Arguably Billy Wilder’s seminal feature. Sunset Boulevard sees screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) have a chance meeting with a faded silent film star: Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who has become a recluse, convinced that the outside world is waiting and begging for her return to the screen. Reeling him in with the prospect of script work, she puts him up in her mansion and he becomes ever more involved and entangled in her life.
Written by Jack Ransom
“I am big! It's the pictures that got small!”
Pulling back the dusty, tattered curtain on the psychological effects of time passing, narcissism and good old fashioned Hollywood show business. All mixed together to create a cocktail of tension, tragedy and transportation to an era that defined the medium of film. Defined by Gloria Swanson’s hypnotically electric performance, crafted with Wilder’s technical mastery and with engagingly written noir edge running through the veins of the screenplay, that adds a layer of darkness to the glitz and glamour.
Starting at the ending of the film is a familiar noir trait, as well as a perfect tone-setter for what’s to follow. Joe is our narrator. He fills in the blanks and adds context and details to flesh out the gaps and key moments as the days and months go by, with he and Norma eventually getting trapped in a never-ending separate from society cycle. The writing for the narration is some of my favourite dialogue of all time. The fantastic similes and subtle and dry wit of Joe’s description and observations, flesh out the already immersive world and era of the setting.
The story is made up of two distinct intertwining tales that masterfully twist and turn amongst each other. Firstly beginning as Joe’s desperate struggle to get a writing job, that then bleeds into the eccentric and secluded lifestyle of the once iconic Norma Desmond. From there Sunset Boulevard is an ever-spiralling series of interactions and a layer of increasing false affection that is bitterly uncomfortable and sad to watch. The sense of distance from the outside world is incredibly effective and genuine, with the occasional everyday activity visits to the outside world feeling like genuine events. The sense of paranoia and embarrassment that Joe suffers when accidentally stumbling across his previous industry peers begins to play on his mind and he begins to reassess his situation.
The set design of Norma’s mansion is fantastic. A monolithic, decrepit museum dedicated to its owner’s past glories. Littered with photos and paintings of herself, cavernous empty rooms that once were filled with life and soul now rotting away to nothingness, as well as priceless trinkets, jewellery and clothes filling every crevice, drawer and wardrobe, not seeing daylight in years. Shadows douse the corridors and lights flicker, barely keeping its mistress in sight before she fades into darkness. Wilder’s direction is stellar. The camera positioning and movements all perfectly angled and paced, with the dreamlike scene transitions that seamlessly glide into one another.
Gloria Swanson’s own career definitely replicates that of Norma’s in several ways, which undeniably helps make the character feel so realised and genuine. It’s her wide eyes and constantly nuanced, yet emphasised and shifting facial expressions that are unmatched,
coupled with often blunt and snooty demeanour that make her truly striking presence, as well as her haunting delusions of grandeur at the iconic finale scene. William Holden’s bitter and snarky Joe makes for a sparky match, with his superb aforementioned direction and seedy and greedy twisted morals keeping him away from the leading man tropes. Eric von Steinham is essentially the male Mrs. Danvers (Rebecca). Fiercely loyal and obsessive of his “Madame”, his cold and stony, off-putting demeanour always keeps Joe on edge.
Sunset Boulevard is nothing short of a masterpiece. A glance into a truly broken, sad yet unflinchingly glory hungry mind of a fallen icon. Perfectly performed by its cast, utterly infatuating in its storytelling and constantly visually striking and ahead of its time in both its storytelling and technical aspects. Essential viewing.