Sunset Boulevard and Cocteau's Orphee

Juli Kearns Cinema Leave a Comment

(Note: Originally placed online 2000. Am migrating it over here from another section of the website.)

“I put him on the massage table in front of the fire. He always liked fires, and poking at them with a stick.”
Norma Desmond–“Sunset Blvd”

My son is two and a half years of age. He is standing in front of the television repeatedly rewinding the scene in Sunset Blvd where Joe Gillis (William Holden), having stumbled upon the art deco ghost mansion of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), is confused with an awaited mortician and is called up to Norma’s room. To be more precise, he is watching over and over that part of the scene where it’s revealed that the dead party is Norma’s pet monkey. “Monkey! Monkey!” my son says when Gloria/Norma peels back the covering to show the chimp’s face. Then he rewinds it again, and Norma Desmond gets to again reveal to Joe Gillis the dead pet, and my son exclaims, “Monkey! Monkey!” and rewinds it again.

Yesterday it was the scene where Joe’s friend, Artie Green (Jack Webb), bleats like a goat off camera. Jack Webb actually is supposed to sound like a machine gun. I know this because afterward he makes a joke about a stick-up. But to me he sounds like a goat. My son rewound that scene at least 50 times, doubling over in laughter with each viewing.

I have only seen Sunset Blvd” once before. I was amazed then with Swanson’s performance, and doubly enthralled this time.

Gloria as Norma as Salome, who does the dance of the seven veils, and at the end, when the last veil is removed Norma’s ready for her infamous close-up.

This is how it begins. Two motorcycle cops, leading a parade of police cars and other determined vehicles, sirens whining, race down a street (Sunset Blvd) and pull into the drive of a mansion. In the mansion’s pool is the body of a man floating, face down. No blood, but he’s dead. Or so it would seem, though this man, Joe Gillis, will now tell us his story of how all this came to pass. That story is of how he, a down-and-out hack script writer, came to be associated with the silent screen star Norma Desmond, who has been busily plotting her “return” to the cinema, the talkies, in a movie she’s written about Salome. She, of course, though fifty years of age, is to play the princess, Salome.

Salome, spurned by John the Baptist, who may only kiss his “cold, dead lips.”

OK. So we know how the film ends. The suspense then is in watching the players grind their way toward what is–for Billy Wilder–the inevitable conclusion of Joe floating in the veritable baptismal pool of John the, yes, Baptist, who Salome had beheaded. The story not only seeks to find where Norma fits into the mid-twentieth century, Wilder and writers Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. drag ancient death goddesses and ritually-doomed surrogate king figures out of their underground vaults into the California sun so that we may watch the sacred cycle of old and new, death and rebirth, wheeling down Sunset Boulevard into the dawn which opens the film.

This viewing, I was immediately struck with how much the pair of motorcycle policemen, at the film’s beginning, remind me of the bikers who accompany the princess, Death, in Jean Cocteau’s film Orphee. Their precise choreography carries a ceremonial weight so strikingly familiar that it particularly colored my experience of the film and has inclined me to look for where other comparisons might be drawn, for Orphee was released in 1949, and Sunset Blvd in 1950.

At the beginning of Cocteau’s film death’s twin cyclists are involved with the striking down of a young poet of whom another poet, the middle-aged and somewhat jaded Orpheus (Jean Marais), is jealous, envious of his youth and prolific genius, aware of a new generation rising to displace his own star. They also later mow down Euridyce, Orpheus’ wife, after a love triangle develops in which Orpheus is infatuated with the Princess, Death; the implication is that Death took Euridyce out of jealousy.

In Sunset Blvd Norma is not the only one who has been displaced by the new, Joe also is watching his career as a screen writer plummet, unable to get any jobs. Is his work too original, not original enough?–one of the brilliances of Sunset Blvd is that Joe’s narrative voice is a litany of film noir cliches doled out with self-assured, individual aplumb, and is, incidentally, a stilted narration against which William Holden must labor, bringing three dimensional life to the character via that beneficial tension.

