4 Reasons Why “Sunset Boulevard” is a Masterpiece of American Cinema

There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up.

– Norma Desmond

Hollywood had never been so faithfully depicted before as in Billy Wilder’s production of Sunset Blvd. Remembered today, as a noir icon – right alongside Wilder’s other major title Double Indemnity – Sunset Blvd. with all its cynicism and pessimistic view of the world managed to capture what was the true essence of classic Hollywood.

Since its established as the film capital of America, right around 1910s, Hollywood became a dream in almost every girl’s head, its actors and actresses, the glamour associated with their image conquered almost all of America and therefore, thousands of men and women sometimes coming from the opposite side of the country embarked on a journey to establish themselves within this charming universe.

And as with everything in life, some succeeded and some didn’t. The first, became first rate stars, writers, film directors, moguls, business men that lived comfortable lives. But what about the last ones? Those that didn’t make it? They were never the focus of attention until… Sunset Blvd.

Because in Sunset Blvd. we see the world through the eyes of Joe Gillis, a scriptwriter who has yet to succeed in Hollywood. Despite this, Sunset Blvd. also focus another group of people, pioneers; those who succeeded in establishing great careers during Hollywood’s silent period but failed as the transition to sound was made, therefore, being confined to oblivion.

During his career, Billy Wilder tended develop stories around people that were considered outcasts, people that were forgotten by society or that just simply didn’t fit in. For instance, Don Birnam in Lost Weekend, Sargent Sefton in Stalag 17 or Chuck Tatum in Ace in a Hole.

But in Sunset Blvd., the director guides us through a depressive and delusional vision of the world as seen through the eyes of a group of outcasts, a failed scriptwriter, a forgotten movie icon, her now butler former film director, as well as, her now bridge companions former movie stars.

With that being said, Sunset Blvd., follows in flashback, is a tale of humiliation, exploitation, and dashed dreams, as a feckless, bankrupt screenwriter (William Holden) pulls into a crumbling mansion in search of refuge from his creditors, and becomes inextricably entangled in the possessive web woven by a faded star of the silents (Gloria Swanson), who is high on hopes of a comeback and heading for outright insanity.


1. Film’s Structure: Realism and Tone

Sunset Boulevard

Billy Wilder’s films have the capacity of depicting the world as it is: a combination of sweet and sour flavours. Looking at his career, one might find love stories, tales of melancholy, pain and joy all told the same perspective. A viewpoint, dominated by irony and cynicism applied in stories where the characters are caught under special circumstances, and usually, these circumstances translate taboo problems in American society of the time.

The Lost Weekend (1945), for instance, reflects on alcoholism and Irma La Douce (1963) on prostitution, however, Wilder’s pieces manage all – despite the major theme – to touch a very important point, that concerning moral corruption. To this extent, Sunset Blvd. is not different and might be definitely considered one of the highest points in Billy Wilder’s career.

In the film, the tone defined and used by the director is of course the same as described before, has having hypocrisy, cynicism and irony as its main characteristics. And the importance of describing the film’s tone is that of highlighting how much it helped to depict realistically the world in which the plot unfolds. Which is, logically, a portrait of the real world. The real Hollywood.

As noted by Roger Ebert:

“He (Billy Wilder) used real names (Darryl Zanuck, Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd). He showed real people (Norma’s bridge partners, cruelly called “the waxworks” by Gillis, are the silent stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner). He drew from life (when Norma visits Cecil B. De Mille at Paramount, the director is making a real film, “Samson and Delilah,” and calls Norma “little fellow,” which is what he always called Swanson). When Max, the butler, tells Joe, “There were three young directors who showed promise in those days, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Max von Mayerling,” if you substituted von Stroheim for von Mayerling, it would be a fair reflection of von Stroheim’s stature in the 1920s.”

And in the use of all these elements Billy Wilder achieved notoriety, as well as, a pioneering role perhaps only matched to such an extent by King Vidor in 1928’s production of Show People. However, Vidor’s film wasn’t provided with the great storytelling of Sunset Blvd. who starts from the end, with a man lying dead inside a pool, to move to the telling of that man’s story and how he got himself such a miserable end through flashback narrated in the first person of Joe Gillis.


