Billy Wilder, 1950
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson
A dead man, Joe Gillis, is floating in a pool behind a mansion. Gillis’s voice begins to narrate and explain how things began six months earlier. Joe, a screenwriter down on his luck, suffers a flat tire on Sunset Boulevard and pulls into a foreboding mansion for help. The mansion is the home of Norma Desmond, an aged but glamorous and wealthy silent film actress. She lives alone with her servant, Max, and lets Joe in because she thinks he’s an undertaker there to handle the funeral for her pet monkey. She learns he is a screenwriter and convinces him to move into a spare apartment over the garage and help her with the script that will revive both their careers. They soon begin an affair, even though she is much older than Joe, and she begins buying him things.
He is ashamed of his new life, but doesn’t know how to free himself. He soon learns that Norma is living a life of total fantasy. The studio ignores her, her servant Max is really her ex-husband and the director who discovered her, and he forges all her fan mail. Joe tries to escape, but Norma attempts suicide and he is drawn back. Soon he meets Betty, a friend’s fiancée who works at a film studio. Betty and Joe begin working on a script together late at night and start to fall in love. Norma finds out about this arrangement and her need to keep Joe to herself drives her to insanity.
Known as one of the greatest films in cinema history, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a near-perfect movie, a masterpiece of film noir, and a scathing look at the dark side of Hollywood success that seeps into every layer of the film. The actual Sunset Boulevard has long been associated with Hollywood, early on as a production location and later as the homes for glamorous stars. There are also overlaps between star Gloria Swanson’s life and career and the character of Norma Desmond. Desmond is based on silent film actresses like Gloria Swanson and Norma Talmage, and the character was allegedly named after Talmage, actress Mabel Normand, and director William Desmond Taylor whose Hollywood murder in 1922 remains a cold case. Desmond’s iconic home is modelled after the mansions of Mae West, Norma Shearer, and Pola Negri, the latter of whom was also considered for the role.
One of America’s greatest silent directors, Erich von Stroheim, co-stars here as Norma’s ex-husband and servant. Stroheim actually directed Swanson and helped kick start her early career. Shots of their film Queen Kelly appear in Sunset Boulevard. There are numerous other Hollywood references and in-jokes. Norma performs for Joe, impersonating Charlie Chaplin in a scene that is taken from her earlier film, Manhandled (1924). The swan-shaped bed she sleeps in was shown in Phantomof the Opera (1925) and belonged to a dancer. Part of the film was shot on the Paramount back lot and several silent film stars play themselves as Norma’s aged friends and coworkers: Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, Hedda Hopper, and Cecil B. DeMille.
While Sunset Boulevard is traditionally considered a noir film, it is far from the typical noir plot. The film is about a murder – and is narrated by a dead man – but concerns the high class world of Hollywood stardom rather than the crooked plight of cops, private detectives, and criminals. Unlike many other noir films, this is saturated in wit and very black humor. It is an incredibly self-aware film, both aware of some of the noir tropes it is using and aware of the Hollywood apparatus that the film is bitterly lambasting.
Sunset Boulevard essentially lives at the intersection point between horror and noir. While there are plenty of noir films with horror elements or involving cast and crew who worked in both genres, Sunset Boulevard is the culmination of all these themes. In terms of noir, there are plenty of links between Wilder’s first classic noir, Double Indemnity, and Sunset Boulevard. The premise is roughly similar. A weak man arrives at the mansion home of a compelling, if disturbing woman and they begin an illicit affair. She has a much older husband. He knows she’s bad, but he can’t seem to separate himself from her. There is a younger woman around that helps provide perspective and is a reminder of the better life that the man could have. But he can never escape and dies at the hand of the woman.
Both male protagonists of these films are weak and ineffectual, moved by fate rather than personal action. Joe winds up at Norma’s simply because he got a flat tire and was too broke to have it fixed. Joe, like Walter, is ultimately something of a despicable, detestable character and his doomed fate is apparent. While in Double Indemnity, the film begins with an injured Walter telling his tale, Joe is outright dead, found floating in a swimming pool. William Holden is excellent, bringing charm to a fairly dour, frustrating role. He would go on to win the Academy Award for an even more difficult role in Wilder’s Stalag 17.
The two female protagonists – Norma and Phyllis – are different sides of the femme fatale. Both are murderesses and have iconic scenes on a staircase. Norma is a cross between the femme fatale and the Gothic mad woman, hidden away in a crumbling mansion. At the beginning of the film, Joe comes across her while she is preparing for a funeral, that of her pet monkey. She soon reveals her true nature: histrionic, animalistic, predatory, vampiric. She bears something in common with Gloria Holden from the earlier Dracula’s Daughter. They are both isolated, elegant, aged women teetering on the brink of madness, driven there because of complex self-mythologizing. She first confused Joe for an undertaker and lets him into the house for this reason. Like Holden’s character, she is followed and protected by a foreign, gloomy, and possessive protector who doubles as a servant. Finally, her attempts to make herself look younger are repulsive and monstrous. She spends hours stretching and masking her skin, effectively mutilating herself.
Concerned with mythology, idols, and dreams, Sunset Boulevard is similar to other noir films in the sense that it portrays the dark side of the American dream. In this case, Hollywood is shown as a version of the American dream, a fantasy of idolatry, fame, cinematic immortality, wealth, perfection, glamor, and sex appeal. The film speaks to the disposable nature of the Hollywood machine, which consumes, chews up, and discards people like a monstrous force. It is also concerned with the negative effect of turning women into stars. Obsessed with beauty, unable to grow old, retire, or give up her incessant self-mythologizing Norma Desmond is both a perpetrator and victim.
Sunset Boulevard is perhaps Billy Wilder’s finest work. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won three. Barbara Stanwyck, star of Double Indemnity, famously kissed the hem of Swanson’s skirt, while producer Louis B. Mayer raged at Wilder for betraying Hollywood. He worked with some of his closest collaborators, including cinematographer John F. Seitz. Art Director Hans Dreier came from German studio UFA, where he worked on The Scarlet Empress. When he moved to the U.S., he contributed to several noir films, including Wilder’s Double Indemnity. This was the last film that Wilder worked on with his long running writer partner, Charles Brackett. I’ve heard that the reason they split up after this film is because Brackett wanted it to be a comedy with a happy ending for all. Instead, the sense of doom is overwhelming, claustrophobic.