#3 — Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
At the time Sunset Boulevard was released, Gloria Swanson hadn’t appeared in a film for nearly ten years. Between 1933 and 1950, she had roles in only two releases. In that respect, she was absolutely ideal to play Norma Desmond, the faded doyenne of cinema, still living in the palatial mansion she earned back in the days when she was part of the first wave of the American royalty hatched and nurtured in Hollywood. Forgotten by the world that once adored her, Norma is a victim of the sort of madness that can only come from unchallenged entitlement. She screens her old movies, snarls hungrily about an imminent comeback, and expounds on the relative size of pictures and the descending quality of faces included in them. She is hobbled by monstrous insecurity disguised as vicious certainty. Of all the many creations of Billy Wilder that are defined by a savagely comic cynicism, few are as potently realized as Norma, in part because of the words of the director with his credited co-writers, Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman, Jr., and in part because of the fearless bravado Swanson brings to the role.
Norma Desmond is the lunatic core of Sunset Boulevard, but it was far more than a simple character piece. Deep into his cinematic career, this is Wilder brilliantly, boldly sinking his teeth into the hand providing his supper. With the bleakest of humor, announced right away with the little detail that the film is being narrated by a man floating dead in a swimming pool, Wilder offers an indictment of its profession, not just the callousness with which it throws away former stars, but for all its curdled opportunism. The dark neediness of the film business is embodied by Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling screenwriter who gloms onto Norma as a means of escaping his professional and financial destitution. He quickly ascertains the depths of Norma’s delusions, but finds it convenient to perpetuate her constructed myths, though not out of the same warped kindness that inspires similar enabling by Max (Erich von Stroheim ), her current butler and former director. Instead, Joe sees Norma as his lifeline, a buffer against a treacherous company town he hasn’t been able to successfully navigate on his own. To a degree, he pities Norma. To a greater degree, he exploits her.
Shot in the murky black-and-white of film noir, Sunset Boulevard captures a place and time with probing authority and blistering wit. It has a psychological astuteness and a prevailing morbidity (Norma’s home could house the Addams Family in ghoulish comfort) that set it apart from much of what surrounded it in the era. Wilder presents it all with enviable balance of divergent styles, one of his nearly unmatched skills as a filmmaker. No one else had quite the same adeptness with jokes so drenched in darkness. And yet the film is remarkably unassuming. Wilder had a sharp eye and thrilling creativity in shaping his images, but he somehow kept his brilliance from getting too showy, even with the post-mortem storytelling and an inspired closing moment that finds Norma effectively breaking the fourth wall in a manner that makes complete contextual sense. These narrative revolutions feel understated and almost simple. They are practically self-evident. Any other presentation is unimaginable. In Wilder’s hands, the pictures were more often than not exactly the right size.