August 14, 1950 [Sunset Blvd.]

The mansion of the silent-era star, Norma Desmond, is all Gothic--with a monkey in a coffin, an automobile like an filigreed block of lead, spreading ferns and rotted lace--and ghosts--one in particular: William Holden’s Joe Gillis the screenwriter, his humor dry as old bones, his face wet in the pool, our humble, drowned narrator. But Desmond is also a ghost--Gloria Swanson the bravest actor of all time widening her eyes and chittering like an old scorpion--and so is her chauffeur--and believe it or not it’s Erich von Stroheim, still packed into a uniform, a blood-sausage with a cynic’s monocle’d grin.

The director, Billy Wilder, seems to enjoy his work--reminded me of Double Indemnity, the unhesitating gesture that pushes his hungry little heroes to their deaths. But in Sunset Blvd. he knocks off most of Hollywood, barely missing Buster Keaton as he plays cards among the ruins of a world so harrowing Cecil B. DeMille looks like a creampuff. As Joe walks us through the Hollywood horrors, hating himself as much as every bum who ever touched one word of his scripts, I kept hearing beams groan, like the crumbling movie-set in Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust--but the sound grew more and more high-pitched, until Norma stood up there on the stairs, cute as Dracula--and again I thought of West’s novel, Tod attending the apocalyptic première at the end:

He was carried through the exit to the back street and lifted into a police car. The siren began to scream and at first he thought he was making the noise himself. He felt his lips with his hands. They were clamped tight. He knew then it was the siren. For some reason it made him laugh and he began to imitate the siren as loudly as he could.

Around him are “those wonderful people out there in the dark,” as Desmond calls them--and it sounds almost like a threat, her mouth open as though it, too, wants to scream, the light unforgiving on her voodoo-doll’s face. Wilder has it in for Hollywood, all right--and his vengeance is so brutal and mortifying that I want to stay home from now on, no more movies for me--except maybe Sunset Blvd., just one more time.


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