Don't let the length of this epic film version of one of the most popular trashy novels scare you away from it. This grabs at the viewer's hormones and sinful desires of lust, power and greed and doesn't let go. Cinema never looked so pornographic as it did with the screen adaption of Harold Robbins' best seller, even dirtier than the same year's "Where Love Has Gone", also by Robbins. I've seen this listed on compilations of "worst" for years; worst film of 1964, worst actress (Carroll Baker) among them. Baker was so panned by critics after a few successes that in 1965, she was listed for at least three films. While not as wretched as all that, she does have the habit of braying most of her lines, making both Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor seem subtle in comparison.
The focus of the story is George Peppard's Jonas Cord, a carefree and rebellious young man whose tirade against his father leads the old man to his grave. That leaves the sultry baker a wealthy widow and free to try to get Peppard into her bed. As Nevada Smith, Alan Ladd has pretty much been a father figure to Peppard, equally a rebel, if now a tired one. Ladd goes onto silent western stardom, ironically marrying the much younger Baker who goes onto becoming a Jean Harlow type star, tying this in both with Baker's next film (where she did play Harlow) and a prequel, "Nevada Smith", with Steve McQueen as the younger Ladd.
With all his new wealth and power, Peppard sets off to become the most powerful man in the country (if not the world), leading to the revelation of a truly miserable life before, and certainly much more miserable going forward. The obviousness of who Jonas Cord is becomes fairly obvious early on, with various references to the real life people utilized as well. This covers big business, the movie business, and in keeping true to the title, the obvious analogy that everything that Cord gets involved in is through infiltration, just like the northerners did in the south decades before.
This is at its best when it deals with decadence and showing off the fun of sinful lives which usually brings on great unhappiness years later. It definitely makes great use out of its epic feel, never shirking on the overabundance of too much living and too little sense to really be able to handle it all. You'll enjoy the lengthy cast list that appears in the sky writing credits with Baker getting special billing. Such veteran actors as Lew Ayres and Robert Cummings also have major roles, with the young Elizabeth Ashley standing out as the flirtatious daughter of a business associate of Peppard's who ends up in a miserable marriage to him. Martin Balsam is excellent as a movie producer who pushes Peppard into the movie business, further complicating his life. Martha Hyer is the actress whom Jonas fires, infuriating Balsam.
Why does this not all come together? It's just really a bit too much, in retrospect an analogy of the characters and perhaps why this was panned. Peppard is completely unsympathetic, and often, the other characters are "types", not real people. If Robbins is trying to expose the hypocrisy of Hollywood, he succeeds somewhat, but "Sunset Blvd." this isn't. Written and filmed long before the creation of the TV mini-series, something tells me that this would have been better that way rather than a huge novel edited down to a still long movie that never the less feels choppy.