Sunset Boulevard - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1950

Director: Billy Wilder

Production: Paramount Pictures; black and white, 35mm; running time: 110 minutes. Released 1950. Filming completed 18 June 1949 on location in Los Angeles.

Producer: Charles Brackett; associate producer: Maurice Schorr, though uncredited; screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D. M. Marshman, Jr., from the story "A Can of Beans" by Brackett and Wilder; photography: John F. Seitz; editor: Arthur Schmidt; editing supervisor: Doane Harrison; sound: Harry Lindgren and John Cope; art directors: Hans Dreier and John Meehan; music: Franz Waxman; songs: Jay Livingston and Ray Evans; special effects: Gordon Jennings; process photography: Farciot Edouart; costume designer: Edith Head.

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 ); Franklyn Barnum ( Undertaker ); Larry Blake ( 1st finance man ); Charles Dayton ( 2nd finance man ); Cecil B. De Mille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H. B. Warner, Ray Evans, Sidney Skolsky, and Jay Livingston play themselves.

Awards: Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Score for a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, 1950.



Brackett, Charles, Billy Wilder, and D. M. Marshman, Jr., Sunset Boulevard , in Bianco e Nero (Rome), November-December 1951.


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* * *

Between 1950 and 1952, Hollywood produced a cycle of classic films that looked at the business of making movies: Singin' in the Rain , The Bad and the Beautiful , and Sunset Boulevard . Of the three, the latter gives the darkest view of the motion picture industry.

The first two films chronicle success and failure, while Sunset Boulevard deals only with decline. It is, in fact, a sort of mirror image of Singin' in the Rain , a film which was concerned with the problems caused by the coming of sound to the movies. In Singin' one star deservedly falls from grace with the public, another has his career transformed for the better, while a sweetfaced ingenue becomes a box-office sensation because of her singing. Sunset Boulevard , however, which takes place 25 years after the coming of sound, shows us a silent film star scorned by the changes brought on by the new technology, and a modern day screenwriter whose dialogue is not good enough to get him work.

One cannot ignore the film's autobiographical aspects. Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, the aging silent film star, and like Norma, Swanson's career declined shortly after the advent of sound. Also, Max, Norma's chauffeur, had been one of her greatest directors. Erich von Stroheim plays the role and, like Max, he had been one of the more talented directors of the 1920s whose career ended abruptly during the next decade. Completing the mixture of film history and fiction, Norma watches one of her films from 30 years previous; it is Queen Kelly , one of Swanson's movies that had been directed by von Stroheim.

Aside from holding a reflecting glass to the industry, the film itself has something of a mirror construction. After Joe, the screenwriter, meets Norma, she convinces him to work on her comeback project, a ponderous Salome screenplay. Joe agrees because times are hard, and as an added convenience he becomes Norma's lover. During the second half of the film, Joe meets Betty, and they too begin working on a script as the conventional counterpart to Joe's involvement with Norma. While Joe knows that Norma's script is unfilmable, both he and Betty are excited about the script they write together, and shape it to the demands of the industry. Joe and Betty also form the normal, attractive movie couple, but Joe and Norma's relationship stands out as anomalous, at least for films of the period. Norma is much older than Joe, who plays the role of a "kept man," accepting money, gifts, and a place to live from a woman protector.

In the end, jealous of Betty, Norma kills Joe. However, this is known from the beginning, for Sunset Boulevard is a tale told by a dead man. After the opening credits, we see Joe lying face down in Norma's swimming pool, with detectives trying to fish him out of the water. Joe then begins to narrate the events that led up to the murder. But neither this posthumous narration, nor its baroque film noir style, nor the bitterness with which the film examines Hollywood, made the movie unpalatable to critics of the period. At its release, it was considered a major work, and today Sunset Boulevard remains one of the most highly respected films from the post-World War II period.

—Eric Smoodin

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