Joe Gillis, a Poverty Row screen-writer turned professional toy boy and now dead male lead makes his first appearance face down in the pool in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950)
The underwater pool shot is widely considered a low-tech tour de force in film-making circles. The solution to Billy Wilder’s problem of how to film Holden from a “fish’s point of view” without using what was, at the time, prohibitively expensive underwater camera equipment is credited by film historian, Sam Staggs to the movie’s art director, John Meehan. Staggs recounts how, by conducting trial and error experiments with plastic dolls, a mirror and an aquarium borrowed from the studio prop department, Meehan determined that the optimal angle for shooting a mirrored reflection of a floating body from underneath is 48 degrees. For the actual shot, the crew placed a large dance rehearsal mirror in a portable process tank and lowered it into the pool. A muslin canopy was then hung behind the crowd of police and news photographers and the scene lit by cinematographer, John Seitz to simulate an early morning sky. With the camera positioned at the requisite angle at the edge of the pool and the filtered water kept at a constant temperature of 40 degrees, thus ensuring maximum light transmission, it was possible to film Holden in the mirror at the bottom of the tank.
That a film dedicated to exposing the dominion of Thanatos over the Hollywood system and the imbrication of pathological narcissism within that system (hence within the “Californian Dream”) should begin with a shot of an actor playing dead looking (blindly) at an image of himself in a mirror at the bottom of a pool while floating in 40 degree water for however many takes is, to say the least, uncannily appropriate.1
“The poor dope. He always wanted a pool. Well in the end he got himself a pool. Only the price turned out to be a little high.” – Joe Gillis, Sunset Boulevard (1950)
1. The Body in the Pool: Face Down in Noir was a presentation given by Dick Hebdige based on his catalogue essay “Hole…swimming…floating…sinking…drowning” for a 2012 exhibition at the Palm Springs Art Museum entitled “Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography, 1945 – 1982.’ This text includes an excerpt from Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond and the Dark Hollywood Dream (St Martins Griffin, New York, 2002)
“The Sunset Boulevard Mosaic Swimming Pool would be a spectacularly dystopian addition to a high end swimming pool.” – Dick Hebdige, Body in the Pool: Face Down in Noir
Commission Sunset Boulevard Swimming Pool Design
Sunset Boulevard Mosaic Swimming Pool Design is looking for a patron in Los Angeles to commission this work for their home. The design can be adapted to an already existing swimming pool (provided the pool dimensions work) or a custom pool can be designed. Appropriate for for both an indoor or outdoor swimming pool, the design can be realized at different scales. The current design is for 1” x 1” mosaic tiles and the approximate swimming pool dimensions are 15 feet x 11 feet. Mosaic tiles also come in quarter inch squares so there are variations on the original design available. Interested parties should contact me to discuss scale and location and I will get back to you with designs and quote. In the event that someone commissions this I will be subcontracting swimming pool and mosiac professionals to do the construction.