Sunset Boulevard (1950)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The corpse of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a screenwriter, floats on the swimming pool of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an actress whose career flourished in the era of silent film but is no longer under the spotlight because talkies has become all the rage in Hollywood. Six months prior, Norma hires Gillis to be a ghostwriter for the unorganized screenplay she has written. Although he is reluctant to take the job initially, he agrees eventually because he is in dire need of money, being in debt with a financial company which threatens to take his car and all. But soon their professional relationship turns into something more when Norma insists on giving Gillis a taste of wealth. Gillis, however, is unable to reciprocate her affections.
Directed by Billy Wilder, “Sunset Blvd.” is beautifully shot, particularly in the contrast between the opulence of the mansion and the internal emptiness that characters try to cover up. Intelligence can be felt from the meticulous script because it is able to offer insight about the human condition that is passion while at the same time functioning as a satire of the machinery that governs Hollywood’s businessmen, writers, and performers.
Its main characters are possessed by their occupations. We get the feeling that being a writer is a part of Gillis’ genes in the way he speaks—whether with another person or via narration. Hearing the latter is especially enjoyable because his thoughts tend to enhance the images that we see for ourselves. For instance, when he lays eyes on Norma’s white mansion for the first time, he makes an allusion to David Lean’s “Great Expectations” and compares the place to a tattered dress of an old woman in that film.
While I was impressed with the sheer size of the manor upon first glance, after the comparison is expressed, I began to see its flaws like the front yard being filled with overgrown weeds, an unkempt pool, and stairs full dead leaves. It helps that Holden’s voice is smooth; listening to him is comforting. The narration becomes an active participant in telling the story, shedding light to certain corners we might overlook instead of simply being there to further the plot.
Meanwhile, it is interesting how Norma is introduced as a mysterious (and somewhat scary) lady of the house who then later turns into a figure most of us might feel pity toward. Swanson makes the most out of her character by pulling us in so that we wish to know what she is capable of and pushing us away just when we are about to get too close. I was most mesmerized by her eyes. I noticed that she does not blink for long intervals as to hold onto that fire that makes Norma so angry and frustrated at the modernization of movies.
Equally fascinating is in the way Swanson uses her fingers, similar to the evil witch in Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwafs,” very branch-like and reflecting her character’s true age. Though there are artists that can help to make Norma’s face appear younger, the illusion is lifted the moment her fingers are revealed.
Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr., “Sunset Boulevard” has a great sense of humor running alongside the characters struggling to define or make sense of their respective passions. Because Norma, Gillis, and, to some extent, Betty (Nancy Olson), who shares the same drive as Gillis to catch her big break, are given plenty of time to express what is important to them, when humor, like a sarcastic remark, is utilized, it works equally well as entertainment and as defense mechanism. It can be used as a reference point for us to gauge how much a particular character has changed over time. From the opening scene, we know that the story is not going to end happily. And yet when it starts tie its loose ends, we cling to the possibility that the corpse is all part of a bad dream.