Synopsis: Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, an aging silent film queen, and William Holden as the struggling writer who is held in thrall by her madness, created two of the screen’s most memorable characters in Sunset Boulevard. Winner of three Academy Awards, director Billy Wilder’s orchestration of the bizarre tale is a true cinematic classic. From the unforgettable opening sequence through the inevitable unfolding of tragic destiny, the film is the definitive statement on the dark and desperate side of Hollywood. Erich von Stroheim as Desmond’s discoverer, ex-husband and butler, and Nancy Olson as the bright spot in unrelenting ominousness, are equally celebrated for their masterful performances.
Sunset Boulevard 8.0
If I hadn’t committed to doing a full-fledged Billy Wilder festival this year (or, at least, watching the ones in my “new arrivals” section – I have already seen quite a few in years past), I probably wouldn’t have ramped this baby up to the top of my list for a looooooong while.
In fact, the only reason it was on my list at all is because I had read some terrific things about it – and, more specifically, that it satirizes Hollywood. I’m really glad that a few things conspired to put this film in DVD player, otherwise I would have missed out.
While ‘Sunset Blvd.’ wasn’t as trenchant as I expected it to be, I found this Film Noir take on stardom and the film industry riveting. Granted, it has a slower pace than we are used to today, but I quite liked that vibe, the slow simmer of insanity of all sorts.
The film begins with the story’s outcome, which was a nice touch in that it let us know that we would be building up to that dramatic point. This effectively instilled a level of suspense from the onset, by investing in our curiosity being piqued – as opposed to building it up gradually. All it needed was to meet our expectations along the way.
After some light humour to convey the sardonic tone of the filmmakers (which drew much criticism from some of the Hollywood elite of the time), an aura of mystery enveloped the film the moment that our protagonist found himself on Sunset Boulevard.
The setting is an old, untended mansion. Naturally, its lifelessness was immediately intriguing. As well, its expansive rooms were filled with a vast array of knick knacks and memorabilia, thereby adding to the curious nature of the place. The mood was enhanced by the fact that the title suggested that this mansion would likely be a key element of the film.
Then we were introduced to its inhabitants, Norma Desmond and, Max Von Mayerling, her butler/assistant.
Both are intriguing characters to start off with: she a reclusive star of the silent movie era, and he a unwaveringly patient and devoted servant. What would motivate one to hide away the way that she did, and why would anyone stick by her side for so many years, in such a seemingly thankless post?
However, adding to their intriguing nature, both feel like broken people finding solace in their own way: one protects her illusion of fame and delusions of grandeur by forever retreating to a safe, untouchable place, whereas the other invests his whole self-worth into being as dutiful a guardian as he can be, like a indefatigable parent to an adult child.
The moment that our protagonist is thrown into the mix, we get to see just how fractured these people are. Their expectations of the outside world are incredibly unrealistic and, thus, an outsider such as Holden finds himself quite out of place in their walled-in world – to the extent that his days and nights there turn into a haze of resignation.
There is very little chance of escape for a man so financially desperate as he is; those four walls are his only salvation in the short-to-medium term. But they start closing in on him, suffocating him. In his attempts at finding reprieve, even for short amounts of time, he discovers that his chains are heavier than ever anticipated.
Sadly, by the mid-point of the film, by the time that the film has finished lifting the veil on Sunset Boulevard, it stumbles into fairly standard melodrama, which was less interesting to me. Thankfully, it was all perked up and salvaged by a tremendous performance from Swanson in the final scene, unleashing all of Desmond’s madness before a stunned audience.
While ‘Sunset Blvd.’ is hardly as momentous as it is sometimes portrayed, it is a terrific film. The allure of peeling away some of the layers of Tinsel Town, combined with this tale of headlong hopes and dashed dreams, make for a memorable, if not classic, piece of celluloid from the golden age of the silver screen.