also notable The Bad and The Beautiful 1952. Naremore points out these films coincided with the blacklist, and the decline of studio owned theater chains summoning the end of an era. Norma’s character is a casualty of changing times.

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Co-starring as the ill-fated gutless unemployed screenwriter who becomes Norma’s gigolo, is smooth and sexy William Holden as Joe Gillis. Erich Von Stroheim plays Norma’s devoted butler and ex-hubby Max Von Mayerling. Erich Von Stroheim who had directed Swanson in Queen Kelly ’29 is perfectly suited to play her servant/ex-husband/devotee.

The film also co-stars Nancy Olson (Union Station 1950) as Betty Schaefer, Fred Clark as Sheldrake, Lloyd Gough as Morino, Jack Webb as Artie Green, Franklyn Farnum as the undertaker, and special appearances as themselves, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and composers Ray Evans and Jay Livingston.

The film is a Gothic, poetic nightmare in noir that so often evinces a sympathetic lens toward the forgotten characters who engage the audience like apparitions of another time in Hollywood. The unorthodox narrative that embraces a vividly unstable noir identity that dwells within the constructs of an American life, pushing the limits of social and sexual convention to a dark place of obsession and excess. Although Wilder scripted this as a black comedy, the noir stylization that had by now ran through it’s re-occurring patterns still manages to create the incessant mood of bleak cynicism and a distant vulgarity.

Bruce Crowthers Reflections in a Dark Mirror- ”Of the other German emigres who worked in Hollywood the most significant contributor to the film noir is Billy Wilder, whose Ace in the Hole perhaps the most cynical movie ever to come out of Hollywood, Double Indemnity with it’s mesmerizing manipulative spider-woman and Sunset Blvd with it’s atmosphere of brooding baroque insanity are classics of the genre.”

“Wilder introduces a creepy atmosphere of eccentric ruin that’s strange and destroys lives, yet hypnotically alluring and seductive from a lost indulgent age.”Alain Silver & James Ursini from The Encyclopedia of Film Noir-The Directors

Wilder wanted stark reality and realism to pierce the veil of illusion and fantasy that was the dream factory of Hollywood 1950s. He portrays a corrupt landscape of used-up people, conniving agents, writers hustling to get their scripts sold, and the loneliness and alienation that permeates a world of broken dreams and perpetual struggle. Andrew Dickos in Street With No Name calls Wilder’s noir films “visions are steeped in cruel and corrosive humor, distinctive in its own right and its ability to function apart from the noir universe.”

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In this provocative masterpiece Billy Wilder masterfully evokes a shudder in us, “by emphasizing it’s verisimilitude, though, Wilder reveals the hidden truths of the world’s cruelest company town- from the isolation of forgotten celebrities to the crass efficiency of producers. Not only a thrilling and strange piece of entertainment, the film also is an indictment of Hollywood.” –Kashner & MacNair

Louis B Mayer, at a private screening of Sunset Boulevard, was furious with Wilder for his cruel portrayal of the industry that supported him. At the party before the various celebrities, he reproached him, “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” Wilder kept the script hush hush using the innocuous code title A Can of BeansWilder and Brackett fearing that Hollywood would respond negatively to their damning portrayal of Hollywood.

He offers us the very typified archetypes of classical noir with his doomed anti-hero, the dangerous femme fatale, and the good girl redeemer. Also present are the familiar themes of entrapment, claustrophobia, instability, corruption, flawed character, psychological crime melodrama and even the police procedural with it’s thrilling opening sequence as the newsreel camera’s and police cars, their sirens blaring, tear up the streets as they speed toward the murder scene.

Mae West
The inimitable Mae West turned down the part of Norma Desmond

Originally Billy Wilder wanted the legendary & incomparably sexy and suggestive writer/actress Mae West to play Norma. West declined because she found the story to be ‘too dark’. She also didn’t want a film that portrayed the relationship between an older woman and younger man that reflected itself as hideous. The two approached Greta Garbo who also declined the offer. Wilder also approached Mary Pickford who was appalled by the offer, they had to apologize to her. It was George Cukor who suggested Gloria SwansonWilder asked Gloria Swanson to screen test for the part in 1949 and she almost said no. She had worked with Wilder who had adapted the screenplay for her film Music in the Air 1934. Norma is a larger-than-life film character though an exaggeration of reality considering Swanson wasn’t ancient she was only fifty at the time!

Wilder had contracted Montgomery Clift to play Joe Gillis. Clift left the picture finding it too uncomfortably close to his own life, because of the younger man relationship- he allegedly had an affair with Libby Holman a popular singer of the 20’s whose career was ruined by scandal surrounding the shooting death of her husband. Clift had spent time with Holman who also lived in a sprawling mansion much like Norma’s. Wilder worried that the age difference between Swanson and Holden wasn’t big enough, Swanson was fifty and Holden was thirty one. Wilder hadn’t been impressed with some of Holden’s more mediocre films of the ’40s, even though he had starred in Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy (1939) with co-star Barbara Stanwyck. Sunset Boulevard made William Holden’s career. While I find Joe Gillis to be a dismissive smarmy ass who sort of had it coming to him, in this picture, I let it be know that I’m a huge fan of William Holden!- he did a superb job of playing it cagey, opportunistic and sarcastic as hell.

Wilder mirrors Joe Gillis’ from his own start as a shaky Hollywood writer having moved from Germany to America after Hitler’s rise to power, He used to be a ‘taxi dancer’ who would dance with any unattached older women who were willing to pay for his services.

One of the most iconic scenes from Sunset Boulevard, aside from the film’s fever dream climax where Norma descends the grand staircase, plunging into her gathering madness, is the scene that illustrates the withering passage of a lost era. The three fading silent film stars play bridge in the parlor of Norma’s decaying Gothic mausoleum. During the scene with the old stars playing bridge, the collectors come and take Joe’s car away, the only passport to freedom he has.

‘The wax works’ cracks wise, struggling snarky screen writer Joe Gillis, referring to Norma’s bridge party guests. Wilder envisioned this scene as purposefully macabre or as Kashner and MacNair call it “ghastly.” To see figures gathered around the table, as the sequence unfolds, it is revealed that these actors are actually playing themselves. Silent screen actress Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner who had played Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 picture The King of Kings. And Legendary actor of silent cinema Buster Keaton is there too. Kashner and MacNair describe “his features ravaged by alcohol abuse.” Even Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in a way is paying tribute to herself recalling the bridge game in the parlor scene- “Came close to giving us all the creeps.”

