VOD film review: Sunset Boulevard
James R | On 10, Nov 2019
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson, Erich Von Stroheim, Cecil B. Demille
Is there anything Billy Wilder couldn’t do? From The Apartment to Some Like It Hot, he was a master of tone, be it comedy or dark drama, and epitomised film noir with his definitive Double Indemnity in 1944. The prospect of him returning to the genre in 1950, then, was one to relish, and even today, Sunset Boulevard doesn’t disappoint.
The film is rooted in a premise that could easily be a jet-black comedy – and, indeed, almost was. It introduces us to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a faded actress of the silent era. In her mind, she is plotting a comeback, except for the fact that she believes she’s never gone away in the first place. In reality, she’s more Miss Havisham than Meryl Streep. Into her embrace stumbles Joe Gillis (William Holden), a screenwriter determined to climb the ladder of Hollywood influence, and who agrees to write a role for her to prove she’s still got it.
It’s a partnership of mutual corruption that’s doomed, and the script – co-authored by Wilder and Charles Brackett – is bold enough to make that clear from off, a decision that puts the film in noir territory before our lead couple have even met. The voiceover narration, delivered from beyond the grave, is a landmark storytelling flourish, one the immediately sets us up for something playful yet twisted, unavoidably macabre yet also unexpected. The black-and-white cinematography, all striking lighting and ominous shadows, reinforces the fatalistic atmosphere as well as the garish extravagance of Norma’s mansion and lifestyle.
Holden is excellent as Gillis, managing to juggle creative idealism with a compromised morality, sealing his destiny in the traditions of the genre. He’s the perfect understated foil for Gloria Swanson, who goes large in her over-the-top screen presence. “I am big,” she declares to him. “It’s the pictures that got small.” That Swanson is, herself, a former silent screen star only adds to the scathing undercurrent of self-awareness, but she plays Desmond entirely straight, resisting the urge to wink to the camera and bringing a genuine sense of tragedy and theatricality to a part that is all ego and no filler.
Wilder, meanwhile, makes the most of his own Hollywood clout, using the actual Paramount Studios lot as his playground and backdrop, instilling his takedown of the showbiz industry with a riveting authenticity. Part-satire, part-noir, part-melodrama and part-inside joke, it’s a timeless piece of cinema that finds fresh sadness and chuckles every time you go back for another close-up. That Wilder should even make the film is an audacious, brazen triumph. That he should execute it so brilliantly comes as no surprise whatsoever.