In Sunset Boulevard, an over-the-hill silent-movie star played by Gloria Swanson decries the advent of talkies, sniping, "We didn't need dialogue… we had faces!" They also had places. Paramount Studios has recently issued three of its early-'50s movie classics on DVD, each with a shared featurette on the costume designs of Edith Head, but what really links To Catch A Thief, Roman Holiday, and Sunset Boulevard is their inspired use of location. Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 mystery-romance To Catch A Thief was one of the first films shot in the widescreen process VistaVision, which emphasizes the colorful panoramic views of the French Riviera. The story is half of a nothing, with Cary Grant playing a retired jewel thief who woos socialite Grace Kelly while he investigates a string of robberies that mimic his style. A few tepid car chases and rooftop creeps aside, the action of To Catch A Thief is minimal, to allow for more shots of Grant and Kelly wearing bathing suits, or trading quips over a picnic of cold chicken and beer (all against a backdrop of blue skies and blue water). Rarely has a Hollywood film been more about the audience's fantasy of hanging out with the rich and glamorous–Americans with patrician accents, no less–in a spectacular locale. Hitchcock is so up-front about his intentions that he even opens To Catch A Thief with a shot of a travel-agency poster for Nice. William Wyler's 1953 reverse-Cinderella story Roman Holiday also spends as much time exploring a European wonderland as it spends advancing its plot, though in Wyler's case, the story is in the exploring. Audrey Hepburn plays a teenage princess who shirks her ambassadorial duty during a Rome stopover and takes to the streets. There, she encounters hard-luck American reporter Gregory Peck, who smells a story and offers to escort Hepburn as she fulfills her "what do the simple folk do?" dreams. Wyler, working from a script by blacklistee Dalton Trumbo, lets much of the film pass without dialogue, allowing Hepburn's immediate reactions (as enchantingly passionate now as they were 50 years ago, in what was her Hollywood debut) and her increasing physical closeness to Peck say what the characters can't. The leisurely pace of Roman Holiday also allows for plenty of touristy gawking at the sights of Rome, and for viewers to project themselves into the sidewalk cafés, gelato stands, and crumbling ruins. Although Billy Wilder's 1950 Hollywood noir Sunset Boulevard gets less attention as a travelogue, it's both an examination of the dark psychological landscape of out-of-fashion show-business types (as underlined by the title) and an actual trip through its physical environment. As a venal screenwriter played by William Holden narrates the sick story of his relationship with wealthy has-been Gloria Swanson, he also leads the audience through the luxury homes, hillside drives, and hangouts of Hollywood, as well as the offices and backlots of Paramount Studios. Wilder and co-screenwriter Charles Brackett's pungent dialogue has lost none of its sophistication with age, but Sunset Boulevard's specificity is what keeps the film alive even now. The filmmakers name names (Cecil B. DeMille, Schwab's Drugstore, countless actual streets), and in the process, give a firm grounding to a cautionary tale about the cynical artificiality of the movie industry. It's a creepy place to visit, but it's every bit as seductive as Cannes or the Colosseum.
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