Movie Reviews 421 – Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

January 10, 2020

During the midst of the Italian Spaghetti Western craze other countries started to get in on the action, so to speak. Two Mules for Sister Sarah is a Mexican production that has the odd pairing of Clint Eastwood, the predominant Goombah oater at the time, with the whimsical Shirley MacLaine best known for her comedic talents.

What brought back memories of this movie was watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained and hearing the distinct whistling of Ennio Morricone’s great “The Braying Mule” theme song from this movie (you can hear a mule bray if you listen carefully) as well as “Sister Sara’s Theme” later in the film. But the relationship to Django Unchained is actually something of a triangle as there are distinct plot elements here that were lifted right from the original Django. For starters, this movie begins with our protagonist Hogan (Eastwood) meandering in the mountains when he suddenly comes across a damsel in distress, Sara (MacLaine) about to be raped by a group of armed thugs. With precision gunslinging Hogan picks of the ravagers like a 5-7-10 bowling split and ends up being accompanied by the woman, shocked to find out that she is a nun, the rest of the film. This is not only the exact same beginning as Django but the revelation of Sara’s true identity – which I’m not going to mention here as it would spoil the movie – is also nearly identical.

Hogan is on a mission to aide Mexican revolutionaries take out a French garrison in the city of Chihuahua with a promise to get half of the gold being held there should they succeed. As it turns out, Sara has intimate knowledge of the layout and defence of that garrison. A fortuitous meeting for a pair made in heaven – well at least the nun.

While evading the French cavalry who have a particular sore to settle with Sara, the duo avoid rattlesnakes and dynamite the odd trestle bridge making their way to the city. Dealing with her constant prayers, huge silver cross that Sara brandishes to ward off evil and her feisty temperament that is conveniently flexible to catholic doctrines whenever necessary, Hogan must fight off the urge to get his hands on his lovely companion who is much more than she claims to be. The two trade barbs as Brother and Sister children, polar opposites pitting his carefree, vagabond lifestyle against her feigned abstinence and purity.

The revelation isn’t much of a surprise but both the comedy and action are more than enough to sustain this odd western. The climactic battle pulls no punches and even has a bit of gore that would make Sam Peckinpah proud. Entertaining, but make no mistake that this is not anywhere near Eastwood as his Man with No Name spaghetti best.

Call this one a spaghettini western with a bit of salsa.

Movie Reviews 420 – Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)

January 3, 2020

Every now and then Godzilla is more than a giant dino-lizard stomping on cardboard buildings and miniature toy tanks at the foot of Mount Fuji. His humble beginnings in 1954 was nothing less than a symbolic warning of the dangers of nuclear power using thinly veiled references to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb drops as well as other actual tragic events such as the Daigo Fukuryū Maru. But over the years his solemnity has wavered, sometimes regressing to the point of being little more than kiddie oriented comic relief. But look a little closer and there are others inklings of social commentary sandwiched in between the bursts of atomic breath and tail wagging destruction.

While the world continued to fret as the superpowers continued the arms race buildup towards the end of the sixties, another new, man made threat was rearing its ugly head. The smokestacks of factory furnaces and the mass consumer desire to have a car in front of every house was taking a toll on the planet. Pollution. The air was filled with smog and the oceans were filled with oil slicked flotillas of garbage. Once again Godzilla was called on to deliver a message.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (AKA Godzilla vs.The Smog Monster) has our heroic behemoth fighting off a creature born in the Japanese waters from particulates that not only live and grow but combine to form a single entity. A scientist and his young son come across an oversized tadpole-like creature and within days news coverage in the area start reporting that a much larger creature is menacing the coast and destroying ships. The kid’s wishes that his hero Godzilla comes to their rescue come to fruition, but ol’ Zilla has his hands full as the creature undergoes multiple, ever-bigger transformations from the ‘tadpole’ to a flying raylike monster and finally an oversized bug eyed pile of slimy detritus.

