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Friday, September 28, 2012

My View of Bridge on the River Kwai

  Okay, we all know the drill.  Every year, Hollywood puts out action movies that are devoid of character development, solidly written dialog, and restrained pace  These are first-shot-explosion-turned-chase-scene-turned-shoot-out-to-the-last-scene-explosion epics that plaster the wide screens from April through September.  They have no background development.  The characters are flat, dialog is non-existent.  Despite our complaints about them, the fact is, we're all dazzled by the whiz-bang wizardry of Hollywood's bland magic makers.  We can't help it.  We twist our necks to see what's happening, much like any one would when a loud noise catches our attention in a crowded space.  Sadly, it has reduced us to onlookers, driving by and blinking in surprise at what we see without stopping to find out what it's all about.
  Without these dizzying effects to keep our attention (just think of someone standing next to you, snapping his fingers every few moments to keep you looking in his direction) we have become bored with things like character development, conversations, reflective moments, and yes, even setting.  The funny thing is, this is what made up the bulk of all those classic movies that everyone is so quick to say they love.  Consider the following:
  In Bridge on the River Kwai, William Holden and Alex Guinness must battle the misery and brutality of a Japanese Prison Camp during World War II.  It's a war movie that runs for 161 minutes.  For those of you who gave up math because it's just too time consuming, let me remind you that 161 minutes is two hours and forty-one minutes.  That's like watching six episodes of The Office back-to-back on a DVD, with about fifteen minutes left over to discuss all the hilarious ways Michael mistreated his employees.  So during all of this screen time, you would expect this war movie to have loads of action.  But in reality, there is very little.  There's an escape attempt about twenty minutes into the film.  It is shot in the dark, by moonlight, and there's some running around in the jungle, a few gunshots, and a knifing.  Later, more than an hour later, we see a very quick one-sided gun battle, followed by more running in the jungle, and another knifing.  It is not until the final scene that we see some action which includes mortar fire, machine guns, and explosives.  And yet, even during this action, the greatest and most memorable moment in it is when two characters utter one word at the other.
Jack Hawkins attempts to draw William Holden into
his plan to demolish the River Kwai Bridge.
  And that's it.  That's all the action you get.  By today's standards it's boring.
  I sat my two teenage sons down one night to watch this long, drawn-out drama, with the firm conviction that it was one of the best war movies I've ever seen.  Sure, they've seen Saving Private Ryan, and  Band of Brothers.  I knew that they loved action movies, thought even the most creative CGI displays don't keep their full attention.  They have a habit of chit-chatting during movies, joking and poking at each other as if they need something else to entertain them during the film.  I admit I worried that their focus would wander during Kwai, which I knew to be thin on action.  But I pressed the play button and hoped for the best.
  Two hours and forty-one minutes later, as the credits filled the screen, I looked over at my sons, who were still leaning towards the screen, a position I had noticed them in early on in the film.  They both reluctantly turned away from the screen, looking in my direction.  "Wow, that's a good movie," one of them said.  The other one nodded.
  Now, a little full-disclosure is required here.  I've raised these boys on classic movies.  Though they watch plenty of modern movies like Tron:Legacy, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, they've also watched many Bogart movies with me, as well as Steve McQueen, and John Wayne, and even Buster Keaton.  They learned how to pay attention during long conversations and they understand that lighting and music can be used to create and promote themes in the background of a movie.  But that doesn't always mean they like the older movies.  It doesn't mean the classics always keep their attention.
