Sunset Boulevard ★★★★★

You see, the body of a young man was found floating in the pool of her mansion - with two shots in his back and one in his stomach. Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of 'B' pictures to his credit. The poor dope! He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool - only the price turned out to be a little high.

It would appear that there’s a new air of cynicism and scabrous bite creeping back into Hollyood with the recent likes of Maps to the Stars and Birdman perhaps signalling a change from years of sentimentality and bubble-gum crowd-pleasing. It was fresh from these potential modern classics that I decided to finally watch Sunset Boulevard, and I was instantly smitten.

Right from the opening posthumous monologue and the still wonderful camera shot of William Holden’s staring eyes face down in the pool, one realises that this is a piece of work of immense style and influence. Even now it feels fresh and innovative, pairing acute industry satire and ahead of its time breaking of the fourth wall with film noir trappings.

The story has an acknowledged nod to Dickens’ Great Expectations and similar themes of decay and self-deception. Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is the Miss Havesham-like recluse in a decaying mansion living in past glories, with only her taciturn manservant Erich von Stroheim for company. She seizes on Joe’s (Holden) youth and ostensible contacts as an avenue back into Hollywood and a starring role directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

It’s a remarkable, knowing piece of casting; not unlike Michael Keaton’s role in Birdman - both Swanson as Desmond and von Stroheim as her manservant. An earlier silent film starring Swanson and directed by von Stroheim is shown at one point during the proceedings. It’s self-reflexive, meta- long before that somewhat derided term was ever coined, and above all, works really, really well. Swanson gets her teeth into the role with some gusto and she manages to be utterly repellent and genuinely sympathetic at once. Perhaps it’s the knowledge of Joe’s reptilian intentions towards her; seeing her as purely a springboard for his own career.

There is not a single foot put wrong with Sunset Boulevard. The script fizzes, and Wilder’s distaste for the studio system burns up the celluloid. One can also delight in the plethora of cameos and in-jokes that litter the screen. And as for that ending; it’s creepy and darkly funny and tragic all at once. It’s nigh-on perfect.

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