Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sunset Blvd. is one of the high points of Billy Wilder's amazing career, the third in his 'four times black' series of
Noir or Noir-ish dramas: Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Ace in the Hole. As an institution unto
itself, it's gone in and out of popularity and achieved its fair share of Camp adulation; the Broadway musical version has its fans as well. This original
masterpiece is one of the few Hollywood-looks-at-Hollywood movies that understands what it means to be self-reflexive and
still have a sense of balance; for all its acid cynicism and ruthless showbiz types, Sunset Blvd. is obviously made
by someone who loves the movies.
Down-on-his luck writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) hides his car in an old estate
to avoid the repo men, and lands in the world of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a
middle-aged madwoman who once was a big silent movie star, and now has delusions of making a
comeback. Sheltered and indulged by her once-director, now butler Max Von Mayerling (Erich von
Stroheim), she lives in a wealthy fantasy world. Joe plays along with her scheme to rewrite
Salome as a starring vehicle, becoming Norma's lapdog consort; even after he falls in love with
studio reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), Joe cannot escape Norma's clutches, and graduates to
involuntary gigolo status. What he doesn't realize, is that the driven Norma's possessiveness and
jealousy have no limits ...
Maybe it seemed outrageous when new, but this is a completely credible Hollywood tale, told with compassion and understanding. Writer
turned boy-toy Joe Gillis is no weakling whiner, like the hero of
Detour, but he is weak enough to accept any situation that allows him
to keep playing the Hollywood game, and Norma's cushy spider web is the silken line of least resistance. Going home to Ohio is
an unthinkable kind of failure; any scheme that keeps him in the dream town is the scheme of choice. 1
Billy Wilder knows this, as an eintanzer (dime a dance boy, but possibly a gigolo) in Berlin who always did what it
took to make sure his talent was recognized.
The moguls were variously annoyed or outraged at Sunset Blvd. Louis B. Mayer, Mr. Tantrum over at MGM, wanted to take
up a collection to have it destroyed, in the interest of keeping tight control of studio honor. But Wilder's concoction was
no ordinary exposé of Evil Tinseltown. Many of the studio types, including pompous Cecil B. DeMille and the ruthless
Hedda Hopper, are seen in a very positive light. And the rank & file industry troops, as represented by an unusually jovial Jack Webb
(his best role) are given great respect, not just the, 'I love the little people who made me' sentiments often heard from
luminaries like Joan Crawford. There's spite and acid, but none of the sense of actually being in Hell, as in the show-biz
films of Robert Aldrich: The Big Knife,
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,
The Legend of Lylah Clare, and The Killing of Sister George.
Other writers have hinted at Wilder's main scheme in Sunset Blvd., but none carry the theme out far enough. Sunset Blvd.
is best understood as Billy Wilder's abstract stab at a Gothic Horror movie. For the way she dominates and finally consumes hapless
Joe Gillis, Norma Desmond has been often equated with Dracula. But the parallel goes much farther. In 1950, the fan cult of
Old Hollywood Lore had not yet permeated the culture, and silent films and their stars were practically forgotten. James Agee had to
write big articles to revive interest in Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, whose movies were scarcely being
In Sunset Blvd., the 'waxworks' that convenes at Norma's for bridge is indeed the Living Dead. Their
souls and youth and vitality and success have been made immortal on film, yet what remains of their living bodies either has to
acknowledge the passing of their glory, or go raving mad like Norma. Several
of these stars, in 1950, were only in their fifties, age-wise. I'll bet that a real card game between Keaton, Swanson, Nilsson, and
Warner would be a riot of fun - these vivacious types definitely weren't the living-dead mummies pictured here.
Wilder was possibly responding to the tawdry funeral given D. W. Griffith a couple of years before - the forgotten pioneer
who was ignored to death by the town he helped create from nothing. Sunset Blvd. sees Hollywood as a Gothic
because of its cruelties, its tendency celebrate its greats with fame and fortune, and then shun them into obscure misery.
That's why Sunset Blvd. plays as if the ghost of Tod Browning were on the set directing next to Billy. Norma's house is a haunted
mansion with a weird pipe organ that provides an eerie tonal accompaniment. The monkey funeral is definitely something out of
the Freaks school of weirdness - how many screwy horror films had mad doctors transplanting monkey glands, or gorilla brains? If this were a real horror movie, it would be revealed that the ape was Norma's previous
ritual lover, sacrificed like Leo Vincey to the glory of She. Joe Gillis is merely the 'next man,' just like Tyrone Power
involuntarily becomes the 'Next Geek', in Nightmare Alley. Once Gillis is caught in Norma's web, and held by her emotional
pull, he's doomed. His amusement and pity give way to an almost complete domination - he's a free man by day but is drawn back to her
influence by night, like a tyro vampire. Yep, Sunset Blvd. is a Horror film, through and through.
Wilder films have their little compromises here and there, but Sunset Blvd. is close to perfection. William Holden has a
slick charm, informed by what must have been his own personal experience, as a once-hot property whose popularity cooled off.
Resurrected by this
showcase, he became one of the biggest stars ever. Gloria Swanson is almost too young to play Norma, and has to
distort her face to embody the grotesque aspects of the deluded diva. She's loathsome and pitiable at the same time.
