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.
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 exposť 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 screened anywhere.
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.
Erich von Stroheim is Wilder's trump card; the two directors had already become fast friends on Five Graves to Cairo. Von Stroheim was much more 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:
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.