AFInity: Sunset Boulevard
By Kim Hollis
November 30, 2009

She totally wants him to do the arm around her shoulder trick.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#16: Sunset Boulevard

My admiration for Billy Wilder grows every time I watch one of his films. I've already covered Some Like It Hot for the AFInity project, and found it to be a terrific comedy, the kind of thing I could watch again and again. Two of the director's other films, Sabrina and The Apartment, are amongst my favorite movies ever. Sunset Boulevard is distinctly different from any of those three features, but it does contain that distinct quality and cohesiveness I've come to expect from Wilder. It's proof that the man is capable of working within many genres – though you might be surprised by my assertion that he covers at least four in Sunset Boulevard alone.

Indeed, during the one hour and 50 minutes of Sunset Boulevard's runtime, we see black comedy, noir, drama and even horror. Normally, movies that dabble in so many different themes and moods are scattershot and aimless, but Wilder deftly steers the story from one scene to the next, leading us to a climax and conclusion that we already know will happen, because we're made aware of the protagonist's eventual murder in the very first shot of the film.

Yes, the movie opens with the narrator telling the audience that a down-on-his-luck screenwriter was murdered at a big Hollywood mansion. We see the gentleman face down in the water, and quickly realize that this, in fact, is our narrator. How does he get to the point where he's a disembodied voice telling us his story?

Joe Gillis's career as a screenwriter is circling the drain. Unable to sell a script, or even to call in favors from influential friends, he's behind on the rent and three months in arrears on his car payment. When some repo men come to collect the car, Joe grabs the vehicle and dashes, but while they're chasing him, he has a flat tire. He pulls into a driveway on Sunset Boulevard and discovers a ramshackle mansion with an empty garage. It appears that the place has been abandoned, so he stores the car in the garage and walks up to the home itself to investigate further.

When he arrives, Joe is mistaken for an undertaker and sent upstairs to deal with a dead chimp. He quickly disabuses the mansion's owner of that notion, however, and is surprised when he recognizes the woman as Norma Desmond, a faded star who gained prominence in silent films. She angrily tells him to leave her property, but relents when she discovers that he is a screenwriter. She asks him to read a script she has written using the Salome story, hoping it will serve as a comeback vehicle for her career (oops, I'm sorry. Norma hates the word ‘comeback'. "It's a return, a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven [her] for deserting the screen.")

Reading the screenplay, Joe realizes it's tripe, but insinuates himself into Norma's home by way of offering to polish it to the point that she can present it to Paramount Pictures and director Cecil B. DeMille. Joe gets significantly more than he bargained for, as Norma takes over his life, effectively turning him into a kept man with little hope of escaping her clutches. Complicit in her actions is Norma's servant Max, who has some mysterious secrets of his own and hopes to keep alive his mistress's delusion that she is the greatest movie star ever.

There are a number of darkly humorous moments in the interplay between Joe and Norma. As an example, here's a conversation between the two of them when Norma is determining whether the time is "just right" to approach DeMille about her screenplay:

Norma: My astrologist has read my horoscope, he's read DeMille's horoscope.
Joe: Has he read the script?

The film is peppered with such tension-breaking lines, though the laughter they produce can be uncomfortable given that we know where this story is headed. It works, though, because the humor is primarily of the cynical type, which fits in nicely with the noir atmosphere and impending tragic implications.

Those noir elements come in with the film's dreamy quality, but also in the movie's themes of fatalism and alienation, along with a modified femme fatale in Norma Desmond. Obviously, the fatalistic qualities are exemplified by the inevitability of Joe's death, but there's also the indication that Norma herself is on an uncontrollable downward spiral. This is partly brought on by the fact that she is truly alone in the world. Although Max attempts to protect her, she yearns for the world's attention and finds it impossible to believe that motion pictures might have passed her by ("I am big. It's the pictures that got small," she states).

My argument, however, is that Sunset Boulevard is at its heart a horror film. Joe Gillis may not literally be a prisoner in Norma Desmond's home – like Paul Sheldon to Annie Wilkes in Misery – but he is trapped there, a victim of circumstances that spiral beyond his control. When he does try to make his escape, he is either drawn back into Norma's web or he is destroyed. For that matter, Norma's insanity makes her a perfect horror film villainess. Overly dramatic and dominating the screen, when she opens her mouth to speak you can't help but be captivated even as she's utterly terrifying. At times, she even evokes comparisons to the Bride of Frankenstein.

All of these moving pieces require note-perfect performances for the film to work, and Wilder elicits them from his players, none of whom were the first choices for their respective roles. William Holden was eventually selected to portray Gillis, and what a remarkable actor he would prove to become. He's ideal for the wry Joe, coming off as a bit of an opportunist even though there's a hopeless romantic hidden somewhere deep within his shell. It's a revelatory role for the actor, and Wilder was impressed enough with Holden that he cast him again in Stalag 17 and Sabrina.

I especially love the decision to cast Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond alongside Erich von Stroheim as Max. Swanson was a true star of silent film, and while it might have been troublesome to play a character whose story mirrored some of her life (Swanson, too, lived in a Sunset Boulevard mansion and struggled with the transition to talking pictures), she immersed herself into Norma, making her a horrifying yet fascinating personage. Meanwhile, von Stroheim was a leading helmer of the 1920s and even had directed Swanson in Queen Kelly. He is magnificently creepy as Max, a completely inscrutable man whose secrets become the key to unraveling Norma's story – and similarly mirror his own career trajectory.

Wilder's screenplay and direction must be credited for never giving away too much too soon. Of course the viewer comprehends that Norma is batty, but the level of her despair is only revealed by degrees. Wilder frames her in some spectacular shots, as well, from the spotlight shining on Norma at Paramount Studios to that famous final frame where she fades to a blur after declaring she's ready for her close-up.

Other than the fact that the music is a little bit silly by today's standards, Sunset Boulevard is a film for the ages. Today, as in 1950, screenwriters are downtrodden and often are the unappreciated cogs in the Hollywood machine. Stars fade, and while there might be an occasional Robert Downey Jr. or Mickey Rourke who recaptures their earlier glory, they are the exception rather than the rule. And knowing that you were once so loved, how hard must it be to deal with the utter indifference of the crowd? Sunset Boulevard is a deeply cynical film, but its truths are still steadfast.

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