Outrunning a pair of repo men who are after his automobile, Joe blows a tire and limps into the garage of the mansion of Norma Desmond, in which is also parked a huge behemoth of an astronomically expensive, old, foreign behemoth of a specially hand-made car. As he emerges, a voice calls to him, “I’ve been waiting for you!” It’s Norma, veiled by a screen, the sun glinting off her dark sunglasses.

Rather, it’s Salome, veiled.

Fatefully, only after Joe has moved in with Norma–seduced/entrapped by Pluto’s underworld riches, and, no matter how calloused he may seem, susceptible to Norma’s plight through a fatal compassion–that he falls in love with Betty Schaefer, a talent who wants to escape the reading pool (there’s that pool again). Even as he edits Norma’s bloated scipt, he and Betty resurrect an old story of his and together attempt to mold it into a film.

In Cocteau’s movie, the princess, Death, is accompanied by a chauffeur, Heurtebise, the empathetic Francois Perier. Norma has as a protective companion-servant Max von Mayerling, who also serves as a chauffeur. Played by the director, Erich von Stroheim, he is revealed to have also once been her husband, and the director who discovered her. In Sunset Blvd Joe hides his car, as previously mentioned, in Norma Desmond’s garage beside the behemoth. In Orphee, Heurtebise conceals Death’s Rolls in Orphee’s garage. Curiously, Max, when a director, had as part of his office the “reader’s room” in which Beatty Shchaefer works.

Cocteau’s Death princess played by Maria Casares, she and Gloria Swanson are even reminiscent of each other through severity of make-up, a few of the costumes, and yes, even some mannerisms. Any resemblance ends there, however, as Gloria swallows Casares whole. When I was about twenty and first saw Orphee I was impressed by Casares, her sleek portrayal, but on later review her performance seemed too slick, weightless, unsatisfying. She is Death as a good dark chocolate shell–bite on it a little too hard, it cracks, a few cherry sweet tears flow, and that’s that, or so perhaps with repeated viewing, familiarity deveining her of the mystery of the initial acquaintence. Her poetry is that of a sympathetic, ancient machine.

Gloria Swanson, however, is a Kali in full-blown conflict, both insanely in love with and hating herself, reaching out for life and dealing death. “You don’t want me to love you,” she rails at Joe, dancing the Tango with him on New Year’s Eve. Oddly, for all her death aspect, she doesn’t appeal through mystery but through a sense of a gift for life, her desire to make alive, even a tender playfulness as she attempts to win Joe, only to be always perplexed by his distance and his depression, though she also uses every occasion to remind him also of how she dominates and owns, how he has become her servant.

When I was looking up Orphee to see when it was released, I found Rogert Ebert had, on May 14th, 2000, reviewed the film. He mentions that Cocteau wanted Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich for the role of the princess, and in Sunset Blvd Norma talks about how all the idols have been struck down, except for Gar
bo.

One shouldn’t think that by my drawing comparisons between the two films I’m saying that one has ripped off the imagery of another or that Sunset Blvd is the American version of Orphee, though in some respects it is and I do wonder if Sunset Blvd didn’t give a few nods to Cocteau. Regardless, archetypes breed coincidence. One of the more interesting comparisons is entirely coincidental. Cocteau has is Orpheus enter the underworld through a mirror which behaves as water. The “Internet Movie Database” reveals that the shot of Joe Gillis, floating dead in the pool, had to be done via a mirror at the bottom of the pool as otherwise the water interfered with distortion. What does Cocteau say about death? That to see it at work, all one has to do is watch the mirror.

Archaic gods and goddesses aside–or perhaps because of attention to them–psychologically, Norma and Joe are perfectly drawn, and drawn together. They are nature fulfilling its obligations. Predictable yet fascinating constellations.

* * * * * * *

Sunset Blvd

Directed by Billy Wilder

WIlliam Holden–Joe Gillis
Gloria Swanson–Norma Desmond
Erich von Stroheim–Max von Mayerling
Nancy Olson–Betty Schaefer

Released 1950

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