Facing a barrage of fiery balls of ooze, a corrosive trail and a sulfuric mist, Gozilla seems overmatched, and while they do have a plan of action, the authorities and bumbling army don’t seem to be much help. But together, man and Godzilla must put Hedorah down with nothing less than the fate of the world at stake.

Social commentary aside, this movie boasts a number of oddities including a few cartoon animated sequences (sadly not good ones) and a few songs, one melodically sung in a delightfully psychedelic night club. I have no idea what the lyrics meant but with the superimposed images I was pretty sure it delivered a sombre message matching the movie’s theme.

The rubber suited battles are as fun as always and the variant designs of the Hedorah evolutionary stages are truly unique in terms of monster originality. There are some exceptionally rare human carnage and gory wounds, even bodies melting into skeletons, but the more horrific images are those of litter strewn seabeds and black spewing smokestacks.

So where are at now with pollution nearly fifty years since this movie was released? The good news is that the air, while still hazardous in places and on occasion just as unhealthy, is nonetheless noticeably a lot better than it was. While we have cleaned up our parks and cities some of that garbage has not only ended up in the oceans but has created the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – it’s never a good thing when it actually has a name – twice the size of Texas. And of course today we have yet another man made global issue in Climate Change which is worse and even harder to remedy (if even possible at this point).

I’d like to think that perhaps Godzilla needs to be summed for yet another mission saving our collective asses but we didn’t seem to take much notice last time he tried.

Movie Reviews 419 – Mad Detective (2007)

December 27, 2019

I found Johnnie To’s PTU to be a bit overrated but thought I’d give the director  another chance with Mad Detective, yet another one of his staple cop/detective films, this time co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai. Unlike the enigmatic PTU, in this case the title pretty much says it all. But don’t think that the Mad attribute is one meaning feigned dementia à la Mel “Riggs” Gibson in Lethal Weapon or terror inducing Jack like The Shining. What we have here is insanity in its purest form.

The movie begins with flashbacks of detective Bun (Ching Wan Lau) skillfully solving a number of murders using the most bizarre of sleuthing techniques to puzzle out the whodunits. Slicing a pig carcass to determine slash angles. Repeatedly rolling a colleague down a staircase while zipped in a suitcase only to proclaim that he has solved a murder based on the resulting bruises. And slashing off his own ear at the retirement ceremony of his superior.

But at some point (probably the Van Gogh self mutilation imitation incident) the force has had enough with his strange antics and he is put to pasture. That is until rookie detective Ho Ka-On (Andy On) comes knocking at his door. Professing his admiration for the legendary Bun he asks him to help him solve a baffling case, one involving other cops.

Ho explains that 18 months earlier an officer disappeared after he and his partner Chi-Wai (Lam Ka-Tung) chased a suspect into a forest. Chi-Wai, a cop with a sullied reputation and thus the prime, was interrogated repeatedly but claimed he did not know what had happened to his partner. But the real problem that the authorities have now is that there has been a rash of fatal robberies and the gun used in those belonged to that missing officer.

Bun agrees to help and when asked by Ho what is the secret to his success claims that he has a gift in that he can see the ‘inner selves’ of people and therefore know their true intentions beyond any facade they may be putting on. And that ‘vision’ reveals that Chi-Wai has not one alter ego but seven! Now the clearly insane Bun has to determine which, if any, of Chi-Wai’s alter egos is capable of murder.

This film requires viewers to adjust to not only the insanity induced visions that are only in Bun’s mind – some of which are skillfully filmed so as not to be obvious at first – but also how Bun often interacts with alter egos rather than the characters they represent. Chi-Wai’s alter egos (always shown together in place of Chi-Wai from Bun’s point of view) include a headstrong woman, a chubby weakling and one who is ready to pop a bullet at any opportunity. But is Chi-Wai guilty?

