Sunset Boulevard ★★★★★

[3,711 word essay]

For all the titles in my great movies collection: letterboxd.com/davidwallace/list/great-movies-collection/

---

Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" is arguably the best movie about the filmmaking industry because it was the first to take the obscene gamble and set the uncompromising benchmark. I can only imagine how it would have felt to be seated in the auditorium alongside movie executives and producers during the film’s premiere, all squirming in their seats as if offended by what was shown and knowing they are the ones being chastised. It is a wicked satire, superbly denuding the seedy side to Hollywood glamour. Nowadays, we are no longer shocked that Hollywood plays it nasty given other industries are just as penal, what with all the magazines stalking celebrities in an effort to photograph such 'stars' in compromising positions. Even the more high-rent publications sell themselves at times on printing pictures of celebrities with acne, runny noses, sweat stains and cellulite. This is an entirely different age to the time period examined in "Sunset Boulevard," but we can learn a great deal about ourselves by visiting this cautionary tale. This was before filmmaker Federico Fellini stuck the paparazzi label on those cameramen looking for candid photographs. This was before actors, musicians and models checked into a rehab clinic to heal years of pain from drug-taking, likely linked to the swarm of observers waiting outside their home. Why do we spend so much time idolising and damning these celebrity stars? We almost take it for granted that they are immune to our commentary, because, after all, isn't even really bad gossip better than no gossip at all? An infamous celebrity trumps never obtaining fame in the first place. The movie’s savage pun of a title illuminates these notions, for it is a Los Angeles street where the sun has set a long time ago for its residents. The name takes on more significance when you consider it is primarily movie stars residing in the houses built during the early stages of the Golden Age's boom, whose star has now waned into near extinction.

Norma Desmond would baffle the world's paparazzi if she existed today. She is a Miss Havisham for the moviemaking industry. I suspect the Celeb Cult would forget her existence and allow her to live the rest of her life like a John Hughes or a J.D. Salinger. She is not alone in shunning the world - note the ironic sequence in which she plays card games with some of her former silent movie colleagues, like Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson. They are referred to collectively as 'the waxworks' and we note them just going about their quiet, unremarkable lives now, their past glories a distant memory, although H.B. Warner succeeded splendidly with the coming of sound. Nevertheless, to understand the metaphor one need only browse the hallways of a wax museum filled with the effigy figurines of important persons, the persons features are still there for the tourist to snap, but ultimately a shell of their former self. This Norma Desmond, played in a somewhat autobiographical sense by Gloria Swanson, was one of the big stars of the silent age. After the coming of sound, Hollywood moved on and she was unable to adapt her acting ability to their suited requirements. As the roles dried up and her fan base dwindled in theory, Norma locked herself away from the world in her ‘great white elephant of a house’ located only a short drive from her glory days at Paramount Studios. Why was Norma unable to transition into sound movies? Unlike some of her contemporaries, she is not challenged vocally and commands a great presence when she speaks. Part of the issue is Norma’s belief in a pure form of cinema, which resided in silent pictures only, and our glimpse into a personal life demonstrates excesses in her hand flourishes and body swoops, as if an extension of her theatrical acting style that she would not tone down for industry changes.

‘Norma Desmond, I thought she was dead,’ concedes one bewildered character in this story. She might as well be, and it is therefore highly facetious that the movie should be narrated by a corpse. Corpses of humans and animals occasionally narrated some of the more cutting-edge literature of the day, particularly in Russia, but in 1950 mainstream film this was a highly ambitious device. "Sunset Boulevard" is one of the all-time great examples of how to effectively employ the use of voice-over narration to serve a purpose, to expand images and haunt visual spectacles, rather than simply to short-change the audience with unwarranted words. Norma would scorn in the direction of such a filmic component, but for Joe Gillis, played by William Holden (again in partially autobiographical mode), it was his livelihood. Our narrator was a screenwriter. He had moderate success pitching creative ideas around the studio blocks, and now he is dead. The bittersweet reality for Joe is that his finest screenplay took shape from his own life, but only once he had departed from the world. There is the temptation to think of screenwriters during the studio system heyday in impractical terms, thinking that they are contracted players who will get paid generously for their hours spent on the typewriter, with coffee and cigarettes on hand. Joe is an example to disprove the idea that screenwriting was a prosperous profession. In modern times where, paradoxically, innovative ideas are at a premium yet few studios are willing to take a chance on an unproven creative entity, there is a parallel to be drawn to the time period of Wilder’s picture.

