AFInity: Sunset Boulevard
By Kim Hollis
November 30, 2009
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).