As the movie progresses we begin to comprehend the degree of Bun’s madness and the labyrinthine world he lives in and in which Ho is slowly drawn into. The action sequences are nicely balanced by the sombre revelations of Buns reasons behind his descent into insanity and baring a few of Ho’s inner demons as well.

Crazy film but in a good way.

Movie Reviews 418 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

December 20, 2019

Bogie and Bacall. Tracy and Hepburn. Jolie and Pitt. These were the Hollywood power couples whose romances captured headlines fueled by adoring fan’s fascination for the rich, famous, and lens worthy. Rising above all of those were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, whose tantalizing trysts sizzled the tabloids as much for their public battles as for their romances. Twice married to each other and then divorced (among the multiple other trips down the matrimonial aisle), their respective careers had many ups and downs, but without a doubt their pairing in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is easily the pinnacle of their collaboration and their best respective career performances.

Martha and George (Taylor and Burton) come home late one night from a party held by her father, the head of a University. Almost as soon as they arrive, the bickering begins. George is a languishing History professor going nowhere and with no real ambition. Martha makes clear her disgust with him not having been able to advance even being the school president’s daughter. As he is about to head to bed she tells him she’s invited over a young couple that was at the earlier party for a few late night drinks. When Nick (George Segal), a newly arrived biology professor and recent bride Honey (Sandy Dennis) arrive, they find themselves in the middle of a battlefield of put-downs, candid revelations and accusations.

Based on a play by Edward Albee (more on that later), the four characters ramble through a long night indulgent imbibing as the young couple are used as both weapons and targets for Martha and George. Along the way Nick and Honey discover that they are more like their hosts than they are willing to admit. But some other forces are at work here. There are cryptic references to a child among the flirtation, slurs, denunciations and confessions.

The script is an intricately layered jigsaw that is just as sharp today as it was when this film was getting the accolades. All four cast members where deservingly nominated for Oscars – the women winning theirs. While the knives are wielded throughout the night, the onslaught wavers. While mostly at each other’s throats, their are poignant respites between George and Martha. And like a good puzzle, the last piece is satisfyingly fitting. The lines “You have history on your side. I have biology on mine” is but one of many clever double entendres.

If there could be a fifth character it would have to be the incessantly swirling liquor that flows through both couples to the point that peeling labels of bottles is something of a theme. And that ‘game’ is part of the overall ‘couples playing games’ theme. Everything is a game of sorts including a parlor game called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in reference to the title.

The play was selected by the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but was shamefully rejected by the award committee due to its subject matter and language. Thankfully the film remains for us to enjoy the electrifying performances, the simple but mesmerizing low key theme song, and exceptionally brilliant script.

A timeless classic. No need to be afraid of watching this one.

Movie Reviews 417 – Nightmare Beach (1988)

December 13, 2019

Nightmare Beach (A.K.A Welcome to Spring Break) is not one of those 80’s juvenile hormonal beach frolic films where a bunch guys just want to get laid in a sea of bikini clad babes while swilling beer and ogling wet T-shirt contests. Oh, it has all that to be sure. But behind the sand strewn beaches of spring break mecca Fort Lauderdale is a twisted serial killer leaving a path of well tanned murdered grisly bodies.

The assumed culprit is a biker gang leader named Diablo who we see frying in the electric chair  at the beginning of the film while proclaiming his innocence and vowing revenge from the dead. His ire is squarely aimed at police officer Strycher (genre film stalwart John Saxon) who he claims framed him for the murder of a teenager. The assembled execution audience includes a smirking Strycher and Gail (Sarah Buxton) the older sister of the murdered teen who watch with the rest of the gallery as Diablo sizzles.

When Diablo’s grave is later found to have been unearthed and students – or ‘breakers’ as they are called – start dying in various gruesome ways. The town mayor and Strycker want to keep it hushed up at the risk of losing their cash cow of visitors at the peak of the season. To keep it quiet they blackmail one the resident doctors (Michael Parks) to cite obvious incorrect cause of death assessments for the growing list of bodies.