  But Kwai had them from the get-go.  The moment they heard that theme song being whistled by a ragtag bunch of prisoners marching vigorously, shod only with the tattered remains of what might once have been boots, proudly holding their place as the wounded straggle in behind them, they were hooked.  And it wasn't action that held them there.
  The first thing to keep them pinned to their seats was the slightly humorous British officer, played with such dry excellence by Sir Alec Guinness, as he obnoxiously argues with the prison camp commander Colonel Saito.  Guinness is at his best here, but I believe it only works so well because of the equally stunning performance by veteran actor (and former silent film star) Sessue Hayakawa.  Hollywood, in 1957, also thought he was pretty darned good.  He was nominated for an Academy Award as supporting actor.  The humor here quickly leads to drama as Guinness is locked into the hot box and a battle of wills ensues.
  The linchpin of this long film is a scene between these two officers near the middle of the movie.  It is not the point at which they square off and fight with amazing gravity defying skills that can only be filmed with the use of harnesses and green-screens.  In fact, such a fight never happens.  Why should it when these two men can hold us captive with a conversation.  That's all it is.  A conversation over dinner.  Two men just talking. And yet, it is mesmerizing.  At the end of it, you feel the need to stop and take a breath, and marvel at the sheer magic that can be accomplished by a writer, two actors, and a director.
  As the film builds to its climax, we aren't assaulted with a dizzying array of brutal prison camp scenes that most modern movies like to throw at us.  What we see instead is a bizarre twist as Guinness emerges as more of a villain than Hayakawa.  At the same time, we see Holden do everything he can to not be a hero.  He goes out of his way to be a coward.  And yet, fate drags him closer and closer to the climax.  And we begin to suspect that despite his anti-hero wise-cracks, Holden will not disappoint.  He will, in fact, emerge as the hero, boots planted victoriously astride the bodies and ashes of the Japanese and their bridge.
  Spoiler alert here.  I hate to do this for anyone who hasn't seen this movie.  But the climax is the point of what I am saying.  If you are the type to care about these things, and you haven't seen the movie, stop now, go and rent it and watch it, then come back to finish reading.  Otherwise, just keep reading.  Knowing the end doesn't ruin the movie.  The sum total of this movie's greatness does not lie in a twist ending.  It won't lose anything if you know what happens.  You won't care once you finally sit down to watch it, because you'll be spellbound anyway, and forget what you read here, and it will be just as satisfying to watch as if you'd never heard what happens.
Sir Alec Guinness struggles with duty and pride in
the heat of the Burmese Jungle.
  As I said before, the final battle contains machine-gun fire, mortars dropping on the river, and the bridge blowing up.  But that doesn't matter very much.  What does matter is that one character must face the decision to kill one of his own, and we know, from character development, that he has enough trouble killing the enemy, let alone a fellow officer.  What does matter is that William Holden, the Hollywood Star (and only American in the film) shrugs off his cowardice, boldly surges across the river under enemy gunfire, utters a one-word line that is his best line in the film, and dies needlessly, accomplishing nothing.  What does matter is that Guinness utters the same line as Holden, dies in shame, and only redeems himself through happenstance.
  What really matters is the doctor's last words.  (Played by the wonderful Scottish actor James Donald.)
  "Madness!  Madness!"
  None of which would be worth watching without character development, a slow, gut-twisting pace, and minimal action.  When it is over, and the bodies are strung out in a line in the riverbed, you'll need to catch your breath.  And if you take the time to think about it, you'll wonder what all these action movies today are lacking.  Because none of them, with their millions of dollars of CGI stunt-laden action, can approach this kind of finale.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Quick View of Cities of the Dead