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Like the bridge guests DeMille plays himself with scenes shot on the real set of his 1949 motion picture Samson and Delilah. Erich Von Stroheim himself a once great director, Wilder uses him poignantly as Max who mourns his former life. Wilder touching on the fact that Stroheim in real life had a rough time with his career often going over budget and ultimately making box office flops.

As I’ve pointed out here in this piece for The Great Villain Blogathon, I am using Norma Desmond to argue that she isn’t the psychotic spider woman or villainess that she’s been referred to, and that the film neither makes fun of her, yet creates a sense of sympathetic apology to this grande dame mostly revealing her as quite a tragic figure. I neither see her as washed up nor grotesque, but a beautifully powerful women possessed of intensity. She is the one who is ‘trapped’ in the web of an unforgiving culture that demonizes women for their sexual primacy. Norma is possessed of desire. The desire to still be adored. The desire to make a ‘return’ to motion pictures. The desire to be loved as a great star. The desire to be loved by Joe.

It’s Joe Gillis that is not a very likable guy, who is uncaring, weak, too shallow and powerless. Let’s face it he’s a self-acknowledged heel. Ironically, sadly it is Norma’s story that is being told through this guys voice and perspective yet another way that her character is silenced, her personae distorted and perverted through the male gaze.

Once again Silver & Ward point out eloquently-

“Norma herself as portrayed by Gloria Swanson is a tragic figure. imbued by Wilder with powerful romantic presence… A woman obsessed, she clings to her vision with a tenacity that must ultimately be granted a grudging admiration and she is the only character in the film with the possible exception of Erich Von Stroheim’s fanatically loyal Max, who inspires genuine sympathy. Watching herself on screen in an old movie, she leaps into the projector’s murderous blast of light and cries, ‘They don’t make faces like that anymore!’ It is difficult for the viewer to favor Joe’s cynicism over her fervor, however misguided or self-centered it may be…”

THERE’S A MONSTROUS FEMALE IN OUR MIDST- SOME CHARACTERIZATIONS OF NORMA:

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From The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the 1950’s by Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair-Chapter- The Waxworks: Mae West, Gloria Swanson, and Sunset Boulevard which opens with-
 “Hollywood has never been kind to older actresses…”

Here are just a few of the negative & unwarranted cursory examinations of Norma Desmond’s persona, put here -not because I agree, but to point out how cruel & misguided critics have been.

David Kehr of the New York Times refers to Norma as “predatory and grotesque.”

Alain Silver and James Ursini from The Encyclopedia of Film Noir- The Directors– refer to Norma as “delusional eccentric, past her prime.” and a “washed up misfit.” “femme fatale who embodies unstable noir psychosis.”

Foster Hirsch spells it out like this,  “Her fate was monstrous” calling her the “ultimate spider woman hibernating behind closed shutters in a swoon of alcohol and self-deception…{…} her loss of fame and fading beauty turn her into a psychopathic recluse.”

Hedda Hopper describes Norma descending the great staircase at the climax of Sunset Boulevard as her being in- “ a state of complete mental shock!”

Bruce Crowther-Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror actually uses the word ‘demonic’ he says “Yet, in Sunset Boulevard (1950), she succeeded in bringing to demonic life Norma Desmond, an old-time movie star who is on the most grotesque of all femme fatales.”

Janet Place chapter The Spider Woman from Women in Film Noir“with her claw-like hands.”

Actress Mae Murray a contemporary of Swanson’s, was offended by the film and commented, “None of us floozies was that nuts.”

Forster Hirsch calls her -“megalomaniacal.”

John McCarthy- Movie Psychos and Madmen calls her “a monster”

Marjorie Rosen (Popcorn Venus 1973) & Molly Haskell ( From Reverence to Rape 1974) –“a despairingly lonely serpent…” whose predicament is “reduced and trivialized because the source of her misery is merely growing old”cited by Brandon French, who feels they miss the point by merely reducing Norma to a victim of Wilder’s satire.

Brandon French -On the Verge of Revolt- “these fictional villainesses unable to discover-or accept-an autonomous creative expression of their power are made monsters by it, to one degree or another…{…} Her ludicrous existence as a middle-aged child.” 

From Chapter –Women in Film Noir– by Janet Place- The Spider Woman

In discussing the powerful returning motifs and patterns in film noir, Place talks about the dangerous power of the sexual woman, and how it is visually expressed. She states,

“Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard is the most highly stylized ‘spider woman’ in all of film noir as she weaves a web to trap and finally destroy her young victim, but even as she visually dominates him, she is presented as caught by the same false value system. The huge house in which she controls camera movement and is constantly center frame is also a hideous trap which requires from her the maintenance of the myth of stardom;the contradiction between the reality and the myth pull apart and finally drive her mad.”

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A caption that goes with the photo of Norma with head scarf and dark glasses smoking a cigarette “emphasizes the perverse, decaying side of film noir sexuality, with her claw-like hands, dark glasses and bizarre cigarette holder.”

She goes on to add that these ‘visual cues’ are a characteristic iconography of the “dangerously explicitly sexual and often violent noir female.” Using signals like cigarettes and their trails of wispy smoke are linked with immoral feminine sensuality and the forces of darkness. The specific use of heavily defined make-up, eyebrow pencil and full contoured lips, the dark glasses etc. Even the animal print that Norma wears. The power of these particular women is expressed in the visual style by “their dominance in composition, camera movement and how they are lit.”

From Mary Beth Haralovich– Chapter-Movies and Landscapes in-American Cinema of the 1950s Themes and Variations edited by Murray Pomerance“A character’s mental landscape is written on the mise-en-scéne in the film, the bodies of the actors and in their subjective visions, in their responses to settings that give them solace and to settings that they fear.”
As Joe Gillis comments to Betty Schaefer in Sunset Blvd“Psychopaths sell like hotcakes.”

In fact like the silent cinema which was once her world, Norma is a ghost there, an empty shadow of the past. Now Norma is in a lonely place because the industry that once supported her has forgotten her completely.
“Sunset Boulevard is cast with doppelgangers, fictional counterparts of actual Hollywood players, Paramount’s actual silent star Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, “Paramount’s Silent Star” Like Norma, Swanson’s screen career did not transfer over to sound films until her remarkable performance in the Sunset Boulevard.

One issue that is suggestive of lensing Norma as a monstrous female is the prevailing mood of ‘male anxiety.’ Centered around not only her age, (for crying out loud she was only 50), but threatening was also her vivid sexual impulses and desires.

