Director: Billy Wilder
After the success of 1944’s Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder was pretty much the master of his own future. In helping to create one of the most pioneering films of the noir era, he could have been forgiven for taking that film’s success and churning out a series of easy imitations. But instead, he took the harder approach and devoted himself to making films of a wide and varied nature, only sporadically returning to the style of Double Indemnity – Sunset Boulevard is perhaps the pinnacle of this. One of the darkest and most challenging movies in the whole of film noir, it succeeds as a movie in its own right as well as being a brutally honest depiction (not to mention criticism) of the Hollywood system which created it.
The film is centred around a moderately successful screenwriter Joe Gillis, who unintentionally finds himself drawn to the home of the 50-year old former silent film actress Norma Desmond (played by real-life former silent film actress Gloria Swanson). Once a star, Desmond has spent the preceding two decades in a self-imposed exile from Hollywood, residing entirely in her mansion surrounded by memories of herself and her former glories, alongside a sole loyal servant and her own former movie director Max (played by real-life silent film director Erich von Stroheim – who also directed Gloria Swanson’s own silent films). Initially roped into helping Norma tidy up a film screenplay of her own, the couple soon delve into a strange, almost incestuous relationship (the extent of their relationship together is never entirely illustrated, but the suggestion is pretty clear), as he becomes used to a life of riches and wealth while she dreams of her triumphant return to the screen and her beloved audiences. Gillis spends his rare time away from Desmond helping another young writer, Betty Schaefer (Betty Olson), reach her own dreams of becoming a successful screenwriter. As his worlds entwine, Desmond’s jealousy of Gillis leads to a dramatic showdown, as her final traces of sanity are washed away in front of her.
Needless to say, Norma Desmond is the central focus of the movie and the corrupting influence fame and glory can have on a person. The character has one of the most startling entrances a character could possibly have – grieving over the death of her beloved pet chimp who she has laid out as if it were her own child – which sets the tone for the character and story to come. The film is pretty much once long set-piece used to show her madness – from sitting watching nightly repeats of her old films, to answering the fan mail sent to her by her butler. She is a twisted, tormented and completed tragic character. Her descent into her own madness goes deeper as the film progresses – convinced her best days are in front of her, she spends her days working on a film script of her own, whilst spending the night silently watching the films of her past. With Gillis’ help, she manages to complete her script and has it delivers to Paramount, personally attending the studio shortly after to meet with Cecil B. DeMille (the head of Paramount studios playing himself). A brief five minutes of fame follows as the youthful stars of the present fawn over her, before it later becomes apparent the studio has no interest in resurrecting the fame of a faded star. The eventual realisation leads to a highly dramatic and memorable final act as the cruel reality of her irrelevance comes crashing down on Desmond’s shoulders.
The film features many of the classic noir characteristics – voiceover narration, flashbacks, cynical motivations, an underlying murder plot, all of which are used admirably, but there is no doubt that the most engaging thing about the movie is knowing just how self-aware it really is. By showing the darker side of fame and fortune, the film casts light over the darker aspects of Hollywood and the movie system – a system that throws away humans as quickly as it grabs them, leaving them with hollow memories of fortune long gone. From the fake backgrounds presented using mirrors to the backgrounds of the actors involved, the film doesn’t shy away from showing how fake the illusion of cinema and, more importantly, the business behind it, can truly be. Taking the real-life backgrounds of Swanson and von Stroheim gives the film a remarkably sincere atmosphere.
The only real drawback of the film, to my mind, is the use of the voiceover narration – typically in other films, the use of voiceover is to recount earlier events of a story before the chronology runs to the point in time where the narrator is speaking, before the events of the film pick up from that point onwards (Out of the Past and Double Indemnity being the case and point), but with Sunset Boulevard, the narration s coming from a man who is already dead. This is probably the sole leftover from the original beginning of the film – where Joe’s lifeless body is wheeled into a morgue where the bodies begin to recount tales of their own lives and deaths. That beginning was, unsurprisingly, scrapped after a few previews. Given that this beginning was in place right up to the premiere, the film couldn’t be re-shot to amend the structure of the murder angle, but the voiceover remains the same as it was, presumably, when that original beginning was used. Fortunately, this plot device (unique as it may be) doesn’t pull the rug out from under the story, even if it doesn’t feel entirely necessary.
That aside, there is very little that detracts from the film. The performances, the casting, the subject matter, all of this meshes together brilliantly. It has a truly unique feel about it, and the criticism of Hollywood is plain for all to see (unsurprisingly, the film upset many executives at the time of release), but despite that seriousness it still provides a great story. It’s a dark and twisted film, masterfully led to Swanson’s performance, and stands up high as one of the pinnacles of the era. Not one to miss.