Sunset Blvd – Review

Film poster for the film Sunset Blvd

It starts with just a street name and threatening ‘something has happened music’

We quickly learn it’s a murder. A man is floating in a swimming pool. We are promised the story of this man. The narrator knows it, fully. (Is this a hint of who’s telling the story – watch and find out!)

Not long after, though it’s actually a flashback, as is almost the entire film, a woman walks into an office and says a lot of bad things about the screenwriters work (by now it’s been established, he’s Joe, the main character), who’s standing right behind her. It’s a movie, a real American movie, so you know a young blonde woman doesn’t walk into an office talking at length unless she will be important. The writer, who’d been hacked off, will fall in love with the critic, and she will try to unearth his hidden talent. Tell me I’m wrong.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)
William Holden, Nancy Olson, and Jack Webb in Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Going to be hard to hold onto the woman wearing a pullover like that, Mr Man Nobody Remembers Is In This Film

All this happens, but it’s only a side-show in Sunset Blvd rather than the reason you’re watching. Since the film is made by Billy Wilder, that film, the film that exclusively weaves a love-story between two kindred spirits, a film made a million times in Hollywood, would still be worth watching. But I remind you, this film may be a love story, but it’s not exactly that story. There’s more.

Joe, the screenwriter, is broke, and as part of his escape from creditors finds himself at a run-down property on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It looks abandoned, judging by the old 1920s car and the unkempt garden and swimming pool that hasn’t been filled in years. (An empty unused swimming pool, you’re just laying trap for later, aren’t you Mr Wilder?) Just as he’s trying to work it all out a voice from in the house calls him. It’s a woman. Is this kind of film it’s always a woman and it never goes well. I haven’t spoiled it for you, it starts with a dead man in a pool, remember?

The woman is Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson. For the next hour the film takes us on a journey where we struggle to make out fiction from Hollywood fact. Gloria Swanson plays a former silent movie star whose star is on the wane (as hers was by the time the film is made), her chauffeur in the film is her ex-husband and former film director, just as the actor playing the role, Erich von Stroheim, was a former director. Joe and Norma watch an old silent film, ‘Queen Kelly’ which starred Gloria Swanson and was directed by Erich von Stroheim. There is another scene where they visit Cecil B. De Mille, who is making a real film, later released as Samson and Delilah. There are dinner guests who are all former silent movie stars (I recognised Buster Keaton).

And now take a deep breath, as that’s a big part of the story, but it’s only part.

Norma is trapped in a fantasy of reality. As she famously says, ‘I am big, it’s the pictures that got smaller.’ She still receives fan mail, but it is fake, sent by her chauffeur to keep her happy. She doesn’t realise that her use to Paramount Pictures isn’t her and her star power, it’s the old car, which could be a useful prop. To her, there is no reason why a man half her age, Joe, wouldn’t fall in love with her. She’s a star!

Then there’s Joe. He’s broke. He’s offered money to work on a screenplay with Norma. He takes it as he needs to pay off his debts. He really wants to believe he’s being true to himself by also writing a real, high-quality screenplay, with Betty (the sassy woman from the office – who’d have thought that would happen? Except me in paragraph two.).  But soon he is also taking gifts he claims not to want:  a platinum watch, a gold cigarette case. When he’s buying an expensive suit and coat the assistant has clearly seen this scenario before and suggests he goes with the more expensive option since the woman is paying.

There we have it, American Gigolo may have been made in 1980, but we have one right here in 1950. The emasculated American male.

There are a few twists and turns, we find out who the dead man in the pool is. We conclude with one of the greatest last scenes in film history. Gloria Swanson has been acting genius throughout, always taking her character to the max, but never so far beyond that you stop caring about her. The over-acting, as we may see it today, is perfectly in keeping with a silent movie star and the need to convey so much more with a look or an action when there are no words to aid meaning.

Finally, she descends the stairs. Then she says one of the contenders for great last lines in a film ever (and Billy Wilder has two of them, this along with ‘Nobody’s perfect’ from Some Like it Hot):

“There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my closeup.”

Her fingers stretch out for the camera. She moves forward to us. Fade to black.

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