For those that find in them a certain joy every time the orchestra of film kicks, when those studio logos lighten the dark of the screen and the familiar trumpet notes sound, you know what I mean when I say that the greatest films ever made are a must see for everyone. Those top 100 or 200, or 500 films that everyone should see before they die. Film is subjective though, and there are many lists. Fortunately for us, the American Film Institute compiled a list of the top 100 films of the 20th Century. From top to bottom, the list compiles the greatest American films released in the first 100 years of cinema.
The 1950s were a glorious time for fans of film noir, and no one was better suited to exploit and dramatize the genre than Billy Wilder. Wilder directed such comedy classics Stalag 17 and Some Like it Hot and made what many consider to be the first true film noir, Double Indemnity in how it combined stylistic elements of Citizen Kane and the narrative style of The Maltese Falcon.
Wilder’s greatest film though would have to be his 1950 film noir, black comedy Sunset Boulevard, which happens to be the number 12 film of all time according to the AFI. The film is about a washed up screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden), who runs into Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and gets immediately caught up in her delusions of returning to her once grandeur lifestyle, now a down on her luck actress. When he seizes the opportunity she lays before him to read her screenplay he immediately becomes ensnared in her money trap, completely dependent on her financially and unwilling to leave, despite his discomfort.
When Gillis finally finds another woman whom he really does love, Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olson) the love triangle that ensues pushes Gillis closer and closer to destruction and Desmond closer and closer to insanity. When Gillis finally attempts to leave, Desmond shoots him and the film flashes forward to the present where she’s clearly lost in her fantasy world, uttering the famous line, “All right, Mr. Demille. I’m ready for my close up.”
The role of Norma Desmond was offered to a few actresses including Greta Garbo, Mae West, and Pola Negri, each turning the role down for varying reasons, including the lack of desire to play a has-been. Similarly the role of Gillis was bandied about between a variety of actors before finally settling on Holden. Written by Wilder and Charles Brackett the film’s remembered not only for its dark take on the inner workings of Hollywood, but for its famous lines, still staples in pop culture today.
When released, Wilder and Brackett were afraid of the response Hollywood might have so they screened it in Illinois. Gloria Swanson, for her part, was given the cold shoulder by many Hollywood mavens for the over the top portrayal of washed up excess. The critics and fans however loved the film, bestowing upon it glowing reviews, declaring it a vision of “Hollywood at its worst, from Hollywood at its best.” It was nominated for 11 academy awards and went on to win three of them. Now considered of the truly important films of the century and a bold move by Wilder, Sunset Boulevard is his most beloved and best remembered film.