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Sunset Boulevard (1950)


It’s the Psycho of film noir.

Sunset Boulevard starts out telling one story — about a down-on-his-luck writer and serious financial trouble — and ends up telling another — about an insane and faded silent-film star who lives in a decrepit old mansion on the titular boulevard. (Sunset Blvd. just doesn’t look the same these days, does it.)

Of course, the writer (William Holden) doesn’t get killed in the middle of the movie like Janet Leigh. They wait until the end, torturing him along the way. (And no, I’m not spoiling anything — the entire movie is a flashback, narrated by the dead Holden (a trick stolen to equally great effect by American Beauty), whose character is first spotted floating dead in a pool.)

Why is Sunset Boulevard so loved by film writers? Well, for starters, it’s about a writer — and everyone’s a sucker for a movie about their own profession. But this is a damn fine movie as well. An expert plot, team-written by Hollywood legends Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman Jr., and Billy Wilder, makes us first think Holden’s Joe Gillis is taking advantage of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) by bilking $500 a week out of her for his writing services. But slowly we come to realize it’s the other way around. In preparing for her return (nota ‘comeback’), Norma quickly turns Joe into a pawn — or more to the point, a slave. He’s a virtual prisoner in her rundown mansion; the moment he leaves, she slits her wrists, forcing him to come back.

Then there are performances. Holden is, as always, a standout, but it’s Swanson who steals the show. When I sat down to write this, I tried to think of any other movies Gloria Swanson had appeared in, and I couldn’t: Her performance in Sunset Boulevard is so powerful it screws with your mind. Swanson’s Norma is so over the top she makes Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest look restrained. And then there’s that fateful line, one of the most-quotable ever: ‘All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.’ Swanson, of course, had a life which wasn’t terribly different than Norma’s. The star of some 70-plus films, mostly silents, Swanson had been mostly absent from the screen for a decade. And chances are you’ve never seen any of the films she made before or since.

Sunset Boulevard is a demented circus of obsession, greed, and Hollywood. Billy Wilder’s direction, full of wide shots that capture the depressing set and brave close-ups of our anti-heroes. It stands as a true classic.

A DVD commentary from Ed Sikov, a Sunset book author, is worth a listen, especially for his description of the gruesome original opening, which was despised by test audiences. The script pages for the scene are also included along with a few bits of film shot from them.

The new Centennial Collection DVD adds a second disc of extras, with copious making-of featurettes and profiles of the crew and cast.

Aka Sunset Blvd.

Dancers in the dark.