Film Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Also known as: SUNSET BLVD. (stylized on screen)
Release Date: August 10th, 1950
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton

Paramount Pictures, 110 Minutes

Review:

“It was a great big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy 20s. A neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades. It was like that old woman in “Great Expectations”. That Miss Havisham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world, because she’d been given the go-by.” – Joe Gillis (as narrator)

There are few movies as perfect as Sunset Boulevard. Billy Wilder directed a plethora of true cinematic classics but this could be the man’s magnum opus.

This film-noir is considered to be the big send off to the genre, which dominated the 1940s. It was also directed by Billy Wilder, who got a lot of credit, and rightfully so, for kick starting the genre with his 1944 film Double Indemnity. Although, Wilder would do another film-noir the following year called Ace In the Hole. Plus, film-noir wasn’t something that was clearly defined, at the time. Even today there is still debate as to whether it is an actual genre or just a style. But Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard are considered, by many, to be the bookends of classic film-noir.

Sunset Boulevard is exceptional, from the opening shot all the way to that final, creepy moment, as the camera fades out to the credits. It feels like a cinematic Persian rug that has been meticulously worked on for years and years. And while the film itself didn’t take years to make, it is the result of years and years of some of the best craftsman in Hollywood honing their skills and merging together to create absolute beauty.

While Billy Wilder directed the picture, a lot of credit has to go to cinematographer John F. Seitz. Having spent his years visually enhancing classic films going as far back as 1916, Seitz delivers in every single shot of Sunset Boulevard. The clever lighting, the chiaroscuro feel, the visual contrast between the elegant Gloria Swanson and the dark crumbling world around her, everything was executed with an uncanny preciseness.

Getting to the story, the film follows William Holden’s Joe Gillis. The film begins with Gillis dead, floating face down in a swimming pool. He narrates from beyond the grave, telling the story of how he met his end, becoming a human lily pad outside of a decrepit mansion.

Gillis, on the run from some men he owes money to, finds himself in the mansion of ex-Hollywood screen legend Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson after a long hiatus from pictures. She initially thinks that he is there to bring the coffin for her dead pet monkey. Once she finds out he is a screenwriter, she digs her claws in, taking over his life, giving him a taste of luxury in exchange for his services. Norma has a story she wants turned into a script. She believes that her fans want to see her triumphant return to the silver screen. In reality, it is her butler who has been writing the fan letters for years. In film-noir style, everything that can go sideways, does.

Sunset Boulevard is also littered with notable cameos of big Hollywood names. Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, Hedda Hopper and others play themselves. Hopper’s role is actually pretty funny. DeMille has the biggest cameo and he does pretty good on the other side of the camera.

This is a stellar film. It examines the cult of personality and celebrity and rips the bandages off, exposing the nasty scabs underneath. This should be a film that is forced on any Kardashian child born from now until eternity. It is a film that is more relevant now than ever, as we live in a time where anyone can be a celebrity for ten minutes, as long as you do something completely stupid on the Internet.

Sunset Boulevard was a reflection of its time but it was also ahead of its time. Nearly seventy years later, the film is still effective.

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