Sunset Boulevard ★★★★★

"You're Norma Desmond. You used to star in silent pictures. You used to be big."
"I am big. It's the pictures that got small."

Truly one of my favorite screenplays of all time. Although made in 1950, SUNSET BLVD is a noir of the post-war cynicism of the late-1940's, a deliciously dark portrait of Hollywood. The film, which ironically is about the act of screenwriting, was made at a time when writing really meant something and the result are bold characters, strong and witty dialog, comedy, pathos, and tragedy.

In a Hollywood that is very unfair and unforgiving, Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a struggling screenwriter living in debt. Although he narrates the story to us and we identify with him as our protagonist, Gillis is not exactly a wholesome guy and he's implied to be little more than a hack writer. While on the run from creditors, he hides in an old mansion and discovers it's the home of a has-been moviestar named Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson in an iconic performance). Like many stars of the silent era, Norma's career abruptly ended with the arrival of sound, yet Norma refuses to accept this and lives in a secluded fantasy in which she is still a star. Her butler, chauffeur, devoted servant, former husband, and only actual contact with the outside world is Max (Erich von Stroheim), who feeds into her delusions and secretly writes all her fan mail.

Norma is not a stable woman; she is prone to depression and suicide attempts. She always acts like an actress and puts on a performance, even in her daily life. When she hires Gillis to help write the film she believes will be her comeback, he has little faith in the project, but accepts it. Soon he is given free room and board and Norma pays off all his debts, yet Gillis grows uncomfortable at his growingly dependent situation.

The film truly is merciless in its portrayal of the film industry, which can make you a star one minute, then throw you out with yesterday's trash the next. In one especially poignant scene, Norma returns to the Paramount lot, having received phone calls from them, and meets with Cecil B. DeMille (portraying himself in a cameo). The scene is touching yet tragic; it's revealed to us that the studio is only interested in her antique car, not in her script, nor in hiring her as an actress. Norma has created a giant fantasy in her mind that we know will never materialize.

If I did have a criticism, it's that I find the last third of the film to be just okay, and not quite as great as what came before. Gillis's romance with Betty (Nancy Olsen) has always felt like an added tangent to me. Though of course, it all culminates with a truly powerful and creepy final scene.

It really cannot be overstated how Billy Wilder was one of the great directors of Hollywood's golden age. This is his best film, and yet he still made about four other masterpieces that could rank right alongside it. It took the Austrian-born Wilder to really tap into the darkest facets of the American dream. Through this biting and stinging portrayal, Wilder manages to both celebrate the movies yet deprecate their industry.

"In my day we didn't need dialog. We had faces." How ironic that this line should come from a film with such wonderful dialog. In the final scene, Norma shows the extent of her delusion: "After SALOME we'll make another picture and another picture. You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!"

Thank you, Billy Wilder, for making this masterpiece of a film, just for us wonderful people out there in the dark.

Part of My 115 Favorite Films of All Time

Part of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies List

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