“Sunset Boulevard” (1950)

Directed by Billy Wilder
Paramount Pictures
US, 110 minutes
Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim

The film opens, craning down to a cracked curb with SUNSET BLVD. plastered on it. Dead leaves surround it. The camera pulls up and tags behind a car, with credits rolling on the street. Billy Wilder has already said a lot about his film in just that opening shot, setting up the mise-en-scene of the entire picture. It prepares the audience for one of the most troubling, dark films about anything. The stark black-and-white photography is soft the entire picture as if we are watching a dream, but we are not. Instead, we are seeing the most horrific nightmare a screenwriter can put himself through.

Screenwriters have provided fodder for a few great films about film, particularly 8 ½ and Contempt. Sunset Boulevard is like neither of these. Both of them revolve around a writer torn between lovers and their own senses of reality. In both, the writer never really comes to terms with his problems. Guido Anselmi and Paul Javal are nothing like Joe Gillis. Gillis, although his actions may prove otherwise, has come to terms with the hell he has put himself in. In the end, he may tell Betty Schaefer to go away, but he visibly is not. He really wants to run away with her, but he knows that would involve staying in Hollywood. At this point, he has three choices: stay with Norma Desmond; go with Betty; run off to Ohio. He clearly does not want to stay with Norma, but he also does not really want to go to Ohio. The first time I saw this, I did not understand why he was treating Betty so horribly at the end, but now I understand after a second viewing. Gillis does not want to hurt her – he loves her too much. Staying in Hollywood would involve another encounter with Norma and he could not possibly involve Betty in that. The audience can understand this all because of the wonderful William Holden. He pulls off a true tour-de-force here by making sure the audience can see the torture he is going through in his head.

Other than Holden and the other fantastic actors in the film, my favorite aspect of the picture is the story’s structure. The film opens with Gillis’s body floating in a pool, dead… “The poor dope.” So, we know the person telling the story is a dead man. It adds such a unique perspective to the narration. We understand why he is cynical as he tells the story – because he is dead and knows his end.

Wilder’s film is so unique it defies all convention and any attempt to put it in a particular genre. Is it a noir? Sure, there is a woman taking advantage of a man, but Norma Desmond hardly has any control over herself. Is it a horror? Well, anyone who isn’t horrified by Norma Desmond was not watching the movie and that mansion is as scary as the Haunted Mansion. Finally, can it be a comedy? Or even a romance? Whatever it is, Sunset Boulevard is in a class of its own.

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