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Mary Beth Haralovich points to critic Sarah Street “Sunset Blvd. describes the overwhelming male anxiety about age, morality and career” -from her Mad About the Boy”; Masculinity and Career in Sunset Boulevard 1995

Haralovich points out that in Sunset Boulevard Joe works well with Betty at the studio -it’s a space where creativity can flourish, after hours and is a collaborative effort with Betty for the screenplay first entitled Dark Windows but the new draft is called Untitled Love Story. It shows that energetic youth is taking over the staid and faded ways of the old world.

I defer to Brandon French once again because of his insight and compassionate stance on the character of Norma Desmond, as I also see her. He writes, “In numerous films of the fifties such as All About Eve (1950) The African Queen (1951), The Rose Tattoo (1955), All That Heaven Allows (1956) and Autumn Leaves (1956) middle aged women are shown to be sexually attractive. What renders Norma less than desirable is her neurosis not her age.”

So you could argue that Wilder’s film is not only a condemnation of the failed system of Hollywood but also how it marginalizes it’s older stars, more specifically women. As French puts it, “a protest against Hollywood’s institutional policy of human discard, Wilder put the spotlight on Swanson.”

Gloria Swanson beautiful

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The film showcases society’s anxiety about sexual women especially those who have aged out of their place of ‘desirability.’ It’s this repulsion against older women that turns them into screen ‘monsters.’ It only follows that Norma would fall into an orbit of madness, when she had once flourished in an industry that co-nurtures narcissism, then punishes their women stars when they no longer have the advantage of claiming that egotism as an earned right. These stars are primed to be egotistical and then damned for it once they no longer serve a purpose for the industry cronies who make pictures.

Again, it invokes, Bette Davis’ performance of Baby Jane Hudson and her self-delusion caused by years of growing neglect and the cruel reversal of attentions that were once foisted on her. These accolades taken away, creating  stars that are relics left in a lonely place. Perhaps Wilder’s script did not make his import obvious or more compassionate through the narrative which would more easily coax the audiences sympathies and not necessarily gear them toward repulsion of the central tragic figure that is Norma Desmond. 

Norma Desmond was the prototype for the Grande Dame Guignol films that were to follow… of course the actresses would be faced with the same dilemma– of being given a script that would challenge them not to be type cast or appear monstrous.

It is then up to us to redeem Norma ourselves and see her as the victim and not the ultimate noir spider woman, psychopathic megalomaniac, deranged and deluded horror movie queen.

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The story should work in a way that sheds light on the anxiety surrounding women who aren’t in their twenties or thirties, not framing the narrative or focusing the visual cues on their age as if they are uncanny and dangerous. To tell the story of alienation and madness yes but lens it in a way that doesn’t promote revulsion of the older woman’s sexuality and power. A beauty standard where women can’t grow older and be beautiful at the same time. As people describe Norma as ‘grotesque’ All I see is a very beautiful lonely woman who is yes, filled with a growing delusion. Norma’s misguided fervor is only fueled by her co-dependent side-kick Max as he shelters her from the truth instead of helping her gain awareness through his companionship.

“The attention that Norma Desmond pays to herself, as opposed to the man, is the obvious narrative transgression of Sunset Boulevard.” -Haralovich

Not that Hollywood hasn’t created narcissism in their stars, or that it’s truly a crime for a woman to value herself above all else. Norma gazes at her own reflection in mirrors and in her old motion pictures. As Writer Place points out that the narcissistic independence that the femme fatale seeks is ‘fundamentally and irredeemably sexual’ in noir. Combined with both aggressiveness and sensuality, the dangerous woman becomes the central ‘obsessive’ focus of the narrative. She represents the man’s own sexual freedom, which she must control, repress or ultimately destroy him.

Norma insists on Joe participating in her life rather than being interested in his life. He dreams he is her pet chimp and he actually does become her victim. The victim of Salomé-

From Brandon French’s On the Verge of Revolt-Women in American Films in the Fifties- Chapter 1 The Scarlet “A” Sunset Boulevard (1950) “Sunset Boulevard is a film about ambition and what it allegedly does to the human spirit…{…} On the other hand we harbor a gloomy suspicion that ambition corrodes the soul. America’s negative attitude toward ambition had a critical influence on the transitional woman of the fifties. An Ambitious woman not merely violated the domestic female image; she became a receptacle for America’s most distorted fantasy projections about ambition; a soulless monster of selfish manipulation without moral restraint.”

This was the type of female who film noir had manifested during the forties and fifties. French so aptly points out that ambition is ‘as deadly as the scarlet “A” that is born of our puritan consciousness’. Sunset Boulevard is a perfect example of how a woman who has more drive and ambition, even more than Joe Gillis, evokes an image of her as a “fallen Eve seducing Adam into sin.”

In Sunset Boulevard French views as do I, Billy Wilder’s depiction of Norma as not a typically “just plain rotten” noir villainess. The film yields a thoughtful perspective on the ambivalence of what French calls ‘the transitional woman in the fifties.” Because Wilder complicates the issue of the typified noir evil predatory woman, misunderstood trapped man, innocent ingenue redeemer. Norma is therefore much more nuanced than a sad tragic figure.

Another sentient point that goes to the entire source of Norma’s ambivalence and state of mind begs the question… who’s responsible for her state? DeMille who doesn’t take any culpability for his own contribution to Norma’s decline-blames the press agents who worked overtime focusing on Norma, creating her goddess like megalomania. Demille does not come to Norma’s rescue and help her ‘return’.

Sunset Boulevard Norma and de Mille

DeMille fondly recalls Norma’s talent in terms of her as “a lovely little girl of seventeen.” But unlike ‘men’ in the film industry who don’t have to qualify themselves by their age and appearance, they don’t have to suffer the effects of a punishing system of skin-deep values. Also it’s this atmosphere that nurtures and places value on youth and the function of beauty that have given rise to a Norma with an arrested development, living in the past obsessed with her ‘self.’

His girlfriend Betty types while he dictates the script they try to write together. Joe loves that Betty smells like a brand new car or freshly laundered handkerchiefs, and not tuberoses. Betty is ambitious too, she dreams of his career and is content to be behind the camera instead of in front of it. “Self-interest, over devotion to a man is the original sin of the film noir woman.”Haralovich

In John McCarthy’s Movie Psychos and Madmen- Chapter- The Female Psycho, McCarthy talks about Gloria Swanson’s faded movie queen in Billy Wilder’s biting attack on Hollywood. He frames Norma as trapped by her delusions-“the delusion that her glamour has not yet faded.”

