****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A
starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich Von Stroheim, Nancy Olson
screenplay by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman, Jr.
directed by Billy Wilder
by Walter Chaw Billy Wilder's protagonists are interlopers, outsiders itching for acceptance in insular societies recognized as decadent but possessed of an irresistible allure for Wilder's central characters--a lure that most often takes the form of sex, status, and money. Always self-aware and basically noble, Wilder's comedies have his heroes confessing their sins and renouncing said corrupt society in favour of an appropriate love pairing (Fran and Baxter of The Apartment); in his tragedies, his heroes confess their sins as a last decent act undertaken too late. (Think Walter Neff of Double Indemnity.) The connection between The Apartment (arguably Wilder's best film) and Sunset Blvd. (the film with which The Apartment has its argument) begins, fascinatingly, with pivotal scenes set on New Year's Eve. In The Apartment, of course, Fran makes her decision to be with Baxter on New Year's, while Joe Gillis decides to be with Norma Desmond that same hallowed night in Sunset Blvd.--and both moments, as they occur at the crux of historical and cultural demarcations, encompass Wilder's flair for emotions at crosscurrent, and the dark of a dying era with the light of possible futures.
Of course, comparisons of Sunset Blvd. to Wilder's oeuvre are not limited to The Apartment. Opening with the classic noir device of voice-over narration (only with the speaker an officially dead man), Sunset Blvd. introduces hack screenwriter Joe (William Holden) first floating face down in a pool, then as the replacement for a dead pet monkey for aging screen legend Norma (Gloria Swanson). A tale of misplaced ambition, self-deluded dementia, and, in a way, the empty signifiers of the illusory film medium that Wilder loves, the picture is less a noir, however (at least in terms of Double Indemnity, a seminal noir) than it is the closest thing Wilder made to a horror film (in lighting, score, and character dynamic) after The Lost Weekend. Escaping a pair of repo-men bent on taking his car, Joe pulls into the rundown manse of Desmond and is in the process drawn into the horrifying and gothic world of Desmond and her butler, Max (silent-era director Eric von Stroheim).
The quintessential film about the cinema, Sunset Blvd. is one of the great dark comedies of all time. It's mordant and fascinating, the byways and back alleys of its subtext riddled with water symbolism, with images of a Tennysonian acedia, and with the curious appearance of a pair of blondes the two times we observe Joe and arrested saviour and Paramount development girl Betty (Nancy Olson) interacting in a potentially flirtatious way. Revelations about the real identity of Max ground Sunset Blvd. well in the realm of the grotesque--a carefully constructed milieu that Wilder milks first with the "living dead" of Gillis's voice-over, then in a trio of near-forgotten (so the film suggests) silent film stars playing cards and referred to as "the wax works," and finally by Norma herself, finding illumination literally and figuratively only in the glory of her former glories. The suggestion that film is in its very essence a lunar art (its vibrancy all borrowed illumination) and a collection of phantoms is not only trenchant, but also creepy and endlessly absorbing.
Analyzed to death, the real shock of Sunset Blvd. is how, fifty-two years later, it retains its ability to captivate. Swanson's legendary performance transcends camp into something genuinely pathetic and affecting; Holden (an actor whose career at the time of the picture more resembled Norma Desmond's than Swanson's), meanwhile, brings a sort of earthy sexuality to the role that may detract from the subtlety of his performance. With Stroheim's Max already a classic of the "horror" genre, the picture is an "architectural" achievement: its sets and make-up endlessly evocative and edifying.
Paramount presents Sunset Blvd. in a 1.33:1 flat full-frame transfer of meticulously restored (as in frame-by-frame) elements that reproduces shadow levels so beautifully it reminds of how black-and-white used well is a far more evocative tonal environment than colour. The scene in which Max reveals that he used to be Norma's husband and director is a showcase for the format, for the restorer's art (the film was the last shot on highly fragile nitrate stock and had to be repaired in the digital realm) and for the loveliness of b&w. Wilder, a director noted for his lack of visual flair (though Sunset Blvd.'s "fish-eye" view of poor dead Gillis gives lie to that generalization), is one of our few cinematic geniuses, and this picture is just one of many examples of his grasp of that un-teachable eye--kudos to Paramount for giving us this treasure in a keepsake for the format. The mono audio track is fresh: free, astonishingly, of pops and other marring.
A 25-minute making-of documentary features author Ed Sikov (On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder), an astonishingly well-preserved Nancy Olson, critic Andrew Sarris, Broadway Desmond Glenn Close, and still others recounting a few of the better-known anecdotes behind the scenes of Sunset Blvd.. Though wonderful for the Wilder neophyte, for the cinephile it serves largely as something of a bare refresher. Unfortunately, many of Sikov's comments on the documentary are reiterated in his overscripted commentary track, which details the infamous original "talking corpses" opening of the film while, again, telling (little more than) the basic lore of the film. A great shame that the late Mr. Wilder didn't have the chance to record a track before his death earlier this year, although it occurs to me that a Wilder commentary track might have been anti-climactic--he wasn't exactly fond of discussing his work.
An overproduced 13-minute documentary (also found on the To Catch a Thief and Roman Holiday DVDs from Paramount) on costume designer Edith Head (her black veil outfit for Norma's New Year's Eve party suggesting both Salome and a black wedding gown) offers some interesting stuff here and again, but the highlight of this disc in terms of insight is "The Music of Sunset Boulevard" (14 mins.), a look at composer Franz Waxman's life and process hosted by Waxman's son. A "Hollywood Locations Map" provides a few clickable stars that offer brief documentaries as well as tidbits of the "where is it now" variety. "Photo Galleries" are split between "Production," "The Movie," and "Publicity"--a "Morgue Prologue Script Pages" feature two existing versions of the script for the original opening annotated by a few surviving stills (like the legendary hospital sequence of Blade Runner, there is no sound for the few clips remaining, such as a brief look at Holden on the slab). A vintage 3-minute trailer that holds up surprisingly well (while playing surprisingly Hitchcockian)--perhaps not surprisingly because it appears to have been scored to an old Bernard Herrmann piece--rounds out the exemplary DVD. The keepcase contains a flyer for Charlotte Chandler's biography of Wilder, Nobody's Perfect. Originally published: November 26, 2002.