Film noir and just a little bit of gothic horror mix incredibly well in the movie “Sunset Boulevard,” starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson.
The film, made in 1950, is directed by Billy Wilder, and also features some old silent film stars such as Buster Keaton and a guest appearance by Cecil B. DeMille and Hedda Hopper as themselves. The movie itself was considered a great success among critics and audiences alike and is still considered one of the most important films in American cinema history.
The film starts out with the police investigating a crime scene at a mansion on Sunset Boulevard; a young man is floating face down in the pool. Joe Gillis (William Holden), the narrator of the movie, takes us in flashback to the very first time he met faded silent movie actress Norma Desmond and just exactly how he ended up in that pool.
Joe was a writer in Hollywood who was down on his luck. He couldn’t get any of the studios to take his scripts, particularly his last one, which was panned by one of the studio’s readers, Betty Schafer. It gets worse after that: Repo men are after his car, and his agent suddenly quits on him. Joe loses the repo men during a high-speed car chase and pulls into Norma Desmond’s garage so he can change his flat tire. It’s here that he meets Max von Mayerling, Norma’s butler, who thinks he’s there to deliver a baby coffin. And this is where the long road starts: Joe encounters Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star who couldn’t transition into talkies but who still
believes that she’ll return to the screen again. In fact, it’s become her obsession, and she’s even written a script for a silent film that she specifically wants Cecil B. DeMille to direct. She proposes to hire Joe to assist in polishing the script, and because he’s in desperate need of money, he takes the job. Norma sends the finished script to Cecil B. DeMille, and when the studio keeps calling her, she refuses to answer, wishing only to speak with DeMille himself.
As Joe spends more time with Norma, his role in her life changes dramatically. He evolves from collaborator to lover, even though he isn’t exactly thrilled with the prospect. He soon grows antsy and begins to write a script on the sly with Betty, who is now engaged to Joe’s best friend. As their work progresses, they begin to fall in love, and Joe is becoming increasingly disillusioned with his liaison with Norma, who, it’s shown, is manipulative and unstable. This will only herald the beginning of the end for Joe.
Perhaps one of the most moving scenes in the movie is the visit to Paramount Studios while Norma is still convinced that DeMille is interested in her script. The older employees recognize Norma, and as one of the lighting technicians shines the spotlight on her, we see her come alive. She transcends from a has-been actress to the young ingenue she used to be, and the studio employees’ enchantment with her is only a shadow of what her fans must have thought about her in her glory days. The brief moment is shattered by a few terrible truths: First, the studio was only interested in Norma’s car as a prop for a film, Second, DeMille reveals to the audience and his fellow employees that
Norma’s lack of success in talkies wasn’t just a fluke, but because honestly, something wasn’t right with her.
In truth, Norma is a living ghost, really, a remnant of another time. Wilder shows this through his cinematography. For example, many of the scenes that are supposed to be within Norma’s mansion are dark and shadowy, and the furniture is old and heavy-looking, as is Norma’s style of dress. Yet in the light of the silent films that Norma and Joe watch a few times a week, Norma comes to life, much as she did at Paramount. And it makes you wonder: Was her madness the reason she was left behind and forgotten as Hollywood moved on, or was it the other way around?