#16 Sunset Blvd.

“The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis – out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.”
John Gilles

Strong performances, sharp dialogue, and brilliant narration drive Billy Wilder’s story of love, imprisonment, rejection, and murder.

Sunset Blvd. focuses on John Gillis (William Holden) a washed-up screenwriter who, while on the run from some very tenacious debt collectors, blows a tire and seeks refuge in a seemingly abandoned house. Once it becomes clear that his pursuers have moved on, John investigates the Sunset Boulevard mansion and quickly finds out that it is not as abandoned as he had thought.

The resident of this house is Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star who, twenty years after her film career has effectively died, has become a recluse. With only her butler, and a recently departed chimpanzee, for company, Norma is all too excited at the prospect of having a young writer for company.

Norma quickly puts John’s skills as a writer to use editing a script she has written that she is quite confident will be her return to the spotlight. John, who is not impressed with any aspect of the script at all, sees this as an opportunity to ease his financial woes. So, naturally, he agrees to ghostwrite for her.

John begins to regret this decision almost immediately though when he realizes that it is not his skills as a writer that Norma is after. Rather, Norma seeks John’s love, his youth, even his freedom. This becomes particularly problematic for John when a romance begins to bloom between himself, and Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a script reader for Paramount Pictures.

Ultimately Norma’s obsession with John leads to both John’s murder (don’t worry that’s not a spoiler), and one last moment in front of the cameras for Norma.

This film does so much right. The most obvious and impacting aspect of this film is the narration. Right form the start the powerful voice, and moving words, of William Holden draw the viewer in to the story while creating an atmosphere that accurately reflects the mood of the film.

Also adding to the mood of this film is the impeccable job that is done by the four leading actors. William Holden’s performance could most easily be compared to Humphrey Bogart’s in Casablanca. Every second that he is on the screen he demands the complete and undivided attention of the viewer.

Gloria Swanson is like nails on a chalkboard. As the aging film star, every word that comes out of her mouth causes the viewer to grind their teeth, and this is exactly what was needed of her, and her character.

Much the opposite of Swanson, relative newcomer Nancy Olson was an absolute delight as Betty, the love interest to John. It is hard to see how any one would be able to resist falling in love with this script reader with a knack for inspiring washed up writers. What she does best of all though is provide some sense of hope to this story, which is otherwise quite bleak.

Together these three actors are a force that grab the plot by the reigns, and allow director Billy Wilder to accomplish exactly what he intended to with this film. This is no easy task considering what he intended to accomplish was not a simple murder/love story.

There are many themes that Wilder explores in this film. The various shots of decaying landscapes, as well as the death of Norma’s pet chimpanzee, eerily reflect the mortality of every earthly thing. It also reflects the impact that time inevitably has on each of these mortal things. This sentiment is further illustrated in both the life, and the actions, of Norma throughout the movie.

The second major theme that Wilder explores is imprisonment. Everything in this film, from the barred front door of Norma’s mansion, to the way that characters hold each other (a pool side scene in which Norma tightly wraps a towel around John’s neck comes to mind), demonstrates captivity. Everything in this film, even words in films, holds the characters in a state of imprisonment. More specifically, these subtle images show just how much of a strangle hold the trappings of wealth hold over humanity

The journey out of captivity for these characters is not a hopeless one though. Both John and Norma are able to achieve a sense of freedom through love. This is demonstrated in John’s ability to leave the barred mansion for his late night script writing sessions with the woman he loves, Betty. More subtly this sentiment is displayed when Norma carelessly tosses her tiara to the floor so she can rest her head on John’s shoulder. Sadly the two characters’ love is ultimately not for each other.

Love being an escape from imprisonment is certainly not a new idea. It is one of the fundamental characteristics of modernist literature, and, while this film was made just slightly after that era, the influence of modernist writers is clear in this film. What is special about this film is the way that it presents this theme. It is not the actions of this film that are important. What is important is how these actions affect the characters that inhabit the film (another influence of the modernist movement).

Because of this subtle difference the film is able to use a variety of powerful visuals, dialogue, and narration that creates a work of art that is complete in nearly every aspect of the word.

It is funny how a seemingly simple story of love and murder can carry with it so much else. That is the power that love has over people. For John, Love was late night writing with Betty. For Norma, love was a bit more confusing. She thought she wanted John, but all she really wanted was one last moment in the spotlight. And the world had a funny way of granting her one final close-up.

“I am big, it’s the pictures that have become small”
Norma Desmond

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