Billy Wilder James Agee - Essay

James Agee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder have a long and honorable record in bucking tradition, breaking rules, and taking risks, according to their lights, and limits. Nobody thought they could get away with Double Indemnity, but they did; nobody thought they could get away with The Lost Weekend, but they did; apparently nobody thought they could get away with Sunset Boulevard, but they did; and now, one gathers, the industry is proud of them. There are plenty of good reasons why Sunset Boulevard (a beautiful title) is, I think, their best movie yet. It is Hollywood craftsmanship at its smartest and at just about its best, and it is hard to find better craftsmanship than that, at this time, in any art or country.

It is also, in terms of movie tradition, a very courageous picture…. "Unhappy endings" are not so rare, by now, but it is rare to find one as skilful, spectacular and appropriate as this one. Besides all that, Sunset Boulevard is much the most ambitious movie about Hollywood ever done, and is the best of several good ones into the bargain.

It is unlikely that any living men know Hollywood better than Brackett and Wilder; most of their portrait is brilliantly witty and evocative, and much of it is also very sharp. It seems to me, however, that this is essentially a picture-maker's picture…. I suspect that its main weakness as popular art lies not so much in unconventionalities of story or character, as in its coldness. And if it falls short of greatness—and in my opinion it does—I suspect that coldness, again, is mainly responsible. (pp. 411-12)

There is no use pretending to discuss all the virtues, or even all the limitations, of this picture: it is...

(The entire section is 719 words.)