As I mentioned some time ago, I am in the process of putting out a book this fall that is a collection of short stories set in the cemeteries of New Orleans.  I know, you're thinking "I was wondering when someone would finally write such a book.  It's about time!"  And you would be thinking correctly.
The book will be released on October 13th, and Saint James Infirmary Books will be showcasing it at the 2012 Louisiana Book Festival on October 27th.  I have received some very encouraging and generous reviews already, and I have shared them on the book's Facebook page here.  The book is in its final stages, and I can offer a preview of the Front cover today.

  The artwork is by Kathryn Reeser, mixed with a photograph I took in Saint Louis Cemetery Number Two.  The book includes 13 stories, the first of which was posted here at Room With No View.  If you missed it, just click on this link.  Other stories from this collection have appeared in Danse Macabre Magazine.
  Keep an eye out for more details as the date gets closer.  I hope everyone buys a copy and it becomes a bestseller.  (Well, I can hope, can't I?)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Four Reasons Our Roads Will Never Be Beautiful Again

  It is very frustrating for me to look back through old advertisements and realize how far removed we have become from a time when cars were works of art.  At the present time, most of our cars look like Toyota Camrys.  They are mostly little shoe boxes with their edges rounded off.  The grills are unforgettable.  The colors standard.  The look is pedestrian.  No wonder Pontiac went out of business.  How can a car company stay in business when all of the cars look the same?  I might set out to buy a Honda, but I could just as easily buy a Toyota or a Chevy and feel like I've bought the car I was looking for.  Who can tell them apart?  And who wants to?  They all look like the cheap knock-off die-cast cars that were not designed from any real automotive lines.  You know the ones I mean, the ones you could buy from the little toy section in the grocery store or the ones at the Five and Dime.  (That's a Dollar store for you kids today.  My favorite Five and Dime was the Ben Franklin, which was a wonder to wander through as a seven-year-old.)

  This is the 1958 Pontiac Bonneville.  Billed as Motoring's Action-packed Aristocrat!  That distinctive rear panel slot makes me think it is designed to be grabbed by a futuristic robotic arm for advanced parking.  This baby was the Pace car for the 1958 Indianapolis 500.  Sweet.

   Virgil Exner hit a home run with the 1956 DeSoto.  His new look, billed as the Forward Look, which included this super-awesome triple tail-light catapulted DeSoto's sales to record highs.  The DeSoto Fireflite convertible was the Pace car for Indy in 1956.  Incredibly, Chrysler discontinued the DeSoto brand just four years later.  Well, Chrysler was never known for their great decision making.  (Google the K car if you don't believe me.)

    Not to be outdone by Chrysler's Forward Look, Buick decided that if the public wanted chrome, they would get chrome.  In spades!  Actually, in squares: 160 chrome squares, to be exact.  The 1958 Buick Fashion-Aire Dynastar grille was meant to reflect light like nothing before.  This beautiful girl rolled down the road shining like a trophy wife's diamond necklace.  Too much?  Nah, I don't think so.

   Of course, if you know me, I'm going to get the '57 Chevy Bel Air into this discussion.  Is there any better classic look?  I was surprised to learn that the '57 Ford actually outsold Chevy that year, though it is suggested that Chevy's switch to the tubeless tire scared away sales.  Ford's Fairlane certainly had attractive features, and I'll let the motor-heads argue over who had the better engine, but I just don't think the Ford matches up against the Chevy look.  But either way, the Chevy or the Ford are clearly far better designs from the artistic standpoint that a new Ford Focus or a Chevy Volt.
  Seriously, folks, what happened?  I wasn't there, during that transition time from 1960 to the 1980's, but I've heard there was a great deal of drugs being spread throughout the collective culture.  Perhaps that's the reason these gorgeous vehicles aren't made any more.  You can blame it all on the oil crisis in the '70s, but that is no excuse for the loss of aesthetics.
  I have trouble understanding how any car maker cannot see the potential for reviving these kinds of designs.  Even the underpowered Chrysler PT Cruiser and Chevy's HHR grabbed a bit of the spotlight due to their slightly retro looks.  I've been saying this for years to my family members, who must now be tired of hearing it, that if Chevy put out a retro Bel Air that brought back the look with modern conveniences, it would sell like hotcakes.  Anyone out there listening?

