MPAA Rating: NR/ Genre: Film Noir/ Stars: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, Jack Webb, Franklyn Farnum, Larry J. Blake, Charles Dayton, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H. B. Warner, Ray Evans, Jay Livingston/ Runtime: 110 minutes
I feel it must be said that until the long-gone year known as 1950 or thereabouts, any movies made in America, no matter how deep they chose to go, functioned no more and no less as entertainment for the masses. This is because if there was one thing that a lot of the major studio executives were known for more than anything else, it had to be their protectiveness of the image and reputation of the studio as well as of the stars that they had under contract thus everything had to have the appearance of being pitch perfect in the eyes of the movie-going public no matter how far from the truth the reality truly was, and for a long time this was how things were done in the land of movie magic. That is until a dynamic group that consisted of Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman, Jr. all joined forces to create film known as Sunset Boulevard. A film that managed to prove itself not only a phenomenal viewing experience, but also proved to be the film to showcase the world of movie magic for what it truly is when you lift up the veil: a constant and seemingly never-ending tug-of-war to both acquire and/or maintain your time in the spotlight. Indeed as showcased by the film, its 2 main characters are at the opposite ends of this crazed state of mine with one simply trying to pay the rent let alone get noteworthy buzz for his writing skills while the other is busy living out her days as a queen of the silent era whose star, everyone seems to know but her it seems, flickered out long, long ago. Indeed the fact that a film with such a snarky and cynical angle toward the film industry managed to come out in 1950 is absolutely astounding considering just how lighthearted a lot of what Hollywood was putting out around then truly was. Yet although it has been the inspiration for a few movies since then, Get Shorty and The Player being among them, which also were designed to hit the film industry right in the jugular, Sunset Boulevard is still not only considered to be the forerunner for all films like it, but is also, far and away, considered to be the best as well.
The plot is as follows: Sunset Boulevard tells the story of a man by the name of Joe Gillis. Mr. Gillis, we quickly learn, is a downtrodden screenwriter in Hollywood who is short on cash, full of ideas, dangerously behind on paying off his car, and who has just seen his latest script idea evaporate like rain on a hot summer sidewalk due to the machinations of an edgy, slightly jagged, but also honest young reader by the name of Betty Schaefer. To make things even more dour for our hero, Gillis is being pursued a repo duo looking to take his car. It is because of these repo men that Gillis finds himself in a pursuit that ends when his car breaks down, and out of sheer desperation, Gillis glides into what he thinks is a deserted garage that is attached to a huge, but worse for the wear mansion. However, to his surprise, he is quickly called in, due to being mistaken for the local funeral parlor in town. It is inside where Gillis quickly meets the madam of the house: one Norma Desmond. Miss Desmond, we learn, is a famous, but over-the-hill film star from the silent era who yearns passionately for a chance to be in the movies again. To that end, she has conjured up in her free time an extremely convoluted and ridiculous script that she sees as her chance back into the spotlight. To that end, she quickly hires an extremely reluctant Gillis to help her spice it up before she sends it to none other than noted Hollywood icon Cecil B. DeMille. However we soon see that the longer Gillis stays a part of her life, the more attached Norma becomes to the extent that she starts showing him all her old movies and growing quite….fond of him. However when Gillis tries to make his own way in the world again, Norma decides to take it upon herself to go to extreme lengths to keep him there as she gets ready. Not only to take over Hollywood once again, but to also reclaim the greatness that has long since eluded her like a subway always speeding past the man who finds himself tragically 2 minutes too late to climb aboard…
Now it should be noted that Sunset Boulevard truly is a film that is absolutely full of truly captivating character arcs, but also with themes that actually tie into the characters themselves. For example we as an audience see that Norma’s life is a life that has all but been annihilated by her flights of fancy, and limpidly held together by her sense of illusion. Indeed every single aspect of who she is with the exception of her own exaggerated self-worth is misdirection of the worst kind. Indeed this is a person with denial for a roommate, being led on by a false sense of hope due to what she was able to accomplish in the past, and her vehement refusal to not see the world as it is, but rather as she would like it to be. Thus the very idea that she is living for a chance to see her dream come true, but only by living solely in the world of that dream makes for one of the most intriguing and dynamic character analysis’ seen in a movie. An analysis it is worth mentioning that is also filled to the brim with truly intriguing and pitch-black overtones of a psychological nature that begin to turn physical as the film heads towards a resolution that is overwhelmed with both violence and extreme delusion in equal measure. Yet just as intriguing as the arc given to Norma is the one given to Joe Gillis himself. Indeed here is an individual who is split between a trinity of lives: the one he would like to live, the one he is forced to, and the one he cannot as much as he would like to at any and all cost. The first, which is showcased by a burgeoning romance with one of his worst critics, seems to be all set for failure due significantly to his situation with Norma which is truly inescapable. The middle one is one that has been sic’d on Mr. Gillis like a junkyard dog and is defined mostly by failures of a personal nature, and debt. Yet even though one is slowly quelled by Betty and her respect and appreciation for his work and the other by Norma’s bank account, truly worrisome consequences will soon arise as a result. Finally the last one is that, due to being ensnared by Norma and her controlling ways, Gillis finds himself unable to pursue other career opportunities or getting to enjoy a life with a young lady he might actually care about. Indeed as Norma continues down the rabbit hole of delusion that she has made for herself, so also does Gillis keep getting held back from living his life on his terms.
