DVD Review Of Sunset Boulevard
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/4/13
Billy Wilder, as a film director, was never a deep artistic director, in the vein of some of the world's great filmmakers, like Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, nor Werner Herzog. His best films, like The Apartment or The Fortune Cookie, were well written and well acted comedies. In a sense, his most well known film, Sunset Boulevard, is an extension of that ‘brand,’ if you will. There is no great insight into the human condition, nor is there any humanity-altering benefit from watching it. And, there is an unnecessary and distracting obligatory ‘love story’ in it; or, at least, an attempt at one that is severely undermined by the limited acting abilities of the young female actress, Nancy Olson, portraying the love interest. In many ways, the failings of this film are very similar to those that plague the film that bested it for the Best Picture Oscar in 1950, All About Eve. But, having said that, the great things about All About Eve are almost equally so about this film, and all of the hype about the film’s acidic portrait of the corporate Hollywood studios of the days when the film was made (the middle of the Twentieth Century) is true. Equally true are the claims about this film finally propelling William Holden into leading man status in Hollywood, after a decade of floundering in small roles and B films.
But, most especially true are the claims about the film’s showcasing of the talents of the former silent film star, Gloria Swanson, in her role of Norma Desmond, a former silent film star turned deranged murderess. This is one of those films where the term ‘born to play the role’ is apt. There are times when the nutty Norma chews the scenery, yet, one suspects that this is merely an extension of the persona that gripped her in her silent days. The overacting, the grandiosity of the über-Guignol, and the simpering reality of her unmasked hurt, all create an indelible character portrait, one that is set from the character’s first appearance in the film, to its end, where she famously wills herself into the picture business again.
Holden, on the other hand, is equally as good, as Joe Gillis, the wannabe screenwriter-cum-boy toy (decades before the term was coined) to the cougar-like Norma. The film is told in flashback, by the already dead Gillis, who is found floating face-down in a pool at an expensive Hollywood manse. Gillis then goes into flashback mode, and we see him as a struggling writer, getting shat upon by Hollywood lowlifes, and running away from creditors looking to repossess his car. A chase by them leads to a tire blowout that lands him in the driveway of Norma. As the plot unfolds, we find out that her butler Max (Erich Von Stroheim), was once her first film director and husband, and has been the only one sending her fan mail for years. Norma hires Gillis to adapt and edit an atrocious screenplay of hers, but the pair become lovers after she makes a play for him, and is rejected. Her attempted suicide lures him into a trap that was sprung the moment she laid eyes on him.
Gillis, meanwhile, finds himself drawn to his pal Artie Green’s (Jack Webb) girlfriend, Betty Schaefer (Olson)- a Paramount Studios reader who wants to adapt his stories into screenplays with him. Norma, meanwhile, makes her glorious return to Paramount Studios, to meet with film director Cecil B. DeMille. He humors her, but also brushes her off. Given the atrocious spectacle film he is seen directing, one wonders how the screenplay of Norma’s memoirs could be worse? After Gillis and Schafer become involved, a jealous Norma tries to poison her against him, but Gillis reveals all to Schaefer, who has given up Artie for him, but she refuses to listen, until Gillis brushes her off. When Gillis then attempts to leave, a deranged Norma shoots him in the back, plunging his body into the swimming pool. Caught up with the narrative, the film then, in the present, shows the aftermath of the shooting, where police and gossip columnists descend upon the house, and Norma descends into insanity. Her final traipse down her florid stairway, until she tells Mr. DeMille she’s ready for her closeup, only for her face to blur into the film’s end, is legendary and a great end to a near-great film. All three major characters ironically get what they wanted. Gillis gets his pool, although he is floating face down in it. Norma gets her return to motion pictures, albeit they newsreels. And Max gets to return to directing Norma’s final glory.
The DVD, Paramount’s Special Collector’s Edition, is a good one. The 110 minute film, in black and white, is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It includes, as special features, the theatrical trailer, two screenplay drafts of an excised opening sequence, a 1950s Hollywood interactive map, featurettes on clothes designer Edith Head and the making of the film, and its music, plus a quite good audio commentary by film historian Ed Sikov, who wrote a book on the film and its director. Sikov’s commentary is a bit stilted, but very informative. The featurette on the film’s making claims that the main theme of the film is opportunism, but that really shortshrifts the film. No, it is not as deep as Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. But it’s not the tripe Hollywood spews out nowadays.
The film transfer is very good and blemish-free. Franz Waxman’s music is interesting, at best, and the cinematography by John F. Seitz is adequate (the film’s best visual is its opening which starts at a curb painting of the film’s title, then proceeds to show the pavement of the road as police cars rush to the crime scene (an almost anticipatory inverse of the ending of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, forty years later. However, because the film involves a murder, and has cynicism, many film critics lazily call it a film noir when that is certainly not the case. A far better claim can be made for its being a black comedy, although that, too, stretches the definition of the term. In short, Sunset Boulevard is too silly to be film noir and too serious to be a true comedy. Some of the film’s best moments come in scenes that mix drama and comedy superbly, such as a bridge game between Norma and fellow silent film ‘has beens’- who Gillis calls her ‘wax works’- curiously and wisely never mentioned by name in the film: Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner, or when she does one of the best Charlie Chaplin impersonations onscreen.
There are many great quotes in the film (the best reference the contemporary culture of Hollywood, literature, and art), and scenes that have poignancy and irony- such as the dead chimp that we see Norma grieving over at the film’s start. That Gillis soon becomes her new chimp is a point lost on all but Gillis, although he finally gets it. That it also foreshadows Michael Jackson’s obsession, decades later, is a sign of Wilder’s prescience in the script he wrote with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr. Similarly, it is a great sense of schadenfreude that the film endows its viewers with when we see the not nearly as bright as he thinks Gillis break the fourth wall and tell the audience that he’s planning to con Norma unawares that she already has the drop and the scam on him. Yet, never is Norma truly malign, merely misaligned- be it in her belief that at 50 years of age her life is effectively over (Woody Allen’s Another Woman offers a nice rebuttal to Norma’s delusion), or any of her lesser neuroses. But this misalignment re-synchronizes within the aesthetics of the film’s viewers as it sort of cancels out the misalignment of the values Hollywood portrayed six decades ago, and which has only gotten worse since. Thus, Norma Desmond, seen in the light of the warp that ‘made her,’ is actually quite ‘normal,’ if not even predictable, to some degree. Likewise, Joe Gillis is also a product of his time and environs, and the mixture of his ennui and Norma’s volatility could only lead to a good story. That Wilder, in a sense, chooses the ‘safe route,’ of casting their relationship in a murder melodrama, is a reason the film fails at true greatness. Imagine had he shown the relationship between these two needy characters in a mature relationship; one that satisfies both partners, even if he felt he needed to muck up the works with the Betty Schaefer character. Then the film would not have only been fully contemporary and ‘modern’ in its style and pacing (perhaps the very best quality the film owns, next to the performances by Swanson and Holden) but in its realism, emotionally and narratively. Nonetheless, despite these flaws, Sunset Boulevard is a grand entertainment, if a bit light on enlightenment. There are far worse ways to waste an evening in the dark.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Hackwriters website.]
Return to Bylines