2. Themes and Timelessness

Sunset Blvd. is the epitome of all Billy Wilder’s themes. From pain – physical and psychological – to loneliness, self-imprisonment, oblivion, ignorance, dream, loss, mania, doomed love, estrangement, decadence, paranoia, corruption and so on, the film is able to use every character – despite its importance on the plot – intelligently and as a symbol of the many problems of the modern world’s society.

A society post-Great Depression, post-dust bowl, and more importantly, post-war, an event that brought upon the world a nostalgia and a longing for the past where despite difficulties individualism didn’t and estrangement didn’t have such an important role as they now had. And, thus, is explained much of the film’s importance, because due to the connection of all these elements, it achieves timelessness. For much of these elements are still part of contemporary society.

Moreover, the director was able to pass all these ideas through words – dialogue and narration – as well as, through the visual style he choose for the film. With that being said, below are presented examples of this magnificent use of dialogue and narration (which is a common characteristic of Wilder’s films) and as for the visual style, it as a topic dedicated to it.

Joe Gillis: 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.
Joe Gillis: Wait a minute, haven’t I seen you before? I know your face.
Norma Desmond: Get out! Or, shall I call my servant?
Joe Gillis: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.
Norma Desmond: No one ever leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star.
Betty Schaefer: Where have you been keeping yourself? I’ve got the most wonderful news for you!
Joe Gillis: I haven’t been keeping myself at all, lately.
Betty Schaefer: Don’t you sometimes hate yourself?
Joe Gillis: Constantly.
Joe Gillis: So, they were turning after all, those cameras. Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.


3. Noir visual style and themes

In Sunset Blvd. Billy Wilder also makes an interesting use of the non-visual aspects and dichotomies of the noir genre. With that being said, the film besides its clear mature tone puts a focus on the hidden horrors of society, placing a particular interest in the way it uses and discards of people.

It also focuses on the illusory side of human behaviour, on moral corruption such as lust, greed, lack of empathy and physical corruption such as adultery. All this respective the noir maxims of set (suburban dark places), people (anti-hero and outsiders), time (new society that emerged after tragic events like those mentioned before, the Great Depression and the war) and tone (cynicism, pessimist, nostalgia).

On the dichotomies that are characteristic of the genre, Sunset Blvd. presents the viewer with the importance of the following contradictions: illusion/truth, present/past, freedom/imprisonment, expression/silence and love/obsession.


4. Performances

Sunset Boulevard

It is unthinkable to write about Sunset Blvd. and not mention the question of performance. There are films, specifically, character-driven films in which the actor’s performance is diminished by the director’s style because it is part of his/hers style to place a great importance on the film’s aesthetic and this might result in limiting the actor’s space and, therefore, the size and weight his/her performance has in the film.

And particularly when talking about Hollywood’s classic period, there is a factor that affects the performance, and that was the sense of product. Studios, whether large or small scaled, tended during this period to look at a production as an object like an engine in a Ford fabric. So, naturally, the amount of time and resources dedicated to films had to be heavily controlled and even when talking about ‘A’ pictures – where all the best personnel worked – this was also a big issue.

And it was for this reason – because of the limits imposed by the studios – that many stars, who could afford, decided to launch themselves as free agents or created production companies of their own, the case of United Artists, formed in 1919, by D. W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford and her then-husband Douglas Fairbanks.

Given this context, the importance of Sunset Blvd. only increases, because it allowed actors to give great performances either in the main roles or simply as supporters. Being this also permitted by Billy Wilder’s unique sense of performance and how to work with the actors in order for them to embrace their characters and giving them the necessary screen time and space for them to work.

So, in conclusion, Gloria Swanson is larger than life giving a great performance: with her grasping talons, her theatrical mannerisms, her grandiose delusions. While William Holden tactfully inhabits the tricky role of the writer half her age, who allows himself to be kept by her. But the performance that holds the film together, that gives it emotional resonance and makes it real in spite of its gothic flamboyance, is by Erich von Stroheim, as Norma’s faithful butler Max.