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Retro Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Raquel Bartra reviews the classic 1950 film noir that plays on the ridiculousness that is the Hollywood system

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Image Credit: Paramount Home Entertainment


Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim
Length: 1h 50min

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard tells the story of a forgotten silent star living in an ostentatious mansion. It is a story filled with nostalgia, love, and one which touches upon mental health - mainly depression - in a tactful manner.

The film begins with Gilles (William Holden) floating dead in a pool. A voice-over guides us through the story of what happened and why it happened. As it turns out, Gilles is a wannabe Hollywood screenwriter with only a couple of B-movie credits to his name. We see him struggle as he can’t afford to pay for his car’s loan, visiting friends in an unsuccessful attempt to source the money he needs. With two debt-collectors following his every step, Gilles escapes with the car but a tyre bursts, forcing him into a run-down mansion in Sunset Boulevard. He is then called into the mansion - which he thought was empty - only to meet the great but forgotten Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Through a series of suspicious events, she coerces him into staying to write for her, therefore making him some sort of prisoner.

Sunset Boulevard’s strongest asset is its perfectly crafted screenplay. Even though its genre is film noir, it manages to be not only entertaining but also hilarious at points, playing on the ridiculousness that is the Hollywood system. It is a film about silent films, yet very dialogue-heavy. The excellent script is brought to life by excellent performances by Holden and Swanson, the latter particularly outstanding. Considered Swanson’s most iconic role, Norma Desmond’s character is memorable, extravagant, and different. In an industry often criticised for its use of female characters, she sets the tone on how they should be portrayed. Swanson plays the retired silent movie star flawlessly, using physical comedy in the way in which Norma gestures and uses her eyes as though she were a silent star in real life - something she is convinced she is.

Thematically, the film is remarkable and well layered. As a whole, it talks about the illusion of cinema and where we draw the line between reality and fiction. Norma Desmond lives in the past, in the grander days of cinema. When asked why she stopped appearing on the big screen she says “I am big, it is the films that got small!”. Deep into nostalgia, her house is full of pictures of her younger self and all she watches in her home cinema are her films. Norma is desperate to come back, henceforth she “hires” Gilles to rewrite a script she’s written. In the process, she falls in love with him and he cares for her. Their relationship is mutually beneficial until it is not. Norma’s mental state is not good either, her servant Max has been forging fan letters and feeding her lies to make it seem as if no one has forgotten her, which doesn’t help her delusion. Gilles is the only one against keeping her delusional, which is a big statement on controlling other people’s life from a health perspective.

In the more technical aspects, Sunset Boulevard has excellent pacing, a characteristic black-and-white film noir aesthetic and an amazing soundtrack composed by Franz Waxman. A standout element of the look-and-feel of the film is the design, both for costume and set. There is a clear divide between Gilles's apartment and the way in which he dresses - which changes throughout the film as Norma convinces him to wear fancier suits - and Desmond’s luxurious house and clothes. The way in which she dresses reflects the grandness of the roaring 20s and 30s, when she was famous.

Overall, Sunset Boulevard is a timeless masterpiece which can be enjoyed today, almost 70 years since its release. Contemporary cinema can learn a lot of lessons from it, specially on how they managed complex themes and characters. This film is definitely worth watching more than once.

Editor's note: This film was screened at City Screen York as part of their Vintage Sundays strand.

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