Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard is one of the greatest films ever made. I say this as a fact, not an opinion, and it’s not hard to see why. A striking film noir, a harsh and biting look at the Hollywood business, and writing so good that it still retains much of its humor, Sunset Boulevard is the best at many things. Anyone who considers themselves a movie fan is doing a disservice if they don’t watch this film.

Sunset Boulevard begins with a corpse, that of small-time Hollywood writer Joe Gillis. Gillis is played by William Holden, and in an interesting stylistic decision, narrates the entire movie even though we first see him dead. Thus, the film is a flashback, as he recounts his tale of how he came to be a corpse – through an entangled life with former silent movie star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson.

I’ll get the praise for the acting out of the way first, because it’s impossible to watch the movie without noting the first-class performances. Gloria Swanson gives one of the greatest acting performances of all time. Swanson was a silent movie star herself, so that surely helped her in her depiction of the unforgettable Norma Desmond. Desmond is an ex-star, in an era that has moved on and left her behind. She has grown slightly insane from her isolation and narcissism, believing herself to be adored and loved because of fake fan letters she receives.

Swanson as Norma acts exactly like you’d expect an old silent movie star to act. She’s over-the-top and melodramatic, emoting every last bit of her feelings through exaggerated faces and wild hand gestures. It’s what the silent stars were trained to do, and her strong gesticulating also helps to contrast with Norma’s inability to realize what her life has really come to. As expressive as she is, she’s never able to really express her fears and insecurities, until she’s swallowed up by them and succumbs to her dream world.

William Holden, who would later star in Bridge on the River Kwai, is perfectly suited for the role of Joe Gillis. Holden’s narration wonderfully brings the noir style to the forefront. His dialogue is sharp and acerbic. He’s cynical and pragmatic, and does what he needs to in order to survive in a time where his talents aren’t being asked for. Holden’s narration drives the film, and he brings much of the humor with his witticisms, both internally and externally.

Erich von Stroheim, a former silent film director, plays Norma’s butler Max. He is at the same time the prototypical butler and a smart, knowing, original character. Max protects Norma from the reality of the world behind her, sending her fan letters and keeping her happy. At the same time, by the end of the film when she’s slipped into total dissociation, he is fully aware, and uses her trust in him to get her to cooperate. von Stroheim is excellent and plays his role with a very subdued and knowing edge. Cecille B. DeMille also shows up in a cameo as himself, and he is more than fantastic. Maybe it’s just because he is being himself, but he really comes through as a caring but strong director.

This movie is one that will be more enjoyable the more you know about films. Norma name drops plenty of old silent film stars, and even plays cards with them – seeing Buster Keaton as an old “Waxworth” whose only line is to pass is one of the many highlights of the movie. It’s also interesting to note that this was all filmed where it purports to be filmed – on Sunset Blvd. itself, in Paramount’s studios, and on its backlots. The movie is engrossing even with just a little bit of Hollywood historical knowledge, and I can only imagine how great it would be when it was released and all of these facts were still fresh and newly irrelevant.

Billy Wilder made a near-perfect film with Sunset Boulevard. Its dark humor is modern enough to persist, and its surreal scenes like that of a monkey funeral or when Norma is recognized by an old light technician bring a unique and interesting side to a film made so long ago. Best of all, the stakes and intensity build consistently throughout, as we see the pitfalls and problems in Norma and Joe’s relationship develop. Before long, she has fallen in love with him, something he surely cannot reciprocate. This unrequited desire is just the straw that finally breaks down Norma Desmond, and her descent into murderous madness is at the same time frightening and sad. And so is the entire movie: a combination of interesting darkness, revolting disgust, and pity sympathy for the victims of the Hollywood machine.

Final rating: 10/10

–James A. Janisse

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One response

  1. Pingback: The Artist (2011) « The Analytic Critic

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