Many who will be experiencing the movie for the first time will throw their hands up in exasperation that I should suddenly reveal the death of one of the leading two characters. His death occurs in the opening scene, and the audience is almost immediately aware of the fact. Even if you don't connect the narrator's voice to the man in the swimming pool, you will likely recognise the voice as mirroring the accent of the man shown in flashbacks. When I first saw "Sunset Boulevard," my initial reaction was that the narrator existed in a different time and space and that he had no connective tissue to the dead man. Then, on a second viewing, I listened more closely to his words to see how I missed it from the start. Joe tells us about a murder that has occurred, and has a few pot-shots in the direction of the media snarks racing to the crime scene, as paramedics ripple the water and inspect the corpse carefully. ‘Funny how gentle people get with you once you’re dead,’ he observes with sly indignation. He tells us they will all have their own write-ups in tomorrow afternoon's outlets, distorted facts though are destined to come out of the printers. ‘Perhaps you would like to hear the facts, the whole truth. If so, you've come to the right party,’ Joe informs. Yes, he speaks of himself in the third-person, but the cynical nature of his diction compels us to note an affinity. A voice-of-God speaker could tell us how many gun shots were fired, but not the precise point of their impact on the body. Nor would the omniscient commentator perhaps know about Joe’s craving to one day have his own swimming pool, as he ironically lies face down motionlessly in this pool of water.

The movie is filmed in beautiful black-and-white celluloid, with actor Erich von Stroheim adding to the illusion of Wilder’s gothic aesthetic by rubbing chalk dust from his hands around the frame of the camera. This adds considerably to the scenes taking place in Norma's home. She lives by herself, except for her faithful butler Max (von Stroheim). Once again a context of Classical Hollywood provides layers of subtext to this dynamic, but even those unaware will note their strange coupling, as Joe observes once viewing the twosome bury a pet monkey: ‘It was all very queer. But queerer things were yet to come.’ Joe arrives at this house by a stroke of fate as he attempts to shake off the presence of the repossession workers chasing him by vehicle, and ends up with a flat tyre in Norma’s huge driveway. He is broke and unable to pay for his apartment or keep his car on the road, and his agent over in Hollywood is busy making with the golf sticks, possibly at Riviera Country Club, which just happens to interlock with Sunset Boulevard. In other words he is looking for someone to give him a break. All of the action takes place in and around this Hollywood boulevard, and the filmmakers make sure to include all the various hotspots. Although we are not quite there yet, many theorists predict that this digital era is going to leave a comparable mark on such residents. With movies coming out in three-dimensional form, and with blue/green screens all the rage, the day might come when actors find their status diminished through the new technology. One day movie producers might cast robots in their lead roles, leaving the actors free to pursue other interests and live in their big mansions funded by careers now made obsolete.

The first third of the movie uses Joe's acidic narration as a hook. We are drawn into this world through his engaging word selection, and careful co-operation with audience proficiency. This is why I consider the movie to be ageless, as the references to real people may not mean anything to some viewers but we can nevertheless substitute them for contemporary persons. In an early scene, Joe tries to pitch a screenplay idea to a Paramount executive, who tells him that he turned down financing "Gone With the Wind" and Joe rolls his eyes, because that is, compromising for inflation, the most successful Hollywood picture ever. We hear Joe talk about how he wrote the script for this great movie about cattle rustlers, yet you would never know since when it reached cinemas the whole thing took place on a torpedo boat. Again, this snaps into our knowing perception of just how hard it is to make a movie without studio interference. "Sunset Boulevard" works as a drama, a film noir, a send-up, a graveyard of remembrance and, curiously, it is a fine horror movie. The film critic Richard Corliss has likened Norma Desmond to the Dracula persona. She seduces her man into this world and he ultimately falls for her spellbinding sensuality through his vulnerable state of needing money. Another critic, Roger Ebert, perceptively notes a link between the picture and the Japanese movie "Woman in the Dunes," where instead of a man held captive by a woman aiding her against the falls of sand, here a man helps a woman fight back the sands of time. She believes she has romantically attracted a younger man, and it is a major ego coup for a woman aged fifty.

