Sunset Boulevard (Cert PG)
1 Disc (Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment) Running time: 110 minutes approx.
A regular fixture of “Greatest Movies Of All Time” lists and one of those titles that every cineaste owes it to themselves to see otherwise they are forced to hand in their film buff cards. Ol’ MIB finally saves his card from revocation thanks to this very generous and superb Blu-ray reissue of the much revered Sunset Boulevard.
The story revolves around a struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) whose is on the verge of giving up on his career when a blown tyre forces him into the courtyard of what he assumes is an abandoned old mansion. Instead it is the home of long forgotten silent movie actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her loyal and rather surly butler Max (Erich von Stroheim).
Learning of Joe’s trade, Norma employs him to help fix a script she has written for her big return to movies, dragging him into her fantasy world of isolation and delusion.
Legendary director Billy Wilder had a hard time getting this film off the ground largely on the casting part since finding an actress from yesteryear willing to portray themselves as a deluded has been. Original choices included Mary Pickford, who baulked at the idea of her aged character fraternising with someone half her age, Pola Negri who was insulted to be considered a has been and Norma Shearer who refused to come out of retirement and also objected to the script.
Mae West was also considered – not much to say about that but it was a fateful afternoon tea where Gloria Swanson’s name came up that Wilder hit the jackpot. William Holden was also an actor experiencing a dry spell whose career was given a boost from this film.
As it turns out Swanson’s casting was fortuitous in a number of ways and not just because her career mirrored Desmond’s. Norma would boast about her classic films directing Cecil B. Demille – Swanson made her name in films directed by DeMille in the silent days. Legendary director Eric Von Stroheim as Max the loyal butler has a close secret regarding his relationship to Norma – Von Stroheim’s last film as a director was 1928’s ill fated Queen Kelly starring Swanson, which is the film Norma shows to Joe one night.
Along with DeMile’s cameo as himself and that of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, there are three other faces from the silent days – H.B Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson and Buster Keaton – given another few seconds in the spotlight as a treat to classic film buffs. These wonderful connections add an authenticity to the film’s premise while making for some great folklore to its already storied history.
Then there is the story too, which s not just a juxtaposition of “new” and “old” Hollywood but it is also a murder story and a love story. While he is trying to placate and accommodate the self obsessed Norma Desmond, Joe strikes up a working relationship with a young script reader for the studio, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) who initially slams Joe’s work until she finds an old script of his with a nugget of potential and they begin to work on turning it into something workable.
Meanwhile Joe is trying to make Norma’s script Salome into something palatable for the studios, while Norma refuses to accept his modern ideas. Something has to give and Norma’s demanding behaviour makes it an easy choice for Joe albeit one with tragic consequences.
Contrary to what you may think Desmond is quite a sympathetic character despite her arrogance, self obsession and delusion, crippled as she is by these very qualities. I’ve never been much of a fan of Gloria Swanson but I will credit her in such a peerless performance as this very complex and multi-layered character who is on the edge of a break down but doesn’t realise through her own delusions and those perpetuated by Max.
One minute you are hoping she gets help for her issues, others you hope her film gets green lit then later you want her to serious medical assistance. Billy Wilder also allows for some of his trademark humour to filter through to Nora. In one scene when Norma visits DeMille on set at Paramount studios thinking DeMille a boom mic brushes against her hat and she swats it away with disdain like a fly – the mic being the enemy of the silent film star!
Unsurprisingly, Sunset Boulevard wasn’t considered masterpiece upon its original release in 1950. While it delighted audiences with its unique and scandal filled insight into Hollywood, those within the industry were less pleased at what they felt was a damning bitter slap in the face and huge betrayal towards the industry that made Wilder.
None were more so incensed that legendary hot head Louis B. Mayer of MGM, who was infamous for the tight rein he had over his stars and his company, and a rather colourful exchange of words took place after the premiere.
But that was then as this now. Having finally seen this film, and via a glorious HD transfer on Blu-ray, I am humbled to admit I waited too long to see this film and I now get why it is such a lauded classic. Is Sunset Boulevard one the greatest films of all time? I can now say, I certainly won’t challenge that opinion.
English Mono Dolby True HD
French Mono Dolby Digital
Spanish Mono Dolby Digital
Portuguese Mono Dolby Digital
English, English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, French Subtitles
Commentary by Ed Sikov
Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning
Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back
The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard
Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic
Two Sides of Ms. Swanson
Stories of Sunset Boulevard
Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden
Recording Sunset Boulevard
The City of Sunset Boulevard
Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard
Morgue Prologue Script Pages
Deleted Scene: The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues
Hollywood Location Map
Behind the Gates: The Lot
Edith Head: The Paramount Years
Paramount in the 50s
Galleries: Production, The Movie, Publicity
Rating – *****
Man In Black