I disagree. I think that Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond is STILL glamorous. Perhaps led by the majority who have profiled her as a has been beauty queen and here again, the value judgement has been sworn against her, not just as a character trapped by self-delusion and that her career has ended, but that her desirability is an illusion as well…

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Gloria Swanson is beautiful as ever as silent movie queen Norma Desmond

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Given the immense narcissism which goes along with Hollywood, Swanson  in my opinion does not look like a caricature of her former self nor is she Norma Desmond’s doppelganger. To me… she just looks a little older but still quite sensual and beautiful as ever!

I suppose due to the visual cues by director Wilder and cinematographer Seitz Norma is presented or we are made to believe that she is grotesque like Bette Davis’ Baby Jane whose make up, hairstyle and mannerism truly were an exaggeration of a farcical youth that Davis purposefully plays as campy in order to illustrate her detachment from reality and the attachment to a past life that doesn’t translate well in the modernity of Los Angeles in the 60s. Aldrich’s film pushed the boundaries of convention even further by implementing an even more claustrophobic universe in conflict with the outside world, that engenders madness.

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Though Norma has been referred to as having snared Joe in her web. She didn’t go out and set a trap for him, he wandered into her world, she didn’t force him to stay, he stayed because he saw ‘a cozy set up’. and money in it for him, he was hiding and was morbidly curious about the ex-screen Goddess as if he saw her as a side show freak… if the house was a web, he put his own foot on the silk chord and set off the tremor that signaled the spider to pounce. Joe even remarks via voice-over while he’s being led up to his room over the garage, “I dropped the bait, and she snapped at it…”

It’s a tragedy of psychological entrapment and neurotic purgatory that she desires to be loved for herself by the down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis whom she has turned into her kept man. Tragic that she believes her fans continue to remember and write to her, and finally that the Hollywood she helped build is still anxiously awaiting her return. McCarthy says “unlike the use of her trap of delusion as a vehicle for comedy as in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) about two dotty women… Norma’s psychological entrapment is a tragedy.”

That Norma’s entrapment is as real and not just that of Joe Gillis’ is a tragedy, I would entirely agree. But McCarthy continues by calling her a ‘monster.’ And yes through the lens of Grande Dame Guignol cinema of which Sunset Boulevard appears to be seedling the screen for the sub-genre, with the decaying mansion and dreary atmosphere, and the theme of ‘the monstrous feminine’ Norma has been perceived and written about as having evolving into a monster. Though I’ll never see her that way.

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And I dare say she did not create this transmogrification herself. She was created by Hollywood, the fictionalized concept that Wilder attacks and by the actualization of the character by Wilder who framed her that way. As a result of her delusion, much like Davis’ Baby Jane Hudson– her madness leads to murder. As McCarthy says, “broken dreams leading to a broken mind” He brings up one good point. That Sunset Boulevard could almost be a horror movie/film noir hybrid. Much like Aldrich’s similar rebuke of Hollywood with his seminal What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? it is a psycho-sexual thriller that breaks apart conventional narratives. And much like Norma Desmond, I will never see Bette Davis’ role as Jane Hudson through the lens of the monstrous. They will always be sympathetic figures to me.

Plot

“A Hollywood Story… This is it … the most compelling dramatic story ever unfolded on the screen .. a tale of heartache and tragedy … love and ambition … told against the fabulous background of Hollywood.”

Told in flashback by a dead man-set against the blaring sirens of racing police cars to the crime scene, the film opens with police cars speeding down Sunset Boulevard. They’ve been called to a mansion where the body of a man, Joe Gillis (William Holden) is floating face down on the surface of the swimming pool with his eyes wide open-(camera used a mirror underneath to catch Holden’s face from underneath). The dead man begins to narrate the story of what led to his death in flashback noir style. This is truly a spin on the term, “ghost-writer.”

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“Yes, this is Sunset Blvd… the homicide squad complete with detectives and newspaper men. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses… You’ll read all about it in the late editions… 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 your 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… If so you’ve come to the right party.”

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Repo Man-“There’s gonna be fireworks” Joe Gillis- “You Say the cutest things!”

It leads us back- Six months earlier. Joe Gillis is an out of work screenwriter with only a few B-movies to his credit. He tries to persuade Paramount Pictures producer Sheldrake (Fred Clark) to buy one of his scripts, but reader Betty Schaefer (Olson) administers a harsh critique not realizing that Joe can hear her. Carrying a folder of papers, she puts them on Sheldrake’s desk not noticing Joe Gillis standing by the door. Referring to Joe’s script Sheldrake-“What’s wrong with it?” Betty- “It’s from hunger… just a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” Sheldrake-“I’m sure you’ll be glad to met Mr. Gillis. He wrote it.”

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Betty is embarrassed, she would like to ‘crawl into a hole and pull it in after her.’ She says to Joe, “I’m sorry, Mr.Gillis but I just don’t think it’s any good. I find it flat and banal.” He asks “Exactly what kind of material do you recommend? James Joyce? Dostoyevsky?” She tells him, “I just think pictures should say a little something.” Gillis“Oh, you’re one of those message kids. Just a story won’t do. You’d have turned down Gone With the Wind.”

First Joe is typing at his apartment when two collectors show up looking to repossess his car. He manages to elude them once but they spot him on the street at a traffic light. Gillis spots the men who are going to repossess his 1946 Plymouth convertible while sitting at an intersection. They begin chasing him and he gets a blow out.

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the car hidden behind Rudy’s Shoeshine Joe comments about Rudy-“he’d just look at your heels and know the score”

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Trying to hide out Joe turns onto a Sunset Boulevard driveway and stumbles onto an old garage crumbling by the side of a gloomy yet grandiose deteriorating, dying mansion with a little formal garden all gone to seed.

“If ever there was a place to stash away a limping car with a hot license plate.”

When Joe starts his monologue describing Norma’s house, it’s as if he is giving us a portent, describing Norma’s state of mind as the mansion is an extension of her projected identity.

Gillis’ voice-over “It was a great big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy twenties. A neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades. It was like that old woman in Great Expectations –that Miss Haversham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world because she’d been given the go by”

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Suddenly he hears, “You there!… why are you so late!”

