Genre: Drama and Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 50 min.
Release Date: August 10th, 1950 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Billy Wilder Actors: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Jack Webb, Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton
ynical and astonishing, Billy Wilder’s breathtaking masterpiece “Sunset Boulevard” simultaneously serves as criticism, condemnation, and nostalgia for the motion picture business (coincidentally clashing with another behind-the-scenes divulgence for the stage, “All About Eve,” opening the same year). It’s also a momentous vehicle for tour de force performances, notably garnering Academy Award nominations for all four acting categories. Scintillating dialogue, complex characters trapped in diabolical forbidden loves, and a thought-provoking look at the media’s many (often negative) influences, “Sunset Boulevard” is one of the greatest and most affecting archetypes of film noir – even hinting at the horror genre, disguised as a crime drama.
In the opening scene, Joe Gillis (William Holden) floats lifelessly in a swimming pool, shot twice in the back and once in the stomach. Perhaps the first narration done post mortem, Gillis proceeds to explain the events leading up to his untimely demise. Six months prior, he was a screenwriter with a couple of B-movies to his name, running from empty prospects and failing finances. During a hasty getaway, he stows his vehicle in a seemingly abandoned garage; a great place to “stash a limping car with a hot license number,” he surmises.
Into the haunted mansion of a silent movie queen he steps, complete with a wheezing organ, vast, lonely rooms, sweet champagne and caviar… and a dead monkey upstairs. Narrating with sardonic humor, Gillis discovers Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an eccentric older woman still madly in love with her celluloid self, teamed with her peculiar butler Max (Erich von Stroheim), who harbors some revelations of his own (“I pegged him slightly cuckoo, too,” insists Gillis). Norma convinces Joe (and deviously vice-versa) to do a patch-up job on her script of “Salome,” a hopeful piece that will mark her big screen return. But as Joe finds himself becoming more and more trapped by her maddening theatrics, flattering wealth, pitying suicide attempts, and a budding love-triangle romance with beautiful, young colleague Betty Shaefer (Nancy Olson), he must make weighty decisions that will ultimately lead him to the destiny laid out in the introductory shot.
The film is expertly written by Billy Wilder (who won the 1950 Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, back when there were three Oscars given for writing categories), longtime collaborator Charles Brackett (who previously won for “The Lost Weekend,” also with Wilder), and D.M. Marshman Jr. (hired to spice up their progress), producing a work of innovation and intrigue. With so few major players, plenty of attention went to developing remarkably singular characters: Swanson crafted one of the greatest of all psycho vamps; Holden is the down-on-his-luck, laid-back antihero hack with flawed judgment and even shakier morals; and Stroheim is the prideful servant (and former husband) intent on faithfully preserving trumped-up egos, like a manipulative, puppetmaster Igor (fitting, considering Norma’s frequent comparisons to Dracula and the setting’s similarities to Universal horror). Few casts so genuinely perfect a dispiriting storyline of unmanageable love and masked rejection, infused with alternately terrifying insanity, nerve-wracking deceit, witty commentary, and cleverly all-inclusive narrations.
“I am big – it’s the pictures that got small,” insists Norma when confronted with Gillis’ brazenly carping remarks. In its mesmerizing script, “Sunset Boulevard” packs plenty of famous lines of dialogue (many of which landed spots on respectable lists of greatest movie quotes), each soaked in sarcasm or sincerity as Norma and Joe verbally spar, with some insults bouncing off the self-absorbed star or disappearing in the muddied separation of voiceover and flashback. It also inspired the now regular audacity for film to confront the negative side of media and stardom, reflecting the darkest side of the spotlight and the chaos and eccentricity that seem to inextricably linger with celebrity. And it continues to be a project of unquestionable importance and unrivaled influence more than 50 years later.
– Mike Massie