  As an end note to this post, I have now run Room With No View for a full year.  Thanks to everyone who peeks in from time to time to find out what's been on my mind or in the cross hairs of my camera.  I hope you always enjoy my posts, and keep checking back for another year.  If you haven't already, click the follow button, as this makes me feel like someone out there likes me, and would follow me like everyone followed Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure.  I know, half of those people died, but I think I could do better than that.  And always share the posts you like with your friends.  The more readers, the more the world will eventually be converted to my way of thinking.  And that's not bad!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My View of Internet Comment Threads

Copied with permission from
USAG considering hate crime charges against major internet news sites
Posted on September 12, 2012 at 2:19pm by  Chick Walderbeekenen         Print »           Email »          Comments  (16)

  A recent study conducted by a panel of web-surfers with too much time on their hands has concluded that while the Internet boasts a growing industry of media outlets and readership, the majority of news stories carry with them pages and pages of poorly written, unsubstantiated, racially explosive, expletive-laced (yes, we recognize the expletives no matter that you misspell them or substitute symbols from the shift-level number keys), and completely ignorant arguments.
  The USAG is paying attention.
While every website has its own rules for moderating these interactive forums, most of the administrators of these pages are not doing their job.  It is an impossible mission.  It would require a legion of moderators to police the thousands of comments that crop up on websites from to properly.  This logistical nightmare does not, however, relieve the operators of said websites from their culpability in propagating such online vitriol.  In no way is their guilt assuaged by the weak disclaimer that is added to each of these forums—this website is not responsible for any comments that might cause offense or lead any person to begin to believe that the majority of fellow commenters are dumber than rocks and worth less than a cup of coffee.
  The very fact that websites make such harmful and detrimental writings available to the public, through their own efforts of updating, cataloging, and offering said offensive comments for archival reading may leave them ripe for prosecution.  The intervention of the USAG may not only be necessary, it might also just be in the nick of time.
  “The trend of the comment pages has begun to alarmingly plummet,” says Web Sociologist Fric Fracenbergerer, of Northwestern Southern State’s Independent Methodological Combine and Noninterventionist Conjecture Branch, “and this trend is only going to get worse as the election season draws nearer.  The incivility of the public debate has drawn out what is usually kept hidden by our desire to appear to our friends as someone they would want to invite over for a friendly cup of coffee instead of revealing their true inner selves, which usually is more in line with the nut-jobs that populate our inner nightmares—like, for just an example, when we fear that an escaped inmate from the local insane asylum has passed himself off as a teacher at the local school and is inflicting irreparable damage on our children’s psyches.  These little monsters, easily suppressed in polite company, easily break out of their confinement as soon as one sits down in front of a computer screen.  Given a keyboard, and a world-wide-audience, these monsters become terribly virulent.”
  And it is this virulence that has drawn the watchful eye of the USAG.  Since the advent of Hate Laws, which has put a bullseye on our intentions and not just our actions, the way is open for the Government to begin probing the possibility of indicting hundreds of website operators for allowing these rivers of hate to flow free.  Full of racial epithets, expletives, and religious attacks, it is quite possible that each one of these dangerous comments, which can lead to violence, hatred, and even hurt feelings, could be listed as an incident of Hate Speech, allowing the Attorney General to compile a list of charges as long as the comment section on an article written about the President’s State of the Union speech.
  A decision from the USAG is expected to be announced sometime in the next two years. 
Full disclosure ethics leads us to confess that our own website may be culpable in contributing to the vituperative nature of the Internet and our Board of Directors will decide within the week whether or not we will continue to allow comment sections to be appended to our articles.
Sponsored Ad  Tired of being tired?  Check out this well-hidden secret formerly kept by airline pilots and stick-pin manufacturers!
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·         AGra V8ted
Posted on September 12, 2012 at 3:12pm

Yeah, don’t you just hate teachers?!!!  They really do mess up little minds!  Like Plato said, all the teachers ought to be thrown in the ocean!!
Posted on September 12, 2012 at 4:43pm
You’re kidding right?  The &*^ing govurment needs to go after all those stupid religus haters who keep pushing there Jesus crud on me!  Stop saying that fournicators are sinners.  Just cus I was born that way don’t make me a sinner!!!!
                      (Yo girlz, you like my comment?  check me at this email!) 
Posted on September 12, 2012 at 5:21pm

Bet you a box of donuts the writer of this trash is a hippie A-Rab trying to bring down the internet!

