Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Excuse my cussing, but Holy Shit, Sunset Blvd is phenomenal. I can't believe it took me this long to see it, because if I had watched it years ago I could have seen it 20 times by now. Failing screenwriter Joe Gillis (Warren Holden) narrates the tale of the months leading up to his murder, during which he moves into the home of reclusive silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). After twenty years of retirement out of a repulsion towards talkies, she's planning a great return to film with a self-penned screenplay for Salome. It's long and amateur and very self-serving, but she's convinced she can re-unite with director Cecil B DeMille and incite the numerous fans still writing her letters.

She dominantly brings the money-strapped Joe into her grandiose estate (where only one other person lives- Max [Erich von Stroheim], her butler) to proofread her script, and he becomes a part of her extremely indulgent world. In her personal theater, they only watch her movies. Her walls are lined with photos of herself in her youth. She considers herself a true "star", and can't imagine being treated as anything else. Eventually her attachment to Joe becomes romantically clingy, and he is trapped out of fear she'll react drastically to his departure and hurt herself. When he develops feelings for aspiring writer Betty (Nancy Olson), it becomes harder and harder to maintain his life constructed around Norma.

This film is absolutely captivating- I was utterly enthralled for every minute of the story, especially whatever scenes featured Norma Desmond (which is most). Swanson is phenomenal, handling the role of the psychologically unsturdy but unflaggingly proud actress with respect, pathos, and just the right amount of histrionics. Holden keeps his own against her scene-stealing performance, maintaining an engaging narration and appealing self-awareness. I really enjoyed Erich von Stroheim as the mysterious and deadly devoted Max and Jack Webb as Joe's extremely likable friend, Artie.

The visuals are stunning, with excellent lighting and a lot of attention to how Norma is framed in her shots. The illustrious setting and impeccable costumes increase the aesthetic beauty. The plot is intriguing, with a lot of nods to real Hollywood figures and events, including several cool cameos. Though initially structured as a murder mystery, it's really an uncompromising character study. And even though Joe tells the story, this is really all about Norma, a fascinating woman who commands our attention, respect, and sympathy despite her flaws.

Sunset Blvd. is basically perfect, and (I assume) one of the best movies ever made. It's the kind of film I will definitely obsess over, letting it sink in slowly for several weeks. My goodness, what a good movie.



  1. I first saw it with Devin Ptooey, and I have watched it a couple of times since, and it is way badass. Here's a thought: was Billy Wilder his era's Coen Brothers? I HAVE ONLE SLEPT ONE HOUR TONIGHT.

  2. I've avoided trying to write down my top 10 films since I made an attempt a few years back and now when I look at that list I cringe. But Sunset Blvd. would be on any best ever list I'd make now. Great film by one of the greatest filmmakers Billy Wilder.

  3. I felt the same way after my first viewing of this film last year - they don't get much better!

  4. It truly is a phenomenal film, but did Wilder make a film that wasn't first rate?

    Just finished the book Close Up on Sunset Boulevard, a great read.

  5. SUNSET's terrific and it stands up to many rewatchings. Nancy Olson and William Holden were paired up again in the gritty UNION STATION with a great bad-guy, Lyle Bettger.

    Von Stroheim has a resumé filled with important work, but an overlooked favorite is THE GREAT FLAMARION, with the lucious but oh-so-dangerous Mary Beth Hughes. Beautiful women, poor innocent guys (yeah...riiight)