Sunset Boulevard ★★★★★

Billy Wilder sure as hell knew how to make a movie. I'm still relatively new to his work as a director (this is only the fourth film I've seen from him) but he's someone who I can definitely see becoming a strong favorite of mine. The man had a world of versatility and Sunset Boulevard is his finest film I've seen so far, along with being one of the finest I've ever seen. The script, written by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. gives us the bitter and blunt narrator Joe Gillis. Gillis, played by William Holden, is a screenwriter who is struggling to avoid poverty in Hollywood and considering running back to Ohio and away from his debts. By happenstance he stumbles into the luxurious old home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and the two strike up a friendship out of mutual necessity.

Desmond is an aging star of the screen, one of the biggest stars in the world during the silent era who hasn't been seen in many years and is looking for her comeback (or "return" as she demands it be called). She has written a terrible script that she will be the star of, but she needs the help of Gillis to polish it up and make it perfect. With all of the luxury and safety that her wealth affords, Gillis agrees to reside in her mansion and help her with the script that he knows will never be good enough to actually get financed for a picture.

The two strike up an incredibly interesting dynamic, as Desmond uses her riches to smother Gillis, keeping him close to her at all times and eventually beginning to mother him by buying him new clothes that she wants him to wear. Gillis as a result starts to resent her, but he remains in her care due to the luxury that she provides for him and the hope that using her he can remain in Hollywood long enough to go behind her back and bring his own script to the screen and bring himself back to the spotlight, especially once he begins working on a project with the beautiful young Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), his friend's girlfriend.

Sunset Boulevard expertly handles themes of the fading star in Hollywood, seen through both the dying career of Gillis and the long dead career of Desmond. Both of these characters are swelling with pride and vanity, particularly Desmond, yet they remain hopeful that they can reignite their former glory. It's a bleak commentary on the disposable nature of stars in Hollywood, how you can be the talk of the town one moment and then kicked out in the gutter the next; even someone who was as huge as Desmond can eventually be looked on with nothing but pitying glances of those who have long forgotten her.

Norma Desmond comes off incredibly strong at first, so ego-maniacal and aggressive in her approach to Gillis and her demands that he work on the screenplay that will show the world what a star she still is, but as the film progresses there are several scenes that actually had me feeling sympathy for her. When a security guard at Paramount has no idea who she is, you can see her heart breaking even as she tells another guard to make sure his partner educates himself on the fact that Paramount wouldn't exist if it weren't for her; a fact that could well be true but in the love-them-and-leave-them world of Hollywood is ultimately inconsequential. In a scene shortly afterwards, Desmond finds herself on the set of a movie she isn't starring in, where the spotlight is shined on her and she is surrounded by fans who remember and adore her, and you can see her absolutely light up in the memories of what it was like when she was on top of the world.

The writing brings these scenes together at just the perfect moments for them to hit hardest, but they would be nothing without Swanson's magnificent performance, which hits the right beats all the way through. Desmond is an incredibly complex individual, one whose flaws are right there on the surface and are ultimately masking her deep fears and insecurities. As the layers are pulled back it becomes easier to feel for her, despite always being aware of her selfishness and arrogance. William Holden, as Gillis, is a great narrator for the story and also presents himself as a complex individual. Gillis is someone who you want to root for, but ultimately he's just as selfish as she is, taking full advantage of Desmond and her feelings towards him while constantly having the knowledge that eventually he plans to leave her in the street just like everyone else did. These two characters are incredibly hard to like, yet with the power of the writing and acting they are always fascinating to watch.

Sunset Boulevard is expertly written and acted all the way through, but there has to be a lot of credit given to Wilder's achievement as a director here and the tone that he brings the picture. There's a dark noir atmosphere to it all, right from the marvelous tease opening where we see Gillis shot dead in Norma's pool before his narration takes us back to where the story all begins, and it glides along with a brisk yet foreboding pace that constantly kept me on my toes. Most interesting though were the horror aspects of the atmosphere, something I hadn't anticipated at all.

From that ominous opening sequence that promised a significant death, there was an air of terror waved over the entire proceedings. In that dusty, barren old mansion removed from the rest of society it's like you're just waiting for Norma's delusions to take her over and for her to kill Gillis or for her servant Max (played wonderfully with equal parts intimidating menace and humble sincerity by Eric von Stroheim) to reveal some beast within and take him down. Swanson's incomparable performance lends itself to this aspect of the tone, as her expressive face really embraces that silent-era star quality of Desmond. By the time the film closes with her infamous announcement that she's ready for her close-up, Sunset Boulevard may actually have turned itself into a horror picture, indeed.