Erich von Stroheim

Sunset Boulevard (1950, Billy Wilder)

The third act of Sunset Boulevard just gets darker and darker. The film digs down into one level, then finds another, then another, then maybe even another. Director Wilder and co-writers Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. find a way to fully condemn the film’s setting–Hollywood, with Paramount Pictures (Sunset’s producer) being the generalized stand-in–while offering reprieve to some of its participants. That condemnation (and the conditional reprieve) comes through William Holden’s self-realization arc, which he doesn’t discuss in his full narration of the film. He doesn’t want to talk about it. Because Holden, playing a B-movie screenwriter down on his luck, isn’t so much a participant as a victim. But he’s a victim of the Hollywood dream, not Hollywood itself. Sort of.

The film’s final descents are real fast and one after another. If it weren’t for Holden’s narration, he might even get lost in them.

Sunset opens with Holden trying to hack out another script he doesn’t like and then having to dodge some repo men out for his car. There’s a quick trip through Holden’s Hollywood–begging for loans–culminating in a really fun car chase. Wilder keeps it light (even if the opening promises some darkness) and Holden’s a wonderfully affable lead. He ends up in the driveway of a rundown mansion, where he soon meets the estate’s Miss Havisham (a comparison in the very narration), Gloria Swanson.

Swanson is a silent film megastar, twenty years later. She has a single companion, butler Erich von Stroheim. Holden and Swanson’s first meeting is full of quips and barbs; Swanson’s very (intentionally) affected and intense, while Holden’s relaxed but pointed. There’s a rhythm to their scene, which maintains for a while as Holden becomes another resident of the mansion–seems Swanson’s written a comeback project for herself, a Salome adaptation. She “hires” Holden to get it into shape for the studio.

Eventually it becomes clear Swanson’s interest in Holden isn’t only in his copyediting. He’s initially resistant but acquiesces once he realizes Swanson’s mental health is more fragile than he thought. At this point, that relaxed but pointed Holden disappears. When he finally does return in the third act, it’s jarring. Not just because the temperament had been gone so long, but also because–when its aimed at someone else, it’s clear how it’d never been affable at all.

That someone else is Nancy Olson, who plays a young script reader at the studio. She goes from a professional detractor of Holden’s hackier work to an acquaintance (engaged to his friend, Jack Webb) to his collaborator on a new script. The film never has Holden’s two screenwriting projects concurrent. The kick-off of Holden and Olson’s collaborating comes immediately following the Salome project’s culmination. Swanson, von Stroheim, and Holden pay Cecil B. DeMille a visit on the Paramount set; there’s a lot of character and narrative development, plus important Hollywood commentary. That commentary will inform a lot later on.

At any given time in Sunset Boulevard, Holden, Swanson, or von Stroheim are giving stunning performances. Usually Wilder gives each actor a spotlight in the scenes; the script, which is wondrously plotted, keeps them from stepping on each other’s toes. Holden and von Stroheim always accompany Swanson’s presence, which–even with Holden’s narration sometimes in between the dialogue lines–never crowds out the other actors. Maybe because Swanson’s a star; her crowding out the characters is a given.

For the first act, it’s Holden’s movie. As an actor. His performance makes Sunset. Once he’s around Swanson more–and the plot perturbs–she becomes the essential factor. Even in the third act, when he gets his big scene and she gets a number of big scenes–even as the narrative focuses more and more on Holden and Olson, as their collaboration starts to become less professional than intended, Swanson’s still omnipresent. Olson doesn’t even know of her existence, which makes it all the more impressive. There’s a certain audacity to the film. There needs to be. And Wilder runs with it.

But then at the finish, turns out maybe von Stroheim’s been the essential factor all along. His background performance, which never gets a full spotlight, brings it all together.

Swanson gives the best performance, no doubt. She’s got the most to do, the hardest stuff to do. Obviously stuff like a Charlie Chaplin impression, not obvious stuff like building towards the dark finale… it’s phenomenal. Holden’s great too. von Stroheim’s great. Olson’s good, though–intentionally–it’s not like she’s got anything on the level of the three main stars. And then there’s pretty much no one else in the movie. Webb. He’s in it for a bit and he’s good but it’s less than five minutes. DeMille’s extended cameo is good. There are some smaller Hollywood cameos–Buster Keaton and Hedda Hopper make the most impression. But Sunset is all about Swanson, Holden, and von Stroheim. And their self-made Hollywood success prison.

Wilder’s direction is excellent. He and cinematographer John F. Seitz create these artificial realities–the one Holden lives in, the one Swanson lives in, the obviously artificial one Olson and Webb live in. Sunset’s all about not understanding make believe even if you make the make believe.

Wilder is restrained as far as composition goes. He saves his severe angles, waiting until just the right moment to cut to them. They’re release valves for built-up narrative intensity, something Franz Waxman’s score is always heightening. Great score.

Sunset Boulevard is an ambitious, difficult film. But it’s difficult not in how Wilder constructs it–in fact, the script’s anything but; there’s obvious foreshadowing and forecasting. It’s just hard to get past being starstruck. For Holden, for Swanson, for the viewer. It’s exceptional; in fact, to succeed, it couldn’t be anything but.



Directed by Billy Wilder; written by Charles Brackett, Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr.; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Arthur P. Schmidt; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Brackett; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Joe Gillis), Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond), Erich von Stroheim (Max Von Mayerling), Nancy Olson (Betty Schaefer), Jack Webb (Artie Green), and Cecil B. DeMille (Cecil B. DeMille).