Stroheim is Wilder's trump card; the two directors had already become fast friends on Five Graves to Cairo. Von Stroheim was
like Norma Desmond than was Swanson. She retired from the screen semi-voluntarily and wisely managed her riches. Stroheim was
practically run out of town on a rail, and retreated to acting, mostly in foreign films. The kind of madness his Max represents, when
we find out his true relationship with Desmond, has twice the bite when we realize that von Stroheim was Swanson's director.
His fanaticism for the movies was inseparable from his perverse outlook on life. Hollywood created its own bizarre monsters, and
seeing von Stroheim in Sunset Blvd. must have sent a chill down the back of many a mogul who crossed him 25 years before.
With his perpetual scowl and accented voice, Max Von Mayerling is as creepy as the cryptkeeper who tended to the Mummy in the
Universal Horror movies.
In the end, Wilder gets to have his cake and eat it too - the final scene combines the tabloid scoop of the century with a
Dance Macabre of madness. It's the genre's 'monster revealed' scene where all the horror comes out in the open. The beautifully -
shot ending doesn't fade or dissolve away - it disintegrates into a gauzy haze of glamorous insanity. Sunset Blvd. is
Billy Wilder's look at Hollywood, as Grand Guignol.
Looing impeccable, Paramount's classy DVD of Sunset Blvd. 3
should be a hot collector's item. The immensely enjoyable movie (my description above doesn't convey how wickedly funny it is)
looks pristine on DVD, with a silvery patina and punchy audio. The anonymous Studio-controlled docu
has Paramount's usual appearance of A.C. Lyles to lay down the Paramount version of the making of the film; all the predictable
stories are retold, some rather nicely with the help of a still fresh-faced Nancy Olson. To thoroughly enjoy the ribald world of
Billy Wilder, you need to read one of the many books about him. His hilarious wit, and unmatched skill with
a dirty joke, is legendary.
The most informative mini-docu on the disc is a piece on composer Franz Waxmann, whose sweeping score turns a tango into a
death dance. We learn therein that Waxmann's first big smash Hollywood score, appropriately supporting Savant's thesis, was The
Bride of Frankenstein. In his previous European career, he composed jazzy film music, as with 'Billie'
Wilder's French Mauvaise Graine.
The best extra are two script drafts of the famous 'talking corpses' morgue opening, illustrated with four or five actual raw takes
from the sequence. They don't include Holden or the talking stiffs, actually, but instead show the nicely-shot 2nd unit-type footage
of the ambulance arriving, and a toe tag being wired to what's supposed to be Joe Gillis' foot. Savant has two theories for why
more isn't shown. First, it's possible that including any scenes with Holden or the other actors would have required some kind of
talent payment - possibly. Second, and more likely, is that the generic deliver-the-corpse footage survived because it was considered
useful as stock footage, and has been sitting comfortably in Paramount's impressive editorial library for half a century. 2
The menus are slick but perhaps a tad overdone, and the 'exclusive' Edith Head docu is repeated from
To Catch a Thief. An academic commentary is provided by Wilder
biographer Ed Sikov. One final extra is a location map something like the one on the L.A. Confidential disc. Savant lives
dead center in the map shown, about three blocks South of Paramount; everything said about the locations is true except for
there being a gas station at Irving and Wilshire where the 'Desmond' mansion once stood. I wish there were one there, as it would
be very convenient.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sunset Blvd. rates:
Supplements: Docus, stills, trailer, outtakes from the lost original opening scene
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: November 18, 2002
1. Savant understands this very well, as an aspiring editor who got sidetracked into special effects
(where, in honesty, he didn't belong) and then continued to work in "Hollywood" as an editor of commercials, trailers, the occasional
Z-feature and finally tv and DVD docus. That's not a Hollywood career, strictly - I don't work 'in the movies' at all. I have gone
through 30 years of seeing acquaintances trying their best. If some succeeded, they quickly disappeared - I had a knack for helping
start several soaring special effects careers, and that's the closest I got. Some writers I know withered under the exploitation of
'agents' who conned them into doing rewrites for free (obviously using them to prove to superiors they could generate work for nothing)
and then ignored them; my deserving college roommate has a couple of bigtime feature writing credits, and now does well
in development writing work. Then as now, the only sane way to become successful in Hollywood is to have an influential relative
who thinks you're a genius, or to marry or at least sleep with a powerful mover and shaker. As the opportunities multiply, the
field of aspirants explodes - there seem to be more finished, unreleased independent movies out there now than there are scripts.
2. This makes
more sense to Savant, because in the 80s my editor/boss in commercials knew the head of the Paramount stock footage library. When
we wanted to look for 'outer space scenes' for a TRW spot, we were sent over dozens of cans of raw dailies from George Pal's 3
Paramount films, all cool raw shots panning across Chesley Bonestell paintings onto the wooden easels, and stage-wait angles of
famous spaceships hanging on droopy wires. I can easily see the unused morgue footage of Sunset Blvd. fitting into the
'classify it, file it' system at Paramount.
3. On screen, the title is Sunset Blvd., seen written on a curbstone. I've called the movie
that instead of Sunset Boulevard for that reason, but not with any self-righteous zeal.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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