                Posted on September 12, 2012 at 5:28pm
            @Mediawatcher—are you smoking crack?  Hippies can’t be Arabs, you brain-dead paranoid. 

                Posted on September 12, 2012 at 5:33pm
            Bobbylouis?  More like Liberal Media Nazi Cop, trolling for honest knights like me who are just out here trying to keep the truth truth and the lies lies.  I know who you really are, Feinbeggler.  You’re such a screwup, you used this BobbyLouis alias in the Obama/Healthcare/Lady Gaga fight last week!  HA!  Outed!  Stick that in your commie stew and choke on it, k)&^(^%er! 

                Posted on September 12, 2012 at 5:44pm
            What are you talking about?  Have you been watching too much Hannity?  (No coincidence it rhymes with insanity!  And where’s Combs?  Anyone realize they haven’t found his body?  Notice how they never move Hannitys desk?  Too obvious!) 

                Posted on September 12, 2012 at 5:55pm
            Here we go again, folks!  Feinbeggler’s still on this crazy thing about Hannity murdering Colmes.  (Not Combs, you Neanderthal!)  Alan Colmes is on TV all the time.  He’s alive!  Check the facts, you slug-eating monkey-child!  There is no date of death for Alan Colmes on Wikipedia.  Duh!  It would be there if he was dead!!!!!! 

Posted on September 12, 2012 at 5:30pm
I’m glad something is being done about this.  I get so sad when I read the awful filth that people type in these comments sections.  They are so hurtful, so mean to everybody.  The world needs more love.  Not the yucky kind that all those horrible sickos show in movies and their gross music videos.  People like that should be locked up for the rest of their lives, they are so twisted and disgusting.  I can’t stand to see all those vile ‘love scenes’ which in fact have nothing to do with love.  I say lock them up and then fill their cells with water until they drown.  That’s the only way to end all of that and restore love to the world, which it desperately needs.  I just wish someone would stand up and say things like this.  I sure couldn’t.  That’s what seems so hard to believe, that so many people want to sit down at their computers and talk to the world, as if anyone wants to hear what they have to say.  I can’t do it, since modesty and discretion prevent me from posting comments all over the web like all of those morons who are always writing this kind of thing.
               Posted on September 12, 2012 at 5:35pm
            Yo Princess—you’re hot, girl.  Check me at this email!

                Posted on September 12, 2012 at 5:30pm
            It came back as mailer-daemon failed to deliver.  Twice!  Did I do something wrong? 
Lonely for 1
Posted on September 12, 2012 at 6:10pm
USAG Considering Wanting a wife but to get one know can get to no one?  Our best line-on no previous husbands girls from <domain not United States f:share to> pretty land and want for the wedding cheap with all documentation at Wyves4theaskin.azer.
                                Posted on September 12, 2012 at 6:17pm

            Yo gotcha, you lieing (*&(&^%%!!  People don’t trust these cockroaches!  They take your money and no girl ever shows up at the airport!  Stupid Cops won’t do nothing about it either!!  They are all in cahoots!  I can prove it!!  Check me at this email!
                                    Yo, Princess, got your email—finally!!  Sorry, I’ll check you back after I finish this post.           These cheating white slavers will PAY!

Posted on September 12, 2012 at 7:o8pm

As the article says, people are becoming too uncivil.  They do not have the manners our parents raised us with seventy years ago.  We have become a nation of cave-men.  I do not really believe that the websites in question are legally responsible for the hate-crimes that come from such overblown temper-tantrums as one sees in the comment sections, but perhaps they should be held accountable in some way.  Ethically, they are certainly at fault for allowing so many people to speak their minds (but really, they prove every day they are actually mind-less).

