For some noir historians, Billy Wilder’s acerbic “Sunset Boulevard” marks the end of the true heyday of the classic film noir (that brief heyday, or golden age, having opened with Wilder’s own “Double Indemnity;” during the years of 1944-1950, more classic noirs were produced than at any other time during the series). This film stands at the crossroads of another important cinematic shift as well. In many ways, “Sunset Boulevard” represents the sunset of Classical Hollywood Cinema in general. It’s a swan song for the powerful and prolific studio system, and one of the bridges leading into Hollywood’s post-classical period.
“Sunset Boulevard” is one of the more cynical Hollywood satires ever made. This fact isn’t strange at all, as Billy Wilder was one of the more perceptively cynical writer/directors Hollywood has ever known. With film noir being such a uniquely cynical form, the match was heavenly. “Sunset Boulevard” is much more than a sterling example of classic film noir, however. It transcends the limits of style and becomes a masterpiece of the art form through its piercing worldview, expressive social critique, and vivid characterizations.
The legendary composer Franz Waxman wrote the beautiful score for the film (he also wrote the scores for “Dark Passage” 1947, “The Unsuspected” 1947, and “Night and the City” 1950; all outstanding classic noirs). That score is borderline postmodern, as Waxman weaves a complex pastiche out of previous Hollywood musical styles and genres. In one remarkable scene, femme fatale and fading screen icon Norma Desmond (played to delirious effect by Gloria Swanson) impersonates Charlie Chaplin for the enjoyment of her boy toy, ‘B’ movie writer Joseph C. Gillis (played by William Holden). When Norma appears in suit, bowler, short mustache, and with a cane, mimicking the mannerisms of the silver screen’s greatest comedian, the music that accompanies her is picture perfect, evoking the silent and golden age of Hollywood cinema through its jaunty piano riffs. The effect, combined with Norma’s deftness as an impersonator and performer, is flat-out seamless. It’s one of the freest and most striking moments in the entire film.
The film has many other unique, and sometimes bizarre, noirish moments as well. The voice-over narration in this film is delivered by a dead man, making the non-linear flashback structure of the film all the more fatalistic. One of the more dynamic shots in the film features a corpse floating face down in a pool, with press and police photographers, their bulbs flashing, busily snapping away in the background. The shot is taken from the impossible point-of-view of the bottom of the pool, looking upwards at the corpse. The eerie nature of this shot, with pulsating lights and wavy images of nondescript forms swirling into an expressionistic configuration, aesthetically imprisons us in a watery grave along with the dead body.
Note the billowing noir curtains in the first flashback scene. They hover over Gillis, predicting and conveying his unstable and disastrous fate. That fate quickly puts the finger on Gillis, causing him to have a blowout on the street right in front of Desmond’s mansion, thus initiating his descent into a noirish nightmare. The sarcastic hard-boiled dialogue that peppers so many other noirs is all-encompassing here, particularly with relation to Gillis. Rarely has a noir protagonist stood party to his own downfall in such a dispassionate and ironically self-aware manner (complete with stinging commentary) as Gillis does here.
Wilder aligns “Sunset Boulevard” with the style of gothic horror films (which were one of the many visual antecedents of classic film noir). There is a large and ghostly mansion, an uncanny butler, and Norma Desmond herself, who is associated with the iconography of classic movie monsters (like vampires). She often wears dark clothes, hides her face behind dark glasses, and in one memorable shot sits coiled up like a spring, her spidery fingers clutching her awkwardly bent leg as she smokes cigarettes with the aid of a strange contraption attached to her index finger. Desmond is a very unique femme fatale. But like others, she is often connected with, and derives potency from, light. In an early scene where she and Joe watch one of her first screen works, she suddenly leaps up in the path of illumination from the film projector screaming, “I’ll be up there again, so help me!” For a brief moment she is, as she joins her celluloid image, bathed in cinema’s silvery radiance. Later in the film, when she visits Cecil B. DeMille on the set of his latest project, a technician readjusts a key light to fall directly upon her. When it does, and Norma is once again bathed in a purifying light, she is mobbed by fans and well-wishers (almost as if they didn’t recognize her without her standard arcs). At the film’s conclusion, when Norma has taken her final descent into dementia, she learns that newsreel cameramen have arrived to document her plight. To her, they have come to document what is to be her greatest (and final) performance. She descends the stairs to meet them, but only after the artificial lights have once again shone brilliantly on her, energizing her for her final journey.
This closing scene in “Sunset Boulevard” is one of classic noir’s greatest. It’s surreal poetic justice. Again, in some perverse way, all the main characters get what they want. Norma gets to act in a scene again, the cameras rolling for her one last time. Max (played by silent era auteur Erich von Stroheim) gets to direct one last time, as he proudly calls for lights, camera, and action while stifling back tears of sorrow and joy. Joe gets his pool, but, as he sardonically remarks, with a price.
As Norma descends the stairs in her mansion into the arms of the waiting policemen below, time seems to grind to a halt. None of the photographers or reporters rimming her path along the staircase moves a muscle, as if they have become waxworks and she has been granted immortality. Earlier in the film, Gillis spoke of Norma’s two-note trump party with her old movie cronies (like Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson) as a gathering of her waxworks. That identification has been reversed by the conclusion of the film, as it suddenly becomes apparent that screen legends are in fact immortals. We, the wonderful people in the dark, are the ones who will ultimately fade into nothingness. This is the transformative power of the cinema, and the final absolution of its practitioners; like Norma Desmond, who walks directly into the light, the camera lens, and our consciousness, in the film’s last shot. She defies the boundaries of the film frame, transcending the very limits of the medium. She’s timeless, as is this film itself, and the multi-faceted dark style that spawned it.