Boulevard of Token Dreams
The movie opens in (where else) Sunset Blvd where motorcycle officers and siren-blaring police cars are rushing to a mansion where they’ll find a corpse afloat in a swimming pool.
“Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California.” A noirish narrator wryly informs. “A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block. You’ll read about it in the late editions, I’m sure. You’ll get it over your radio and see it on television… but before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth.”
The movie rewinds back six months earlier. The narrator reveals himself to be Joe Gillis (William Holden), a behind-payments screenwriter, who’s dodging people he owes money to. One day, he tries to evade men who try to repossess his car. This results in a chase where he suffers a tire blowout. Luckily, Joe safely pulls into a driveway in one of Sunset Blvd’s mansions, where he’s mistaken as an undertaker to bury a pet. An expressionless and bald-headed butler (Erich von Stroheim) lets him in and Joe is amazed to confront the glamorous but creepy presence of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the “used to be big” movie star of the silent film era.
Joe learns Desmond is planning a comeback and has been writing a movie to star in. When he discloses his profession, she hires him for a screenplay fixin’. She’s prepared to pay a hefty fee and even give him a temporary residence in her estate. It sounds like a turnaround for the unlucky writer, and thus, begins one of the oddest affairs I’ve seen in movies.
“Sunset Blvd.” is a freaky venue to venture. But it is its strangeness and peculiar atmosphere that pulls you into the movie. It’s almost shaped as a horror picture. The setting is an old mansion where its two inhabitants are living ghosts of the past. The narrator isn’t scared of them, but rather the danger lies in the slow seduction of living with a legend. That secluded dwelling of fantasy can be addicting. And with the ground of reality barely touched, the flight to disillusionment is madness waiting to explode.
It’s just astounding how “Sunset Blvd.” gets so many things right. There’s no doubt – it’s a first rate film noir. From the first scene of the “floater” to the finale’s blurry close-up, the movie is memorably shot. Its black and white look hauntingly evokes the Hollywood past and the use of shadows hints at the shady and dark turns of the story. Unlike audacious screenplays these days, the movie’s screenplay is hardly complex in structure. But few movies can ever match the thematic layers it invokes. The Joe-Norma relationship alone is so weird on many levels. Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond is superbly eerie in one of the best performances ever captured on screen. She’s overdramatic, in a rare spine-tingling fashion. For some reason, I likened her role as a one-woman “Beauty and the Beast.” She’s the key in convincing us why Gillis has a hard time abandoning her. William Holden as Gillis is wonderful too. He plays the writer as a man who’s physically wholesome, but slowly rotting in the head. It’s amazing how his cynicism seems so cool at first, but results into something destructive at the end.
“Sunset Blvd.” seems to be aware it is destined to be a classic. It doesn’t look too worried to be old and imprisoned in the past. It will stare right back at you, with an icy glare, reminding you and I, people of the present, will also turn old and belong in the past. The question is – will you be remembered? Will you ever be more than the present? In a word, are you classic?
William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olsen, and Jack Webb
Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr.