Sunset Boulevard, directed by Billy wilder in 1950, is considered to be the greatest film about Hollywood ever put on celluloid by Hollywood. It is a classic black comedy/drama, and perhaps the most acclaimed, but darkest film noir story about “behind the scenes” Hollywood. Some people describe it as the “black pearl” of film noir: “a macabre movie whose decadent glamour and despair are memorably haunting”. The movie combines melodrama and film noir to give us a deliciously scathing satire on the movie making industry. This is why it is still regarded as a landmark of American cinema, even though it has been more than a half century since it was produced. While this film is both entertaining and striking, it is a sad tale of deception, greed, and jealousy. It begins and ends with a dead man floating in the pool of a crumbling old mansion. This movie not only pokes fun at old Hollywood, but also broke new ground with techniques never used before in film.
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From its legendary opening shot of a man floating dead in a swimming pool, Sunset Boulevard seizes our attention and doesn’t let go until its equally famous closing shot. In fact, the movie opens with a jolt: the bullet-riddled body of a young man is seen floating face down in the pool next to a mansion. Then the ghostly voice of Joe Gillis recounts the events leading up to his death, which are shown in flashback until ending with the final scene: A completely deranged Norma Desmond descending a staircase in front of newsreel cameras. She is once again in the spotlight, even if she is unable to comprehend why, and Max, who is positioning the cameras, is directing her for one final time. Despite their apparent differences, Joe and Norma are two of a kind – both are vain mediocrities who think they are better than what they are, and who seriously believe that they are destined for a better future, but they are obviously doomed.
“Sunset Boulevard” is a movie made in Hollywood that is about making movies in Hollywood, this is why it is self referential. It critiques Hollywood’s star system. In fact, the main female character of the film (Norma Desmond) plays a washed up actress from the silent age of Hollywood. She lives in a world of delusion where her fans still remember her, and where her old director Cecil B. DeMille will produce the wretched script that she is writing. Her eccentric behavior and her neurotic tendencies seem to know no limits. In this main female character the movie exposes a sad picture of the dark side of the star system: The star system exploits an artist’s skill, but when that actor or actress becomes obsolete, or lose their appeal to the public, the system would cut them free. At the end of the movie, she commits murder to protect her fantasy.
This film expresses a cynical attitude toward Hollywood, by showing the main character of the film face down in his dream pool; killed, in a roundabout way by the Hollywood system. The dead man, we find out, is Joe Gillis, a Hollywood script writer, and also the narrator of this tale. Then Gillis takes us on a journey of how he got there through bad creditors, a car chase, a dead monkey and a very well timed landing at the home of Norma Desmond.
With that, the film can be seen as a look at the writer and the game of writing and filmmaking in Hollywood. It depicts a lack of respect for the art of writing, and the lack of humanity in the Hollywood system.
From a technical standpoint, “Sunset Boulevard” is not a ground-breaking film, but Wilder uses the film’s visual elements to good effect. Norma’s mansion is shown in all of its crumbling, gothic glory, as well as the “fish’s eye” shot of Joe in the pool. These are memorable moments that give the movie a special characteristic that makes it different from others, without forgetting the perfect musical accompaniment. The acting is flawless, with each actor fully inhabiting the skin of his or her character. And the camera work and music are effortlessly wed to the project’s other aspects. The movie represents the center stone in Billy Wilder’s glittering cinematic tiara.
Finally, we can say that Sunset Boulevard is a prototype of film noir. And no other motion picture about Hollywood comes near Billy Wilder’s searing, uncompromising and utterly fascinating portrait of the film community. That is why there has never been or will there ever be another movie like Sunset Boulevard in all of cinema’s history.
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