Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Billy Wilder | 1hr 55min

More than just being the name of a street in Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is where stars fade away into the night, each one replaced the next morning by a younger, fresher luminary travelling along an identical trajectory. Norma Desmond is one such has-been who burned brightly in her youth, and yet in her old age (or at least, what Hollywood considers old) she has tumbled from the ranks of high society, her career opportunities drying up along with her youthful vitality. Though she is no longer a sex symbol, she tries to recapture that glamour in extravagant makeup and clothing, and frequently watches the old silent films she starred in, basking in her younger self’s charm and allure which has been lost over the years. No longer does she venture outside her colossal, Gothic mansion, cluttered with unsettling sculptures, archaic furniture, and framed photographs of her own likeness. Instead, she traps herself inside its dark, gloomy chambers, turning it into a tomb where unfulfilled dreams come to wither away and die.

Our introduction to Norma from behind these slats – a ghost trapped in a haunted house, peering out at the world from a dark, hollow space.

And indeed, Billy Wilder recognises the full power in using this antiquated set as an eerie, hollow space that seems to radiate ethereality. Much like Charles Foster Kane’s mansion Xanadu, this great manor is an extension of Norma Desmond’s own hollow self-obsession that swallows her up. It is grandiose in its décor, and yet the upkeep is clearly lacking. Even when our protagonist, Joe Gillis, first arrives by pure happenstance, it carries the atmosphere of a haunted house, with voices calling out to him from inside as if he was always destined to arrive. Outside, he notes “the ghost of a tennis court” that clearly hasn’t been used in decades, and a drained pool containing nothing but debris and rats. During his stay, his presence injects some life into this dreary environment, as we see Norma visibly brighten and the unused pool fill back up with water. And yet for as long as she haunts this “grim sunset castle”, the stench of death and decay can’t be erased entirely, and somewhat fatalistically, that pool which Gillis restored marks the site of his own demise. This place is not just a tomb for Norma, but for all those who get caught up in her deathly aura.

Surrounded by archaic furniture and framed photos of her glory days, Norma’s mansion has the atmosphere of a stagnant, eerie tomb.

That Wilder’s skill as a director has often been overshadowed by his remarkable flair for screenwriting should not be taken at all as a slight against the astounding filmmaking on display here. As much as Sunset Boulevard is a tour-de-force in mise-en-scène and noir lighting, the fact remains that its script is its greatest asset, and easily belongs among the greatest in film history. There is its incisive cutting right to the heart of America’s superficial movie industry, its snappy bounce from scene to scene in crisp, elegiac prose expressed through voiceover and dialogue, and of course, the nuanced construction of one of the most tragic cinematic characters in Norma Desmond, whose lines resound with both pride and misery of grandiose proportions.

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

A career-defining performance for Gloria Swanson. She is raising her voice in dramatic cadences, gliding through her mansion like a spectre, and then puts on these performances for her guest, Joe Gillis – she is entirely lost in her own sad bravado.

Though Gloria Swanson quite literally steals the spotlight of Sunset Boulevard with her elaborate performance of a crippled ego hiding behind delusions of grandeur, this is also a story of hubris for a man living his own quieter self-deception. Gillis is a struggling screenwriter who may or may not have the talent to actually make it big, and so just as Norma latches onto his youth as a path to a comeback, he hitches onto her as a doorway into the industry. The line that divides the two is far thinner than he would like to acknowledge, as he too thirsts after success and adoration from those around him, taking pride in Betty’s love for him over her boyfriend. If Norma is “sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career”, then he is doing the same from the opposite direction, maintaining a contrived illusion that the key to fame can be found through reviving that which has already decayed.

And yet as all hope of manifesting these dreams plunge, such delusions only grow in magnitude, consuming these starry-eyed idealists in a magnificently surreal cocoon of falsehoods. Their fates have been written out from the start, as Joe’s voice from beyond the grave introduces his past self in third person like the two are separate people, and then emphasises the uncanniness of his destiny with a fantastically dreamlike shot looking up at his floating body from the bottom of Norma’s pool.

Surreal imagery in this fatalistic noir.

As for Norma Desmond herself, the performance of her own majesty was never going to break even under the most extreme pressures. In one brief moment of eminence, she has finally captured the attention of the press, public, and even Hollywood celebrities, the spotlight literally turned on her as she descends the steps of her manor for the last time. With a melodramatic monologue and a wide-eyed, theatrical advance towards us, the audience, she seems to become one with the camera, at which point the shot blurs until all definition is gone. The reason for her newfound infamy and its inevitably devastating consequences matter little. As far as she is concerned, she will forever live in this singular instant, her mind fully devoured by the same ostentatious vanity that Hollywood instils in all its most beloved, yet easily disposable stars.

An advance towards the camera, and a blur into obscurity – an all-time great cinematic ending.

Sunset Boulevard is available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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