Sunset Boulevard ★★★★★

A film noir drenched in notes of black comedy and shadowy-toned film-industry satire, Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" is a glorious piece of cinema. Rich with ironies and robust with dramatic texture, the film is a sharp, sad, riveting, and fully alive work that pleases with its narrative, themes, cast, writing and directing.

Taking place in Hollywood of long ago, "Sunset Boulevard" tells the story of an out-of-luck writer who becomes entangled with an aging silent-cinema queen looking to return to the fame of her past. Taking the writer into her care, the stage is set for a tale ripe with romance, unrequited love, misguided passions, and violence. The narrative is deliciously compelling.

Wilder's film reveals the eccentricities of the Hollywood machine, examining both the personalities and creative machinery that power careers, gossip rags, and the film industry itself. Subtly exposing what is behind the Hollywood curtain, the film both pokes fun of and celebrates the weird and wonderful world hatched in Southern California. Themes of failed redemption, obsolescence, and the struggle for contentment make up the film's subtextual soul.

As the aging acting relic, Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson cuts both a sympathetic and repellant figure. Her performance is layered with peaks and valleys of emotion and high and low histrionic volumes. Swanson creates an iconic character. William Holden is Joe Gillis, the audience's guide and eyepiece into the film's events. Providing a wry voice-over that makes the film pop with energy, Holden is both an ideal leading man and well-tuned foil to Swanson's Desmond. Nancy Olson and Erich von Stroheim balance out a fine supporting cast.

Wilder directs with an eye on the youthful exuberance of young Hollywood, the royal bluster of film production, and the staleness of those whom the industry has left behind. Energy flows and ebbs depending on who or what is the focus of Wilder's lens. It is an electric, ever-changing heartbeat painted in sumptuous, black and white compositions.

With "Sunset Boulevard," the great Billy Wilder puts forth an equally great work. A film with tonal and thematic layers, it is at once bleak, cynical noir and crackling, near-comedic commentary on the Hollywood system. There is an inviting darkness shadowing a self-aware sense of humor, and all of it results in a film experience for the ages.

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