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Blu-ray restores dark Sunset Blvd.

By Philip Martin

This article was published November 9, 2012 at 3:02 a.m.


Desperate screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) tries to sell Paramount Pictures producer Mr. Sheldrake (Fred Clark) on his script in this split photo that shows the restoration work on Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Blvd.

"Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up ..."

This clip from Billy Wilder's newly restored 1950 classic "Sunset Boulevard" features Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. Courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment.
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— “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!”

— Louis B. Mayer to Billy Wilder, after a private advance screening of Sunset Blvd.

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950) may be the perfect movie about Hollywood, so well does it assemble the familiar tropes and suspects. It is a postmodern project in that it is built of inside references, a fictional story veined with an interesting web of actual people, places and circumstances. Finally, it might be read as a kind of self-advertisement — what we in the newspaper business might call a “house ad” — for Paramount Pictures itself.

The studio — its iconic gates, its lot and many of its employees — plays itself in Sunset Blvd., and the film’s acid point about Hollywood’s neglect of its own history is brought home ironically by the amazing revelation that the film’s original negative no longer exists.

Andrea Kalas, Paramount’s vice president of archives, says there’s no record of what happened to the negative. (This isn’t terribly unusual — the original negatives of many classic films, including John Ford’s Stagecoach and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, have been lost over the years.) The Sunset Blvd. most of us grew up watching on television was a pale gray fuzzy thing, a soft-focused phantasm. And as comfort- ingly familiar as it came to be over repeated viewing, it was markedly different from the movie that Wilder directed, that cinematographer John F. Seitz shot.

The proof is in the new Blu-ray release of the film, timed to coincide with Paramount’s centennial celebration. This Sunset Blvd. is literally blacker than ever, crisper and likely far closer to the director’s intent than any version you’re likely to have seen before.

“That the original negative is lost was absolutely a challenge,” Kalas says. “We always like to start with the most original material. When we don’t have it, well ...”

But while the original negative was not available, Kalas and her crew found a duplicate negative struck from the original in the Paramount archive. The print had its flaws — a few frames were missing and there were some small tears. It was dusty. But it was usable.

“We scanned it at the highest possible resolution,” she says. “Then we started cleaning it up and trying to bring out the original monochromatic beauty. We really wanted the detail of all of the dark lines. While we didn’t have the source material, we did have the tools to bring it back to life.”

Kalas explains that Sunset Blvd. was first restored in 2002 in preparation for DVD release.

“That was the first time an entire film was digitally scanned for restoration, ” she says. But recent advances in technology have provided archivists with better and “more nuanced” restoration tools.

“The technology has sort of exploded,” Kalas says. “The scanners are so much better ... and so we have in our 100th year the opportunity to restore a movie that is so a part of Paramount’s history. It just makes sense.”

But the digital technology that allowed them to clean up the print was just part of the problem. They also needed a vintage print of the film to use as a reference. They found one at the Library of Congress.

“It really was incredibly helpful,” she says, “because we really wanted to get that very distinctive shadow, darkness, murky interior of Gloria Swanson’s interior really right. It was an opportunity to do the film real justice.”

And the print allowed Kalas and her team to recalibrate and restore Seitz’ atmospheric black-and-white cinematography. (They also consulted Seitz’ son about how his father worked.) There’s nothing soft and cottony about this Sunset Blvd. The picture is markedly sharper, with a greater dynamic range. The details are defined, and though there’s a bit of grain — an inevitability whenever you’re working with secondgeneration materials — the Blu-ray is just beautiful.

“There’s a scene where [William] Holden is in the garage with Erich Von Stroheim,” she says. “All you can see is von Stroheim’s face. The rest is darkness. We wanted to make sure we got that right.”

Kalas says that although the film is often cited as a singular exemplar of film noir, Seitz was not familiar with the term at the time — though he was certainly acquainted with the German Expressionist films that employed the same shadowy vernacular.

Wilder trusted his cameraman implicitly, and gave him few if any directions — there’s a famous anecdote about the opening scene where failing screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden), on the lam from his creditors, encounters the draped corpse of a chimpanzee on an altar in the backyard of a faded silent star’s mansion: How, Seitz asked, did Wilder want him to light and shoot this eerie, atmospheric tableau?

“Oh, just the usual monkey funeral shot,” Wilder answered.

Watched today, Sunset Blvd. feels both bizarre and strangely comforting, a crazy, outre movie that has outraced all criticism to become a beloved classic.

Swanson is so obviously playing a grotesque version of herself as Norma Desmond, the once hugely popular silent star forgotten by contemporary audiences, that we have to wonder whether she was completely in on the joke. Norma’s home is decorated with photos from Swanson’s career, and in the course of the film Norma performs a couple of routines from Swanson’s career — a Mack Sennett “bathing beauty” pantomime and an impersonation of Charlie Chaplin that echoed the one Swanson did in Manhandled (1924).

Cecil B. De Mille, the director most responsible for launching Swanson’s career, appears as himself, on the actual set of Samson and Delilah, which was actually in production at the time. Silent stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner also play themselves — they are the bridge players Norma entertains, whom Gillis (Holden) refers to as “the waxworks.”

Norma’s “butler” Max was played by von Stroheim, who directed Swanson in Queen Kelly, a movie Max and Norma watch in Sunset Blvd. Columnist Hedda Hopper also plays herself, and the ratty apartment the doomed Gillis moves out of was in an actual apartment house in Hollywood, one that was frequented by down-and-out would-be screenwriters.

The film’s tone is cool and acid — black comedy mixed with melodramatic pathos and held together by remarkably authentic performances. And watching it on this new Blu-ray is almost like seeing it for the first time.


MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 11/09/2012

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