I can’t remember exactly when I saw this film the first time, but it was probably when I was a teenager. Already a fan of film noir, I was devastated in the best way possible. Its tragic depiction of delusional insanity and hopelessness should never have rung true for a young man in the south, yet, through my family, I knew these characters and their worldview intuitively. That is to say, I knew the score.
In the decades since, I’ve probably seen it a dozen times, but it had been ten years or so before I watched a beautiful print of it again last night. Someday, for fun, I’ll make my list of what I think are the greatest films of all time. This will certainly make the top 25 – I think it’s Billy Wilder’s masterpiece, which by itself is quite a statement.
So what, you might be wondering, makes it so great?
Well, for starters there’s the script – it manages to tell a sordidly depressing human story in a way that’s still weirdly entertaining. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The film starts off with the lead character floating face down and dead in a swimming pool, inviting you in a voiceover from wherever one goes when you’re dead to stick around for the story of how he got there.
The black and white cinematography is about as good as it would ever get and this opening shot is a masterpiece: Wilder actually appears to shoot from beneath William Holden’s dead body, as if looking up from the bottom of the pool. You see his lifeless face with the detectives standing above at the edge of the pool looking down. So far this seems like a powerful opening to what might be a crime thriller, but that assumption would be so very wrong. Things haven’t even begun to get dark yet…
Gloria Swanson deserves all the accolades she got for her performance, but it’s really just one part of the whole. The core idea behind everything in this film is that life is rotten, and the only ones who don’t yet see it are young people. The existential darkness just keeps closing in on everyone involved as the story unfolds – there’s not a single moment of happiness in the entire film. The two scenes where young people are partying and laughing are played like we’re watching calves cantering about before they’re slaughtered.
I have to imagine WWII had something to do with the film’s success, it’s difficult to imagine anything like this being made today, much less being successful at the box office. And I totally get that this isn’t going to be everyone’s idea of fun. But if you have a certain dark sensibility, this is one to treasure and enjoy many times over a lifetime. It’s the grim reality of life rendered into an exquisite piece of art, and the message it conveys is clear.
It’s not going to end well for any of us.