Paramount // 1950 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // November 27th, 2012
I sure turned into an interesting driveway.
I am writing this review on Thanksgiving Day and, while I'm not so big on the holidays, I am very thankful for great cinema presented well. That is especially true on this day in particular, as I have had the pleasure of watching and reviewing Sunset Boulevard, an all-time great picture and a personal favorite. Its place in film history is secure and has been for some time, but to finally see it on Blu-ray is nothing short of amazing and a genuine Thanksgiving treat.
Joe Gillis (William Holden, The Bridge on the River Kwai), a failing Hollywood screenwriter with debts out the ears, is escaping some thugs trying to repo his car when he turns into a seemingly deserted driveway. He just wants to hide out for a while, so parks it in the garage and starts exploring the expansive, dilapidated grounds when a woman yells at him from the inside. This woman is Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, Indiscreet), a silent film siren whose career faltered with the talkies and disappeared into her mansion with her millions, retreating from the world while obsessing over her former career. After a conversation, she convinces Gillis to edit a screenplay she has written to stage a return to the screen. The money is right, so he accepts, but soon, Norma falls in love with the young writer. Again, the money is right, so accepts that too, but he should have known that getting involved with a delusional ex-actress is a fool's game from which he cannot escape.
It's not a spoiler to say that Gillis won't escape; we know this from opening shot of the movie. Told from the perspective of the post-mortem hero, Sunset Boulevard begins with Gillis floating dead in a pool, then jumping back in time to tell how it all happened. This is the first, though not the last, noir aspect of this film, which is hardly film noir. There's an argument to be made for it, but I don't buy it. Sunset Boulevard captures aspects of all types of film, including noir, but ultimately, it's at once an ode to and a scathing critique of Hollywood as an industry. If it wasn't for Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), who was a giant of film, there's no doubt that the picture never would have been made, but thankfully, someone with these guts was behind it, because the result is one of rare beauty and power.
Wilder directs with an unobtrusive, but distinctive and beautiful style. Shots don't call attention to themselves outright, but taken on their own are meaningful and masterful. Like Citizen Kane, the other great early-era film that commented on media and personality, Wilder heavily utilizes low angle shots, revealing ceilings in a way that still was rarely used in 1950. It seems like a small thing, but the realism that it adds is undeniable, giving the sense that we are watching a real place and a real event, not something on a soundstage.
That's especially true when the film brings the audience to an actual soundstage on the Paramount lot, where we are shown an anti-set with boom mics, spotlights, and rafters, destroying the illusion of moviemaking while cementing the realism that delivers the magic of the film. It doesn't hurt that Cecil B. DeMille is playing himself directing a movie and speaking sweetly to Swanson, who directed her early in her career and long felt affection for the actress. All of this, fictional of course, comes off as a simulacrum of actual Hollywood that disturbed producers in its day and, still today, presents one of the most biting and on-point commentaries in Hollywood history.
It's kind of silly of me, though, to talk about DeMille's appearance before even mentioning Gloria Swanson's performance. Her Norma Desmond is one of the single greatest performances in film history. It's so realistic and affecting that, especially at the time, it was nearly impossible to separate the character from the actress. If a newcomer to the film today didn't follow film history, I'm certain it would be clear to that person that Swanson was playing herself under another name, which would be understandable given the masterful performance, but it couldn't be further from the truth. While it was Swanson's first film appearance in nearly a decade, she worked plenty during the ensuing years, but that's the funny thing about the film.
In 1950, there was no such thing as a silent film fan who was younger than around 40 and, even then, those fans couldn't have seen one in a couple of decades unless they were rich enough to own a projector and prints. Today, it takes little effort to see much of Gloria Swanson's impressive talent, including Queen Kelly, the 1929 movie shown in the film, which I had seen, oddly, before ever watching Sunset Boulevard. So, while when the movie was released, it could almost be looked at as a semi-biography about a crazy has-been, today it comes across as a meta-drama before post-modernism was ever a thing and as more of the actress's phenomenal body of work, an extension and a commentary upon it. She's amazing and iconic, unforgettable and beautiful, perfectly encapsulating both the glamour of old Hollywood and the sadness of the loss of that very thing. Plus, she was only fifty-odd years old, which gives me pause, personally, when I think about my own complaining of the lack of good roles for older women when we still (rightly) exalt actresses like Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren; hell, Jodie Foster turned fifty the other day and nobody's pretending she's washed up as they do Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
It isn't just her, though she genuinely dominates the picture. The male leads, William Holden and Erich von Stroheim (The Grand Illusion), play different but similar characters, one the past of Desmond and one her present. Stroheim plays her butler in the present, but with a long and complicated history with Desmond, while Holden plays a man who seems somehow destined to repeat the actions of Stroheim's character. Of course, we know better from the film's opening moments, but the similarities are striking and clearly deliberate. Holden's sardonic narration and noir-tinged banter brings a ton of comedy to a film that doesn't seem suited to it, while Stroheim brings a comic sadness to the film. His attempts to protect his charge from the reality of her situation is genuinely touching and, in contrast, Holden's disgust with himself at selling out makes one think about how Stroheim's character must have felt when he agreed to be her butler. They are similar characters and contrasting performances; both are excellent, and though they pale in comparison to Swanson's work, their brilliant work cannot be denied.
