Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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Norma Dean (Swanson) and Joe Gillis (Holden)

One word I kept coming across in reviews of Sunset Boulevard (particularly those written close to the release date) was ‘mean’. The story centres on a former silent-film star, Norma Dean (played by Swanson) who can’t accept that the roles have stopped coming, that she is visibly ageing despite all her beauty treatments and that she is fading into memory and obscurity. Dean is an addict whose drug of choice is adulation and she has had supply cut off. She has gone mad as a result. With a subject like that the film is certainly melancholy.

The stories of the supporting cast don’t lift the spirits much either. Joe Gillis (played by Holden) is a screenwriter who can’t pay his rent or the installments on his car. He pulls into the delapidated mansion owned by Norma Dean to avoid the Repo man. Gillis thinks he sees the chance to make money when the eccentric Dean shows him the script she has written for her comeback picture. She doesn’t accept the word ‘comeback’, of course, she’s still a star and always will be. Desmond insists, however, that he write the script in her home. Gyllis slowly becomes trapped and turns from someone in control to someone controlled as a kept man in a nightmare fantasy which operates only for Dean.

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Click on image to buy Sunset Boulevard on DVD

And what a home it is! Dean lives with just her butler Max von Mayerling (played by Stroheim) to keep her company and feed her delusions (he even posts her fake fan mail). Everywhere there are mirrors and pictures of Dean. Wind blows through the pipes of an organ. All very dark with a strong horror influence.

Even Betty Schaefer (played by Nancy Olson) isn’t a heroine. For one thing she is too insipid for that and for another she is more than willing to cheat on her boyfriend with Gillis with only a little encouragement. At first she seems pure and sweet (almost sickly sweet) but she isn’t.

Sunset Boulevard has a hard edge which is not just because of the storyline, characters or set. The narration by the murdered Gyllis, in a Midwestern twang, is cold and cynical. His description of the old silent stars who come to play cards with Dean as ‘The Waxworks’ is just one example of his matter of fact cruelty. It reminded me of some of the Detective books and films which used the same approach. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Wilder knew Raymond Chandler well and had co-written his breakthrough movie Double Indemnity (1944) with him. Chandler’s Big Sleep published in 1939 and his famous Philip Marlowe detective character speaks in the first person, much like Gyllis.

The other thing that struck me was the very European feel to this film. That shouldn’t have surprised me as Wilder (who was Jewish) had left Berlin first for Paris and then Hollywood in the face of the rise of the Nazis. The scene where Norma Desmond, living now completely within her own delusion, comes down the stairway as if acting in a film watched only by an “audience” of police officers and journalists, there to cover the murder, is both very European influenced and surreal. Right to the end Swanson plays Dean in a melodramatic, intense, mad and sinister way. It’s a remarkable performance you just can’t take your eyes off.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

Written by
Charles Brackett
Billy Wilder
D.M. Marshman Jr.

Main Cast
William Holden
Joe Gillis
Gloria Swanson
Norma Desmond
Erich von Stroheim
Max Von Mayerling
Nancy Olson
Betty Schaefer
Fred Clark
Sheldrake

Running time: 110

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