It should also be noted that fate seems to be almost as big of a character in this as say Norma or Joe. For example even though he only entered her garage in order to try and escape his problems, Gillis only manages to stumble upon even greater emotional, psychological, and even physical pain in his hideaway. Not only that, but they both happen to have ties to the world of film, are writers, are single. Indeed it may seem to be completely random and I might just be pulling at strings, but it really does seem like the film is trying to imply that there is some sort of destiny at work here. Yet it would also appear that this destiny is one that requires the user to make a sacrifice of some sort for either Norma to make her dream a reality or for Joe to just simply be rid of Norma and her topsy-turvy delusion-laden world. Indeed this is a film that manages to rely on the power that only a darker mind can bring and then reflects it through a prism that is 50% stylish and 50% how the world views self-worth and success. Yet this film’s pitch-black concepts involving finances, denial, missed opportunities, and the desire to dream big no matter what the cost are ones that I feel are not restricted to the world of movies, but are much more universal than that. Yet Sunset Boulevard nevertheless is still able to take these concepts and insert them into a story that is quite focused and not sprawling in any way. Indeed this film’s thoughts on the nature of fate may border on the otherworldly just as much as the film’s noir style and the character of Norma being fixated on living a life that is best showcased by what she cannot nor will she ever have, but everything still manages to come together in a way that is both very realistic and very meaningful in a manner that cinema has rarely manages to accomplish as well as it did with this picture.
Finally it should also be pointed that, from a technical perspective, Sunset Boulevard also manages to triumph wonderfully. Indeed the film may be a simple film, and it may be from a time than relied more on intelligence in everything from the script to the performances yet it still manages to intrigue right from the word go. Indeed the narration courtesy of Holden manages to give the film the vibe of a dark pulp novel that has come to life. Not only that, but his pacing also gives the audience a sense of subtle terror, extreme unease, and a hint of intrigue. Indeed the narration does a wonderful job: not only in constructing the narrative from a dramatic perspective, but it also sets the stage for the concepts the film will cover and sets forth a flow that remains constant during the film. Yet equally as good as his narration is Holden’s performance itself. Indeed it really does remain an icon showcase of a man slowly but surely being put in the ground due to the prerequisites of a new life he finds himself living whether he likes it or not. The most iconic performance in the picture, unequivocally, has to be Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. Indeed, as Norma, Gloria manages to paint for audiences a terrifying portrait of startling authenticity of a woman who cannot, under any circumstances, escape from her self-created reality and way of life that has managed to completely take her over both physically and psychologically. Indeed the film doesn’t choose to hide these idiosyncrasies, often setting the room with scores of self-portraits, showing the characters watching her old films, and just allowing the character to talk for hours on end about herself, what she has done, what she is currently doing, and what she believes she will be doing. Indeed by focusing so much on Norma, we begin to see the ramifications of her self-obsession begin to bleed out into other aspects of her life, and when coupled with the fact that the vast majority of these aspects want no part of her in their lives whatsoever, it really helps to create an intriguing narrative where people are truly terrified to get involved because they are afraid of what would happen to them and Norma if they popped her very fragile bubble, and let reality truly pour in like morning sunshine through a window. Indeed every cast member in this may showcase a deep undercurrent of anguish, but there is a degree of superficiality there too. This is true for even Norma who, in the riveting conclusion to the film, seems to showcase as much astonishment and panic as she does sheer happiness and bliss; at long last the delusion and its victim have finally become one.
All in all through an in-depth look at a writer fighting to even achieve an ounce of the spotlight, the dangerously deluded star that is still clinging to the notion that the spotlight of Hollywood will one day come back around on them, and all the people in their lives, Sunset Boulevard is a riveting narrative about how life progresses no matter how much we wish it wouldn’t as well as the dilemmas that can occur not only in hanging on to what was, but in also trying to create what could never be. Indeed the film’s focus on an aging movie star of another era really seems to serve a purpose that goes far, far beyond showcasing a narrative of a lady holding her future captive for another chance in the spotlight only she seems to feel that she deserves. Indeed, if anything, Sunset Boulevard really is a narrative about the dangers of illusion, the refusal to accept the a-z way life tends to usually operate, and the dilemmas that can ensue when a person bullishly refuses to come to grips with the natural order to things. However, I will admit that there is something close to respect for this woman not wanting to give up on her dream and thus fade into the shadows. Yet even though that exists, what this film still manages to do remarkably well is show that there is drawbacks to dreaming, to replacing working your tail off and being determined to do the best you can do with flights of fancy, and with plotting a course for a goal or dream yet not learning to make adjustments along the way. Indeed this really is a very pitch-black, but also cautionary film that is also brilliantly performed and masterfully made at every step along the way. Thus I think it goes without saying, but at the end of the day, Sunset Boulevard truly is the world of film at its most riveting as it manages to tell us an intriguing narrative with deeper themes just under the surface, and is in possession of an extraordinary insight that is inserted with skill that only the finest of films can say they have both in front of and behind the camera. On a scale of 1-5 I give Sunset Boulevard a solid 5 out of 5.