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The ever brooding Max

Living in this opulent ruin, is the reclusive and long forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond. She alone inhabits this fading estate with her faithful butler Max (Erich Von Stroheim), who also happens to be her ex-husband, who was once a great director and plays a wheezing organ. Both lost relics of a bygone era. The interior shots of the grand hall, great staircase, Norma’s ‘waxwork’s’ parlor, her bedroom and the Gothic baroque style mansion in general evoke an atmosphere of bleak desolation and mystification.

The great hall is grandiose and grim, described in the script as exhibiting portieres that are drawn before all the windows, and “only thin slits or sunlight find their way in to fight the few electric bulbs which are always burning.”

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As Norma Desmond first makes her entrance she stands like a ghostly figure down the corridor in front of a doorway that allows the intrusion of a flickering light. She is small in stature, yet she exudes an electrifying presence, wearing black house pajamas and high heeled pumps. Like many femme fatales she wears dark glasses, a scarf and turban patterned in leopard print.

The undercurrent is gloomy and dust covered. The room is hung with white brocade which is tattered in places and has become mucky from years of neglect. Sam Comer and Ray Moyer’s set design fits the mood perfectly as the scene also showcases a great unmade gilded bed, the gold peeling off as to symbolize Norma’s decomposing love life. The curious set piece is in the shape of a swan.

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The gondola bed in her boudoir is ornately carved with cherubs that Norma sleeps in was actually owned by dancer Gaby Deslys who died in 1920. It had belonged to Universal’s prop department who bought it after Desly’s death. It appears in Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Joe in one of his voice-overs describes it as a gilded row boat. “The perfect setting for a silent movie queen. Poor devil still waving proudly to a parade which has long since passed her by.”

All these little details just add to the sense of realism built into the visual narrative with its accoutrements of Hollywood’s “world of illusion.” Clothes and negligees strewn about the room, which is graced with photographs of fading stars of yesterday. There’s a baroque style fireplace book ended by two ornate candelabras. Set out like an Egyptian prince on her massage table is the shrouded monkey in repose under a shawl.

Norma begins to direct Gillis believing him to be the undertaker (Franklin Farnum) from the funeral home. Joe plays along with a morbid fascination. She tells him,  “I’ve made up my mind we’ll bury him in the garden. Any city laws against that?” Joe says, “I wouldn’t know” Norma continues, “I don’t care anyway. I want the coffin to be white. And I want it specially lined with satin. White, or deep pink.”

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When she picks up the shawl, a small stiff arm falls out. Joe is a little stunned by the tiny hairy arm. “Maybe red. Bright flaming red. Gay. Let’s make it gay.”      

When Joe looks closer at the small body under the shawl he sees the very pitiful, bearded face of a dead chimpanzee. It’s a startling scene, odd and curious. Norma seems to have made her little friend almost a surrogate child.

Joe says to her, “I know your face. You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.” Norma replies with a stately languor, “I am big… it’s the pictures that got small…”

Gillis in his smug manner, “I knew there was something wrong with them.”

Norma begins her brusque tirade “They’re dead. They’re finished. There was a time when this business had the eyes of the whole wide world. But that wasn’t good enough. Oh, no They wanted the ears of the world, too. So they opened their big mouths, and out came talk, talk, talk…”

Joe Gillis quips, “That’s where the popcorn business comes in. You buy yourself a bag and plug up your ears.”

Norma chastising- “Look at them in the front offices — the master minds! They took the idols and smashed them. The Fairbanks and the Chaplins and the Gilberts and the Valentinos. And who have they got now? Some nobodies….”

Joe Gillis- “Don’t get sore at me. I’m not an executive. I’m just a writer.”

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Norma- “You are! Writing words, words! You’ve made a rope of words and strangled this business! But there is a microphone right there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongue!”
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Joe- “Ssh! You’ll wake up that monkey.”

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Norma yells- “Get out!” as Gillis starts down the stairs, he answers her, “Next time I’ll bring my autograph album along or maybe a hunk of cement and ask for your footprints.” Halfway down the stairs she stops him, “Just a minute you!”

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Joe-“I didn’t know you were planning a comeback”
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“I hate that word!” (clenched teeth)
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“A return… to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen”
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“Salomé” (Norma whispers to herself)

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She is drawn to Joe, and offers him a job helping her prepare the script for her ‘return’ (she hates the word ‘comeback’) in the film Salomé.

Norma tells Joe, “It’s the story of Salomé I think I’ll have DeMille direct it” Joe humors her. “We’ve made a lot of pictures together.” Joe asks, “And you’ll play Salomé?” “Who else?” “Only asking, I didn’t know you were planning a comeback” “I hate that word… It is a ‘return.’ A return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen!… Salomé, what a woman! What a part! The princess in love with a Holy man. She dances the Dance of the Seven Veils. He rejects her, so she demands his head on a golden tray, kissing his cold dead lips.”

Max wheels in a tea wagon with Champagne and caviar. Norma sits in her chair smoking from her curious cigarette holder that is a gold ring with a clip. She dumps another batch of pages from the script on Joe.

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Joe “It was a cozy set up”
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“That bundle of nerves Max… that dead monkey upstairs and the wind wheezing through that organ once in a while”

“Well- I had no pressing engagement and she’d mentioned something to drink… Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad, bad writing can be. This promised to go to the limit. I wondered what a handwriting expert would make of that childish scrawl of hers. Max wheeled in some champagne and some caviar. Later I found out that Max was the only other person in that Grim Sunset Castle, and I found out a few other things about him… As for her she sat coiled up like a watch spring, her cigarette clamped in a curious holder… I could sense her eyes on me from behind those dark glasses, defying me not to like what I read, or maybe begging me in her own proud way to like it. It meant so much to her.”

Joe admits- “The place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion… I knew there was something wrong… it sure was a cozy set-up.”

He dismissively mocks her when she tells him that she’ll have DeMille direct, and that she will play the part of Salomé.

“Salome… what a woman what a part. The princess in love with a Holy man She dances the dance of the seven veils. He rejects her and she demands his head on a golden tray… Kissing his cold dead lips”

Okay perhaps there’s a hint of Norma having a little pent up rage toward men… Still, she’s adorable!

Seeing that Joe is broke and a bit of a schemer, he accepts the job and moves into the guest room over the garage. Joe is weak-willed, gutless and a cynic who wields mocking witticisms at every turn. And soon he becomes Norma’s lover, a kept man, a gigolo.

The undertaker arrives with the tiny coffin… Max greets him at the door and leads him up the long winding staircase.

