Sunset Boulevard ★★★★★

Of all the films Billy Wilder made during his Hollywood career, Sunset Boulevard may be his most celebrated and well-known. This film introduced the idea of being "meta" forty-six years before Wes Craven did it with the horror genre in Scream, referencing Hollywood as well as the silent days of filmmaking before sound came into the picture and how it was nothing more than a machine that treated its talent like cogs. It certainly has gone on to be highly regarded as a true classic and walked away with three Academy Awards, while also proving that not much in Hollywood has changed even when the Studio System got disbanded during the latter half of the decade going into the 1960s.


Told through flashback, Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter trying to sell a story to Paramount Pictures. Unfortunately it does not seem to impress the producer, and Joe also has to deal with having his car being repossessed by two men. Turning into the driveway of a seemingly deserted mansion after his car blows out a tire, Joe hears a woman calling him, apparently mistaking him for someone else. Turns out the woman is none other than silent film star Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), with the only person living with her being the butler Max (played by Erich von Stroheim). Once Joe tells her he is a writer, that gives Norma the idea of showing a script to him about Salome. Little does Joe realize this web will only get more tangled and twisted as he finds himself stuck with an actress completely removed from reality. Like with any film made by Wilder, the writing is classic and has some really memorable lines that have become part of the vernacular like "I am big. It's the pictures that got small" and "Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along." Franz Waxman's Oscar-winning score is the icing on the cake, having a distinct intensity while also being melodic on occasion that makes you wonder if the next scene will either be light-hearted or darkly sinister. John F. Seitz is back working with Wilder as cinematographer, and this may be his best work ever since he makes the film feel like traditional gothic horror, while also bringing together the light and dark without any seams showing.


The cast is excellent, and we even get some famous classic Hollywood talent appearing as themselves, ranging from director Cecil B. DeMille to columnist Hedda Hopper. William Holden, another one of my favorite actors, is fantastic as Joe by making him relatable even though he makes decisions that only bring him further to his inevitable downfall. Gloria Swanson, who was an actual star from the silent film days, delivers quite the mesmerizing performance as Norma; she perfectly brings the silent era vamp to life while retaining that sense of disillusionment in thinking she will become famous again even though she is past her prime. Famed silent film director Erich von Stroheim was great in the role of Max, and that casting decision makes sense since he did make some films with Gloria Swanson which only adds to the rich meta-feel of the film. Not a single performance felt flat as I watched them appear onscreen, which of course is to be expected when your director is Billy Wilder.


Like Double Indemnity, what else is there for me to say about Sunset Boulevard that has not already been said? If you are a fan of movies about Hollywood, whether they are light-hearted tributes or scathing satires/critiques on how producers and studio heads treat their stars, definitely rent this movie or buy yourself a copy. After sixty-eight years, it is still one of the best blends of noir, black comedy, and character study to ever come out of classic Hollywood that has not lost any of its power.

Matthew Wolfstein liked this review