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Should I Watch..? 'Sunset Boulevard' (1950)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

Sunset Boulevard is a comedic film noir released in 1950, and it was directed and co-written by Billy Wilder. Named after the famous road that runs through Hollywood, the film follows the complex relationship between a struggling screenwriter and a former star of silent cinema. The film stars William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim and Nancy Olson and features cameos from a number of figures from the filmmaking industry including Buster Keaton, Cecil B. DeMille and Anna Q. Nilsson. Frequently included in conversations about the best film of all time, the movie received eleven Academy Award nominations (winning three) when it was released and was an instant hit with critics. The film would go on to earn around $2.35 million in the US and continues to be held in high regard today, becoming one of the very first films selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 1989.

Unmissable

What's It About?

At a mansion in Beverly Hills, the body of struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis is found face down floating in a swimming pool. Narrating the film, Joe takes us back six months when Joe's latest screenplay is turned down by producers at Paramount and criticised by script reader Betty Schaefer. After managing to escape from men attempting to repossess his car, Joe drives into the grounds of an apparently deserted mansion on Sunset Boulevard to hide. To his surprise, he hears a woman call out to him - Norma Desmond, a former star of the silent era of cinema. Joe is ushered in by her butler Max and upon learning of Joe's profession, Norma submits a script that she has written that she hopes will revive her career and asks Joe to have a look at it.

To Joe's dismay, Norma's script is dreadful but he nevertheless offers to work on it as a script doctor. Norma insists that Joe stays with her and Max at her home to work on it, lavishing Joe with expensive gifts and constant attention. It soon becomes apparent to Joe that Norma hasn't accepted her current lack of success, still believing that she's a big star and unaware that her 'fan mail' is actually written by Max to placate her. As he works frantically to try and correct Norma's awful script, Joe realises that Norma has fallen for him despite him not feeling the same...

Trailer

What's to Like?

It's difficult to know where to start with this film which has greatness in every shot. From the start and its unconventional title shot, the film has the feel of a timeless film noir - a cynical voiceover, deadly femme fatales, the Hollywood setting and a mysterious death at the centre of it all. But instead of retelling a story audiences would have found familiar at the time, Sunset Boulevard goes down a very different route by exposing the fickle nature of fame and the political machinations that go on behind the scenes of every film you see. Other later films have explored the impact sound had on those silent era stars (films like The Artist, for example) but few are on brutal as this film's depiction, showing Desmond's gradual descent into madness surrounded by the trappings of her former glory.

Speaking of which, the film is undoubtedly enriched by a number of pitch-perfect performances. The hard-nosed cynicism of Holden is spot-on for a role of this type while von Stroheim brings some quiet dignity to the role of Desmond's faithful butler. But as Desmond herself would have it, the film belongs to Swanson as the delusional actress clinging to the forlorn hope that her career isn't over. As the film progresses, she becomes more monstrous in her behaviour and appearance and in the final scene, she becomes almost vampiric. It's one of the all-time great performances in the role of a lifetime, one of those parts that is impossible to imagine anyone else in the world playing as well. It's remarkable that she didn't win her Oscar for Best Actress but it is the equal of Bette Davis' iconic performance in All About Eve - which also didn't win. In any other year, it would have been no contest.

Where this film really excels is the fact that it has layers to it, layers that a true cinephile would appreciate. For a film about silent era stars, there are a number of brief cameos from several notable people of the time - Buster Keaton is the most well known these days, alongside the great DeMille playing himself. But audiences at the time would have popped for the likes of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, film stars H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson and song-writing team Ray Evans and Jay Livingstone. Many of these would have experienced a decline in their fortunes with the advent of the 'talkies' and it's been speculated that the character of Norma Desmond is a composite of a number of former silent-era stars like Pola Negri and Clara Bow. Wilder's tale of the dark side of Hollywood still resonates because it's not that far-fetched to imagine. There are any number of former stars today who find themselves the fodder for celebrity gossip columnists, unable to find work due to the passing of time, the ravages of age or, perhaps, a lack of talent that has since become apparent. One wonders how many Norma Desmonds are out there right now, planning some grand comeback that will never see the light of day.

