Sunset Boulevard (1950)

by George Watches Things


The very first shot of Sunset Boulevard is of a curb, and the street name on it, which happens to be the name of the movie. I thought back to that first shot at the end. Sunset Boulevard has an entire boulevard’s worth of houses on it. And there are a lot of boulevards in Hollywood. I wondered how many more stories like this there were to be told.

The film opens with a murder. The man killed was Joe Gillis (William Holden), who appears to be the main character of the film at the beginning, but don’t be fooled. This movie is all about Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a disillusioned former silent film star Gillis meets coincidentally, while running from some repossessors. Joe is a heavily in-debt screenwriter who has hit hard times; while Norma is a rich, but lonely woman whose best years are clearly behind her. These people are not currently successful, but they make a good fit because each of them has something the other one needs. (Actually, Joe has more to offer than Norma, but that’s exactly why certain things occur.) Joe is youthful, can fix Norma’s screenplay, and provides company; while Norma has the financial assets Joe needs. After awhile, they begin to care for each other, but Norma finds herself in love with Joe, which Joe sees her more as an aunt.

Sunset Boulevard has a few things in common with Psycho, the famous Hitchcock thriller. You have Joe and Norma, friends in this film, and then you have Norman and his mother, enemies of sorts, in Psycho. But Norma and Norman’s mother do similar things. (Please excuse me if I’m confusing you… it’s not my fault the characters in the two movies I chose to compare have almost the same name.) Their actions, not giving away too much, are set off by similar characters.

I enjoyed both films a lot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen delusion played better than Swanson plays it here. Norma’s ex-husband and current butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), is also played well. These three characters all care for each other, and that’s what causes the physical death of one character, and the mental death of another. I’m ready for my close up.

Note: Look out for a hilarious Buster Keaton.

(If you see and enjoy Sunset Boulevard, you might also enjoy A Face in the Crowd and The Truman Show, two of my favorite all-time movies.)