Sunset Boulevard ★★★★★

The best movie about the movie business ever made, "Sunset Blvd" is the story of Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who happens into the driveway of former silent era screen legend Norma Desmond. His fate is sealed from that very moment though, of course, he doesn't know that. We do, however. This film is shot through with a glorious streak of fatalism from the first frame (ambulances and police cars rushing toward the mansion while Holden's voiceover already informs us of his ultimate fate) to the unsettling final image. This lends an unsettling tension to everything we see, since we already know where this story will end and we're simply watching to see the hows and whys of that event. This is also one of the bitterest and most pitch black comedies ever made. Not that it's just a comedy. This is a movie that refuses to be pigeonholed. It's got elements of comedy, but it's also an extremely cynical tragedy, a cautionary tale depicting Hollywood as some kind of Venus Flytrap, luring unsuspecting victims into its maw with promises of fame and fortune and then spitting out what's left of them when it's finished.

Holden's Joe Gillis is somewhere in the middle of this process. He's not the fresh-faced hopeful soul he once was (which is embodied in this film, beautifully, by a terrific young Nancy Olsen) nor is he the hollow, delusional victim of this process that Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond has become. He's probably closer to Desmond's end of this process than Olsen's, however, but he's not so caught up in the gears of the Hollywood machinery that he's beyond thinking of escape.

The movie also serves as a thriller. After all, there is a murder looming over every frame of the film, one seen early on that the rest of the story is trying to explain.

It's also a surprisingly effective study of mental illness: Gloria Swanson's performance is like an oversized, Grand Guignol portrait of manic depression. Her performance is the pillar supporting the rest of this film, and it is stunning, one of the most gloriously over the top and yet amazingly effective turns in Hollywood history. After all, Swanson somewhat lived this story. She was a silent era starlet who would probably have been doomed to irrelevance if not for this film. As I said, her performance could be criticized as being too big or over the top, but I think it's perfectly suited to the film. She's playing a woman who so succumbed to the Hollywood star system that she's never escaped from it, a woman who's still the world's biggest star in her own mind and is therefore perpetually playing a role in a movie that no one is watching. It's an old school performance in a film that is otherwise far ahead of its time.

Though released in 1950, "Sunset Blvd" still seems fresh to this day (touches like that bold ending and the film's narration coming from beyond the grave are things most filmmakers still lack the courage to try). It's filled with director Billy Wilder's trademark cynicism and dark humor but tempered with his human touch and high regard for his own characters. It's a bitter pill, with just enough humanity and humor to make it go down easy.

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