Sunset Boulevard ★★★★½

Being on Letterboxd has highlighted to me just how poor my film knowledge of the period between the mid-1930s and the late 1950’s really is. I’ve a reasonable appreciation of the silent era thanks to the likes of Keaton, Vigo, Murnau and Lang, but after that comes a giant blind spot, with only occasional shards of light courtesy of Hitchcock, Welles and a few others. So I’m going to slowly try to put things to right and see some of the classics from this era.

Sunset Boulevard has the reputation for being one of the absolute greats and from my long overdue first viewing it’s easy to see why. It concerns Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanston) a former silent movies star who has not worked since the introduction of the talkies. She lives in a somewhat dilapidated though lavishly appointed mansion on Sunset Boulevard with her butler Max (Erich Von Stroheim), who we learn has been her faithful servant for many years. Into their lives comes Joe Gillis (William Holden), a young screenwriter who is struggling to make a buck and is hiding from debt collectors. Norma takes Joe under her wing and he helps her to write a screenplay that may just be their ticket back into glory at nearby Paramount Studios. Their relationship evolves into an unusual one of co-dependency with Joe a kept man lavished with champagne and expensive suits, and Norma indulging her fantasy as a movie star with a young lover.

There’s plenty of fun to be had with this set-up. Billy Wilder’s fantastic direction manages to create multiple layers and intersects of plot, style and real world references. For example, we enjoy that Gloria Swanston, a 50 year-old, bona fide silent movies star is playing a 50 year-old, fictionalised silent movies star, who may in fact be based on other real-world faded silent movie stars. Also, there is the play of style from silent movie acting, to screwball comedy to film noir.

And then there’s the fabulous cast of other characters playing variations of themselves. Von Stroheim, as Max, reveals that he used to be a famous silent film director, but had been fired by Norma, which is not a million miles from the truth given that he was indeed a top silent-era director who had been fired from a film starring Gloria Swanson. Cecil B. DeMille, another directing great, plays himself and there are references to his real world working relationship with Swanson scattered through the film. And there is a marvelous, almost incidental scene where the “waxworks”, being a collection of real life silent movie stars, gather for a game of cards. The great Buster Keaton steals the show finally getting his chance to speak on camera.

In addition to the fun to be had, there is a deep bitterness to the film in the way most of the characters are shown to be victims of the movie business. The glamourous allure of making movies is juxtaposed with its savage reality. It’s a tough business. Yesterday’s star, or rising talent, is today’s addition to the scrapheap. The film noir elements add a dark tone to the story, with the book-ending of a murder and with most of the characters suffering humiliation at various times. The motto of the film could very well be “after pride comes a fall”.

Wilder’s direction is sharp. There is tremendous clarity to the action despite its complexity. The cinematography is great, with some dramatic camerawork, and striking mise en scene. The screenplay is terrific, with rich dialogue and memorable lines. The actors supply whip smart wisecracking delivery.

Gloria Swanson absolutely owns the screen. She is grotesque and outrageous, confident and domineering, yet fragile, neurotic and terribly unhappy. Her acting range is marvelous combining comedy and dramatic acting styles from silent film, with the wealthy decadence and tyrannical megalomania of a film diva. She plays a movie star raging against the dying of the light, as if she was an astronomical star, shining brightly in one final display before imploding like a black hole sucking in the men around her, as she prepares herself for one final close up.


In my Top 200 Films list.

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