WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: Struggling writer Joe Gillis is about to give it all up when he stumbles across the home of silent screen legend Norma Desmond, a huge star twenty years ago but now left with only pictures of her heyday and faithful servant Max for company. Joe moves in to help Norma re-write the script for her new film Salome, each needing the other for different reasons. But Joe’s desire for independence, and a burgeoning love for pretty young film reader Betty, inflames Norma’s passions – to a wild and tragic pitch.
Ah, movies about the movies. There’s little Hollywood makes so well (or so willingly) as a film about itself, always ready to show La-La-land’s egotism and its willingness to make twisted old fruitbats out of naive ingénues. From Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? through to more recent efforts such as The Player, Swimming with Sharks and Mulholland Drive, it appears that – Singin’ in the Rain apart – Tinseltown barely has a good word to say about itself. But for sheer, twisted bravado, the mother of all these movies must be Sunset Boulevard.
For a start, it doesn’t prissy about with nonsense such as ‘What’s going to happen?’, presenting us with calm narration from Joe Gillis (William Holden) who we first see (from the bottom up, in a very effective shot) face-down in a swimming pool. As the rest of the narration is from this dead man, the film is instantly given an eerie quality, quickly added to as the film spools back six months to find Joe alive but hopelessly strapped for cash, failing to impress with his pitches or raise enough money to keep his precious car away from the repo men. Suffering a blow-out as he eludes them, Joe turns into the drive of a sprawling, neglected house owned by silent screen queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and is mistaken for the undertaker who will arrange the burial of Norma’s beloved pet chimpanzee, laid out in macabre fashion in an upstairs bedroom.
The confusion is sorted out and Joe turns his attention to Norma, in particular the fact that she is rich and, apart from slavishly faithful servant Max (Erich von Stroheim), alone. She is writing a terrible script for her ‘return’ (not a comeback, she insists) in Salome, to be directed by Cecil B. De Mille; spotting an opportunity, Joe gets taken into the house as script editor and, by degrees, becomes Norma’s new pet, then her lover. The young man tries to keep a semblance of his own life, but Norma’s instability keeps him on a fairly tight leash until he discovers that working with film reader and friend’s fiancée Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) means more to him than simply producing good material.
Meanwhile, as a misunderstanding from Paramount studios (they want Ms Desmond’s big car for a picture, not her) feeds her delusions of returning to the pictures, Norma becomes increasingly possessive and goes to extravagant lengths to keep hold of her lover. As the star, secrets and story all unravel, we begin to see clearly how – and why – Joe ends up as he does.
Joe himself refers to Norma Desmond’s house as resembling Miss Haversham’s in Great Expectations, and it’s not only Holden’s beyond-the-grave narration that creates a spooky atmosphere. As the faded film star, Swanson – a veteran of dozens of silent movies – conveys all her emotions (as you might expect) in unnatural, other-worldly gestures and flashing eyes, saying everything silently as she has been trained. Norma’s life, successful on the surface, is a tragedy as she cannot accept that she is no longer the biggest star in Hollywood; the allusions to (many?) attempts at suicide are disturbing but entirely in character. Equally, as the impresario-turned-devotee who shores up ‘Madame’s’ fantasies, Erich von Stroheim does an excellent job as Max, trapped by his own love from properly acting in either his or his former protégée’s best interests. Naturally, the young writer’s appearance in this world is a mistake, but Joe’s greed makes him prostitute himself to get on in life, and the consequences of this choice show that he too is trapped. Holden brings Joe’s brashness to the screen with vitality and a keen sense of conflict, and the cast – many of whom are assassinating their own characters – is directed by Wilder with his usual attention to the dark side of people’s personalities and a biting, satirical edge.
If there is an element that…not lets the film down, that would be putting it too strongly, but feels ordinary, it is the romance that blossoms between Joe and Betty. They make an attractive and witty couple, but there is something mannered about their courtship that makes the film feel of its time, much more than the spiteful, desperate courtship of Joe and Norma (when she impersonates Chaplin for him, the discomfort is palpable). Norma’s calculated disruption of the youngsters’ relationship also feels dated, tipping Sunset Boulevard into melodrama that the score only accentuates. Nonetheless, all is redeemed by the gruesome spectacle of Desmond’s delayed arrest and the famous line, ‘Alright Mr De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up.’
There is more bile and self-loathing to enjoy in Sunset Boulevard than in most of the films that have tried to emulate it, boasting (as an incidental pleasure) cameos from De Mille, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and silent-screen luminaries such as Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner. Not all of the film resonates as strongly today as it would have at the time, but the lead performances (especially Swanson’s), the cutting script and uneasy atmosphere, all ensure that this trip down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams stays with the viewer for a long, long time.