Five Graves to Cairo (1943, Billy Wilder)

On one hand, Five Graves to Cairo is a solid stage adaptation. Director Wilder, who adapted the play with Charles Brackett, makes it feel like a film. On the other hand, Cairo–partially because Wilder sticks to the setting so thoroughly and never opens up the film–doesn’t really go anywhere. After implying complications, it ends just another WWII propaganda picture.

Presumably unintentionally, with two awful “rah-rah” endings instead of just one, Cairo disappoints a little less than if it stuck with the first.

It still has some rather good acting and some rather good writing throughout. Wilder opens the film with a fantastic sequence of lead Franchot Tone escaping a runaway tank. Beautiful John F. Seitz photography, both in the desert and once Tone reaches a hotel and momentary safety. The Germans show up a few minutes later.

There are some neat twists in the plot and Tone’s character, who’s not too bright and knows it, is a fine lead. Anne Baxter is the French chambermaid who cares only for herself and not the war effort. Will she ever learn the value of sacrifice? Regardless if she does or not, Baxter plays the part rather well. It’s too bad Wilder and Brackett don’t give her more to do.

Erich von Stroheim has a lot of fun as Rommel. Peter van Eyck is fine as his sidekick and Baxter’s verboten paramour. Akim Tamiroff’s likable in an underwritten part.

Some great editing from Doane Harrison, even during the weak finale.



Directed by Billy Wilder; screenplay by Charles Brackett and Wilder, based on a play by Lajos Biró; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Doane Harrison; music by Miklós Rózsa; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Franchot Tone (Cpl. John J. Bramble), Anne Baxter (Mouche), Akim Tamiroff (Farid), Peter van Eyck (Lt. Schwegler), Fortunio Bonanova (Gen. Sebastiano) and Erich von Stroheim (Field Marshal Erwin Rommel).

The Grand Illusion (1937, Jean Renoir)

I can’t figure out who Renoir had in mind when he made Grand Illusion. It goes without saying he placed incredible trust in his audience, but his expectations are somewhat beyond anything else I’ve seen. Grand Illusion is a film with events–momentous, important events–but they pass without comment, without any recognition or identification. The events tend to be big enough the viewer can recognize them, but Renoir’s characters either process them offscreen or silently.

There are some obvious examples, like the one officer sacrificing himself so others can escape and it never once being acknowledged. When he comes up again, the escapees immediately stop talking about him (in fear of it being a downer of a conversation). Renoir fills the film with moments of unstated significance, but he takes it to a technical, storytelling level too. In one scene, characters get on a train, there’s a long montage of shots presumably from the train windows, followed by a new place with the characters arriving. Except over a year has passed and the characters have been in multiple other prison camps in the missing months and the viewer doesn’t even find out about it for five minutes into this new section. It manages to be confusing without disorienting–I’ve seen the film twice before and it still threw me for a little loop.

Since Grand Illusion, many war films have used a fractured narrative with style-heavy tactics to comment on war’s disorder. But these films tend to do it visually. I’m not aware of any other war film with Grand Illusion‘s approach–Renoir doesn’t say anything to the viewer, doesn’t request any participation from the viewer, doesn’t encourage him or her to engage with the material. Instead, Renoir tells the story in a way indifferent to the audience. All fiction exists in some state without reader interaction, but Grand Illusion is one of the few completely disinterested in what that interaction might generate. It’s kind of crazy, I suppose, but it works and Renoir knows it does.

The cast–Jean Gabin, Julien Carette, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim–is perfect. In the first part of the film, Renoir relies a great deal on Carette for humor, while weighing Gabin done (Gabin can, of course, handle it). The second part relies greatly on the relationships between Fresnay and von Stroheim and Fresnay and Gabin. Fresnay and von Stroheim are two aristocratic officers, leftovers from the previous century, whose kinship is the only one Renoir points out. Gabin and Fresnay, who’ve been together the entire film, don’t have that connection. Their scenes in this stage, where they process the significance of class in modern warfare, are somewhat tragic and glorious.

The last part of the film, with German widow Dita Parlo taking in Gabin and company, is probably Grand Illusion at it’s most traditional. It shouldn’t feel like an organic progression, but does. Renoir doesn’t exactly talk about the things he hasn’t been able to mention in the other sections; he shows them instead. For the first time in the film since the first scene, Gabin plays the leading man. First-billed, he’s rarely the most important person in the film. His scenes with Parlo, which–again–should be Grand Illusion at its most awkward or weakest, are wonderful. Renoir handles them gently, tragically hopeful. Along with the film’s final scene, they make Grand Illusion nearly optimistic.

Orson Welles called this film the one he’d save. It makes sense.



Directed by Jean Renoir; written by Charles Spaak and Renoir; director of photography, Christian Matras; edited by Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir; music by Joseph Kosma; produced by Albert Pinkovitch and Frank Rollmer; released by Réalisation d’art cinématographique.

Starring Jean Gabin (Lt. Maréchal), Dita Parlo (Elsa), Pierre Fresnay (Capt. de Boeldieu), Erich von Stroheim (Capt. von Rauffenstein), Julien Carette (Cartier), Georges Péclet (le serrurier), Werner Florian (Sgt. Arthur), Jean Dasté (the teacher), Sylvain Itkine (Lt. Demolder), Gaston Modot (the engineer) and Marcel Dalio (Lt. Rosenthal).

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