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Joe’s voice over-“Silly hodge podge of melodramatic plotz however I started concocting a little plot of my own”
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Joe tells Norma-“Maybe what it needs is a little more dialogue”
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“What for I can say anything I want with my eyes!”
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“You know I’m pretty expensive”

Wilder visually suggests how Joe is being drawn into Norma’s world at first when he goes to his room above the garage, the camera focuses on the gnarled dead branches that invade the space as he climbs the dark stairs to his room. Joe is too smug in his new cozy set-up, having no clue of the dangerous path he’s about to embark on.

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“So I let him (Max) unpack my things. I wanted the dough, and I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. I thought if I really got going, I could toss it off in a couple of weeks. But it wasn’t so simple, getting some coherence into that wild, scrambled melodrama she’d concocted. What made it tougher was that she was around all the time–hovering over me, afraid I’d do injury to that precious brain child of hers.”
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Joe-“Say… She’s quite a character that Norma Desmond” Max– fixated on his mistress-“She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn’t know… you’re too young… In one week she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. ….there was a maharjas who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings… later he strangled himself with it”
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Joe’s voice over-“Crumbling apart in slow motion -the whole place had a sort of creeping paralysis out of beat with the rest of the world”

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“the last rights of that hairy chimp as if she were laying to rest an only child”
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“it was all very queer…”
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“was her life really as empty as that?”

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While daylight seeps through the blinds, he lies on top of the shabby quilt, the script strewn about him. As he awakens to these strange surroundings he narrates in voice over for us once again-, “That night I had a mixed up dream. In it was an organ grinder. I couldn’t see his face, but the organ was all draped in black and a chimp was dancing for pennies. I opened my eyes the music was still there… Where was I?… Oh yes, that empty room over the garage. (the organ playing beneath his voice-over) Only it wasn’t empty anymore. Somebody had brought in all my belongings. My books, my typewriter, my clothes… What was going on?” He puts his jacket on and heads toward the pipe organ–Max (Von Stroheim, white gloved close up is actually playing) Bach’s widely used baleful Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor.

Not too long after he finds that Norma has told Max to move his belongings into the house. Joe is weak and resents having to rely on Norma’s affections to support him. Norma argues with him about him needing her financial support, that he’s a proud boy who is in difficulties.

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Joe dumps a scene ‘cut away from me?’

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Joe’s voice-over-“I didn’t argue with her. You didn’t yell at a sleepwalker–he may fall and break his neck. That’s it, she was sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career– plain crazy when it came to that one subject: her celluloid self, the great Norma Desmond. How could she breathe in that house, so crowded with Norma Desmonds? More Norma Desmond, and still more Norma Desmond!”

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“How could she breathe in that house so crowded with Norma Desmonds”
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Max lifts the painting that reveals the large movie screen

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Norma is entertaining her cynical ‘lover’ who is coasting on ennui. Trusted Max is a constant enigma of stoic devotion, as he watches from the projection booth, the light from the bulb shimmers on his somber face.

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Joe finally begins to accept his role as Norma’s found boy-friend. He spends time with her, working on the script while Norma dressed in one of her lounging pajamas autographs photos of herself. Joe begins to realize just how unaware she is about how much the world has passed her by. Norma isn’t gracious about any criticism, she forces him to watch her old movies. Joe’s smug voice-over-

“She’s sit very close to me, and she’d smell of tuberoses, which is not my favorite perfume, not by a long shot. Sometimes as we watched, she’d clutch my arm or my hand forgetting she was my employer becoming just a fan, excited about that actress up there on the screen… I guess I don’t have to tell you who that actress was. They were always her pictures, that’s all she ever wanted to see.”

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Swanson delivers her dialogue with an intrepid vehemence which cuts at the heart of being a forgotten silent star gazing at the clip of an actual Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond film they made, “Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces…! There just aren’t any faces like that anymore… Well, maybe one… Garbo.”

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Swanson delivers her dialogue with an intrepid vehemence which cuts at the heart of being a forgotten silent star gazing at the clip of an actual Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond film they made, “Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces…! There just aren’t any faces like that anymore… Well, maybe one… Garbo.”

Standing in the ghostly beam of projector light Norma avows- “Those idiot producers! Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again, so help me!”

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“Norma is caught between challenge and panic. Her neurotic solution is to buy a man, which establishes her power and control, and then make a pretense of a girlish vulnerability. Her suicide attempt is emblematic of her ambivalence since it is both an assertion of power and an act of self-diminution.” -Brandon French-On the Verge of Revolt-Women in Films of the 1950s

Continue reading “When the Spider Woman Looks: Two Glorias- “Wicked Love, Close ups & Old Jewels”- The sympathetically tragic villainesses of Sunset Blvd (1950) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936)”

The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) The ‘Angel of Death’ and a nice glass of warm milk!

As part of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol

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THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947)

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When I found out that Rachel from The Girl With the White Parasol was hosting a Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, I chomped at the bit to participate. I love Stanny, pure and simple. She not only changed the way women demonstrated their power in film, she’s gutsy, gorgeous and persuasive in a very unconventional way.

Barbara Stanwyck, unlike some of her other vice-ridden murderous roles, plays Sally Morton an archetypal woman in peril, although not as individuated as ‘hysterical’ or pathetic like Leona Stevenson in Anatole Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number 1948.

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The consummate Woman- in -Peril is Stanny as Leonora Stevenson in Anatole Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number 1948

Stanny brought a unique kind of dynamism to the Suspense & Noir landscape. She’s got a face bred with burning spirit and animal coolness, that exudes a subtle psychology ferocious independence and dramatic intelligence.

The Stanwyck role was originally performed by Elisabeth Bergner in Martin Vale’s stage play. A suspense-thriller that fits within the realm of noir with Gothic tinges of horror. Humphrey Bogart appeared in the classic horror film The Return of Doctor X 1939. Bogart plays the subdued, yet sinister malefactor Geoffrey Carroll. He’s a cynical, eccentric and alienated artist. Stanny plays Sally the woman he kills his first wife for, poisoning her with glasses of milk just like in Hitch’s Suspicion 1941.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls is also the second pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Alexis Smith, who plays Cecily Latham the ‘other woman.’ She first acted opposite Bogie in Conflict 1945 where he played Richard Mason pursuing his wife’s sister Alexis Smith’s Evelyn Turner.

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Bogart and Smith in Conflict 1945

Produced by Mark Hellinger for Jack Warner and directed by Peter Godfrey (Cry Wolf 1947 also starring Stanny & The Woman in White 1948) The Two Mrs.Carrolls is a woman in peril, female victim story à la Hitchcock.

