"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

May 14, 2011

"Sunset Boulevard" (1950) by Billy Wilder (Movie Review)

Riddled with bullets, the body of unsuccessful scenario writer Joe Gilles (William Holden) floats in the pool of the forgotten silent-screen actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Before the paparazzi and news-sharks arrive, he tells us his story (!). Fleeing for the agents of a financing company who wanted to confiscate his car, by accident he drove into the empty garage of a crumbling mansion on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. This house belonged to the once great actress Norma Desmond who had become a recluse living alone with her memories of the past. Her only companion (besides butler Max played by Erich von Stroheim) was a chimpanzee, but the chimp had just died. Joe became Norma's new playmate. Norma dreamed of a screen comeback and had written a film scenario. The idea was born that Joe could help her straighten that out. But he had to live in her house – she didn't want to let the important manuscript off the premises. Soon Joe was living the life of a kept man, all his needs catered to, well-fed and well-clad, but also a prisoner of the jealous and unstable Norma. When he gave her reason for jealousy by visiting Paramount-scenario reader Betty (Nancy Olson), things got sickeningly out of hand. Norma finally went over the brink of madness.

Roger Ebert has compared the circumstances in which Joe finds himself to Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (see my review of both novel and film). Indeed, in both films a man is caught by a woman, but in Teshigahara's film we find positive human feelings – the man and woman gradually start caring for each other, and the man finds meaning in the life in the sand pit. Sunset Boulevard is only grim and bleak with Joe as the born cynic who never shows gratitude. In this harsh world, only Butler Max is a sort of exception, for he devotes his life to Norma without getting anything back.

Heaps of praise have been lavished on this film noir made in 1950 by Billy Wilder. Gloria Swanson shines as the aging but still beautiful silent-screen goddess Norma Desmond. She is the “femme fatale” who is a fixed ingredient in film noir. Eric von Stroheim is perhaps even better as fanatically devoted butler Max. Billy Wilder's screenplay is full of great one-liners and he has directed it to perfection.

Sunset Boulevard has even been called the "best film ever made." Well, I love film noir, but I am also aware of the limitations of the genre, such as the fixed storyline, the characters only inspired by selfishness and the overall sarcasm. Of "the best film ever" I expect a wider range of the human experience - but Sunset Boulevard is a perfect film noir. There are several points which make it extra interesting:
  • The mansion was a real Hollywood house, borrowed from J. Paul Getty's ex-wife, but it stood not on Sunset Boulevard. It has since been demolished.
  • Real places in Hollywood used in the film are Schwab's Drugstore and of course, the Paramount Studios.
  • Norma's magnificent car, a real 1929 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A Castagna Transformable that belonged to socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce, who received it as a gift from Walter Chrysler.
  • Cameo's by such real Hollywood figures as director Cecil B. Demille (making the film he was really engaged on at the time, Samson and Delilah') and Buster Keaton as one of the card players.
  • Butler Erich von Stroheim was a noted director of silent films, especially known as director for the super-long film Greed from 1924. He was an immigrant from Germany, and in fact his career was ruined when he made Queen Kelly in 1929 with... Gloria Swanson who had him fired in the end. After that, he was reduced to playing Nazi martinets. Therefore perhaps the sense of menace he exudes even as a butler. he gave his greatest performance in the French film La Grande Illusion.
  • Like Norma, Swanson quit film making with the advent of sound, but in contrast to her role, she was very active in radio and television.
  • The melodramatic over-acting of Swanson is typical for silent film and perfectly fits the character of Norma, who thinks she is always giving a performance before an audience.
  • The excellent cinematography is the work of John F. Seitz, the music score is by Franz Waxman.
  • Director Billy Wilder was also an immigrant from Germany (many directors, actors and composers of Jewish ancestry fled to Hollywood for the onslaught of Nazism). He was an all-round director, who made another excellent film noir (Double Indemnity), but also comedies as The Apartment and Some Like It Hot..
(Revised August 2014)