Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Sunset Blvd.Sunset Blvd Poster
Directed by Billy Wilder
1950/USA
Paramount Pictures

Repeat viewing
#229 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
IMDb users say 8.6/10; I say 10/10

 

Joe Gillis: [voice-over] You don’t yell at a sleepwalker – he may fall and break his neck. That’s it: she was still sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career.

Billy Wilder’s caustic indictment of the Hollywood dream factory and human cupidity is a classic in every sense of the word.  From the opening showing the title painted on a curb with fallen leaves in the gutter, you know you are in the presence of a master.

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The film is narrated by small-time screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) from the grave and tells the story of his last days.  Joe is a true noir hero doomed by a moment of weakness and an underlying longing for the finer things.  His fate is sealed when, in an effort to foil some men out to repossess his car, he drives into the garage of what at first appears to be an abandoned mansion.

Soon enough, Joe meets demented silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who, having just lost her pet chimp,  is looking for a replacement chump.  Joe is not smart enough to figure this out, however, and thinks he has scored big time when Norma asks him to help her with the screenplay on her comeback vehicle Salomé.  He barely bats an eye when without his knowledge Norma moves all his possessions to her home and installs him in an apartment over the garage.

Norma, alternately imperious and delusional, showers Joe with expensive presents but somehow doesn’t manage to keep him in spending money and allows his car to be repossessed.  She is totally obsessed with her “return” to the silver screen and her memories of the glories of her day as one of the top stars in cinema.  On New Year’s Eve, she declares her love and Joe flees to a friend’s party where he becomes acquainted with aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaffer (Nancy Olson), a close friend’s fiancée.  A mixture of pity and guilt sends Joe back to the mansion, however, when Norma attempts suicide and a New Year’s Eve kiss signals that Joe has prostituted himself completely.

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“All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”

Norma’s comeback dreams are raised to a fever pitch when Cecil B. DeMille’s office, to whom she has mailed the Salomé script, calls and the director himself offers a few half-hearted words that she interprets as encouragement.  Meanwhile, Joe and Betty have started working on their own script and Betty gradually falls in love with Joe.  A chain of events has been set in motion that will soon coming crashing down on everyone involved.

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Gloria Swanson’s performance as Norma Desmond was her finest hour.  She manages to invest her character with mix of toughness, vulnerability, insanity, and determination that makes Norma pitiable and horrifying all at once.  The rest of the cast is equally wonderful.

It was really difficult to choose a quote from this movie since the screenplay is razor sharp and endlessly quotable. The Franz Waxman score is one of the greats.  In fact, the film is flawless as far as I am concerned.   You really should see it before you die.

Praised by many critics when first released, Sunset Boulevard was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won three (for Best Writing, Best Art Decoration, and Best Score). Deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the U.S. Library of Congress in 1989, Sunset Boulevard was included in the first group of films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Trailer

9 thoughts on “Sunset Blvd. (1950)

  1. Swanson was overlooked for an Oscar and should have had it for this performance. Wilder wanted her for the part but when he saw her he thought she looked too young!!!
    There is a poignancy in this film as it is indeed the story of a has-been(s)…..the “waxworks” as Norma called her bridge playing friends were all former big silent stars in real life; and then there was von Stroheim playing the director who was now her butler which could have almost mirrored his own life. It is pretty sad when you think that two of the brightest lights in Hollywood during the silents and very early talkies were almost forgotten until this film. Thank you, Mr. Wilder.

    • We have so much to thank Mr. Wilder for. He may be my favorite American director. What a year 1950 was for actresses! I even like Judy Holliday, though we would soon learn she is exactly the same in every movie.

  2. I’m no expert on film noir (which means I’m very appreciative of your month-long focus on that genre) but I think Sunset Boulevard is an interestingly unique twist on the formula. If the standard doomed noir hero wants the finer things in life and succumbs to the temptations of easy money or a (seemingly) willing femme fatale, I think Joe Gillis stands apart because what he really wants is something a little more abstract. He wants to be a successful screenwriter, and he wants respect for his craft and artistry. He knows deep down he’s not a capital-A Artist like Norman Mailer but he still fancies himself worthy of more accolades than the standard studio hack. He doesn’t mind luxury of course, no one does, but it’s enough that Norma gets his balance sheet out of the negative at all, which he’d be happy with if he was artistically satisfied. Re-writing Salome isn’t creatively fulfilling for him, but working on the original screenplay about teachers with Betty is. I have a soft spot for stories about writers, so Wilder making the protagonist one really appealed to me. The moment where Joe is pondering how no one ever thinks about the writers of movies and the audience thinks the actors make it up as they go along … just pondering how that’s a line Wilder wrote to be delivered by an actor playing a writer, and how Holden just nails it, just blows my mind in the best way.

      • Yeah, ambition is closer to the mark. You could also say that his fatal flaw is a combination of aspiration and arrogance, which is offset by a sizable amount of self-loathing. He’s a pretty complicated character, really. Wilder certainly didn’t confine himself to making a paint-by-numbers noir!

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