“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”
Desperate for money, aspiring writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) is hired by aging silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) to help her write her comeback screenplay. Soon the two are lovers — but things become complicated when Holden finds himself falling in love with a young screenwriter (Nancy Olson).
Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard “remains the harshest indictment of Hollywood on film” — not only “assaulting those who have made [it] a place where talent and integrity have little meaning”, but offering a “funeral elegy to old-style Hollywood films”. Despite its gloomy thematic premise, however, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable movie, full of fabulous set designs, stand-out performances (particularly by Swanson), memorable scenes, and dark humor. The story itself is densely layered: in addition to its sharp critique of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is both a suspenseful noir “romance” (with Swanson an atypical femme fatale), and — as noted by both Peary and DVD Savant (see link below) — an unusual “ghost story” with a “morbid, death-obsessed plot”, and countless “horror-movie references and imagery”. Perhaps the strongest indication of Sunset Boulevard‘s brilliance, however, is that our knowledge of Joe’s ultimate fate (his corpse narrates the story) does nothing to mitigate our enjoyment of the film as it unfolds.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond
- William Holden as Joe
- Eric von Stroheim as Max the butler
- Nancy Olson as Betty Schaefer
- Marvelously baroque set designs
- Norma pantomiming silent screen characters
- John Seitz’s noirish cinematography
- The famous “bridge playing” sequence with former silent stars
- A macabre sense of humor
- The classic opening shot
- The even more famous closing shots
- Countless memorable lines
Joe: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in pictures — you used to be big.
Norma: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.
Joe: I knew there was something wrong with them…
- Franz Waxman’s appropriately creepy score
Definitely. This is an undisputed classic of American cinema, and merits multiple viewings. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies (1981).
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)