Last Night in Soho horror film review

Mesmerizing! Dressed to Kill meets Mulholland Drive meets Suspiria! It’s like Wright channeled the best of Lynch, de Palma, and Argento to craft his spellbinding thriller! One of the best films of the year, and one that commands a rewatch. Other than seeing the trailer a few times in the cinema, I did not spend any time reading up on this film–and I’m glad I didn’t. Just speculating here, but I could definitely see this film as one that cultivates a cult following and is talked about in classrooms much like Mulholland Drive. Quite different from the other films in Wright’s cinematic library, if you’re going into it for a Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, or World’s End, then you may be disappointed. Although they are dissimilar in most respects, the film that this one shares commonality with is Baby Driver. As I am writing this, I’ve only seen it once, but I need to see it again. Not because I didn’t understand it–quite the opposite–the storytelling is top shelf! But I want to pay closer attention to details to gain a greater appreciation for how this kaleidoscope delivered such an immersive cinematic experience. The vibrant 1960s in London some alive in this dream-like psychological horror punctuated with giallo-esque mystery and slasher elements and nostalgic fashion. Told though a Lynchian cinematic framework, the surrealist experience of this film will capture your imagination and beckon you into the seedy underbelly of the iconic Soho district of London. Much like in Suspiria, the idyllic atmosphere and setting descend into madness in a beautiful symphony of terror! Clearly, Last Night in Soho is Wright’s most personal film; we can not only see this passion but feel it in every frame.

An aspiring fashion designer is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s, where she encounters a dazzling wannabe singer. However, the glamour is not all it appears to be, and the dreams of the past start to crack and splinter into something far darker.

Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho reminded me of so many great films! And, in all the best ways possible. Now, I don’t state that to suggest that Wright’s latest offering is derivative. Quite the contrary. It’s a testament to the scope of his career and talent. But when you watch this, and can think of Dressed to Kill, Mulholland Drive, Battleship Potemkin, and Suspiria, then the degree of thoughtfulness is evidence that the filmmaker seeks to channel some of the best cinema of all time whilst delivering a fresh interpretation. Fashion from Dressed to Kill, story structure from Mulholland Drive, cinematography and editing from Suspiria and Battleship Potemkin, and score/soundtrack from Baby Driver.

Often times when a filmmaker attempts to integrate too much from a variety of sources of inspiration, the end result is a cluster that has no identity other than in that which its emulating. But Wright’s Last Night in Soho, delivers an experience that completely envelopes the audience in a fantastical story while audiences vicariously dance through the streets of Soho; streets that, on the surface are paved with an idyllic portrait of Soho in the 1960s, but beneath the pavement, beats the sinister heart of a gritty world of pleasure, pain, and violence. For the non cinephile members of the audience, they may feel an unusual dichotomy of simultaneously being overwhelmed by the technical elements yet underwhelmed by the dizzying narrative of emotional themes, references to past films, and motifs all playing together in a perfect orchestra of cinema.

Phenomenal cast! Thomasin McKenzie’s Ellie will capture your heart with her candid portrayal of the small town girl in the big city for the first time. But if you think you’ve seen this character before, think again. Yes, we’ve all seen this trope before, but she delivers an incredibly raw, unfiltered approach to this character-type. In fact, it’s probably one of the most authentic portrayals of the small town girl in the big city that I’ve seen in a long time. Never feels like a facade or contrived, but rather feels relatable. Playing opposite (or parallel) to McKenzie is Ana Taylor-Joy as Sandy. I’ve been hit or miss with Ana Taylor-Joy in the past, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of her casting in this film prior to seeing it. But I’m pleased to describe her performance as outstanding! She is perfectly cast in this role. I love how she communicates both strength and vulnerability in the promising young star character-type. When life deals her a raw deck, she plays a different game in order to survive the metaphoric prison in which she finds herself.