                Posted on September 12, 2012 at 7:33pm
            @Rightbyme—who are you calling a caveman?  I know you’re talking to me.  You won’t call me brainless and get away with it, you sick,sick, sick OLD man.  How dare you call my posts overblown tempertantrums!!!  I am tired of hearing all of you old farts bragging about the old times, how great you all were.  If you were so great how did the world erupt into all those wars?  BOOM!  That’s a shot you can’t dodge, you senile can’t-walk-without-a-cane pedophile!
                Posted on September 12, 2012 at 7:44pm
            Mediawatcher outed you, remember Feinbeggler?  All it took was a little googling to find you.  And guess what?  I’m in LA too!  I can’t walk without a cane?  Well, let me tell you, you little left-wing fairy, I can’t walk without a gun either.  And you know what that means?  You better get off the web and get out of your apartment before I get there!

Posted on September 12, 2012 at 7:45pm
@ Agra V8ted.  This article wasn’t about teachers.  What are you talking about?  I happen to be a teacher who does not mess up little kids’ minds.  And another thing.  Plato did not say that!  Shakespeare said “let’s kill all the LAWYERS.”  You are mixing this quote up with the joke about lawyers in the ocean.  Get an education!

This comment thread has been locked-down by order of the LAPD pending investigation of shooting incident off Selpulveda Blvd.
Posted on September 12, 2012 at 7:45pm

Monday, September 10, 2012

My View of Ida Lupino

  Okay, as many of you know, I have a great many photographs of actors and actresses in my theater.  I have decided to add Ida Lupino to my wall, and am not sure which picture to add.  I'd love to hear what readers think is the best picture to add to my collection.  I'll give you a few choices from which to choose.

  Now, to start, there's this great shot of Ida with (anyone surprised?) Humphrey Bogart.  I should warn you, Mr. Bogart is already on my wall in about a half dozen photos, so as much as I like the shot, it may not be the best choice.
  Lupino and Bogart filmed They Drive By Night together in 1940, after which they filmed High Sierra, from which this still is taken.  I liked They Drive By Night better, but it is hard not to like any picture with these two film greats together.

  You may not know it, but Jack Palance had quite a career as a leading man, appearing in many great Film Noir thrillers.  This publicity shot is from 1955's The Big Knife, a great movie that showcases the acting range of Palance.  Shelly Winters and Rod Steiger have excellent supporting roles.  Lupino is stunning in this picture.  A fun, wild look behind the scenes of Hollywood.  Palance, always creepy, would be a nice addition to my wall.

  Okay, speaking of creepy, and since October is coming up, it would be pretty cool to add Basil Rathbone, along with sidekick Nigel Bruce, as they assist the young, troubled Lupino, saving her life, and the British Empire, of course, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in 1939.

  Now, what collection of movie stars doesn't look good with a studio, publicity glamour shot?  This is not Lupino's best look, since she made a career out of being a victimized woman (one who fought back with more bite than many of her fellow actresses, to be sure), though she does glamour pretty well.

  Speaking of fight, here's Lupino, her back against a wall but her hands full of a Winchester rifle.  She was always a tough girl, with that throaty voice of hers, it was easy to believe she could hold her own if the need arose.  In this 1949 western, Lust for Gold, Lupino stars with Glenn Ford, along with Gig Young (a personal favorite of mine), Will Geer (you know him as Grandpa Walton), and Jay Silverheels (Tonto!).  Gold, betrayal, and Ida Lupino with a Winchester--man, why can't they make movies like this anymore?

  This last publicity shot, from The Big Knife, is your last choice.  I like it, because it shows her slightly more vulnerable side, which always shone through her tough-girl act.  It's why she was able to be the tough girl.  Unlike many of today's tough girls, who are tough without a speck of vulnerability, hence little chance to earn our sympathy, Lupino always managed to both convince us that she was only as tough as she needed to be to protect a sensitive spirit that hid within.
  Lupino not only had a successful career as a leading lady in Hollywood, but she became one of the first major female directors in that male dominated field, including being credited as the first female director of a Film Noir (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953).  She directed many feature-length movies, as well as directing numerous television programs, including Gilligan's Island, Bewitched, The Twilight Zone (The Masks), and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  She has also guest-starred on many shows, including The Twilight Zone (The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine), Charlie's Angels, Colombo, Ellery Queen, Bonanza, and Batman (as Dr. Cassandra Spellcraft, a criminal alchemist).

