Some films are so perfectly crafted that they stand above the rest. Films such as these transcend the passing years and remain true to the art of cinema as bright spots among the thousands of other movies. Such films are not only worthy of the title classic they define the term. One of the tops of even this rarified list is without a doubt, ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ Although initially released in 1950, it has stood the test of time and remains as entertaining as ever. One reason is the themes it explores. It deals with the effects of fading fame. Considering the way our current society quickly elevates people to stardom and the tabloids immediately tearing them down this plot device is more meaningful than ever. It is almost impossible to have a serious discussion of great films without this one entering the conversation. This film is one of those rare meetings of great writing, spectacular direction, and an amazing cast. Younger viewers may not immediately appreciate the full scope of this production. Being brought up in the MTV generation has altered the perspective of many audience members so that they have to take some additional time to understand what makes this film one of the greats fully. Like many such films, it has been often imitated, and there was even an attempt to make it into a musical, but most of these have failed. The reason is simple enough; you can’t mess with the classics. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards taking home three this film is the way films used to be made; with style. When the United States Library of Congress started to archive great films that were considered culturally significant this one was near the top of the list. The film stabs at the old studio system using Paramount as an example. This is only fitting since it was produced and released by that studio. Paramount is celebrating it’s centennial anniversary a little early. They were founded in 1912, but they have already started to gather the best of the best they have to offer and release them on special two-disc DVD editions.
A team of three talented men provided the story; Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr. Marshman was the newcomer to the group with only a few other scripts in his career. The other two have resumes that read like a required reading list for a screen writer’s course in a top-notch film school. Brackett was writing scripts for twenty-five years by 1950 when this film came out. He spanned the change from silent films to the talkies. This was a perspective that was required to consider the themes of this film. Billy Wilder was one of the most influential and innovative writers and directors in the history of cinema. He did a stint in Germany where he created movies that would result in the film noir movement including the seminal film of this genre, ‘Double Indemnity.’ He also penned screenplays for such groundbreaking movies as ‘The Lost Weekend,’ ‘Some Like it Hot’ and ‘The Lost Weekend.’ In his career, he won six Academy Awards for writing and direction and was nominated for an additional 11. Usually, it is a bad sign when you cannot assign a specific genre to a film. This movie is the exception. It has been called a dark comedy, film noir and a drama. The main reason is the script is so well crafted that it works in all of them. The writing team here does a little biting of the hand that feeds them. This story is considered the ultimate movie about the movie industry. There are little inside jokes that the true cinema aficionado will get, but most of the plot is about the need to hang on at any cost to fleeting fame. There is a lot to the story concerning the screenwriter character that reflects Wilder’s view of the studio system and how films are made. This added a personal perspective by a man who lived much of what he wrote about.
Wilder was a true double threat. He was equally talented as a director as he was as a writer. It is easy to understand why so many film historians list this film as part of the film noir genre — six years before this Wilder broke boundaries with ‘Double Indemnity.’ Most people consider film noir to be concentrated on a sleazy crime of some sort. Wilder understood that the style was transportable to other types of movies. The look and feel here are right out of noir. The use of light juxtaposed with shadow is inspired by painting a canvas that is visually stunning. There was a scene where a body is shown floating in a swimming pool. He tried to cob together an underwater camera but when that failed to get the look he wanted Wilder had a mirror placed on the bottom of the pool and shot the reflection. This is one of the most creative uses of the camera in movies. Now, they would use a special camera or turn to the computer for the shot, but then directors like Wilder had to use their imagination to bring what they envisioned to life. Those out there who tend to shy away from black and white movies just haven’t seen one of this quality. Wilder managed to get another famous director to make an appearance here’ Cecil B. DeMille. He is shown directing his movie ‘Samson and Delilah.’
Joe Giles (William Holden) is desperately trying to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He finally manages a meeting at Paramount only to have his script dismissed. Financially he is at the end of his rope; his possessions are about to be repossessed. While running from the men trying to take back his car he wanders onto the grounds of a deserted mansion. What he finds inside changes his life but not for the better. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) at the peak of her career was the most famous and sought after the leading lady in silent films. Now that the talkies have become the only films made many silent stars fell into obscurity. The only other person living there is her unemotional butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). He was at one time a famous director and the first of the three men who would be married to Desmond. He has always loved her and is glad to serve her now. Desmond lives in a fantasy world where she still sees herself as a big star waiting for her next film. Giles begins working for her and soon is completely financially dependant on her. She is hoping this will turn into her big comeback.
Paramount did have a DVD release of this film in 2002, but that one is now discontinued. You might also pick this up in a Billy Wider DVD collection. This centennial edition is the only way to appreciate this film fully. The black and white video has held up remarkably well. The audio is presented in the original mono and is still crisp and clear. This is a two-disc edition that is loaded to the brim with extras that probe every aspect of the production and impact of the movie. This is more than a famous old film; it is a piece of history and a defining moment in our culture.
Commentary track feature Ed Sikov - Author of "On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder"
Posted 10/30/08 Posted 02/12/2019