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Revolutionary at the time of its release, Billy Wilder’s gothic tale of broken Hollywood dreams, turned traditional noir tropes on their heads in 1950. The Austria-Hungarian-born filmmaker created a drama that is droll, creepy, and brimming with insider knowledge of its already simulated milieu of has-beens and could-bees.
From its irregular wraparound storyline to its perfect juxtaposition of conventional and bizarre characters, everything about “Sunset Boulevard” oozes tabloid ink that could be mistaken for blood in the context of a black-and-white film.
“Sunset Boulevard” is a self-reflexive Hollywood satire that takes targeted shots at the industry from various angles. To avoid censorship Wilder meted out pages of the script three at a time to Paramount. He knew he was pushing limits.
Having lived in the Los Angeles neighborhood of the film’s title during the ’30s and ‘40s, co-writer/director Billy Wilder was intimately familiar with the area’s residents. Some, like the film’s insane antagonist, were retired film stars of the silent era who saw their fortunes slip away under the advent of sound to movies.
Nora Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson with exquisitely camp intensity) is one such bird. Since starring in silent pictures under Cecil B. DeMille, the aging Hollywood queen of the silver screen has become a recluse. Nora lives alone in a rundown Boulevard mansion with her faithful chauffeur Max (Erich von Stroheim). As the story unfolds, the more intimate nature of Max’s relationship to Nora is revealed.
The home’s unkempt swimming pool provides a watery grave for William Holden’s Joe Gillis, the unsuccessful screenwriter who posthumously narrates the events of the story leading up to his death.
Beaten down and broke, Joe is an everyman character who stumbles through his days writing scripts that don’t sell. He plans to throw in the towel, and return to his job as a copy editor in Dayton, Ohio. A pair of repo men chases Joe in his oversized convertible. A blown tire sends Joe escaping into Nora Desmond’s disused driveway. Nora mistakes Joe for a casket deliveryman. That the awaited chest is intended for the midnight burial of her recently deceased chimpanzee speaks to Nora’s strained mental state. She’s attempted suicide on more than one occasion. All of the home’s interior doorknobs have been removed. Little does Nora Desmond realize that the biggest role of her life is that of a bloodthirsty vampire.
Upon discovering that Joe is a screenwriter, Nora shows him a script she’s been working on that she believes will restart her film career. Seizing the opportunity before him, Joe becomes Nora’s kept man. She buys him fancy clothes, deluding herself that the two share a genuine romantic connection. Meanwhile, Joe slips out at night to collaborate on a script of his own with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a studio script reader and a more romantically suitable object of desire.
The deranged Nora Desmond and her house of horrors come complete with a tuxedoed butler to serve as her Igor-styled assistant. Cobwebs and overgrow shrubbery influence the story as told by a dead man. Billy Wilder’s deft weaving of gothic elements, not the least of which is Nora’s decrepit mansion, casts a spell from which Joe is unable to break free. He, like the audience, is stuck in a frightful place awaiting an equally terrible fate.
Not Rated. 110 mins.