Comprised ostensibly of two parallel stories that emotionally share the same DNA, the montage (French for assembly) of this film will blow your mind! What Wright and his team have created here is a Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera approach to the editing. I reference these tow films because of Soviet Montage. Without going into lots of details best left to a classroom, Soviet Montage (or editing/assembly) occurs when two separate images are assembled together (traditionally by cross-cutting), in which the relationship between the images gives the meaning (not the action OF or IN the images themselves). The audience views these two separate images, and subconsciously give them a collective context. Wright’s utilization of Soviet montage theory allowed him to explore how time and space can be presented and manipulated in Last Night in Soho. Furthermore, this stylistic approach (1) engages the sympathy of the audience and (2) advances the narrative. Where Wright takes the work of Eisenstein and Kuleshov to the next level is by going beyond cross and contrast-cutting to delivering these image juxtapositions within a single frame (or series of frames) by way of non-linear editing. We see both the past and present in the same image, usually by way of a mirror (or other reflection). It’s a technique that isn’t merely stylistic for the sake of being stylized, but allows for the tension to consistently rise without any break in the mode of storytelling. Brilliant!

I highly recommend this film for anyone that enjoys any of the films that I have referenced in this review. It’s been a while since we’ve had a motion picture that is truly inspired by the greats, and this is certainly one that will find itself to be considered a classic in the future.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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The Magic of “Sunset Boulevard” Still Capturing the ‘Eyes of the World’

NormaDesmondThere is little question that Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard still captures the hearts, minds, and souls of audiences today, be they in their homes or Vaudeville style theatres turned movie houses. Since its release in August of 1950, it has been the inspiration to countless films. But what does it mean to you? What makes it special or stand out to you? Perhaps you just see it as an iconic film; or just maybe, you see it as representing something personal to you. From classic noir cinematography to some of the most quoted lines of all time, Norma Desmond’s spirit lives on. So much for Joe Gillis’ line about her “still waving proudly to a parade that has long since passed her by;” she is still as alive today as she ever was. Serving as a mirror to the current state of Hollywood, Billy Wilder’s film shed light on the darker side of celebrity that still haunts to this very day. This timeless movie provoked Hollywood to take a cynical and honest look at itself, and the dangerous price of stardom–especially when the star is fading into obscurity. Poignantly arriving near the end of the Golden Era (or Studio System), this cinematic masterpiece will continue to be the epitome of a Hollywood and anti-Hollywood film for all eternity. Beyond what it meant historically or industry-wise, it holds meaning and significance for many who watch it. One of its strengths to withstand the test of time is the fact is its ability to connect with people visuals and emotionally. That, combined with solid technical aspects, makes for a dynamic cinema experience.

The Story

Part of what still beckons the “eyes of the world” is the movie’s ability to tell the story within a story. In many ways, Gloria Swanson truly is Norma Desmond. Swanson took a role that was essentially making a mockery of everything she once stood for. Like Norma Desmond, Swanson was one of Hollywood’s highest paid performers in the 1930s and staged a failed comeback in the 1940s, following “talkies.” The role was originally offered to Mae West and Mary Pickford, but no one could capture the character of Norma Desmond like Gloria Swanson. Throughout the movie, we witness the psychological breakdown of a woman who is already seriously afflicted with chronic depression and even agoraphobia. I feel as though many actors, and even some industry professionals who are not performers, can truly understand what must have been going through the mind of Norma Desmond. Actually, even for those who are not involved in entertainment or media can still see someone who felt betrayed and left alone to drift away. We’ve all been there. Feeling like we have so much to give the world, our community, or to the arts, and no one to take or acknowledge it. Norma isn’t going through anything that we have not been through. Essentially, Norma’s significant other, or partner, was her celluloid self, the studio, the industry. And when her partner left her, never to return, she developed serious psychological and cognitive disorders. Each person who chooses to watch her downward spiral into insanity, should be able to identify with her on some level regarding something in their life. For Norma, it was being back on screen again. For you, maybe it’s finding a romantic relationship.

