#33: Sunset Boulevard (1950)


Long story short, Sunset Boulevard blew me away, all over again. Hats off to writers Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr., whose tight and witty script almost had me applauding at the screen, almost. In fact, Sunset Boulevard is the only example of a heavily-narrated film which I rate; usually I hate the device, but here you can't imagine the story being told in any other way. As I said, hats off, really.

Our narrator is one Joe Gills (William Holden), a failing Hollywood scriptwriter, who accidentally stumbles across the dilapidated mansion of former silent movie star Norma Desmond (a mesmerising and at times alarming Gloria Swanson). The film opens with the discovery of Joe's body floating in the pool, so from the off there is an unsettling tension about it all, as no one is entirely comfortable with being narrated to by a corpse, after all. He backtracks to the beginning, fleeing from bailiffs and turning into Norma's abandoned-looking drive. Norma, who thinks of nothing but her (unlikely) return to the big screen, manipulates Joe into a bizarre and, frankly, grotesque romance. There is a disturbing chemistry between them, which is entirely believable, if less than desirable. Yet, this is not primarily a story about love. 
In actual fact, Sunset Boulevard is much more interested in Hollywood itself. Joe's other romantic interest, the young and beautiful scriptwriter Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), shows up this focus as the competition between the two women comes to symbolise the tension between Hollywood's past and present. Norma is self-obsessed and incapable of appreciating the fact that modern movie-making has moved on. Meanwhile, those still working behind the scenes and on the screens exhibit no such desperation or hostility in relation to the industry's history. Norma clings onto the past, while the scriptwriters and producers scramble for new and original ideas. So, Sunset Boulevard is essentially Hollywood reflecting on its roots, and acknowledging its fickle side. Stars do fade, and we watch Norma dwindle day by day. 
There are some big-name cameos in this film, with the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton gracing the screen, which makes Sunset Boulevard seem like a pledge made on behalf of all Hollywood. What this pledge is, exactly, I'm not so sure. There's no promise that the modern movies will re-embrace former stars, yet there's also no sense of a shame of the past. The silent era retains its glory, but it is consigned firmly to the past. Sunset Boulevard is, to me, 1950s Hollywood looking at where it's been and comparing this with its then current form. The film's treatment of this subject is nuanced, it's considered, and it's far from decisive. More than anything though, Sunset Boulevard is an eloquent and entrancing look at the state of America's film industry, and a must watch for anyone interested in the movies.

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