Lost in the shadows: William Holden and film noir

holden_turning point.pngHappy Noirvember! The month dedicated to hard boiled detectives, sassy dames and suspense. Never heard of Noirvember? It started in 2010 by Marya E. Gates on her blog to watch as many film noirs as she could and since then, it’s blown up into a full on celebration of noir on social media and beyond.

Keeping with my year-long project #Holden100 for William Holden’s centennial, I contacted Turner Classic Movies to speak with the “Czar of Noir” himself Eddie Muller about Holden’s films in the noir genre. Like many actors of his era, Holden wasn’t immune to film noir and made four films in the genre including one of its best, Sunset Boulevard.  Below are his answers to my questions.

1. Like many actors of the classic Hollywood era, William Holden also dabbled in the film noir genre with The Dark Past, Sunset Boulevard, The Turning Point and Union Station. In my opinion, Holden’s ability to play sardonic characters who grapple with their own humanity made him a perfect fit for this genre. Where do you see Holden in film noir canon?
The short answer: Under-used. Paramount saw him mainly as a romantic leading man
and tried to cash in on his handsome, virile appeal during his “prime” years. But Billy
Wilder understood the drama in watching a guy like that unravel, which of course is
what typically happens in noir. One of my biggest disappointments is that Holden never
got to play the role for which he was perfectly suited: private eye Philip Marlowe. To me,
he embodies the character as written by Raymond Chandler: more a cynical intellectual
than a genuine tough guy. As you say, “a sardonic character grappling with his
humanity.” The movies never show Marlowe smoking a pipe and working out chess
problems, which he did in the books. Holden could have sold THAT Marlowe very
convincingly. And we know he can do a great voiceover. His narration in Sunset
Boulevard might be the best voiceover ever.

2. In The Dark Past, Holden plays a killer. It was a different William Holden than the public had seen before. Do you consider The Dark Past a film noir or is it more in the vein of a psychological thriller?
It’s part of the obsession Hollywood had in that era for psychiatry, which was a relatively
new phenomenon. It had been made once before, in 1939, as Blind Alley, in which
Chester Morris played the killer. I actually like that film better. It’s basically a hostage
drama with an overdose of Freudian psychobabble. Holden is fun to watch, but I’m not a
big fan of this film.

holden_sunsetboulevard3. Sunset Boulevard is Holden’s breakout film and arguably the most important film of his career. Many point to this as a landmark film noir. Can you explain why it’s revered that way for some people who make think of film noir in a nuts and bolts way like a film noir is, “When there’s a detective and there’s a femme fatale?” 
Some people don’t think of Sunset Boulevard as noir because Norma Desmond is not the typical femme fatale. I totally disagree. My only definition of a femme fatale is “The last woman you should ever meet and you can’t resist her.” That pretty much defines Joe’s relationship with Norma. There’s so much grotesque stuff in this movie, and such a sense of dread and opulent squalor that Holden’s performance tends to go unnoticed, even though, as you say, it’s his “breakout” film. But remember—he also made Born Yesterday the same year, which was much more popular with the public. Although he was overshadowed in that film by both Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford, that image of Holden—bright, smooth, attractive—is what the public liked. Which is why Wilder, the great contrarian, cast him against type in Stalag 17, which won him the Oscar. The recent 4K restoration of Sunset is amazing for how it enhances Holden’s performance—you can really see his wonderful silent reactions to Swanson in their scenes together. He’s absolutely brilliant.

4. In Union Station, Holden was paired again with Nancy Olson and in this film, he plays a tough cop. Holden and Olson made a total of four films (two of them were film noirs) but they never seemed to take off as a screen team. Do you think they had potential to be a film noir team but the scripts just weren’t there? 
I think they were both a bit wasted in Union Station. There isn’t much to the characters;
the studio was just trying to cash in on their chemistry in Sunset Boulevard, without
bothering to create interesting characters. Frankly, anybody could have played Holden’s
part in this movie. It’s an OK film, with some great sequences, but the characters aren’t
developed. As for her potential in noir, Nancy Olson was a bit too much of the spunky
good girl. She is perfect in Sunset Boulevard, but she was never really used that well
again. Or at least I haven’t seen the movie in which she’s that good again.

5. The Turning Point is one of my favorite William Holden films but it seems to be rarely seen. I’m so happy its Paramount restoration has been shown at Noir City festivals this year. Can you tell me about the restoration process and what are your thoughts on The Turning Point?
holden_turning pointWe lobbied Paramount for many years to revive this film. It is an underseen,
undervalued part of the film noir “continuum,” an important and representative example from the early ’50s, and one of the best stories by Horace McCoy, who is mostly known as the author of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. After Sunset, this is my favorite noir featuring William Holden; he’s great in it. As for the new DCP, Paramount did it from a scan of the original negative. I don’t believe there was the same amount of restoration
that went into Sunset Boulevard, but I’m just thankful that Andrea Kalas, who runs the
studio archive, made sure it got done. I believe Kino is putting it out on Blu-ray.

6. Looking back at his film noir roles, I think these four films speak to what a versatile performer William Holden was. He could play a villain, a cad and a hero with ease. Holden would have turned 100 this year. What do you think is the legacy he leaves behind?
He’s a better actor than he often gets credit for. Because he’s handsome and he makes
it looks easy, as you say. And I don’t want to overlook some great performances he
gave later in his career. He’s tremendous in The Wild Bunch, absolutely tremendous.
Pike Bishop is one of the most vivid and believable characters ever, especially for a
western. Peckinpah was a genius, like Wilder. He saw something in Holden that others
couldn’t or didn’t want to see. A depth and a sadness. And it comes out in two other
roles from around the same time, Eastwood’s Breezy and, of course, Network—in which
his great work is, again, overshadowed by the bigger, brassier performances around
him, Finch and Dunaway especially. But he’s the heart of that film, and does a
heartbreaking job with it. Holden grew old pretty fast (the drinking didn’t help) but he
wasn’t afraid to show it onscreen, which led to some very moving later performances.

Many thanks to Eddie Muller and Turner Classic Movies for taking the time to discuss William Holden and film noir. You can catch Eddie on Noir Alley every Saturday at midnight and Sunday at 10 AM ET on Turner Classic Movies. 


2 thoughts on “Lost in the shadows: William Holden and film noir

  1. Walter S says:

    Diana, I really enjoyed your Q & A with Eddie Muller. William Holden is one of my all time favorite actors, ever since I first saw him in SUNSET BOULEVARD(1950) back in 1965.

    If you haven’t seen THE BLUE KNIGHT(1973) a TV Mini Series starring William Holden and Lee Remick, I highly recommend it. Holden received and Emmy Award and Remick received a Golden Globe Award.

  2. Vienna says:

    How have I managed to miss The Turning Point. Some cast. Will rectify this omission ASAP!
    My fav Holden is always Stalag 17.
    ( Vienna ‘s Classic Hollywood)

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