It's an amazing film that gets better every time I see it, but no time more so than here, getting to witness the film in stunning high definition. Paramount's Blu-ray release of Sunset Boulevard is fantastic, one of the best I've seen this year. The 1.33:1/1080p transfer of the film is nearly perfect. The print is almost entirely free from dirt or damage, there is no damage present on the print, and the grain is exactly where it should be. The contrast is stark and gorgeous; blacks are deep and strong, while whites are perfectly bright. There is almost nothing to complain about here; the film is better than it has ever looked. The sound doesn't have the same impact as the image, but it's strong. The 2.0 mono mix does the job, presenting the dialog and Franz Waxman's score (one of the best of his career) come through just fine, but there's nothing particularly special about it.
The extras, though most are rehashes from previous iterations, make the disc. We begin with an audio commentary from Billy Wilder expert Ed Sikov, who gives an astute and detailed talk about the finer points of the film. Like many of the supplements, this was included in a previous feature, so fans who have owned the older versions of the film will find nothing new, though it is a solid commentary. Then, we have they myriad of featurettes. Many of them should have been boiled into a single long-form piece, but I guess it pads the stats, which was the intention, but it's unfortunate because they recycle some of the interviews in whole, forcing fans to listen to the same thing over and over. In any case, these include: "Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning" (22 min.), which discusses the inception of the film; "Sunset Boulevard: A Historical Perspective" (25 min.), about the reaction" and legacy of the film; "The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard" (14 min.) features crime writer and former LAPD detective Joseph Wambaugh discussing the seedy side of the film; "Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic" (14 min.) discusses the film's enduring legacy; "Two Sides of Ms. Swanson" (10 min.) speaks directly, though not honestly, about the lead actress; "Stories of Sunset Boulevard" (11 min.) gives the film a Hollywood Perspective; "Mad about the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden" (11 min.) says essentially what it is in the title; "Recording Sunset Boulevard" (6 min.) discusses Franz Waxman's score; The City of Sunset Boulevard" (5 min) deals with the geographical issues in the film; "Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard" (14 min.) is a more detailed look at the composer, and is the most interesting featurette on the disc; "Behind the Gates: The Lot" (5 min.) speaks directly on Paramount Studios; "Edith Head: The Paramount Years" (13 min.) discusses the legendary costume designer, who worked on the fantastic Swanson costumes in the film; finally, "Paramount in the '50s" (10 min.) is a complete fluff piece glorifying Paramount Studios. Together, though there is plenty of redundancy, this absurd slate featurettes gives one everything they could possibly want to know about the film. On top of that, we get script pages of the original opening, which sounds awful, a musical deleted scene that is so on the nose that it could never have been included in the film, a map of the real locations represented in the film, a photo gallery, and a trailer. I don't see what a fan could want beyond all of this. Even if much of it is repeated from previous discs,, this is the definitive version, compiling all of it and more for an all-encompassing look at one of Hollywood's all-time great works.
I have so much more to say, but there are word counts around these parts, and rightfully so. I could talk about the mixing of genres, the insertion of old actors and personalities like Buster Keaton and Hedda Hopper, the increasing humiliation of Gillis throughout the film, and especially, I could talk much more about the beauty of the film and the interesting production, but all of that is for another time and another place. Just know that not only is Sunset Boulevard one of the absolute finest films one could ever sit down to watch, it's one of the best Blu-ray releases of the years. Impeccably restored and filled with extras (nevermind the repeats), any fan of this film, and film in general, owes it to themselves to own this disc. It's absolutely brilliant and now a treasure of my collection.
Do I even need to declare its innocence?
Review content copyright © 2012 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* TrueHD 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1950
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scene
* Script Pages
* Location Map
* Photo Gallery