So go ahead, let me know what your vote is.  Which picture of Ms. Lupino would be the best one for my Hollywood wall?

And if you are interested in Ms. Lupino's work, be sure to check out the following movies:
(High Sierra can be viewed online at the link below.)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

My View of Sunset Boulevard

  As a pretty serious film buff, there have been a few major movies that I have not yet seen.  Since this list contains movies made forty, sixty and even eighty years ago, and this list of movie titles does not grow, I have not gone out of my way to watch them all quickly in order to strike them off the list.  I have time to work through them slowly, opening each one like a gift, knowing that these are special movies.  Some of these movies do not live up to their hype, but these are rare.  Most of the time I discover that their pantheon status is well-deserved.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  I'd passed on the chance to watch Sunset Boulevard earlier in life for several reasons, the most prominent being that it just seemed to be about an old lady who was unhappy with having lost her popularity as a silent film star.  It just didn't sound too thrilling, and when I was younger I tended to look for more thrilling movies than ones that were not.  And although I loved William Holden in Stalag 17, I had never heard of Gloria Swanson, and so I felt no compulsion to watch a movie in which she was the female lead.  Back then I was more interested in Kathryn Hepburn, Grace Kelly, or Kim Novak.
  So after being bedridden with the flu, I found Sunset Boulevard on Netflix and decided it was time to give it a chance.  After all, it was rated as one of the top films ever made about Hollywood.  It has been included in the Library of Congress' first list of 25 films that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."  It had been nominated for 11 Academy Awards.  (Not always a good indicator, mind you.)  It was a Billy Wilder classic, which could be a good thing, and could be a bad thing.  I like Wilder, some of his movies top my favorites list.  But some of his top my most disappointed list as well.
  And so, like Gloria Swanson's character in the movie (though I did not know it at the time), I settled in to watch an old screen legend on my in-house movie screen.
  From the opening shots, we see two corpses:  one of a man lying face-down in a pool, one of a monkey lying in state, the silk sheet drawn back to reveal its death-mask.  The first image tells us this is going to be a noir-thriller.  The second tells us it is going to be anything but common; it is, in fact, going to be a Gothic, macabre tale.
  Joe Gillis, played with William Holden's usual laconic dry humor, is a struggling Hollywood hack who desperately needs to make some dough.  Sure, he's behind in his rent, but his big concern is losing his car, which as any man will tell you, symbolizes his freedom.  Unable to scrounge up a job, he ducks his car into what appears to be an abandoned garage on Sunset Boulevard while running from the repo-men.  Sunset is known for lavish, wealthy estates populated by the original stars of Hollywood, most of whom, at this time (1950) are living in seclusion, having dropped out of the public eye since the introduction of sound in pictures twenty-three years earlier.  Most of these stars, once the most envied by the public, were nearly forgotten in the wake of the unprecedented explosion of Hollywood's popularity.
  To Joe's unnerved surprise, the house is not empty.
  Here's where I began to enjoy this movie.  The house is presented as something close to Dracula's castle.  No, it's not a castle in the conventional moat-and-drawbridge sort of way, but this Italianate mansion actually has a creaky gate, bizarre decorations, and wide, open rooms that certainly give us that Castle feeling.  The butler, with his gargoyle-like stony expression, adds to the classic-horror feel as Joe is told he is "expected".
  Oh boy, don't walk in that gate!
  A woman's throaty voice calls out from the top of the stairs.  "You're late.  Come up here!"
  Oh boy, don't go up them stairs!
  The butler tells him, "if you need help with the casket, just call me."
  Excuse me?
  At the top of the stairs, he hears that same woman's voice say-- "In here."
  Oh boy, don't go in there.
  "He's right here."  She draws back that silk sheet to reveal the dead monkey.