Paramount-Gate-287x162Fascinating elements of this story include the bewildering world of what lies between the glory and the fall of a celebrity who feels as though she built Hollywood, more specifically Paramount Studios. Never before had there been a movie that was developed around the idea of what happens to a star after they are rejected by the very business that created them. Serving as the inspiration to the opening scene of American Beauty nearly 50 years prior, Wilder set the standard in the dead body of the protagonist narrating the film. Like the fog over London, Gillis’ spirit hovers over the entire movie, narrating the course of events that lead to his demise. Joe gets to do what any of us would enjoy doing–getting to observe what happens after we die and how everyone reacts. Just like having a soundtrack to your life would be amazing, getting to narrate your story after you die would be equally, if not more so, enamoring.

 

William (Bill) Holden’s character of Joe Gillis is the prime representation of a starving artist. He lives in a tiny apartment, has a few credits to his name and is in danger of having his car repossessed. That describes many artists today, thus allowing other aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers to identify with his frustrations. Like a true film noir, the ending is tragic for the protagonist. Part of the suspense is wondering just when will he meet his end and why. For those who are trying to make it in the industry as a screenwriter, the grief and depression Joe must been feeling is something with which aspiring screenwriters can empathize.

Sunset Boulevard contains something for everyone: elements of mystery, action, romance, and deceit are woven meticulously throughout the film. This allows for the story to transcend decades of movie evolution and maintain such a high regard in the minds of all the “people out there in the dark.” And, even land a spot on the Great White Way in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard Broadway musical. It’s been rumored that Paramount plans to make a movie version of the Broadway show, but that rumor has been floating around Hollywood for years. As much as the the musical is a tribute to the original, the movie will always be more impactful because the stage simply cannot bring you as close to eyes of the actor as the screen can. And, Norma “can say anything with [her] eyes.” But, thanks to Barbra Streisand keeping the songs alive, “With One look” and “As if We Never Said Goodbye” are brilliantly written to capture the feelings and state of mind of Norma.

The Screenplay

GillisWritingRegarding the screenplay itself, it is not a matter of what’s going to happen as much as it is how’s it going to happen. This pioneering non-linear structure served as yet inspiration for another film that would not be produced for nearly 60 years. Along with All About Eve and Citizen KaneSunset Boulevard played an instrumental role in the development of the 1994 blockbuster Pulp Fiction. A lesser known 2001 movie borrows many plot points from Sunset Boulevard including the movie title being a street name, entitled Muholland Drive starring Naomi Watts, Justin Theroux, and Laura Harring. Sort of a neo-noir, this is a more modern twist on the foundation Wilder laid with his masterpiece. On that note, now-a-days, non-linear films aren’t necessarily anything special, but at the time, Sunset Boulevard broke ground that would be the standard in abandoning traditional story structure. To me, the screenplay was written in such a way that many people can find his or her own story in the screenplay. Perhaps, someone feels like they are Norma–all but forgotten. Perhaps, there is a starving artist out there who can understand the predicament Joe Gillis was in–just trying to get ahead. To a lesser extent, there may be Betty Schaefer’s watching the movie who feel they have a lot of talent, but very little is recognized and want to find a creative outlet.

Unlike previous films, this movie was also ahead of its time in terms of including dark sarcasm and humor as chief elements in the film. Other aspects that capture the ears of the world, to Miss Desmond’s disapproval, are the famous lines from the movie. Ironically, Desmond despised dialog; however, her movie possesses the coveted numbers 7 and 24 spots on AFI’s Top Movie Quotes list. At number 24, “…I am big! It’s the pictures that got small;” and at number 7, ranking above “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” and “what we have here, is a failure to communicate” is the often misquoted “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.” There are many other more obscure, yet brilliant lines of dialog and exchanges between characters, landing the screenplay in the WGA’s Best Screenplays of All Time list at number 7! It’s important to now only appreciate the movie as a movie, but to appreciate the story itself. Let us never forget that “someone sits down to write a picture” and fool ourselves into thinking that most of the time the “actors make it up as they go along.” Part of what makes this a timeless classic, and even a sort of Bible if you will, is the brilliant writing.

