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Paramount Studios presents
Sunset Boulevard (1950)

"You see, this is my life. It always will be. Nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my closeup."
- Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: December 02, 2002

Stars: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim
Other Stars: Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, Jack Webb, Cecil B. De Mille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, Franklyn Farnum
Director: Billy Wilder

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:50m:12s
Release Date: November 26, 2002
UPC: 097360492743
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ A+A-B+ B+

DVD Review

Joe: You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in pictures. You used to be big.
Norma: I AM big. It's the pictures that got small.

If there's one person who wouldn't want to get maudlin, it's Billy Wilder, but his death in the spring of 2002 marked the passing of the last of the giants, perhaps of the greatest filmmaker in the history of Hollywood. Some Like It Hot is arguably the funniest American screen comedy, Double Indemnity the finest film noir, but for my money, Wilder's best picture is this one, and Sunset Boulevard also has the distinction of being the best movie ever made about movies. (Sullivan's Travels is a close second.)

"Audiences don't know that somebody writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along."—Joe Gillis (William Holden)

William Holden plays Joe Gillis, struggling screenwriter, who is, for an Angeleno, anyway, one step from death: he's about to lose his car. He can't drum up any work at Paramount or via his agent, and has to hightail it through town just to escape the repo men. When one of the tires on his Chrysler blows, he pulls into the nearest driveway—he mistakes the house for deserted, but soon learns that it's very much inhabited.

"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces."—Norma

Joe meets the lady of the house: it's Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), star of silent pictures, now all but forgotten by the film business and the town. Her enormous and gothic house is a shrine to all things Norma Desmond, and the high priest is Norma's butler, Max von Mayerling, played by a creepily effective Erich von Stroheim. Joe smells the money, and sees Norma as his meal ticket: he signs on to help her shape her screenplay for her comeback ("I hate that word," says Norma, for "it's a return!"), to be directed by her onetime collaborator, Cecil B. De Mille.

I don't want to spoil the unfolding plot for those who haven't seen it, but what makes this movie great is that it's about more than just Hollywood: it's about the nature of illusion, the lies we all tell ourselves to get through the days, and about the terrifying, unknowable business of death. It's very different in tone, of course, but this film has more than a little in common with Singin' In The Rain, another brilliant tale of the casualties of the coming of sound. But if Singin' In The Rain is about movies boldly going into the future, Sunset Boulevard is about how we dispose of the bodies from the past.

Part of the power of Sunset Boulevard comes from its time and place, and the close parallels between the characters' lives and the actors portraying them. Gloria Swanson wasn't as unhinged as Norma, but she was a great silent film star whose career was undone by the coming of sound; she hosts a bridge game of her colleagues, a group that includes Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H. B. Warner, each of whom was undone by sound in much the way Swanson was. Erich von Stroheim was, like Max, one of the promising young directors of the early days of Hollywood; when we see a clip of a Norma Desmond film directed by Max, it's in fact from Queen Kelly, which starred Swanson, and was directed by Stroheim. (Bonus fun fact: at that time, Swanson was the mistress of Joe Kennedy, who financed Queen Kelly.) And the tarnish on Gillis may have hit a little bit home for Holden, who made a big splash ten years previously in Golden Boy, but spent the 1940s in a series of forgettable roles, his early promise seemingly spent. One of the many fun things about Sunset Boulevard are the contrasting acting styles, between Swanson's melodramatic silent screen technique and Holden's cultivated 1940s Hollywood naturalism. It's a combustible combination, especially at a time when the Stanislavski method was considered to be the only game in town.

"All I ask is for you to be a little patient, and a little kind."—Norma

Parodies of Norma Desmond are so commonplace that it might be easy to dismiss the character as nothing more than a scenery chewer—Carol Burnett made her Norma impression a staple of her eponymous television show, and Glenn Close played Norma in a style bordering on Kabuki in Andrew Lloyd Webber's pointless Broadway musical version. But what shines through in Swanson's performance is Norma's humanity, and how her vanity is but an expression of her seemingly bottomless pit of insecurity. Yes, by the time she makes her final descent down the stairs, she's fully in the throes of madness and looks more than a little like Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein, but Gillis is right in his voiceover describing this: "Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond." For all the parodies, for all the jokes, Norma remains an extraordinary creature.

The influence of Sunset Boulevard remains everywhere—its view of Hollywood remains the pervasive on-screen one, and frequent mention is even made of it in movies like The Player. But it's not just Hollywood: the narration in American Beauty, for instance, is clearly an homage to Sunset Boulevard, and David Lynch rarely misses an opportunity to slip in a reference to the picture, in Twin Peaks especially. The writing and the acting are so good that other elements of the filmmaking may have gotten short shrift over the years—nowhere is Wilder's composition any better, for instance, as when Norma presides over the dismissal of Joe's last best chance at happiness: a spotlight makes her ivory skin glow, and she's framed between bars of the iron lattice on her front door, the warden of Joe's high-rent prison.