Swanson (centre) is captivating as the increasingly unhinged Norma Desmond, her grip on reality fading as the film progresses

Swanson (centre) is captivating as the increasingly unhinged Norma Desmond, her grip on reality fading as the film progresses

Fun Facts

  • The mansion seen in the film was not actually on Sunset Boulevard but at 641 S. Irving Boulevard. Built in 1924, it was later owned by John Paul Getty who bought it for his second wife. When they divorced, she retained ownership and rented it to Paramount for filming. The famous pool was built for this film but wasn't suitable to be used afterwards - it would later appear on screen again in another cinema classic, 1955's Rebel Without A Cause.
  • This is one of just 13 films to have secured nominations for all four acting Oscars, Best Picture and Best Director. The others include A Streetcar Named Desire, From Here To Eternity, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, Network, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.
  • Norma Desmond's antique car is a 1929 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A, a luxury limousine made in Italy and one of only 950 ever made. It once belonged to silent film actress and socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce, bought for her by her lover Walter Crysler. It's now on display at the National Automobile Museum in Turin.
  • Stroheim had directed Swanson years earlier in the 1932 movie Queen Kelly. Despite playing a chauffeur, Stroheim couldn't actually drive in real life so the car had to be towed by another car. He was later quite dismissive of his part in the film, calling it "that butler role".
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What's Not to Like?

Perhaps surprisingly, this film lacks a lot of the comedy that one associates with the director of one of the greatest comedies of all time - Some Like It Hot. The film's sense of humour is much more macabre than a lot of Wilder's later rom-coms, reminding audiences unfamiliar with his work of the director's versatility and skill. The film feels much closer to traditional film noir than a true comedy - perhaps it would be best to describe it as an extreme satire instead. Either way, I didn't find much in the film that amused me but in truth, I was enjoying the film as it was anyway. Then again, I watched the film many years after its intended audience.

So aside from a general lack of light-hearted moments for modern audiences, is there anything else to criticise here? Not really - the film works for fans of classic noir and behind-the-scenes dramas with its brilliantly written screenplay and sublime performances. It will appeal more to people interested in cinema rather than your average multiplex visitor and it's certainly a film that rewards close attention throughout. Sadly, I'm not great at watching crime dramas and solving the mystery for myself but if you are then you're in for a real treat.

Holden (left) is every inch the lead in this classic film noir, flitting between cameos from actual stars of the silent era like von Stroheim (right).

Holden (left) is every inch the lead in this classic film noir, flitting between cameos from actual stars of the silent era like von Stroheim (right).

Should I Watch It?

Unquestionably one of the best films about the film industry, Sunset Boulevard stands at the top of the list of essential films for cinephiles to enjoy. Not just a fantastic example of a film noir but a biting satire on everything Hollywood, the film's strengths remain intact after all these years even though the transferal from silent films to talkies is nothing more than a distant footnote. With in-jokes to spare and an incredible performance from Swanson, this film shines as bright as its namesake.

Great For: cinephiles, film noir fans, fans of silent cinema

Not So Great For: actresses not getting roles any more, struggling screenwriters (this is why I'm largely a critic these days!)

What Else Should I Watch?

Billy Wilder had one of the most acclaimed filmographies in Hollywood over his incredible seven decade career. With a stunning eight nominations for Best Director at the Academy Awards (winning twice), some of Wilder's films are some of the most popular and cherished of all time: Double Indemnity, The Seven Year Itch, The Spirit Of St Louis, The Apartment and many more. Frequently appearing on lists of the greatest directors and the greatest screenwriters of all time, Wilder's legacy and his place in cinema history is assured and his work will be remembered for a long time indeed. A casual glance at his work will be sure to uncover something you'll enjoy so have fun!

I admit to having a certain appreciation of film noir, a style of filmmaking that covers movies as diverse as classic German thriller film M and the ground-breaking sci-fi Blade Runner. Often adaptations of works by authors like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, these films tend to feature cynical protagonists falling for some beautiful but deadly woman trapped in a complex scheme, usually in a grey fog of cigarette smoke. Double Indemnity is another fine example of noir but there are many more - several early Hitchcock films like Shadow Of A Doubt or Suspicion or classics like The Maltese Falcon stand apart from the crowd and are still well worth a watch these days.

Main Cast

ActorRole

William Holden

Joe Gillis

Gloria Swanson

Norma Desmond

Erich von Stroheim

Max von Mayerling

Nancy Olson

Betty Schaefer

Fred Clark

Sheldrake

Lloyd Gough

Morino

Jack Webb

Artie Green

Cecil B. DeMille

Himself

Technical Info

DirectorBilly Wilder

Screenplay

Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman Jr.

Running Time

110 minutes

Release Date (UK)

17th August, 1950

Rating

PG

Genre

Drama, Film Noir

Academy Awards

Best Screenplay, Best Set Direction (Black and white), Best Music

Academy Award Nominations

Best Actor (Holden), Best Actress (Swanson), Best Supporting Actor (von Stroheim), Best Supporting Actress (Olson), Best Director, Best Cinematography (Black and white), Best Film Editing, Best Film

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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