The killer rides around town on a full geared up travelling motorcycle wearing a helmet with full face shade visor, thus creating the legend that Diablo has returned from the grave to enact his vengeance. One of the victims was the wisecracking best friend of a jock named Skip (Nicolas de Toth) who has been hanging around one the the watering holes trying to figure out his buddy’s sudden disappearance. He soon teams up with Gail who is working as a waitress at the bar and the two set out to lure this mysterious rider out and find out the truth behind the rumours.

Arguably directed by Umberto Lenzi of Nightmare City fame or screenwriter Harry Kirkpatrick depending on who you believe, this italian production (originally titled La spiaggia del terrore) takes more than a few cues from Jaws but stays firmly in the street killer mode. While the first few kills are literally electric, the spree continues with a number of novel killing moves. The sleaze factor is bolstered by some light comedy from a promiscuous call girl who leads a string of older Johns to visit her room in the hotel – each falling for a different sob story for some extra cash – and a pervy hotel clerk who sneaks peeks on the proceeding with a closet spyhole.

While not as satisfactory as other Italian giallos of the era, fans will instantly delight in the techno score by Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti. I do have to admit that the final reveal was a bit of a surprise and helps bringing this one closer to home. That is if you’re at home with thong bikinis, car chases, slashing, strangling, and lots of blood.

Movie Reviews 416 – My Name is Nobody (1973)

December 6, 2019

There are almost as many western films that ruminate on the final days of legendary crack shot gunmen as there are ones that have then merely going on killing sprees whether they be samaritan bounty hunters or charcoal wearing villains. My Name is Nobody is the former with Henry Fonda as the aged shooter who just wants to sail off into the sunset – literally in this case.

The plots of these movies basically have wannabe replacements hoping to earn their reputation by besting the veteran in a shootout. But Jack Beauregard (Fonda) has a slightly different problem. Sure he has more than a few eager guns hoping to take him on, but one particular fellow who doesn’t have a name (Terence Hill) isn’t inclined to have a shootout at all. Although he is clearly as good as, even better than Jack, he just turns up at every corner pestering Jack with a steady stream of advice and guidance, whether wanted or not.

As Jack makes his way towards New Orleans (and eventual passage to Europe) his voyage includes making a pit stop in search of his brother The Nevada Kid (an acknowledged scoundrel and outlaw) and shutting down the owner of a dry goldmine (Jean Martin) who is using stolen gold as a replacement for extract. The mine owner doesn’t take to kindly with Jack’s interference and assembles a small army of marauders to hunt him down. All this leads to a finale in which Jack is stranded next to train tracks in the middle of nowhere as the cavalcade of fifty armed horse riders descend on him.

The symbolism of the cherubic Nobody representing Jack’s guardian angel is as plain as the outline of wings projected by the saddle that he carries on his back throughout the film. Able to recite the day and foes of every gun battle Jack ever fought, his guidance proves to be divinely appropriate despite Jack’s reluctance to heed it at times.

If you haven’t picked it up yet there are plenty of homage references to Sam Peckinpaw and The Wild Bunch including that final battle.And just like it’s inspiration, there are plenty of battles and the blood that goes with it. But this is no mere oater bloodfest.

Il mio nome è Nessuno (original Italian title) was directed by Tonino Valerii (with a helping hand from Sergio Leone) and departs from the usual gritty Spaghetti Western in many other ways aside from the heavenly inferences. While maestro Ennio Morricone provided the score his theme is decidedly bubbly to go along with the story, even going so far as playfully adapting Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries. The script straddles the line of comedy and drama and is more like a collection of stringed skill shooting skits than a linear narrative. The comedy does go over the top at times with sped up sequences resembling Keystone Kops or even Stooge-like.

If you want your westerns to be pure spit and dust this is probably not what you’re looking for. To be sure, there is plenty of that but be prepared for a light hearted approach and little fantasy thrown in as well.

