The narrative structure of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a unique one for a film from the 50s.The plot device adopted by Wilder in the film, that of using a dead man to narrate the entire story was revolutionary for that time. In the hands of some other director, this approach would’ve misfired but in the assured hands of Wilder, it works and how. 45 years later, Martin Scorsese would later re-invent the same technique in his film Casino. Scorsese’s love for the film is quite well-known in film circles. He mentioned in an interview that he saw it when he was 8 and it made a strong impact on him. You can also it’s influence on Scorsese’s The Aviator, another film about Hollywood.
The somewhat sombre tone established right in the opening scene gives us an idea of what is to follow. We are shown a dead man floating in a swimming pool. And shortly thereafter, it is revealed that the voice narrating the flashback belongs to him. His name is Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) and he tells us that he has been an out-of-work screenwriter who has written nothing but a few B-pictures. He is broke and his car is about to be repossessed. While trying to flee the rental car agents, he ends up in the driveway of a haunted looking mansion of a faded, middle-aged silent movie star called Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson). He tells the reclusive Norma that he is a writer and this lightens her up. She asks him to write a polish a screenplay she had written, which she hopes will be her comeback film. Since Joe is desperate for cash, he accepts. He finds out that life with her isn’t going to be easy as she becomes increasingly possessive and he finds it hard to slip out of her sight. Also, her valet reveals some truths about her that he finds deeply upsetting. Meanwhile, he becomes romantically involved with a screenwriter, a woman named Betty Schaefer, which raises the suspicions of Norma.
It’s apparent that Wilder drew so much from real-life while writing the screenplay. Gloria Swanson actually used to be a silent movie actress who became slowly forgotten with the arrival of sound, just like Norma. But they had completely opposite personalities. For someone who made the transition to sound, Gloria looks so comfortable in the role. She gives an overly theatrical performance, but that’s what makes her so damn good. Unlike her contemporaries, she is able to get away with. She plays Norma as a classic, textbook narcissist with delusions of grandeur. She is extremely possessive and goes nuts when she finds that Joe goes out somewhere at night. It’s a highly charged and oddly captivating performance. The dialogues written for her are witty and sharp. Some of the notable ones are: “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small” or “We didn’t need dialogues, we had faces.”
The real-life parallels doesn’t just end with her. The man who plays her valet Max is renowned Austrian-American actor, director and producer Erich von Stroheim. Fans of the Renoir film La Grande Illusion should be familiar with him. He too, like Gloria, used to be a legend of the silent era. In a pivotal moment in the film, Max reveals to Joe that he was one of Norma’s ex-husbands and also that he used to be a famous director who showed the same promise as directors like D.W. Griffith and Cecil.B. Demille. I guess this line can be construed as Wilder’s opinion of him. Stroheim had actually worked with Griffith on his film Intolerance, both as an actor as well as assistant director. He also directed Gloria in a film called Queen Kelly and in one scene, Joe and Norma are shown watching clips from it with Max behind the projector. Max is hoping for a comeback as much as Norma. Demille makes a cameo and shares a scene with Gloria. Also making a cameo is another legendary actor from the silent era, Buster Keaton.
Sunset Boulevard is one of the best films ever made about Hollywood. It is, I think, Wilder’s darkest film. Even though it’s a straightforward drama, Wilder has also skillfully managed to combine elements of film-noir, satire and melodrama and the resulting product is a truly enthralling piece of cinema. Norma here is the femme fatale who makes Joe’s life a living nightmare. The unexpected twist of fate that leads Joe to the front door of Norma’s mansion is reminiscent of Jonathan Harker’s trip to Dracula’s castle. The story here has similar Gothic elements too. Norma is as scary as Dracula. Her lifestyle and her mansion are aptly compared by Joe to Miss Havisham’s from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Despite their obvious differences, both Joe and Norma are losers. She lives in the past and he desperately wants to live in a bright future. They think too much of themselves and think of others as mediocre, unappreciative idiots. In fact, they are the ones who are mediocre who find it so difficult to see the truth about themselves.