Sunset Boulevard ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

*record scratch*
“Yeah, that’s me, Joe Gillis. You’re probably wondering what I’m doing floating in a pool, dead from gunshot wounds. Well, there’s a story behind how I got here. But to explain it to you, I’ll have to take you back to the day it all started.”
*VHS rewinding*
*Premium Rush song starts playing*


As I’m sure has been said a million times, Norma is an absolutely fascinating character. As I see it she is like the embodiment of fanatical nostalgia, and like any self-respecting nostalgic she loves to collect things; trinkets, photos, cars, clothes, fan letters, husbands, her “wax” friends, and now, as we first meet her, she decides to add our protagonist Joe Gilles to this collection. And once she has collected something she does not plan on letting go easily.

Speaking of Joe Gillis, I couldn’t help but think about how, in lesser movies, characters like him often pale in comparison to a character as fascinating as Norma. You see it happen all the time, especially in older movies: the whitebread protagonist completely outshone by an amazing supporting performance.

In lesser movies.

But not in Sunset Boulevard, because Joe graciously takes the time to narrate to us his whole story... from a comfy position in the afterlife. Although I think that Joe’s narration is occasionally a little overbearing, it is helpful in giving us a much needed insight into his actions, because without it we would likely see him (for most of the film) as just another two-timing noir anti-hero out to exploit a delusional woman for her money, and we would probably find his actions in the finale to be unusual and incongruous. 

But Joe’s narration lets us in on a couple of secrets; although he does joke about it at one point, Joe genuinely does hate himself, which granted is not a rare characteristic amongst Noir protagonists. What is rare about Joe is that, along with his self loathing, there is a part of him that is truly selfless. It shows itself only rarely, but it is there. Sympathy is not usually the primary motivation for a character in Film Noir, and when it is it’s the pitying, sardonic sympathy of a Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade. But for Joe, although he may express it as only a repressed and emotionally stunted man may express it, it is his sympathy which steers him to where he ends up: face down in a pool. 

Sympathy is why he dashes his chances of being involved with Betty when most other Noir protagonists would be struggling their hardest to abscond with her. It’s why he returns to Nora’s house when he hears she has cut herself, when most other noir protagonists wouldn’t have cared. Because there’s a part of Joe that feels sad that Betty loves him and not Artie, and there’s a part of Joe that really does love Norma, despite how callous he might sometimes seem towards her. Even in death, he bemoans how the press will treat Norma as a result of his own murder.

There is, both in front of and behind the camera, very little anger on display in Sunset Boulevard. There is for the most part only frustration. All the characters have in their own way become trapped by their own frustrations, like flies that tried to escape a spiders web and only became more tangled.
Max is trapped by Norma’s side because he couldn’t bear the guilt of leaving her the first time.
Betty is trapped between her love for two men.
Joe is trapped by sympathies so understandable, and yet at the same time so mystifying.
At at the centre of it all is Norma, scared to leave her giant mansion for fear of the changing world outside.

These characters aren’t malicious, as they are in so many other noirs. Norma is not a cougar feeding off of young prey, and Joe is not a young con-man exploiting Norma’s delusions.
It’s not that sort of noir, where the pessimism feels like it’s being shoved down your throat, and where the characters are only nice to each other when they’re lying. It’s far sadder and more tragic than that; in the end it is the simple fact that, despite their best efforts, Norma is a spider, and Joe was a fly.

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