The life she lives involves little of the outside world. Sometimes she will ask Max to drive them to a good retailer so she can spend her Hollywood earned money, which has her financially set for life - feeding, clothing and pampering Joe. They say some men who work all day like to come home and be comforted like a baby and this is exactly the situation for Joe. The only slight difference is that he works at home, helping to draft the lengthy screenplay Miss Desmond has spent the last twenty odd years writing. It is brimming with flotsam expressions, none of which Norma wants to be purged. Although he is reluctant to tell her this, he knows that Norma's script will need more dialogue if it is to be considered by her former employers. Norma is quick to add that in her day they didn't need words or talking, because they had faces to convey those things, and though she may be correct the concept of a marketable motion picture has now shifted. With the advances in today’s special effects, one can deduce the correlation and continuity of the industry, where spectators often fret about the presence of computer generated images replacing old-fashioned stunts.

There is daylight to the gloomy sensibilities of Norma’s world thanks to the performance of Nancy Olson, as youthful script reader Betty Schaefer, who brings sweetness to this world of immoral activity. The worst comment she ever broadcast instantaneously provokes an apology. In scanning Joe's latest script, she speaks with the wholeheartedness of a fresh intern rather than a seasoned veteran. Joe is aware that he is not writing scripts out of passion anymore as he wants to write anything to put food on the table, even if it means penning additional dialogue for other writer's work, which is exactly what Norma presents to him. If the studios can’t keep him busy with paid work then it is not difficult for the viewer to understand why he would not walk away from the guaranteed money offered by Norma. Betty convinces him that she always fancied herself as a writer, coloured by her happy childhood memories wandering through the Paramount backlot where her parents worked behind the camera. Joe initially thinks little of her romantic ideals of the screenwriter, but after a few chance encounters he becomes infected by her charm. The thrust of "Sunset Boulevard" consists of this love triangle, between old and new, comfort and risk, delusion and ambition. There is a point in the movie at which Betty finds herself inside the Desmond mansion and, in true horror genre fashion, one worries if she will lose her identity through contact with the endless dust-ridden and suffocating shrines and relics of narcissistic folly. Betty gnaws at Joe’s conscience, and he is torn between the two women. Betty, who he really likes, as she represents his desire to leave a body of work that future generations will refer to as a strong legacy, and Norma, whom he concedes he doesn’t much like yet is happy to reciprocate all her offered gifts, symbolises the writer-for-hire, short-term fruits over long-term rewards. Which side, ultimately, is the grass greener?

I have referred to the biographical portraits seized upon by the writing team of Wilder and Charles Brackett who teamed together for this sensational screenplay. Swanson was not only a successful silent movie star, she was, like her character, rather awkwardly disposed of once the talking pictures took over. In the movie there is a moment where Norma returns to Paramount where director Cecil B. Demille ignores any slight inkling to work with her once more, through her insistence on not having to work early mornings. Swanson did not have such a sense of entitlement as her role but she was a tough artist who stood her ground. One of the frequent activities Norma derives great pleasure from is the viewing of movies on the personal projector she owns. All the movies star her, of course, but the added dimension implies that all the footage is of Swanson's younger performances too. This meta-level reaches scintillating heights of madness when one factors in the person wielding the reels of film is the servant Max, as von Stroheim was one of the three greatest directors of the twenties, as he says so himself albeit in character. The film we see Max projecting, "Queen Kelly," was directed by von Stroheim himself and it was the catalyst that led to a fractured relationship between the female lead and filmmaker, which seems even more perspicacious thanks to the master-servant dynamic in this movie. Finally, Max refers to a room in the mansion that formerly belonged to his master’s husband, and he is talking about himself. Having been cast aside by Norma for a new man, Max was willing to remain with her in a perfunctory slave role just to keep his unrequited love close to the source. To thread her the reels of her fame period for eternity. It is also highly fitting that both von Stroheim and Swanson are best remembered by today’s audiences through their collaboration in "Sunset Boulevard," and Holden too had seen his career rocket in the wrong direction during the war years, and this film was his return to greatness.

