Title: Sunset Boulevard
Release Date: August 10, 1950
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Since I’ve started my Classic Films project, I’ve watched the best movies from three decades of early Hollywood. The first movie I watched from the 1950s finds Hollywood reflecting on its own history and the dark underbelly of the film industry. Joe Gillis (Williams Holden) is a struggling screen writer who escapes the repossession men trying to take his car by parking it in the garage of a seemingly abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard.
Joe discovers that the house is in fact inhabited by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her obsequious butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) living in an elegant decrepitude. Appropriately, Swanson was a silent film star in real life and von Stroheim was an actor and director. They worked together on Queen Kelly in the late 1920s, a film not released in the United States, but clips of it are seen in Sunset Boulevard as Norma Desmond’s work.
Norma is working on a script for her “return” to Hollywood greatness and hires Joe on the spot to polish the script. Her offer includes housing in the mansion and Joe accepts what appears to be a plum job to help pay off his debts. Over time, Norma becomes more controlling of Joe’s life and falling in love with him. Joe feels trapped in the situation as Norma loses her mental faculties.
Gloria Swanson puts in a wonderful over-the-top performance as someone who is always Acting! decades after her career faded away. Swanson was only 50 years old when this movie was made so it’s ridiculous that she’s constantly referred to as aged, but then again, that is an accurate depiction of Hollywood’s attitude towards older women. Holden is a good straight man for all the weirdness of Swanson and von Stroheim. Nancy Olson has a great part as a script reader, Betty, who works on writing a script with Joe when he slips away from Norma’s mansion, and is also his love interest. Cecil B. DeMille plays himself in a scene where Norma returns to the Paramount lot where he treats her with great respect while evading any promises about actually producing her horrible script.
The movie is filmed with the light and shadows of film noir, which is effective even as the movie teeters on the border of comedy and tragedy. There’s a particularly effective shot of Joe’s body floating in a pool, shot from below, and Wilder’s direction is top notch. This movie is worthy of its reputation as one of the all-time greats.