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Sunset Boulevard

#323 - Sunset Blvd.
Billy Wilder, 1950

A struggling screenwriter on the run from debt collectors hides out in the decrepit mansion of a former star of silent films and becomes caught up in her eccentric lifestyle.

Sunset Blvd. takes a premise that mixes psychological drama and darkly comic satire and films the whole thing through a noir filter, making for one of the most striking films of the 1950s in the process. William Holden plays the writer protagonist with the level of cynicism and charm that would belong to a person struggling to keep a foothold in such a cutthroat business as the film industry. However, it is most definitely Gloria Swanson's film as she plays an ageing, reclusive starlet who has spent the past couple of decades inside her haunted-looking manse with only her stern butler (Erich von Stroheim) for company and is under the impression that she is due to return to her legions of adoring fans with a starring role in a Cecil B. deMille picture written by her. While Holden is initially forced to stay with Swanson in order to hide from debt collectors, but as things develop the situation becomes a lot more complicated, especially when Holden starts co-writing his own screenplay with a script reader (Nancy Olson).

Though Sunset Blvd. is most obviously a satire on not just the film industry but also the people it chews up and spits out (as well as the occasional jab at the audience, such as Holden's rumination that being a screenwriter doesn't matter because audiences tend to assume that movie characters make up everything as they go along), it becomes much more than that as it plumbs the complicated relationships between its main characters. Swanson is a tragic figure, even if she does end up functioning as the closest thing the film has to an antagonist as her obsession with both her comeback and Holden threatens to stifle him and only serves to cause second-hand embarrassment when she ventures into the outside world. Holden is a sufficiently complex and not entirely sympathetic protagonist who delivers appropriately world-weary narration with aplomb, while von Stroheim and Olson also get more development than you would think underneath their superficially basic characterisations. von Stroheim has a stern crustiness that does well to both obscure and lend weight to his character's true motivations, while Olson holds her own against Holden in what does come across as a banter-heavy relationship straight out of a screwball comedy. Deliberate parody or straightforward relationship-building? Probably the latter, but it's still well-written.

As far as the technical side of things goes, it's a good-looking film soaked in noir atmosphere with some strong (though not amazing) camerawork on display. The music does get a little histrionic at times (such as some stings that come out of nowhere over relatively insignificant events) and the characterisation outside of the main four characters tends to fall a little flat, with the possible exception of all the people that play themselves (most memorably Cecil B. deMille as himself). In any case, this is most definitely a film that emphasises its razor-sharp wit and scathing deconstruction of old Hollywood over any type of superficial flair (save for the occasional bizarre image such as Swanson's elaborate funeral for a recently deceased chimpanzee), and as such definitely holds up as one of the best films of the 1950s.