Retrospective: Sunset Boulevard

This is widely considered to be a Hollywood classic, with the only comparable movie being All About Eve. Both are magnificent movies about people and the horrible effects of fame. Both feature some wonderful monologues from a cynical main character. In this movie, it is from a dead writer who is pretty crap in his own words. He narrates the opening, which shows him dead in a swimming pool, telling the audience how much he would have liked to have a swimming pool of his own. This movie is best known for its catch phrase ‘I’m ready for my close up, Mr De Mille’ but it is so much more than that. It has wonderful depth with lots of deeply unpleasant characters.

What is remarkable about Sunset Boulevard is that it was made during the strictest interpretations of the production code. It was made by hook and by crook, which in this case involved making up a book that it was supposedly based on to give Billy Wilder greater freedom in dealing with what was extremely risqué subject matter in 1950. Most controversially, it involves such subjects as a male gigolo, an insane old Hollywood actor, affairs, fraud, very strange marital arrangement, suicide, insanity and the Hollywood system. This movie covers a lot but at its core it’s about a three-way relationship between Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a Hollywood leading lady in the silent era but a fallen star in the talkies. William Holden plays Joe Gills and Erich von Stroheim (who interestingly directed Swanson in her own silent era height of her fame) plays Max Von Mayerling. The interplay between the characters is fascinating as Joe initially yearns for his freedom but is slowly convinced into staying, with a mixture of overacted misery and stuff. The ‘stuff’ in question being a suicide attempt and stuffing his mouth with gold. She also forces him to work on a diabolical script of unrivalled awfulness as a way to entrap him, which being broke and having bailiffs after him, he takes the job willingly.

The movie can be seen in modern eyes as the Noir depressive twin of The Artist as itshows the damage of change in technology and popular tastes on those sad people it leaves behind and don’t adapt. This is wonderfully reflected in the two big stars Swanson and Von Stroheim who were both huge stars pre-sound popularisation. This movie acted as jump start to both their careers, although not necessarily in the movies. There is that same bittersweetness which you see in Citizen Kane, through the faded glory and the hidden truth from those who really should know.

The sub plot to the story is a simple one. The crap writer Joe is inspired by the young pretty reader Betty Shafer (Nancy Olson) who is inspired by the earlier work he wrote for one of the studios. This inspires him to write a new script and eventually she happens to fall for him despite being engaged to his best friend and his casual rudeness. This interplayed along with the jealously of Norma and the protectiveness of Max creates this wonderful ending which brings us to the opening of the movie and that famous quote with a wonderful twist showing her insanity in full view a of an adoring press, who love the story of the insane old actress murdering her toy boy in a fit of jealously. As he says ‘the gods had seen it fit to give her one last mercy’. The interplay between the two women who know nothing about each other until the last quarter of the movie is a very clever way of adding to the film’s tension as in poor hands it could easy turn into a farce but during this movie it keeps its menace as it should in a Noir movie, which holds the golden rule of don’t spend too much time around possessive women otherwise they will try to kill you.

It is a beautifully shot film with a wonderfully clean, clear look from the vampish look of Norma Desmond to the very colour coded nature of the movie with blacks and dark colours connected to Norma and lights with Betty. The change she undergoes on Joe, going from informal clothes to white tie and very formal black old-fashioned dress is a visual clue onto the power she has over him. The greatest example of this is when he goes to a party with his old friends and he is all dressed up and they are all in their casual clothes. The other big changes are shown in the car he drives, from an relatively new Ford convertible to a huge, old Isotta Fraschini car which he borrows from Norma. Like other movies of the period, it has moments when everything stops on a particularly good shot and holds it a moment longer than you were expecting. There are many close shots of the characters where the focus on the emotion is particularly effective, especially with the various fights Joe and Norma have throughout the movie.

This movie should be remembered for more than just its ending quote. It’s a nasty and unpleasant movie with no neat ending as it ends when he ends. It’s a brave movie, which under the modern Hollywood System would have the same (if not greater) difficulty of getting made. The only really anachronistic part is how young everyone is and how the upper age limit of early Hollywood ladies was late 30s. The lies and deceit that the movie was made under would make a good movie in its self. It has a wonderful sardonic narration throughout, from a doomed man that has since been copied to great effect. It was truly a great Oscar winner in the golden age of Hollywood.

Review by Harry Riedl 


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