Movie Reviews 415 – Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

November 28, 2019

A dying martial arts teacher confides to his last remaining student Yang the tale of the five former students he once taught, now collectively called the Poison Clan. Knowing that these five students – the titular Five Deadly Venoms  (AKA The Five Venoms) – have been using their specialised Kung Fu skills for nefarious deeds, he asks his last student to track them down and end their ongoing evil exploits. But there is a catch. As these students trained under the master, they each wore a mask hiding their true identity. The master can offer but one equally mysterious lead. Yun, a former fellow teacher of the dying master has amassed a small fortune that the Poison Clan are scheming to get there hands on. By finding Yun, Yang can determine the identities of the Poison Clan and end their reign. Yang is told that he alone cannot win over the superior Poison Clan members should he take them on individually. But one among them is actually respectable and if Yang can determine which, their combined abilities can overcome those of the evil ones.

The five Poison Clan members have each specialized in a specific form of fighting technique.  Comprised of the Centipede, the Snake, the Scorpion, the Lizard, and the Toad, we get a glimpse of each masked fighter in flashbacks as the teacher tells his tale. The teacher also counsels Yang on a few bits of knowledge relating to the five members (actually often referred to as “Number 1”, “Number Two”, etc. during the film) that may help him find the Poison gang.  To wit, the first two knew each other, and four and five knew each other, while the third, the Scorpion, was a mystery to everyone.

Yang departs on his mission and begins to observe the ongoings in the nearest town. Sure enough, he begins to suspect a few people after observing some deft use of hands and odd interactions on the street. But before he can find him, members of the gang kill Yun and his family leaving Yang to figure out “Who’s Who” on his own. As Yang continues his mission, the clan members themselves are battling one another (often with the aid of corrupt officials) and try to figure out their respective identities among themselves.

Most of the intrigue is playing along with the guessing game as pieces of the puzzle are slowly sorted out until the final reveal of the most mysterious member, Number 3 as well as which of the five will come to Yang’s aide. But I confess that for a renowned wuxia film, the fighting, while admirable, does not live up to the sophistication of the best films of the era. I do have to admit that among some torture scenes the use of an actual Iron Maiden was both a surprise and a standout.

Released by the illustrious Shaw Brothers studios this classic was produced by Runme Shaw and ironically released the same year as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which I consider one of their finest. This is yet another one of those films often reference in media, most notably in Kill Bill as the five assassins of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.

Sadly, my DVD viewing experience from a dreadful Saturn Productions DVD left much to be desired. The godawful transfer looked like black and white at times, suffered from poor dubbing and I had the distinct feeling that this was an incomplete cut with missing and/or displaced scenes. I do recommend seeking this film out, but do so with one of the many remastered/restored versions available. I hope to get another copy myself to fully enjoy this next time I watch it.


Movie Reviews 414 – The Reptile (1966)

November 23, 2019

While not one of the best of the Hammer Studios Victorian horror films, The Reptile has always been one of my favorites. While the renown ‘studio that dripped blood’s fame was founded on the many Dracula and Frankenstein epics starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, every now and then it strayed from those horror staples and The Reptile was one of those gambles.

The sentimental appeal for myself can be attributed to a number of factors including being one of the earliest horror films I ever saw in a full sized theater screen back in the early seventies – in French no less. It has what was then a fairly new concept for a creature and blends in South Asian mystical folklore, also a rarity at the time. But the one reason above all others it made such an impact is that this was the first movie that really scared the living crap out of me! Not such much while I watched it – although I was one the edge of my seat and cringing to be sure – but later that night when I tried going to sleep and could not rid myself of image of “the monster” from my hyperactive nine year old mind.

