dantesring’s review published on Letterboxd:
What a fascinating film. This was one of the many blind spots in my film viewing career. I had heard so many things about this film, but I never really mustered the energy to watch it (sometime these films can be daunting for their classic status and age). I am very glad I did.
Wilder's depiction of lost fame and and the weak souls who seek at at any cost is very powerful. True credit should and is given to Gloria Swanson for taking such a an unpleasant character and giving her a soul. Hers is a sad, small life, constantly being duped and harmed by those her love her, all in an attempt to save her vanity. She devolves into such childish behavior, and attempts to buy the adoration she so desperatly craves. Her house is a masouleum to everyone but her.
Into this comes hack screenwriter Joe (an excellent, understated William Holden), who despises the hold she has on her, yet is unable to break from the comfortable life she provides him. Ultimately he is destroyed by not going along with his "role" in her life.
I love how the film is narrated with the noirish voice-over and the campy revaltion of him narrating his own death after the fact is a reflection of his own writing style. It is his words, the words of a mildly talented screenwriter, overblown and self-serious, that really show why his career (in the film) never took off. It's like a character says early on, reviewing his proof script, that's it's just a rehash of old story tropes done before. The fact that he tells his tale in this manner says more about his own desperation and his own need for fame than any of his actions in the film.
Norma Desmond is so iconic, petulant, yet full of charm, crisp, yet able to show weakness, determined, yet helpless. Many say Swanson's performance is over the top, but it is reflective of someone who is completely consumed by her own "stardom", always in performance mode. True sadness radiates out of her, made more so by the moments of joy and talent she demonstrates (most notably in her Chaplin imitation). You come to realize that she could have all the things she desires, if only she would humble herself to her true situation.
Powerful film. Funny, sad but always entertaining.
1) The atmosphere and settings, the gothic haunted house environment of Desmond's home, complete with wheezing pipe organ (a great touch), and inhabited by ghosts (living and dead). Also, the bustle of the Paramount backlot.
2) The story construction, using Joe's own hackneyed narration to tell this melodramatic tale, giving it a sense of being scripted and real at the same time.
1) The ending that lets Joe be the hero, by standing up to Desmond and face the truth about his own situation. Though as I type this, I find it is also part of Joe's own narration, of course he would make himself the tragic hero in his own tale.