Sunset Boulevard (1950): “I’m ready for my closeup”

Sunset Blvd (1950)

Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman Jr
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Editing: Arthur Schmidt
Art Direction: Hans Dreier and John Meehan
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: William Holden (Joe Gillis), Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond),
Erich von Stroheim (Max von Mayerling), Nancy Olson (Betty Schaefer)
Paramount 1950 (110 min)

“Wilder grasped that Hollywood itself could be a scene of Gothic isolation and solipsistic emotion. He showed the grandeur that could emerge from the parasitical relations between actors and writers, performers and directors, stars and star-gazers – cannibals all. Like most noir films, with their dark motives and circular structures, Sunset Boulevard makes corruption and betrayal seem inescapable. Yet Wilder pays tribute to what can emerge from this hothouse world, just as he does honor to the film formulas he lightly parodies. As Hollywood keeps reinventing itself, as Wilder’s own films become relics of a distant age, his barbed tribute stings and sings with even more authority.”
– Morris Dickstein, The A List (Da Capo Press).

“… a tale of humiliation, exploitation, and dashed dreams… The performances are suitably sordid, the direction precise, the camerawork appropriately noir, and the memorably sour script sounds bitter-sweet echoes of the Golden Age of Tinseltown… It’s all deliriously dark and nightmarish, its only shortcoming being its cynical lack of faith in humanity: only von Stroheim, superb as Swanson’s devotedly watchful butler Max, manages to make us feel the tragedy on view.” – Time Out

Sunset Blvd (1950)

Sunset Boulevard is a masterpiece. Billy Wilder’s assured direction and the elegant and fluid camera of veteran cinematographer John F. Seitz enthrall from the first frame to the last.  A literate script, great performances from the lead actors, an expressionistic score from Franz Waxman, and the bravado art direction of Hans Dreier and John Meehan define a deeply focused journey into dissolution and madness. There is also a wit and wry humor that lightens the mood before the noir universe begins to exact its vengeance on the poor souls who stumble in their struggle to simply live and love.

Sunset Blvd (1950)

The last major Hollywood film shot on a nitrate negative, the restored DVD version of 2002 reproduces the “lustrous black and white images” cinema audiences experienced on the film’s release nearly 60 years, and gives the drama an immediacy that belies the many years that have passed.

Sunset Blvd (1950)

Applauded as the quintessential movie about Hollywood, for the writer the theme of the film is deeper and more universal.  Aging silent actress Norma Desmond, who hasn’t worked for 20 years, lives out the autumn of her life in a decaying 1920s palace on Sunset Blvd. with her intensely loyal factotum, Max, in gothic delusional grandeur, dreaming of the day she returns to the studio where Cecil B. DeMille will direct her abominable screenplay of Salome, in which of course she will play the lead.  Into this scenario stumbles a younger man, Joe Gillis, a screenwriter on the skids and on the lam from his creditors. She wants her script edited and he is desperate for money and lodgings – a bargain is made in perdition.

He becomes her kept lover and she falls madly in love with him. He tries to rebel, she slashes her wrists, and he runs back to the mansion-cum-prison where only the front cell-like gate has a lock.  His thwarted ambition, lassitude, weakness, and a kind of reciprocated love for the aging siren, hold him to her, until he starts sneaking out at night to work on a script with Betty, a young studio reader, who falls in love with him. Norma finds out, and one whispered surreptitious phone call has thunderous consequences for all.

In the quote at the head of this review, the Time Out writer says the movie’s “only shortcoming… [is] its cynical lack of faith in humanity: only von Stroheim, superb as Swanson’s devotedly watchful butler Max, manages to make us feel the tragedy on view.”  I can’t agree with this assessment.  Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich von Stroheim inhabit their roles with an intense humanity, and Nancy Olson as Betty is totally engaging as a young woman with heart and a vivacious intelligence.  Norma’s femininity and vulnerability are on display in every scene. Her tragedy is that of the successful woman whose career is side-lined into a banal existence of domestic isolation: her angst is palpable and exquisite.  Max, the loyal friend, ex-husband, and faithful retainer, idolises Norma, and his noble intentions in perpetuating Norma’s delusions tragically precipitate her destruction.  Joe is desperate when he enters his Faustian-pact with Norma, and his actions are all too human. His first attempt at freedom is thwarted by his ‘love’ for Norma, and his capitulation is not totally abject. His second and final renunciation is as noble and self-less as it is tragic.

Wilder has fashioned a deeply sympathetic story of four fundamentally decent people, each tortured in their own way, and each sadly complicit in the inevitable doom that will engulf them.

14 Comments

  1. A truly fantastic review, Tony, and you make a beautifully eloquent case for the film’s humanism and tragic despair, which tends to not be the focus of so many reviewers. Indeed, many seem to interpret Wilder’s admittedly acidic viewpoint to be entirely unremitting in its multiple depictions of lives gone wrong, but the film is profoundly melancholic, too, just beneath the sumptuous black and white surface.

  2. This superlative review, complete with ringing quotes and excellent use of the iconic dialogue, is surely a high point of sorts here at FilmsNoir.net. This is Billy Wilder’s greatest film, one of the very best American films of the 1950’s, and a film famous for (among other things) being narrated by a “dead man.” Between the excellent uses of pertinent references, your rightful celebration of the performances (Gloria Swanson’s turn is on the shortlist among lead roles), Franz Waxman’s “expressionistic score,” Seitz’ moody cinematography, and that astonishing and decadent set design. I also disagree with Time Out’s view that only Von Stroheim inhibits humanity, and agree with you that teh entire cast does in disperate incarnations.
    That final scene, where the seemingly demented Swanson saunters down the stairs, in full view of the camera, is one of cinema’s most unforgettable moments.

    The final sentence of your review is magnificent.

  3. Allan Fish

    I don’t agree it’s Wilder’s best film – Ace in the Hole just edges it – but it’s the best piece on a Wilder movie I have read in a while. Good job, Tony!

  4. Well, both films are masterpieces, it’s just individual taste that determines it. For me SUNSET BOULEVARD is more than just Wilder’s greatest film, it’s one of the greatest of all American films.

  5. One more point Tony. That was a terrific foreign-language poster of the film that you opted to use. Swanson really looks like a predator or viper woman. Nice.

  6. Thank you kindly guys for your generous comments.

    Allan, three days ago I would have categorically agreed with you on Ace in the Hole, but now I am not so certain…

  7. Kaleem

    I would in fact read more of your reviews but there’s only so much one can do.. not ‘world enough and time’ I’m afraid.. but your essays (judging from the ones I’ve read are very interesting…)

  8. Yes Sam, the poster, which is from Poland, is stunning and captures Norma’s persona so imaginatively.

    In fact, I have come across a number fascinating posters from Poland, and will get together a gallery for posting soon.

  9. By the way Tony, I did pick up the new HD Paramount remasterede DVD of SUNSET BOULEVARD a few weeks ago and it is absolutely stunning. Still though, the one it replaced wasn’t all that bad in the first place.

  10. Great review of one of the finest movies ever made. Yes, this is a dark and exceedingly cynical viewpoint, but that’s the principal reason for the movie’s huge stature – Wilder simply didn’t mince a word or try applying a soothing balm for his fellow Hollywood folks. The fascinating characterizations and the biting hard-boiled dialogues truly add to this unforgettable masterpiece and undoubtedly Wilder’s greatest masterpiece.

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