  How does Bill Holden get out of this with only some dry humor and good looks?
Gloria Swanson's iconic portrayal of Norma Desmond
 And so begins this tale, of a man who discovers a silent film star, Norma Desmond (Swanson's role), who is living in some sort of Boris Karloff unreality, and decides she wants Holden to stay with her.  Holden's Joe Gillis, who doesn't flee as any right-minded man would, thinks he can exploit her for a job and some easy dough.  Well, why not?  If had acted as a right-minded man should, it would not have been a movie.
  From here on in, like Joe, we begin to learn of a Hollywood that no longer exists.  Of card games played by former stars: Gloria Swanson was actually a silent screen film star, and she gets old friends Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson to join her at the card table.  What a delight it was to see Keaton in this cameo!  Her old friend and director Cecil B. Demille gets to play a significant part in the story, and even that old gossip Hedda Hopper shows up for the fun.  We are allowed to see the back-lots and offices of Paramount Pictures, as well as the sound stages.  All of which would make this a fun, cheery picture, except for the fact that these sights are only dressing added to the main story in that macabre house of Swanson's.
  Director Billy Wilder does this on purpose.  He wants to show us this hidden, sad layer of Hollywood, but he knows we won't buy it if it is done without the heavy involvement of the real Hollywood.  If Demille's role had been a generic, fake director, it would have made the movie just look like a farce.  So bizarre is the world that Wilder is showcasing that he must use these elements of truth to get us to agree to come along for the ride.
  Not all of Hollywood was thrilled at Wilder's depiction of their universe.  Many of the older stars complained about it.  But that had to be sheer vanity, since Wilder does a great job of highlighting one woman's loss of sanity, without condemning the entire industry along with her.
  There are some fascinating images used in this movie.  None of the doors in the mansion have locks, all of them have been removed, leaving holes in every door.  Oddball beauty treatments resemble something out of Phantom of the Opera.  The lavish, downright hokey decor in Swanson's house is great, especially when you find out that the set decorator actually designed similar houses for actual stars like Mae West.  Should anyone be surprised that Hollywood stars might have bad taste?
  The plot is not too original.  But it doesn't have to be.  It is simply a take on how Hollywood, with all of its money and glitz, can seduce a man who wants to do something good with his talent.  This is illustrated by the contrast between the glamorous Swanson and Holden's sweet love-interest, played by newcomer Nancy Olson.  (Boy, even her name reeks of sweetness.  She's almost too pure to be believable, looking and acting like one of those innocent college girls in a Superman comic book.)  A special gem in the movie is Nancy's friend Arty, played with enthusiastic joie de vivre by the unlikely Jack Webb.  He's so young, and so full of expression, I had to look him up on the Internet to figure out who he was.  I knew he looked familiar, but I would never have guessed Joe Friday could be so...smiley.
  There is so much I'd like to say about this movie, but can't, for fear of ruining it for the few out there who have not seen it.  (It seems unlikely, given its status, but I hadn't seen it until just the other day, so I have to assume there are others.)  All I can add is that once you've seen it, read up on the history of the actors involved.  Pay particular attention to the butler (Eric von Stroheim) .  His role is full of wonderful irony that is even more so when his real life is taken into consideration.
  Holden gets all the witty, cynical lines, as when he responds to Olson's comment that she had heard he had some talent--"That was last year.  This year I'm trying to earn a living."  But it's Swanson who gets the best lines.  When Holden threatens to leave her, she holds that movie-star profile high and says "No one ever leaves a star--that's what makes one a star."  But what Wilder makes so painfully clear is that though the stars may light up the sky for a time, stars also fall.  And when they do, it is fascinating to watch them plummet from the sky.