Top 100 Movie Review: No. 015 – Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Ranked 015 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017).
Watched movie during July 2020.

Cast: William Holden (Joe Gillis), Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond), Erich von Stroheim (Max Von Mayerling), Nancy Olson (Betty Schaefer), Fred Clark (Sheldrake), Lloyd Gough (Morino), Jack Webb (Artie Green)
Directors: Billy Wilder
My rating: 7.5 / 10

At a mansion on Sunset Boulevard, the body of man floats in the swimming pool. In a flashback, Joe Gillis (William Holden) relates the events leading to the death.

Six months earlier, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe tries selling Paramount Pictures producer Sheldrake (Fred Clark) on a story he submitted. Script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) harshly critiques it, unaware that Joe is listening. 

Later, while fleeing from repossession men seeking his car, Joe turns into the driveway of a seemingly deserted mansion. After concealing the car, he hears a woman inside call to him, mistaking him for an undertaker to bury a dead pet monkey. Ushered in by Max (Erich von Stroheim), the butler, Joe recognizes the woman as long-forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Learning Joe is a writer, Norma asks his opinion of a script she has written for a film about Salome. She plans to play the role herself in a return to the screen. Joe finds her script abysmal, but flatters her into hiring him as a script doctor as he desperately needs to money.

Joe moves into Norma’s mansion at her insistence, Joe resents this at first but gradually accepts his dependent situation. He sees that Norma refuses to accept that her fame has evaporated and learns that the fan letters she still receives are secretly written by Max, who explains that Norma is emotionally fragile and has attempted suicide.

Norma lavishes attention on Joe and buys him expensive clothes. At her New Year’s Eve party, he discovers that he is the only guest and realises she has fallen in love with him. Joe tries to let her down gently, but Norma slaps him and retreats to her room. Joe visits his friend Artie Green (Jack Webb) to ask about staying at his place. He again meets Betty, whom he learns is Artie’s lover. Betty thinks a scene in one of Joe’s scripts has potential, but Joe is uninterested. When he phones Max to have him pack his things, Max tells him Norma cut her wrists with his razor. Joe returns to Norma.

Norma has Max deliver the edited Salome script to her former director Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount. She starts getting calls from Paramount executive Gordon Cole, but petulantly refuses to speak to anyone except DeMille. Eventually, she has Max drive her and Joe to Paramount in her 1929 Isotta Fraschini. The older studio employees recognise her and warmly greet her. DeMille receives her affectionately and treats her with great respect, tactfully evading her questions about her script. Meanwhile, Max learns that Cole merely wants to rent her unusual car for a film.

Preparing for her imagined comeback, Norma undergoes rigorous beauty treatments. Joe secretly works nights at Betty’s Paramount office, collaborating on an original screenplay. His moonlighting is found out by Max, who reveals that he was a respected film director, discovered Norma as a teenage girl, made her a star and was her first husband. After she divorced him, he found life without her unbearable and abandoned his career to become her servant.

Meanwhile, despite Betty’s engagement to Artie, she and Joe fall in love. After Norma discovers a manuscript with Joe’s and Betty’s names on it, she phones Betty and insinuates what sort of man Joe really is. Joe, overhearing, invites Betty to come see for herself. When she arrives, he pretends he is satisfied being a gigolo, but after she tearfully leaves he packs for a return to his old Ohio newspaper job. He bluntly informs Norma there will be no comeback, her fan mail comes from Max, and she has been forgotten. He disregards Norma’s threat to kill herself and the gun she shows him to back it up. As Joe walks out of the house, Norma shouts out that ‘nobody leaves a star’ so she shoots Joe three times and he  falls into the pool. 

The flashback ends. The house is filled with police and reporters. Norma, now having totally lost touch with reality, believes the newsreel cameras are there to film Salome. Max and the police play along. Max sets up a scene for her and calls, “Action!” As the cameras roll, Norma dramatically descends her grand staircase. She pauses and makes an impromptu speech about how happy she is to be making a film again, ending with, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” as she then steps in a hallucination of grandeur toward the camera.

What’s to Like
The shadowy black-and-white, film noir cinematography.

What’s not to Like

A story told by Hollywood about Hollywood and what occurred after silent movies turned into ‘talkies’ and a generation of stars who couldn’t transition.  In reality it’s a story about anyone who becomes a mega star but then loses their fame.  Norma Desmond is a sad figure who can’t cope with her changed circumstances, she still wants the world to evolve around herself and can’t understand or cope when reality intrudes on her fantasy world so much that she kills the one person who tells her the truth and tries to leave her.

The movie is narrated from a dead character something that wouldn’t have been used often before this movie and has been successfully copied only a handful of times.  Despite a solid story, great cinematography, good acting and a glance at Hollywood history I didn’t find myself fully draw into the film.  There are not individuals of good character.  One lead can’t live with reality and the other can’t take back control of his life until just before his death, at least he attempts not to take his friend’s fiancée I guess.  While I understand why this movie is considered a great film, for me this was only an okay one.

Academy Awards

  • Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – winner
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White – winner
  • Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture – winner
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (William Holden) – nominee
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role (Gloria Swanson) – nominee
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Erich von Stroheim) – nominee
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Nancy Olson) – nominee
  • Best Director (Billy Wilder) – nominee
  • Best Cinematography, Black-and-White – nominee
  • Best Film Editing – nominee
  • Best Picture – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
This entry was posted in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s