Recently married Harry and Valerie Spalding (Ray Barrett and Jennifer Daniel) arrive in a Cornwall town to claim the cottage inherited from Harry’s recently deceased brother Charles. They immediately get the cold shoulder from the locals as word gets around that they intend to make the cottage their new home and trying to get specifics on the circumstances of Charles’ death. The town has been victim to a spate of mysterious deaths, coincidentally beginning around the return of the Spalding’s neighbor Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman) and his daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) from Bornean research trip. A theologian, Dr. Franklyn holds his daughter Anna on a tight leash while at the same time seeming to be under the control of his Malaysian butler who returned with them. The young couple have a tenuous relationship with their dysfunctional neighbors but befriend the local barkeep Tom (Michael Ripper) who has begun investigating the rash of deaths himself. While Harry and Tom know the Franklyn’s are at the core of the mystery, it takes the local town drunk’s ghastly death and a stray kitty to reveal the thru horror lurking in the doctors house.

The opening scene depicting Charles’ death throes after being attacked in the Franklyn mansion gives the audience a taste of the quickly spreading, eerie green skin discoloration and rabid-like frothing at the mouth of the victims. But that great and effect is nothing compared to the creature design of the reptilian morphing Anna. Sleek and serpentine except for one particularly glaring failing facet. The costume and makeup used separate plastic popping eyeballs that unfortunately are often misaligned from one another. Was it rushed shooting or a failed attempt at a chameleon-like independent eye direction, I do not know, but it is bothersome even in the many stills from the film. Another aspect that drives the slimy atmosphere is the steamy basement snake pit with a bubbling heat spring, the setting for the fitting film finale. Another fine touch is the effective and appropriate use of a catchy snake-charmer influenced music score. A particularly unsettling scene is one in which Anna entertains the her new neighbors playing a sitar while staring down her father and building the tempo to a crescendo until Dr. Franklyn loses it and does his own Pete Townsend guitar smashing routine.

Not counting films in which reptiles stood in for fake dinosaurs this can be considered as the first true horror where the creature in question was undoubtedly truly reptilian, and the beginning of a trend that continued into the seventies with films such as Sssssss, and Frogs.

For a long time this was one of those titles inexplicably hard to find for North American region media players without paying a king’s ransom. So when Scream Factory finally got around to issuing a new remastered Blu-ray this year I put in my order and anxiously awaited delivery. True Scream Factory reputation for putting out quality reissues is evident with this remastered print featuring vibrant colours in all but a few spots . The extra features go into detail how this film was one of four Hammer films that were basically shoot at the same time with reused sets and actors hoping to same on production costs.

While it was not as well received at the time, this is one of those films that I think even non Hammer fans can enjoy. Just skip the Popeye jokes, OK?

Bonhomme Sept-Heures – Evan May (2016)

November 15, 2019

My initial intrigue in reading Evan May’s Bonhomme Sept-Heures was my familiarity with the legend based on the horror movies The Bonesetter (2003) and The Bonesetter Returns (2005)  by Brett Kelly. After attending the premiere of the first film I thought that the character and story were original until I did a little more digging. It turns out that the legend of a stovepipe hatted entity who snatches children when they stay outdoors beyond seven o’clock at night is steeped in Quebec lore. Variations on the legend have this character going from town to town as travelling medical practitioner, hence “bone-setter”, which is phonetically close to “Bonhomme Sept-Heures” in French which, as a whole, loosely translates to “The seven o’clock man”.

That being said, what I expected here was a horror story, pure and simple, much like the movie presentations. However this novel ended up being more of a paranormal fantasy playing out largely as police/detective procedural rather than any real horror narrative.

Our story begins (well more on that later) with a convicted murderer, Adam Godwinson, who is not only a priest but an ex-bookseller. The background to his current incarceration is vaguely explained as an encounter with members of some secretive foundation under the influence of an evil entity – coined “The Infection” – which Adam and crew of youths managed to repress but at the cost of his own freedom. Suddenly out of nowhere David Prentiss, an official of some indeterminate (yet powerful) law enforcement agency visits Adam in prison and offers him immediate limited freedom if he joins the agent to help solve a case of a serial child killer currently on a killing spree in a remote Quebec town.

