Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950, USA)

Sunset Blvd
Sunset Boulevard, perhaps Billy Wilder’s best film, is widely regarded as a staple of the film noir genre. From the opening image - our dead narrator floating in a pool - to the constant hard-boiled narration throughout, the film does indeed bear some of the hallmarks of the genre. Yet the film is maybe better viewed as a piece of Gothic horror. This is perhaps most evident in the film’s setting - the remarkably decadent set of Norma Desmond’s mansion, created by Hans Dreier. Thematically, the film embodies many tropes of the gothic - notably isolation and madness, as expressed through the figure of Norma Desmond. By the film’s famous (and often-misquoted) finale, the boundaries between fantasy and reality - another Gothic trope - have completely faded.

The film is also exceptionally noteworthy for its self-reflexive nature, something that wasn’t altogether common in mainstream films of the era. Many of the actors in the film are in fact playing some version of themselves - most notably Gloria Swanson, who was indeed a silent film star who worked with Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille himself makes a cameo appearance, while other famous figures make appearance - most notably Buster Keaton as one of Norma Desmond’s friends. The film’s critical view of the Hollywood machine reportedly drew the ire of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who told Billy Wilder that he should be “run out of Hollywood.”

Sunset Boulevard is not only unique for its thematic content, but for the moment in Hollywood at which it arrived. The industry was facing a great number of problems, from the introduction of TV, to attacks on its monopolistic practices by the U.S. government. Yet despite its timeliness, Sunset Boulevard shows that the Hollywood machine of vanity and desperate stardom has not changed that much in 70 years.


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