The Cinematography

One of the elements that stands out in the movie is the meticulous placement of lighting. Film Noirs are one of the best examples of how effective lighting can be in playing an intricate part of the storytelling process. Lighting can show us whether or not someone may have two personalities, whether someone is dark and sinister. Since films did not have access to color, in the same way we do today, lighting in a grayscale movie was very important. Since colors could not be distinguished, lighting played that role. In many ways, the lighting in a film noir is like the Norma of the movie itself. Color has caused lighting to be used in a different way. For more practical reasons that aren’t always artistic in nature. Furthermore, another element that makes a film noir a film noir is the cinematography. After all, the term noir is French for dark. So, essentially film noir simply means dark film. It holds up to the definition due to the physically dark scenes; and furthermore, the state of being psychologically dark. The 9-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer John F. Seitz is responsible for creating the haunting visuals and shadows that dominate most of the movie.

 

GIllisPoolOne of the shots that is the most puzzling is how Wilder was able to shoot Joe Gillis’ floating body in the pool. Now-a-days, that is simple enough–even YouTubers do it–but in 1950, how does one accomplish such a special effect? The use of mirrors in the film went beyond macabre and haunting set pieces; a mirror was also used to shoot this scene. Seitz placed a mirror at the bottom of the pool and shot facing down towards the mirror while Holden floated in the water with the police officers around the deck. This gave the illusion the camera was in the water facing up.Thanks to the iconic cinematography, the mansion “stricken with a creeping paralysis” appeared lonely and massive. There is no better example of this than when Gillis descends the grand staircase to a party where he and Desmond are the only guests on an expansive tile dance floor recommended by Rudolph Valentino.

"Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup."

“Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.”

Some of the most memorable cinematography comes at the end of the movie. Wilder and Seitz chose to shoot parts of the finale in slow motion to create an uneasy feeling in the minds of the audience. As Norma begins to descend the grand staircase one final time, she is shot in slow motion, as if it were Norma’s dream coming to life–her big come-back. Pardon, she never left; the pictures left her. In her mind, she is playing princess Salome entering the palace; when in all reality, it’s not movie cameras, but news cameras documenting her psychological decline into insanity. With her famous line “I’m ready for my closeup,” she encroaches upon the camera operator determined to get the closeup she wants, even though it is fixed at a medium shot. The audience, she is so desperate to connect with again, is tragically out of her reach.

Conclusion

Sunset Boulevard means a lot of things to a lot of people. And, each person may have their own respective reasons as to why this film holds a special place in the minds and heart of those who love cinematic art. This movie truly embodies the latin inscription around Leo the Lion in MGM’s logo “Ars Gratia Artis.” Art for Art’s Sake. To me, it is one of the purest examples of artistic cinema. It also served as a mirror, to the dismay of the big producers of its day, highlighting the state of the industry at that time. People still remain mesmerized at this timeless feature because of all it has to offer. This is partly due to the fact that it as relevant today as it was in 1950. It’s entirely possible that there are Norma Desmonds today in their decaying estates watching their movies on TCM or AMC under the delusion that they remain stars that command the attention of the world. Regardless if you are a filmmaker or a connoisseur of movies, Sunset Boulevard captures the eyes and ears of all who peer into the world of Wilder’s Hollywood. And, it will continue to be a source of inspiration and entertainment for decades to come.

References

  • Sunset Boulevard, 1950, directed by Billy Wilder, Paramount Pictures production
  • Oscar Award timeline, http://oscar.go.com/oscar-history/year/2013
  • AFI top movie quotes of all time, http://www.afi.com/100years/quotes.aspx
  • IMDb entry, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043014/?ref_=nv_sr_1
  • WGA 101 greatest screenplays, http://www.wga.org/subpage_newsevents.aspx?id=1807
  • Sunset Boulevard, 1950, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunset_Boulevard_(film)
  • Muholland Drive, 2001, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulholland_Drive_(film)