When Prentiss, Adam, and Jack – a chaperon of sorts to keep an eye out on Adam – arrive in Lac de Thé they are met with a reluctant Sûreté du Québec (provincial police force), distraught citizens, an oddly inquisitive school teacher, a local bigot drunkard, and a skeptical clergyman among others. Later joined by one of Adams former students, now a reporter, the team have to disseminate what little evidence they have to determine if they are dealing with a serial killer or if some mystic force is in play. And as time ticks away they dread that yet another young body may show up.

My one problem with the novel is that almost from the very beginning with the explanation of Adam’s incarceration flashback I sensed that what I was reading was in fact a sequel to a previous story. Sure enough when I checked I learned that May wrote King in Darkness which was published a year prior which described those events completely. Unfortunate as a number of the characters and events are fleetingly reference here which often left me confused without the proper context while adding little, if anything, to this story.  Nowhere in this book is the prequel even mentioned. Neither front or back covers, acknowledgements, or even the author bio make any mention of it which is a shame as I would have read that book first.

I do heartily recommend this book but do yourself a favour and get King in Darkness first to get the most out of this one.

Movie Reviews 413 – Sunset Boulevard (1950)

November 8, 2019

Hollywood. The place where dreams are made and just as quickly shattered. Where the mansions are enormous but are easily overshadowed by the cesspools they obscure. Marlon Brando once famously quoted “Most of the successful people in Hollywood are failures as human beings.” This damning assessment of Tinseltown is captured in Sunset Boulevard, a film noir that ends with one of the eras most iconic lines as the camera zooms in on a faded movie star.

Down to his last few dollars and without any hopeful prospects to sell any of his movie scripts, Joe Gillis (William Holden) dodges the repo men after his car by slipping into an empty garage of a run down mansion of the iconic Sunset strip. But what he initially mistakes for an abandoned abode is the home of former silent screen starlet Norma Desmod (Gloria Swanson) who at first mistakes him for the undertaker of her recently deceased pet monkey. Having clarified that idiotic notion Norma reluctantly shows the scribe a script she wrote that she hopes will be the stake for her return to the big screen.

Joe realizes the script is a disastrous mess but gives a calculated response that will ensure he can sponge off the eccentric but wealthy crone with a few days of script cleaning. Hoping for not much more that to get himself out of hock and back to a dreary, but steady job, his temporary one night stay in a room above the garage is soon a move into the plush boudoir next to Norma’s. Initially rebuffing her advances and hysterics, he soon finds himself in an uncomfortable balancing act of lover/writer just as he begins to fall for the fiance of his best friend (Nancy Olson) as she too wants both his love and his writing acumen.

Skillfully narrated by Joe’s voice-over, this brilliantly scripted film (Co-written and directed by Billy Wilder) begins with a body floating in a pool, but so mesmerizing is the underlying story that I forgot what this was slowly driving back to. The excellent performances by the main cast includes Norma’s sympathetic butler, played by former director Erich von Stroheim, who even manages to induce a bit of levity.

While the final act of Swanson swooning into the camera proclaiming “I’m ready for my close-up now Mr. Demille” is probably the most referenced scene, there are plenty of other gems such as Joe exclaiming “You were once big.” upon meeting Desmond who retorts “I AM big. It’s the films that got small.”

The special features that were included on my DVD revealed a fascinating number of parallels between the story and the cast. Swanson, like Desmond was fifty at the time of filming and was indeed a former fading star having made a single film in the preceding 15 years. Ironically, this Oscar nominated performance (as were that of all the other stars – all deserving I might add) did return her to glory. Holden was also a forgotten player whose career was not only revitalized, but was the beginning of a long and prosperous career. I’ll leave the surprise of von Stroheim’s casting to those who have not watched the film as it’s too good to spoil here.

Hollywood at its best by exposing Hollywood at its worst. Only in Tinseltown can such a self-deprecating movie become such a success.