Will McGee’s review published on Letterboxd:
When I first saw this, it was the first film I'd seen by Billy Wilder. Upon revisiting it, I think I can definitely say it's my favorite, and maybe even my favorite of the classic film noirs. This is definitely a one-character movie, even though it's a movie with plenty of important characters. Everything in this movie works as well as it does because of Gloria Swanson's performance as has-been silent film actress Norma Desmond, a sort of melodramatic, Cruella de Ville/Yzma from The Emperor's New Groove type delivery that can seem campy or overly exaggerated at first glance but makes perfect sense when you consider exactly what her character was famous for. I think a lot of this movie works in that way - a lot of it seems ridiculous, on paper or in action, but it's done with the exact right tone to make the characters and the scenarios gripping and believable. Desmond is not just overdosed on delusions of grandeur - she works because of a nuanced, layered characterization and because of the film's excess. Only such an over-the-top character could inhabit such an over-the-top world.
The story of Norma Desmond, by way of the story of Joe Gillis, is also masterfully tight and well-written, with memorable and believable characters and, eventually, the sort of moral myopia that makes so many of these old noirs great. Watching this movie again with a greater knowledge of classic Hollywood adds a lot to it, and that the narrator of the story should be a screenwriter himself allows the dialogue an extra layer of sophistication. Seemingly by accident, Gillis frequently has exactly the right literary or cinematic reference to communicate the dynamics of a scene via his voiceover narration.
Works like this one, that so fully capture the essence of an entire medium of art, fascinate me - it feels like they existed since the beginning of time, and Billy Wilder discovered this and revealed it to the world, rather than creating it himself. Perhaps that's because it so fully resonates that its appeal and understanding feels truly universal. Anyway. Lots of gushing. It's a great movie. Its cultural imprint is all over American cinema, television, etc. Essential viewing.