Sunset Blvd. (1950) *****
Directed by Billy Wilder
I’ve been avoiding writing this review all day! I’m posting this after my review of
I spent the months of July 2007-March 2008 watching the films that I hadn’t seen from the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the 100 Greatest Movies. Watching Citizen Kane, Schindler’s List and Gone with the Wind, I was expecting to love them, and boy did I ever! Yet, I have a list of four films that really surprised me, and that surprise mixed with the exhilaration I received from the films themselves made for an absolutely amazing experience that still continues to elicit butterflies in my stomach and feelings of euphoric giddiness in me. Sunset Blvd. is one of those four films! The others, in case you’re interested, are Best Years of Our Lives, Midnight Cowboy and Double Indemnity.
Sunset Blvd. includes what may be my favorite female performance in film history—Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a down on his luck second rate screen writer with debts to pay and debtors looking to collect. He escapes from being chased by said debtors only to find himself in the driveway of a dilapidated
He pities her and agrees to stay with her, all while she lavishes him with gifts of clothes and jewelry. By the way, the synopsis is not complete without mention of the third person who lives in the house, Max von Meyerling, played by the great silent film director Erich von Stroheim whose film Greed I will be watching this summer. Max is the butler and has been with Norma for a long time. Max has driven the script for Norma’s film to MGM Studios, and Joe is amazed when Norma receives a call from MGM. Joe, Max and Norma drive to the studios where Norma is instantly recognized by some of the old timers. She immediately wants to visit Cecil B. DeMille, who plays himself, to discuss the picture. DeMille doesn’t know what she is talking about and learns that MGM called her because they liked the look of the car Max drove in on and wants to rent it from her. Neither DeMille nor Joe is able to break the news to Norma, so they go along with the lie. Max just adds this to his many other deceptions in order to make Norma believe that she is still adored by the public, which includes writing fan letters to her everyday. At the studio, Joe reconnects with Betty and the two of them plan to spend nights working on that script. So, Joe sneaks out and eventually the two fall in love. Norma finds out, which leads to an event we know from the beginning of the film when we see Joe dead floating face down in the pool. Following this event, in one of the saddest ironies in any film in history, Norma is able to be in front of the cameras again.
It was a joy to be able to type up that synopsis, just as it was a joy to watch this movie for a second time. The first time I watched the film, I was astonished at such dark and disturbing subject matter, especially from a film from 1950! In the first twenty minutes, we see a dead monkey, followed by a late-night funeral with the monkey in a coffin made for an infant. From that moment, I knew this film was not going to be a sunny day in the park. Norma is truly frightening in many scenes because she is always on the verge of what seems to be total uninhibited insanity. When she does finally crack, I brought to the scene not only the sadness and recoil from what I was witnessing in the movie itself, but also the tension which colors the film throughout. The brilliance of Billy Wilder to begin the film with a shot of the dead body allows a sense of dread to simmer within every scene between Norma and Joe.
During this viewing, I was struck more with how unlikable and sleazy a character Joe Gillis really is! A better person would never have put himself in the situations which ultimately lead to his murder. Yet, he doesn’t deserve his fate. One of the very best touches within the film is Joe’s narration from what would have been a great book of his had he survived. The writing in that narration is absolutely gorgeous prose, and leads me to say that this film has the very best script in film history. Every line of dialogue drips with the filth of the underbelly of
Gloria Swanson perfectly embodies the has-been megastarlet who cannot let go of fame’s mythic and fleeting grasp. Norma always had an almost larger than life reputation of being difficult which matched her gargantuan success. Swanson, I’m sure, could relate, having been the biggest box office draw for a number of years in the 1930s and collecting seven husbands in her lifetime, including a French socialite who became an icon in his own right thanks to her. I’m sure there was a little Norma in Swanson’s deepest, darkest core. She must have had a great time with this film, since she was allowed to act with complete abandon, never once giving less than three hundred percent to every line and gesture.
Well, I’ve finally written my review. I had a great time thinking about how much this film means to me. Sunset Blvd. is one of the first films I’d recommend to someone whom I would want to introduce to great classic films. It’s powerful, dark and yet, completely fun to watch! Sunset Blvd. is an example of a