Two weeks ago, I went to watch the 1950’s film, “Sunset Blvd.” at a local theater. Honestly, I didn’t have high hopes. From the trailer, it seemed like the usual depressing, dialogue-ridden, black and white noir film. To both my suprise and delight, it was something different.
I must make the assumption in writing this that most of you haven’t watched “Sunset Blvd.” Though it is a Hollywood “classic”, I have yet to run into someone who has seen it. The film is about the movie industry, hence the caption, “A Hollywood Story”. William Holden plays a struggling screenwriter, who has given up on producing art because of his struggle to make money. When the creditors from the bank come to take his car, he becomes desperate and becomes entangled with aging film star Norma Desmond. This leads him down a rabbit hole of sometimes strange, and often tragic story twists.
All of the acting in the film is quite superb, but Gloria Swanson’s performance as Norma Desmond overshadows everyone. She plays a film star from the silent area, who was swept to the side when “talkies”, movies with sound, became mainstream. I found the similarities between her character and Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham quite striking. My suspicions were confirmed when William Holden’s character made a reference to their similarities.
In essence, Norma Desmond is a modern Miss. Havisham. She lives in the past, she still believes herself to still be a great start, and she is very bitter. She watches her own movies over and over, and her house is covered in photos of herself.
Actress, Gloria Swanson, does a simply remarkable job of portraying this fading star, who is yearning for love and praise. Her ability to act as a silent star, in a movie that involves sound, is more than impressive. Gloria Swanson had been a silent actress herself, and Sunset Blvd. was a return to the screen for her, so in a way, her acting was reflecting a slice of reality.
But Gloria Swanson is not the only reason to watch this movie, Billy Wilder directing is also praiseworthy. His camera work is crisp and smooth. His shadowy atmospheres contribute immensely to the movie’s darker themes, of greed and pride.
Another fascinating aspect of the movie is its narration. I hate films with narrators. So often they are used as a shortcut to make up for visual deficiencies. In a film, the director is supposed to show the audience an image. He is not supposed to tell them what to think about the image. The image should speak for itself. Somehow, William Holden’s narration is quite convincing, and actually adds another layer of complexity.
Greed seems to be the central theme of the film. Each character is interested in themselves and their careers. Every action taken by a character is motivated by greed. William Holden’s character is willing to sacrifice too much for his dreams of wealth. It is also a warning against living outside of reality. Like a classic noir film, the ending is not pleasant. But the closing scene, (which I will not spoil), is one of the most fascinating and dramatic endings to a film I have ever watched. Not to mention one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history.