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Barbara Stanwyck in Peter Godfrey’s noir thriller Cry Wolf 1947

Stanwyck’s role diverges from some of her more famous female villains, the noir femme fatale who embodies the unacceptable archetype of the sexually aggressive woman. In this film she plays the more marginalized ‘good woman’ who is worthy of being a wife and often the victim, contrasted by the lustful and conniving Cecily (Alexis Smith) who embodies treachery and a freely expressed sexuality.

The film co-stars Nigel Bruce as Dr. Tuttle, Isobel Elsom (Ladies in Retirement 1941,Monsieur Verdoux 1947) as Mrs. Latham Patrick O’Moore as Charles Pennington (Penny), Ann Carter as Beatrice Carroll, Anita Bolster (The Lost Weekend, Scarlet Street 1945) as Christine the maid, and Barry Bernard as the blackmailing chemist Horace Blagdon. There’s a welter of melodramatic music by Franz Waxman, plenty of Gothic shadows by cinematographer J.Peverell Marley (Hound of the Baskervilles 1939, House of Wax 1953) & gorgeous fashions by Edith Head.

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Barbara Stanwyck looks stunning throughout the film, in the costumes envisioned by Edith Head

Made in 1945 Warner Bros. most likely held back the release of this film as it was very close to Bogart’s role in Conflict that same year. Bogart the quintessential scruffy cigarette smoking everyman equip with trench coat fedora and gritty sneer is very capable of playing complex characters with a disturbed pathology of inner turmoil. I think of his role as the controlling and ill-tempered script writer Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place 1950, or Captain Queeg in The Cain Mutiny 1954.

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Humphrey Bogart as the unstable Dix and Gloria Grahame in Nicholas Ray’s 1950 psychological noir In A Lonely Place

In The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Bogart is cast as Geoffrey Carroll a Bluebeardesque psychotic who first feels driven to paint his muse, the object of his desire, only to feel compelled to destroy her once he’s done exalting her essence using poisoned milk as his method of murder. He is not unlike Vincent Price’s anachronism of a Hudson Valley nobleman driven by an insane need for an heir in Dragonwyck 1946, in an extension of the Bluebeard mythos as he kills his wives who are incapable of giving him sons.

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Michael Redgrave as the derange architect married to the object of his desire/destructive force Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door 1948

Certain Noir films are the manifestation of psychosis, emerging in the form of the ‘mad artist’  most notably Edgar Ulmer’s Bluebeard 1944. Franchot Tone was the obsessively deranged sculptor in Phantom Lady 1944, Architect Michael Redgrave in Fritz Lang’s incredible depiction of noir psychosis in The Secret Beyond the Door 1947 which had suggestive imagery of a dream like atmosphere with it’s overt Freudian fairy tale patterns tied to psychoanalytical interpretations of childhood trauma and sexual significance. Joan Bennett refers to her own ability to purge these ‘repressed poisons’ because she is so chatty and exorcizes her demons by talking too much.

Joan Bennett in The Secret Beyond the Door
Joan Bennett gazes at her own image in Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door- the iconic mirror!

Peter Godfrey’s The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door 1948 are ideal examples of a leading man portraying creativity and obsessiveness driven to madness. In the former Barbara Stanwyck plays Sally Morton who has a whirlwind romance with painter Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart) only to learn that he is actually married to an invalid wife. Though Carroll is desperate to possess Sally as he claims she has ‘saved’ him, so that he can now paint again. Before they had met, his work suffered. When Sally finds out that Geoffrey is married she flees their romantic sojourn leaving Carroll in a cave showing dismay and turbulence on his face. Carroll goes to London and sees a chemist, signing a fictitious name. After several glasses of milk the first Mrs. Carroll is dead, and Sally becomes the second Mrs. Carroll.

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Sally becomes his new ‘subject,’ a replacement as artist’s inspiration and love object. But once the wealthy and decadent tigress Cecily Latham (she wears animal print) aggressively pursues him to paint her and become her lover, Sally’s fate is sealed. Carroll transfers his fixation to his new object, Cecily Latham, played by the gorgeous Alexis Smith (I saw her on Broadway in the 70s. She won a Tony award for her performance in the hit Broadway musical Follies… what a treat!)

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The film is an odd and edgy thriller which opens in a pastoral setting in Scotland where Sally and Geoffrey are having a quaint picnic by the lake, while Geoffrey sits upon a rock and sketches her. The initial loveliness and serene atmosphere sets out to misdirect us as a place much like Eden. The couple we learn have been dating for two weeks. Everything bares the most ordinary of appearances, as Geoffrey and Sally’s budding romance seems filled with a lighthearted joyfulness in alliance with the surrounding paradisal scenery.

McGregor tells him he’s caught a fish, Geoffrey yells to him, “Well from this distance that takes real talent. Throw that whale back, the way I feel today I don’t want even a fish to be unhappy!”

Geoffrey Carroll tells Sally, “two weeks of the only real happiness I’ve ever known… I love you Sally, I love you.” As soon as Geoffrey utters these words and the couple embrace, the sky begins to well up with uneasy clouds. Accompanied by old man McGregor who has the typified Scottish accent warning them of the rough weather brewing.

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As the opening serenity is quickly broken by the foreboding torrential rain storm, this symbol of strife and disturbance that oppresses the joy and becomes a metaphor as the film ends with a similar rain storm that besets Sally’s world.

This will inevitably turn into a nightmarish landscape for Sally but the serene local diverts us from the darkness to come, as we soon discover that Carroll is a disturbed artist who constantly needs fresh female inspiration in order for his art and sexual gratification to thrive. His art depends on it, and he is willing to kill the women he once desired to sustain himself.

The couple seek refuge from the rain in a nearby cave. As Geoffrey goes to get his fishing gear and picnic basket from McGregor, Sally remains behind holding his jacket. As she calls after him, a letter falls out of the pocket. She picks up the small white envelope and is horrified to see it is addressed to a Mrs. Carroll. The extraordinary range of emotions Stanwyck is capable of reflecting within a single frame is cogent and palpable, as she shifts from content glances to an interior that aches. Her eyes glimmer with crushed spirit. Franz Waxman’s dramatic score confronts the moment as Sally is framed in by the dark outline of the cave.

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Once Geoffrey returns to the cave he finds Sally suddenly unyielding and in emotional distress.