I don't know if there is such a thing as the most quotable movie ever made, but surely "Sunset Boulevard" ranks very high on the list. The film is a tour de force of writing skill, heavy on dialogue if only because the movie is driven by dialogue. Two in particular are household phrases: ‘All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up’ is a sentence you will encounter frequently in popular culture. The other prominent classic line is spoken during Norma and Joe's initial introduction, when she mistakes him for an undertaker - which is itself a deft equivoque - and he mentions that she looks familiar. ‘You're Norma Desmond,’ he exalts, ‘...used to be big.’ Norma's angular face lengthens and her eyes narrow as she commands attention with the legendary response: ‘I *am* big! It's the *pictures* that got small.’ Norma is not the kind of person who owns a television set, but I always imagined she is acknowledging its creation at this moment. The time period of the movie is not explicitly revealed, but there is a clue in Joe's narration that it is approximately the year of the film’s shooting, when he mentions how you will hear about his murder on your radio sets, and see it broadcast on television.

This leads me into a discussion of the beginning/ending which went through many alterations before taking final shape. The narrative is aware of a circular motion that means the movie will finish where it began, and so it must. The Sam Mendes picture "American Beauty" borrowed this structure for its depiction of a dead man narrating the final strand of his life's story. Some critics take it for granted that Joe Gillis is one of the most reliable narrators in the history of the cinema, but why should we accept his version of the facts? He is telling it from his own subjective vantage point. When we see Norma acting in decidedly grotesque ways with her lover, it is all through Joe's eyes and there must be some manipulation of truth. I have studied "Sunset Boulevard" multiple times over the years, and there is a distinguished sequence in the movie confirming his fallible status. Joe has been in every scene as he relaxes in the swimming pool with Norma admiring his physique, but a telephone rings and action Joe could never have known about occurs. This elevates Wilder to position of chief arbitrator of the narrative, but we still imagine Joe is being fairly frank with the spectator, enveloped in his tomb of death with a last chance to set the story straight with those very instruments of his livelihood - words.

The closing segment in the movie is both memorable in its visual splendour, and excruciating in its imagery of delusion. For modern audiences, there is a sense that history is still repeating itself. Though I will not spoil the intricacies, it is impossible not to think again of the young men and women searching for fame in a world where fame can come to such persons in spite of inconsequential talent and unqualified substantiality. Quality of work often depends upon how many hits a video or photograph receives for this internet generation. Who are all these people in the dark championing your work? Norma Desmond may have achieved more fame than Joe Gillis could ever dream of, but Joe is a chameleon who can adjust his position to the outside looking in. His need to pick between two women in "Sunset Boulevard" is compounded by his selfless choice to select neither, breaking two hearts at once. To walk away from the guaranteed money for soulless ambition on the one hand, and to sacrifice himself to retain the integrity of an innocent on the other. At one point Max tells Joe that Madame still receives bundles of fan mail every day. As evidenced by the news reporters at the murder scene, led by Hedda Hopper portraying herself, talking cruelly about Norma as if she was a ghost who has come back to life for this one tragic incident, these legions of fans no longer exist outside of her delusions. Hollywood spat her out after strip mining her of all perceived beauty worth. Allowing her to believe that she still has admiring fans, patiently waiting for her return to the limelight drives her yearning to remain ageless, preserving a youthful exterior. She envisages a return, not a comeback, because those people out there in the dark never deserted her. It turns out Max is the one feeding the illusions, and nobody’s pen is discussing her. Poor Norma, the true horror of the tale inevitably comes from her mistreatment; the mockery of her aged mind. Silence can be golden or it can be the saddest music in the world.

Billy Wilder (1906-2002) was one of the most versatile filmmakers working in the Hollywood studio system during the 1940s and 1950s golden period, and still had a few good pictures up his sleeve even during the disruptive 1960s of altering studio power strength. Rating "Sunset Boulevard" as his greatest motion picture is a justifiable proposal and it is the one Wilder work I would take with me to a desert island, but his greatest hits are undoubtedly lengthy in number. Some of his other highly noted cinematic contributions include "Double Indemnity" (1946), "Ace in the Hole" (1951), "Some Like It Hot" (1959) and "The Apartment" (1960), plus a few other hidden gems and honourable mentions. It is amazing how his self-critical attack in "Sunset Boulevard" did not end with him being blacklisted, and in fact led to eleven Academy Award nominations for the movie. More than forty years would pass before another great damning portrait of Hollywood would come from Robert Altman’s "The Player" (1992). I wonder how Wilder, if he were alive today, might have written a script about the life and times of Harvey Weinstein or any of the other powerful Hollywood misogynists now exposed, who cast actresses aside permanently with broken careers and paranoid perceptions.

DAVID liked these reviews

All