Title: Sunset Blvd.
Genre: Drama, Film-Noir
Director: Billy Wilder
D.M. Marshman Jr.
Music: Franz Waxman
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Erich von Stroheim
Cecil B. DeMille
Anna Q. Nilsson
Billy Wilder’s paramount triumph of film-noir melodrama, piercing through the Hollywood industry’s utter callousness and an over-the-hill silent era actress’ poignant illusion of a comeback to garner the spotlight.
The film begins like DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), our ill-fated protagonist Joe Gills (Holden), a 30 something hack writer for the Hollywood studio, narrates beyond his grave to reveal the tragedy ending – as shown in a majestic shot from the angle of the bottom of a swimming pool (a trick done by putting a mirror in the bottom and shot from its reflection), a man’s body is floating on the water, facing down, and for sharp eyes, it is obviously Joe himself.
So while the voice-over gravely chronicles his story of the last months of his life, on screen, audience is gravitated by the parallel presence of the unwitting Joe, from his down-and-out predicament, till he accidentally runs into Norma Desmond’s (Swanson) dilapidated mansion on Sunset Boulevard, on the day of her pet chimp’s funeral. The metaphor of Joe’s destiny is too apparent to overlook, being a substitute of the lonely but opulent has-been’s companion, until his own doom. Wilder and his co-writers cook up a perfect match for the duo, Norma has penned her own script of Salome and is desirous of launching her comeback with Cecil B. DeMille in the Paramount lot. So she is in urgent need of a writer to revise her dilettantish work, and Joe, just reaches the end of his tether to survive in the showbiz, it realistically starts off as a win-win deal for both, until when Joe realises what Norma needs is more than just a writer and what is more satirically, he is not a competent ghost writer, the output of Salome’s script is a dud, Paramount has no intention to produce the picture at all, although indulging a 50-year-old to star as Salome is too idiosyncratic to begin with.
So Joe caves in as a reluctant gigolo for Norma and she falls for him inevitably, her suffocating dominance is normally compensated by her gratification of material luxury. Naturally Joe is struggling, the reality is too hard to refuse, but internally he despises of his degeneration. It is a moral dilemma, so there must be a vent somewhere, when he meets Betty Schaefer (Olson), a young and inspiring fellow writer, age 22, the time with her becomes his safe haven, even his writer’s block is dismantled, they contribute wonderful ideas for a new script of a romance.
Unfortunately Norma will never let him go, the tricky part is, Joe is never completely heartless to her, on the first notice of her suicidal attempt at the New Year’s Eve, he rushes back to her bed immediately and they reconcile romantically. We can tell Joe loves her, but with the condition of sympathy, guilt and shame, and it is all because of the 20-year-old age difference and the huge gap in their social status, the film is bold tirade aiming at the hypocritical showbiz of its ageism and male chauvinism. For Norma, Joe represents the last straw of her life, her mirage of being an eternal star which is timeless and beloved.
Swanson gives a show-stopping tour-de-force as Norma, exaggerates her condescending mannerism with dramatic grandeur and empress mien, the trademark popped eyes and protruding jaw perfectly render a thrilling pathos as someone who is ridiculously ill-fitted in the present world thanks to her own background which is painfully similar to Norma. The film gifts Swanson the only opportunity to shine in the talkie era and she accomplishes it with impeccability, this is one of the most powerful performance ever (I give her an edge over the equally iconic performance from Betty Davis in ALL ABOUT EVE 1950), and its indelible impact is caustically mind-blowing, not to mention her final descending from the stairs to the cameramen, and her iconic last line.
Swanson is not the only one carry an autobiographic curve in the story, so is Erich von Stroheim, as Max, her dour but loyal butler-cum-chauffeur, the only one takes care of her in the decadent manor, more shockingly is later he reveals to be Norma’s first husband and the director who has brought her to stardom and accompanies her into obsolescence. In real life Mr. von Stroheim and Ms. Swanson both suffered a career debacle after their collaboration in QUEEN KELLY (1929).
SUNSET BLVD. is also a breakthrough for Holden, not entirely overshadowed by Swanson’s supremacy, his Joe is a tale of woe himself, his final severance from Betty by wilfully divulging his toy boy identity is handled equally with weighty melancholy and beautiful delivery; as for Olson, she bespeaks the common guidance as a young man’s pursuit, all four main actors acquire Oscar nominations, but only hers is lingering on unworthiness.
In a nutshell, the film deserves its iconic prestige and is deservingly one of Wilder’s most accomplished films among his cannon (alongside SOME LIKE IT HOT 1959).