It may be apocryphal, but the story goes that after the funeral for the great Ernst Lubitsch, someone said to Wilder: "No more Lubitsch," to which Wilder responded: "Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures." And now of course we can say the same about Wilder himself. It's a damn shame that Wilder wasn't allowed to make another picture after the disappointing Buddy, Buddy, but Sunset Boulevard remains among the handful of highest achievements that Wilder or anyone else ever created. (Now can we please see Ace in the Hole on DVD, too?)

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Paramount went whole hog in restoring Sunset Boulevard for DVD, and I don't know that the movie has ever looked more beautiful—some of the detail is just extraordinary, only one instance of which is the mismatched elbow patches on Gillis's threadbare sportscoat. The blacks are rich and deep, and there's almost no grain at all, which makes it look gorgeous, but it may be so polished up that the film never looked this way in Wilder's lifetime. Has it been over-restored? That's certainly possible, but it doesn't seem tarted up or inappropriate.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes


Audio Transfer Review: The soundtrack has been revamped as well, and if it doesn't glisten the way the picture does, it still sounds mighty fine. Dialogue is clear and crisp, and the words are well balanced with Franz Waxman's haunting score. It's a mono track, of course, which has its limits, but for a picture of this period, this one sounds terrific.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 19 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Ed Sikov, biographer of Billy Wilder
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. reconstruction of the original prologue
  2. photo gallery
  3. interactive location map
Extras Review: The most tantalizing extra is unquestionably the partial reconstruction of the film's original opening. In that version, Gillis's corpse is wheeled into the L.A. County morgue, and he and the other dead bodies start comparing notes as to how they each ended up on their respective slabs. Preview audiences found this unintentionally hilarious, and a bitter and bewildered Wilder had to rewrite and reshoot the opening of the picture. What's here are versions of that original opening from two different drafts of the script, and a couple of silent shots of Gillis's body being delivered to the coroner'sit's certainly more about this famous misstep than we've ever seen before, but there's no sound, and no footage of talking corpses, either. (Also, in these early script drafts, Gillis's first name is Dan, not Joe.)

Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back (25m:52s) runs through some basics on the history of the film: Mae West and Mary Pickford turned down the role of Norma, and Montgomery Clift was the first choice for Joe. Wilder biographer Ed Sikov is interviewed, as is film critic Andrew Sarris, and Nancy Olson, the last surviving principal cast member—she plays pretty little Betty Schaefer, the last glimmer of hope in Joe's collapsing world.

Felix Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard (14m:28s) is both a fond look back at the film's composer and a useful primer on film scoring, courtesy of Waxman's son John, a historian; Elmer Bernstein, veteran film composer himself; and John Mauceri, a conductor. Another member of the production team takes center stage in Edith Head: The Paramount Years (13m:42s), which gives a nice overview of the career of the famous costume designer, responsible not just for this film, but for such memorable work in pictures like A Place in the Sun, To Catch a Thief and Roman Holiday. (The DVDs of these last two have this same documentary.) I especially like that Head lobbied hard for the establishment of an Oscar for costume design, and then was mightily disappointed when she didn't win the first. (No doubt she took some comfort down the road, as she received eight Academy Awards.)

Sikov provides a commentary track, and he's both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the movie; he's full of smart, funny points, such as Gillis's diction frequently being that not of the Dayton boy he's supposed to be, but of an Eastern European Jewish immigrant—that is, of Billy Wilder. He's also very funny at times, especially when he's speculating as to whether Artie, Joe's best friend and Betty's boyfriend, might not actually be gay. But often he's just kicking back and watching the movie with us, and at other times he's having way too much fun quoting to us from the script. He's good company for two hours, but toward the end especially, you might find yourself wishing that he had prepared a bit more.

The interactive location map offers eight very short video clips (less than a minute each) on notable Los Angeles spots, and it's a lesson on the ruthlessness of time: Schwab's Drug Store is now a multiplex, and Norma's house was razed for a gas station. The photo gallery is broken into three sections: Production, Movie Photo Gallery and Publicity, close to eighty shots in all. Also notable is the original trailer, which features additional voiceover work from Holden, completely excludes Max, and demonstrates that Paramount's marketing department might not have known just to do with this one, for they damn it with faint praise as "the most unusual picture in many years."

Extras Grade: B+

 

Final Comments

I readily cop to being a sucker for Sunset Boulevard: I watched it on DVD and thought, "This is the greatest movie ever made," and if that's overdoing it, it's not by much. This extraordinarily fine film gets the long-overdue red-carpet treatment it so richly deserves. Welcome home, Norma, darling.

 


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