Episode 077 - "Sunset Boulevard" (1950)


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Today’s movie is “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), the genre-defying classic directed by Billy Wilder and written in collaboration with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr. The film follows the life of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling screenwriter who stumbles into a live-in writing gig with famous silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) to edit her epic “Salome”. Meanwhile, Joe is trying to write a screenplay on the side with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olsen), and having conflicting feelings.

The story truly defies genre, at times feeling like a noir thriller, other times a romantic comedy, and still other times a psychological horror film. Gloria Swanson’s performance as Norma Desmond is intentionally melodramatic, at first endearing and then later, deadly. Holden and Olsen have great chemistry on screen, a welcome light to some dark material. And roles by Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton don’t hurt as well.

The film doesn’t have a lot of great things to say about Hollywood. Norma is the quintessential delusional celebrity, so encased in a bubble with so much wealth that they have lost touch with the business. Joe and Betty show the harsh process for writing and reviewing screenplays, even while showing the joy of collaboration. The business changes every character for the worse by the end of the film. Especially Joe.

This was the first time I had seen “Sunset Boulevard”, and I found it to be just above average, despite the generally high praise it has received from the critics over the years. I really liked the script and the cast, and the clever use of the Paramount lot. But I always cringe when any film utilizes posthumous narration, unless coming back from the dead is a viable possibility. And the film ends up mostly just being one tragedy after another, clashing with the more humorous elements. I may also be suffering from knowing too much going in, because it was also predictable in some respects.

“Sunset Boulevard” (1950) is an excellent film, and I’m willing to admit my lack of enthusiasm for it is a matter of personal taste. I’m actually surprised it got past the Motion Picture Production Code in 1950, given the content. Anyone who is a fan of classic films, and noir films in particular, will enjoy this film immensely.

And now, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.

Rotten Tomatoes: 98% (CERTIFIED)

Metacritic: NR

One Movie Punch: 7.8/10

“Sunset Boulevard” (1950) is not rated and is currently streaming on Netflix.

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