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“This fell out of your pocket you evidently forgot to mail it when we left the inn. It’s addressed to a Mrs. Geoffrey Carroll.”
“My wife”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
” I tried to from the first day but I couldn’t. There’s a child too.”
“Are you separated?”
“No that letter was to ask for a divorce.”
“Have you been married long?”
“We’ve been together for ten years, my wife’s been an invalid ever since the child was born.”
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“Do you think I’d marry you now. I’m afraid you don’t know me very well.”
“I know I love you.”
“I don’t want that kind of love… why didn’t you tell me before, why?”
“I didn’t want to lose you.”
“But it would have saved so much hurt, and now it’s no use.”
“I don’t believe that… ” “Before I found you I was finished. There was nothing. I couldn’t work I couldn’t think I didn’t care. We mustn’t lose each other Sally, ever. We couldn’t if we tried because our love is…”

Sally breaks down and flees the cover of the cave crying ‘No… no’ not wanting to hear Geoffrey’s excuses she runs out into the pouring rain.

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“Miss Morton, do you hear me, you’ll catch your death,” McGregor’s calls out to Sally his words echo within the walls of the cave, reverberating in Geoffrey’s mind.

He gives a tortured look as symbolic bars of rain  obfuscate his figure. As Waxman’s music acts like a buzz saw in his twisted psyche he looks down at the letter lying at his muddied feet he grips his head.

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The scene switches to Blagdon (Barry Bernard) the cash chemist sealing up a package with wax. He’s an unsavory character with a scar that gives him an added edge of sleaziness. Bladgon hands Geoffrey the register, “You’ll have to sign for this sir.” Blogdan answers the phone, he’s lost a bet on the horses.

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“You see this scar Mr. Fleming, is it?… well I got this scar when I was 9 years old I was kicked by a horse and I been trying to get even with the ‘orses ever since but it aint quite worked out.”
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The two walk over to an easel holding a painting. Bea tells her father, “You’re a genius… wait until you finish this one father, The Angel of Death.”
“You think it’s good huh?”
“I should say I do. It’s frightening of course, makes me shiver sometimes, but so definitely mother. Do you think she’ll live until we finish the picture?”

Geoffrey Carroll returns home to his London flat where he greets his daughter Beatrice. He takes the little white package from the chemist and puts it in his pocket. Geoffrey asks how her mother is doing, she tells him about the same.

He says, “What are you talking about, well of course she’ll live. What you mean?”
“Don’t get excited father. We both want her to live because we love her so much. That doesn’t mean she will live does it?”

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Bea tells her father that although she spends more time with her mother she adores him… “I love you too, and I admire you tremendously”

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A bell rings, it is time for Mrs. Carroll’s milk. Beatrice goes into the kitchen to prepare the hot white liquid for her mother. Geoffrey enters the room and takes the sauce pan and glass from his daughter pouring the milk himself. Standing outside the bedroom door, holding the glass of warm milk a queer look sploshes over his face like waves of disequilibrium. He suddenly tells Bea that starting tomorrow she’ll be going away to school.

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Carroll lurks outside his wife’s door like a fiendish vampire

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Christine the maid greets Mr.Pennington at the door, her angular face always an expression of joy!

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Bea-“I said it was tremendous “
Penny-“Yes but it’s a bit creepy don’t you think?”
“That’s only at first. You get accustomed to it. Then you think it’s wonderful. She was my mother. Died a little less than two years ago.”
“I’m sorry.’
“You needn’t be. We all die sooner or later.” Bea’s comment is calm and canny.Penny says, “I’ve heard a rumor to that effect.”
“It isn’t exactly as mother was, because it isn’t a portrait. Yet it is like her too. Father says it’s representational.”
“Your father took the very word right out of my mouth.”

Two years later, Sally now the second Mrs.Carroll and Geoffrey are living in Ashton in Sally’s Gothic manor house inherited from her father.

Charles Pennington (Patrick O’Moore) or Penny is greeted at the door by Christine (Anita Bolster) the house maid. As he waits for Sally, he studies the painting of the first Mrs. Carroll, not noticing Beatrice who is sitting in the armchair. She tells him the painting is tremendous.

Ann Carter as Carroll’s precocious daughter Bea figures prominently in the film as sort of the lens in which the conscience of the story reveals its moral code. Ann Carter exudes a mature seriousness reminiscent of Curse of the Cat People 1944 with her otherworldly air. She possesses a no nonsense touch to the mixed up morality she’s surrounded by that contributes to the pervasive despair and instability.

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Barbara Stanwyck looks stunning as she enters the room. Sally tells Bea she needn’t leave, that Penny is a dear old friend. Bea tells her they’ve already met, and he’s nice, quite nice.’  Penny asks how old she is ’45 or 50?’ She does give that impression, but she’s sweet.”

Penny is kind and obviously still very much in love with Sally. In a very evolved and civil manner, he hasn’t forgiven her for running out on him. She feels terrible about it, and says she should have given him some word. But when she met Geoffrey, when he came back it was as if nothing else mattered. He tells her that all a disappointed suitor need do is look at her. He asks if she’s as happy as she looks. Sally tells him “he’s good to me.” “He better be. Purely out of morbid curiosity I should like to meet him.”

She tells him that Geoffrey is working upstairs in his studio, and that she’ll call on him. Penny tells her that he’s not the only visitor. Mrs. Latham and her daughter Cecily are expected any minute. They’re friends and clients of his.

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“And Penny in case I didn’t make myself clear. It’s grand to see you again really grand.”
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“Thanks in case I didn’t make myself clear… Oh Sally.”

Sally runs up the staircase excited about her guests, she addresses the vinegary Christine

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“Christine there’ll be other visitors take them straight to the garden. Tea for five”
“Tea for five! Bread and butter?”
“Yes and some cucumber sandwiches.”
“Some cakes too?”
“Well if there are any.”
“We haven’t got any cakes.”
“Well then don’t serve them”
“I will.”

Waxman’s dynamically turbulent score breaks the witty moment, as Geoffrey paces his studio. Throwing down his paint brush and grabbing the canvas, he begins to rub the oil with turpentine wiping away what he has painted with hostility.

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Several frames show Geoffrey bisected by the large paint brushes. This might a visual indication of his fractured personality.
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Sally enters the room and sees him “What are you doing.”
“Something I should have done weeks ago, I’m sick of looking at it. A phony.”
“You can’t always paint masterpieces.”
“Well I can always try… I don’t understand it Sally, this fine old house, the most beautiful surrounding I’ve ever known and You. I have everything here. Then why isn’t my work better, what’s wrong?”

Continue reading “The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) The ‘Angel of Death’ and a nice glass of warm milk!”