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The Wilder Side of L.A.

April 04, 2002|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Written by Billy Wilder with D.M. Marshman Jr. and Charles Brackett, "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) is one of the most quotable scripts in American motion pictures. "I am big. It's the pictures that got small," wails silent-film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), when she first encounters screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden). Months later, completely crazed, she looks right into the camera and says, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

From its first moments, in voice-over--"Friend, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California"--the movie is full of pithy observations about Hollywood. From Gillis' apartment, "on Ivar, above Franklin," to Schwab's fabled drugstore, to the back lot of Paramount, "Sunset Boulevard" captures a Hollywood that's the stuff of fantasies, even as it ruins the lives of many in the film. It's a dark portrait of people desperate to gain--and regain--Hollywood's attention.

Gillis, the prototype for generations of starving screenwriters, who winds up face-down in the swimming pool, makes the most biting observations:

Trying to borrow $300 from his agent: "If I lose my car, it's like having my legs cut off."

Upon first arriving at Norma Desmond's mansion: "It was a great big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built back in the crazy '20s."

About her $28,000 custom-built car: "She'd take me for rides in the hills above Sunset. The whole thing was upholstered in leopard skin and had one of those car phones, all gold-plated."

When he moves into her house: "The last week in December the rain came, a great big package of rain, oversized, like everything else in California."

Trying to escape Desmond's grasp on New Year's Eve: "There was bound to be a New Year's shindig going on in his apartment down on Las Palmas. Writers without a job. Composers without a publisher. Actresses so young they still believed the guys in the casting office."

Confronting her as he tries to leave her: "Norma, you're a woman of 50. There's nothing tragic about being 50--unless you're trying to be 25."

After his death: "By this time the whole joint was jumping--cops, reporters, neighbors, passersby--as big a whoop-dee-do as we get in Los Angeles when they open a supermarket. Even the newsreel guys came by."

Wilder wrote "Double Indemnity" (1944) with Raymond Chandler, creating the quintessential Los Angeles film noir. Again, the story is told with a voice-over, almost entirely in flashback, as insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) dictates his confession.

Neff and his accomplice, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), plot their high-stakes claim in and around Los Feliz. Jerry's market is their rendezvous spot, down the hill from Phyllis' hillside house with a view of Griffith Park. Neff sizes up the house in the opening moments of the movie: "I remembered this auto insurance renewal near Los Feliz Boulevard, so I drove over there. It was one of those California Spanish houses that everyone was so nuts about 10 or 15 years ago. This one must have cost someone about 30,000 bucks, that is if he ever finished paying for it."

Neff talks like a detective from a Chandler novel, and "Double Indemnity" is full of hard-boiled quips: "They'll hang you just as sure as 10 dimes will buy a dollar," he says, and "I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man."

The scene where Neff first encounters the flirtatious Phyllis demonstrates patter that has made "Double Indemnity" a classic. "I'm from California, born right here in Los Angeles," she tells him, as they're sitting on her sofa. He replies: "They say all native Californians come from Iowa."

A few minutes later, just as he's about to leave but is coming on strong, she puts on the brakes, at least momentarily:

"There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour."

"How fast was I going, officer?"

"I'd say around 90."

"Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket."

"Suppose I let you off with a warning this time."

"Suppose it doesn't take."

"Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles."

"Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder."

"Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder."

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