2016 Blind Spot: Sunset Boulevard

So for my next blind spot film, I wanted to go back to one of the classics. One of the quintessential films about the movie industry. Considering it’s reputation, I can’t think of a better film to pick than Sunset Boulevard. This is considered one of the classic film noirs and one of the great insights into the film industry, particuarly the changing nature of stardom between silent and sound cinema. The influence of this film can be seen everywhere, but this also lends the film the possibility of being overpraised as time has gone on. Thankfully, that is not the case. The reputation this film has earned is well deserved and it’s clear why this film has retained it’s power over the past 60 years.

The film concerns Jack Gillis, a struggling screenwriter trying to make ends meat during a period of writers block. Because of his situation he ends up needing money or his car will be repossessed. Trying to find somewhere to store his car while he makes enough money and to hide from repossession officers, he ends up stumbling across the house of Norma Desmond, a once prominent silent film star who couldn’t make the transition to sound cinema and is trying to make a comeback with writing a version of Salome for Cecil B DeMille. Gillis ends up revealing that he’s a writer and Desmond hires him as a script doctor, but it soon becomes clear Desmond is a lot more damaged and wants Gillis for a lot more than she initially let on. The film does a great job showing the psychological issues that plague Norma Desmond. It’s clear that she has not taken the loss of her star status well, with her developing some sort of mental illness that has led her to attempt suicide on multiple occasions, bringing in some degree of sympathy. However, it’s also clear why she lost her film career. She’s presented to be arrogant, egotistical and incredibly controlling, buying clothes for Gillis to make him the person she wants him to be, along with rejecting any changes Gillis makes to her Salome script that would remove her and make it more coherent, especially since we know the script to be horrendous. This egotistical nature leads to some great dialogue from her, the most famous lines in the film come from her delusions of grandeur, with the anger she feels over being ignored being brilliantly presented. At the same time, it’s clear that Gillis isn’t fully sympathetic. He does take advantage of Desmond to make money, only rebelling against her when it becomes inconvenient for him and she becomes too controlling. There is also a great contrast between Desmond and a friend of Gillis’ Betty Schaefer, as Schafer was rejected by Hollywood as an actress, but she used her talents in writing for good instead of retreating inwards like Desmond, with the character also bringing in Desmond’s jealousy and her fear of abandonment. We also get a great insight into the people who become too attached to Desmond through Max, her servant who we find out was a prominent director and Desmond’s first husband, who has chosen to become a servant because he was devoted to Desmond, with him wilfully enacting the lie that Desmond is still a beloved star by writing her fan mail. The main strengths of the film come through it’s depiction of Hollywood, with this creating a very tense, engaging and darkly comic atmosphere for the film.

The performances are excellent throughout the film. The obvious standout is Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. There’s this great sense of believability to her performance, brilliantly bringing across her egotistical, arrogant, controlling nature. She shows Desmond’s delusions of grandeur effectively and there is some semblance of experience in her performance regarding being unable to make the transition from silent to sound cinema. Swanson is also great at showing the deteriorating mental state of Desmond throughout the film, making the decline of the character really believable, with her delusion at the end being an incredibly powerful piece of acting. William Holden meanwhile is great as Gillis. His deadpan narration throughout the film is excellent, the inspiration of this being seen throughout film history. He also does a good job showing the increased frustration Gillis feels as he is trapped by Desmond, guilt tripped by her into staying, along with how his potential escape with Schaefer is giving him hope, which makes scenes at the end all the more tragic. Erich von Stronheim as Max meanwhile brilliantly shows the devotion he has to Desmond and how it has consumed his life. The protective nature of the character is presented brilliantly, along with some mistrust towards the motives of Gillis. Nancy Olson also gives an excellent performance as Schaefer. The intelligence the character has, her writing skill and her understanding of what the audience wants, is brilliantly presented, along with the conflict she feels over her relationship with Gillis. This is aided by strong chemistry shared between Olson and Holden, which makes the relationship more believable. The cameos in the film meanwhile add to the atmosphere of the film, making the Hollywood satire all the more powerful, particularly the cameos from Cecil B DeMille, Buster Keaton, Anna Nilsson and H.B Warner.

The technical aspects of the film are brilliantly presented as well. The design of Desmond’s house is one of the best pieces of production design put to film, the grand yet decaying nature of it being a great insight into the mind of Desmond. This is also seen through the excellent costume design, particularly with Holden, the changing nature of his costumes throughout the film reflecting the increasing control that Desmond is having over him. The cinematography and direction is excellent, brilliantly capturing the feel of classic Hollywood, whilst the music does a great job building the atmosphere of the film.

Overall, Sunset Boulevard has more than earned it’s incredibly strong reputation. The script and the performances, particularly from Gloria Swanson are excellent, the themes regarding the nature of stardom are brilliantly handled, the inspiration this film has had can clearly be seen, with good reason, it’s one of the great classic noirs and I’m pleased to have finally been able to see it.

My Rating: 5/5

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4 thoughts on “2016 Blind Spot: Sunset Boulevard

  1. Great to see you enjoyed the film – I had this on my shelf waiting for years after I bought it – such a great noir. Swanson is truly the star of the show and you’re right has some excellent lines.

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  2. This definitely deserves its reputation. Sadly its core story, the disillusionment once fame has passed by and some people’s inability to handle that remains timely today. Although Wilder’s initial choices for Norma & Joe Gillis-Mae West and Montgomery Clift-didn’t work out I can’t imagine anyone topping Holden’s or particularly Gloria Swanson’s performances.

    Swanson was such ideal casting having been a huge silent star whose cinema star dimmed with sound but having read her autobiography that’s where the similarities ended. She founded a cosmetics company amongst other successful endeavors after exiting film and I think being experienced but clear eyed she could approach Norma and find things in her that someone who actually was so self enchanted could not. I’m sure she also referenced colleagues such as Mary Miles Minter and Mae Murray who unfortunately ended up as very Desmond-ish women.

    A fascinating, funny, sad and compelling film.

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  3. Glad you liked this one. Lots of things work great in it, just as you say, but Swanson sends it over the moon. She gives one of the most iconic performances of all time. Great review.

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