If Sunset Blvd was directed by anybody else, the opening shot would have panned up to the iconic street sign that bears the movie’s title. But Billy Wilder, that clown prince of cynicism, pans down, to reveal the street name painted on the curb, near the gutter, where the story belongs. Sunset Blvd is a Hollywood nightmare, one of the most disturbing stories of madness, ego and fame ever put on film. It tells the sleazy tale of movie failures and has-beens, using each other to pathetically deceive themselves for one more day. In a career full of pessimism and ruthless despair, Sunset Blvd might be Wilder’s most complete in its hopelessness as he turns his cynical eye to his own medium. To watch Sunset Blvd makes you question the value of movies entirely, if the art form could produce these miserable lives, what good is it?
The story is narrated in the noir style by the unemployed writer Joe Gillis (William Holden), who’s three months behind on the rent, in danger of losing his car and dead already. He narrates the story after he’s been shot and found floating in a pool. Part of the genius of Sunset Blvd is that it isn’t being coy with where it’s going. We know that Gillis is dead from the beginning, we see the pool which will serve as his grave in the first quarter of the film and we have the suspects narrowed down to two and really just one before the second reel. I’ve seen movies that give us dead narrators before (American Beauty springs most immediately to mind), but many of them are concerned with keeping some of its secrets locked up, Sunset Blvd is too bold for that, it wants to tell us everything first and then still shock us. Gillis tells his own story, about how he was in need of money but couldn’t sell a script, “Things were tough at the moment…I seemed to have lost my touch. Maybe they weren’t original enough. Maybe they were too original. All I know is that they didn’t sell.” On the run from creditors he pulls into a long driveway on Sunset Boulevard to find that he’s expected in the mansion at the end of it. The bizarre butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) takes him to the lady of the house, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging actress who Max refers to only as Madame. As he turns to leave, Max says “If you need help with the coffin call me.” “I put him on the message table in front of the fire,” Norma tells the confused Gillis. “He always liked fire and poking at them with a stick.” In Norma’s room is the body of a dead chimpanzee and Gillis has been mistaken as the man hired to bury it. And thus we are introduced to one of the great monsters of the movies, Norma Desmond, and her baroque macabre lair in the Hollywood Hills. Gillis’ voiceover even invokes Miss Havisham from “Great Expectations” when describing the place but Dickens would never have been so sick as to show Havisham and Estella burying a monkey in the back yard as Max and Norma can be seen doing in Sunset Blvd. The art direction of the house means as much to the total effect as the stellar performances. There’s something organic about it, it reminds me of the cavernous interiors of Ridley Scott’s Alien, alive and dead all at once. Look at the grotesque ostentatious décor, the decaying skeletons of elegance with the wind bewailing through the organ pipes. Notice the shrines to Norma’s former career. Now she is a ghost, haunting the house of the star she once was who died long ago with her sanity.
Norma enlists Gillis to help her finish a screenplay for a movie of Salome that will mark her comeback. “I hate that word,” she barks. “It is a return.” She intends to have DeMille direct it. Gillis reads enough of the script to know that there’s never going to be a chance of that but he agrees to stay on because he knows he needs the money. And then he slowly gets sucked into the glory of film fame, how seductive it can be, even in its most pathetic and freakish form. Gillis pretends that he’s above Norma’s station, that he’s using her completely but he’s firmly on the road to ending up like Max, the slavish butler, who was once a great director and Norma’s husband, now reduced to standing in her reflective glow, as dim as it is. “I get letters every day!” protests Norma, but they are all written by Max, who once loved this creature too much to allow her to sink into irrelevance, even if it means helping her on the journey to madness. Von Stroheim is heartbreaking as this pitiful man, totally devoted to a gruesome monstrosity, a zombiefied wax figure. His rigid tuxedo and white gloves remind us of his character in Grand Illusion, another powerless figure in the face of an unstoppable force, in Renoir’s film it was time, here in Wilder’s it is the vanity of a once great beauty. Even the character’s story and full name, Max von Mayerling reminds us that von Stroheim, once a great director of silent films, had been tossed aside on the amnesiac Hollywood merry-go-round (it had been 4 years since von Stroheim had appeared in an American movie, mostly B pictures, and when Wilder cast him in Sunset Blvd, it had been nearly 20 years since a movie directed by von Stroheim had been made).
The gall of Wilder to even ask von Stroheim to appear in such a role with a name like von Mayerling as the reduced director and lover of a great silent star is nothing compared to what he asks of Swanson, a former silent actress herself (she appeared in dozens of silent movies, including one called Queen Kelly  directed by Erich von Stroheim, which is the movie Norma shows Gillis in Sunset Blvd). Swanson is a force of nature in a role, larger than life, embodying the silent style in stark contrast to Holden’s postwar naturalism. She is unafraid to show her age (which was only 53) or to embrace the graceless and chilling way she is presented, with her hair curled and garishly made up like a kind of medusa. It is a terribly unappealing performance that that few actors would dare go near (and in fact, it did nothing to help Swanson’s film career, who hadn’t worked on a movie in 9 years and despite being nominated for an Oscar would make only 2 more movies in the rest of her 33 years though she remained busy on television and radio). Bette Davis in All about Eve, released the same year and about similar subject manner, was much more palatable as a jealous stage star but Swanson must have made the Hollywood establishment too uncomfortable, too many reminders of actresses left behind. She is blocked in bizarre inhuman poses and dresses perfectly in Edith Head’s remarkable costumes, extravagant rags, both modern and out of style. Norma visits the Paramount lot to check in on DeMille when she believes he’s interested in her script (in reality, an aide wants to use Norma’s antique car for a period piece) and its agonizing to see her old colleagues react to her and to think of the grand dame she must have once been. Even more poignant is the number of crew members who adore her, they still have work while she, the reason the movies drew crowds sits in a disintegrating tomb, unused. When she is deluded enough to believe that her Salome picture is going to be made she goes through a “merciless series of treatments, messages, sweat cabinets, mud baths, ice compresses, electric devices.” None of these treatments make her seem more youthful, only more ghoulish, like a mummy being prepared for encasement. As horrifying as the story Sunset Blvdtells is, it sends a shutter up my spine to think of a story based just a few years before this, when it was only Norma, Max and that monkey poking at fire.
Wilder is much too biting to make this a sympathetic tale. Norma is pathetic, there’s no doubt about it, but she’s the predator, sucking the life out of Max and now Gillis, who has a chance at a real career and perhaps love with the poor innocent Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a screenwriter who wants to help Gillis get a project off the ground. And even while Norma is a spider, Max and Gillis prefer their web. It may be too late for Max but Gillis has numerous opportunities to escape from the “peculiar prison” he’s in but never takes them. The irony is that he effectively replaced the chimp he was mistakenly supposed to bury. Norma says she loves him but Gillis never betrays in his words or his face that he returns the feeling, only in his actions does he reveals his devotion to her, despite his better judgement. “When he makes love to the crazy, demanding old woman,” Pauline Kael wrote, “his face shows a mixture of pity and guilt and nausea.” The building blocks of Hollywood. And this is the quintessential Hollywood story, it’s a sequel really, to all the fame and fortune tales that make dopes likes Gillis go out to California in droves in search of the camera’s loving gaze. But when the camera gazes someplace else, the actors get older while their images never age but they have to live with the way they look in the mirror and not on the screen because they aren’t on the screen anymore. The pictures might have gotten small, as Norma posits, but Sunset Blvd is as big as it gets and its target is itself—the dream factory producing nightmares.