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Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)

Brilliant film from Billy Wilder focusing on struggling Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) who accidentally falls into the "tarantula arms" of faded silent screen star Norma Desmond (silent screen goddess Gloria Swanson) when he tries to elude the guys who want to repossess his car. (I'm deliberately omitting one of the greatest beginnings of any film, where Gillis narrates his story from a most-unusual place and the flashbacks to what happened kick in.) Gillis has a flat tire and needs to lie low for awhile, and he sees a chance to make some money working on Norma's self-written script for her return to films. The downside is that her Sunset Blvd. mansion is full of ghosts from the past, including the wily butler Max (Erich von Stroheim).

Joe still has some ties to "real life" in the form of his assistant director buddy Artie (Jack Webb) and Artie's girlfriend Betty (Nancy Olsen), a studio reader who earlier had rejected one of Joe's screen treatments but has her own dreams of becoming a screenwriter. Joe eventually finds himself torn between Norma's clinging, self-destructive tendencies and his desire for both people his own age and his friend's woman. Mixed into this situation is that Cecil B. DeMille's production people keep calling Norma about something, and she occasionally has her friends, "The Waxworks" (Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner) over to play bridge.

The thing which makes Sunset Blvd. great and will continue to appeal to new audiences is that it tells its story smartly and satirically with basically no sentimentality. It's an acid-tongued dark comedy/film noir/quasi-horror flick masquerading as a tragedy, plus it's all about the movies. The dialogue is some of the sharpest that Wilder and his co-screenwriters ever concocted. The way the film uses Hollywood of the late 1940s is immensely enjoyable, from the scene at Schwaub's Drugstore to the visit of DeMille's set while he's filming Samson and Delilah. The acting is really quite extraordinary. Gloria Swanson has the showy part, turning her screen persona into something pathetic, and she plays it with no holds barred. Similarly, Erich von Stroheim plays a character similar to his own life (at least during the silent era) and presents a few of the best surprises in the film. However, William Holden gives the best performance, and I find it his very best ever. He has to play a believable character who straddles reality and the fantasy rabbit-hole world he fell into. He also has to say some of the wittiest lines and make it sound like he's conceived them for a script he's writing. All in all, it's tough to find a film which is anywhere remotely similar to Sunset Blvd., and if you can, it's a pale imitation.