Review by Michael Jacobson
William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Jack
Director: Billy Wilder
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 110 Minutes
Release Date: November
right, Mr. DeMille…I’m ready for my close-up.”
director and writer Billy Wilder passed away, it also felt like an era
in Hollywood history had forever closed. He
was that rare craftsman who was able to blend artistic integrity with sheer
entertainment value…that can’t be said about most filmmakers, who, if lucky
and talented enough, will succeed in one or the other.
If you need a testament to that fact, simply peruse Wilder’s
filmography: Double Indemnity,
Some Like it Hot, The Lost Weekend, The Apartment, Sabrina and more…it’s
not just the list of quality movies that’s significant, but the fact that all
of them are just as enjoyable today as they ever were.
Wilder’s passing closing one era, it’s only fitting that one of his truest
masterpieces, Sunset Boulevard, has earned Centennial Collection
recognition on DVD.
This was Wilder’s personal testament to the closing of a different
Hollywood era: a rather dark
blemish on the proverbial streets of gold where hundreds of once great and
bankable movie stars were discarded and forgotten when the movies learned to
movie is remarkable on many fronts, not the least of which is the sense of
authenticity Wilder brought to his work. The
film was made in 1950; it would be a few more years before James Agee and other
writers would re-discover the silent film greats, and most of them that were
alive at the time lived in near anonymity, with barely the hope of an occasional
recognition in the form of “Didn’t you used to be…?”
people populate the film, starting with two of the three top bills.
Gloria Swanson was a silent movie queen, with her striking facial
features and expressive eyes communicating such volumes that spoken words were
never necessary. Erich von Stroheim was cinema’s first great iconoclast who,
as a director and actor, crafted some works of pure genius before his
extravagance and bull-headedness reduced him to a career of mostly playing
German extras and Nazis. Look
closely, and you’ll see three other silent stars playing bridge with Norma: Anna Q. Nilsson, H. B. Warner, and my all time favorite star,
and von Stroheim had crossed paths once before, on a picture called Queen
Kelly (which I own on VHS). It
was the beginning of the end for both stars, as von Stroheim’s megalomania
strapped the film before a frustrated Swanson had him fired. The two returned more than two decades later to Sunset
Boulevard, by all accounts, with no animosity.
was the perfect choice to play Norma Desmond, a one time screen queen who has
outlived her ability to make movie magic. Even
her name conjures up images of the greats gone by, like Norma Talmadge or Mabel
Normand. She lives in a huge but
already decaying mansion that looks a little like something out of Poe, or at
least Citizen Kane…it’s a monument to her greatness that,
appropriately enough, is the embodiment of greatness fleeing.
the other end of the Hollywood dream is Joe Gillis (Holden), a semi-talented
writer whose inability to sell a screenplay has him financially threadbare…his
car is even being repossessed. Fate
leads him to the big mansion on Sunset Blvd., and fate has quite a few surprises
up her sleeve for Joe (and us).
chance meeting with Norma Desmond is a classic movie moment.
“You used to be big,” he comments.
“I AM big,” she insists. “It’s
the pictures that got small.” She
asks him to take a look at a voluminous screenplay she has been scripting, with
the key story actually being her triumphant return to the screen.
Joe recognizes it as worthless, but seizes an opportunity for
himself…he will shape the script for her as a ghost writer, for a price.
he doesn’t know is that he too will pay a price. He first recognizes it in a creepy, funny, touching scene at
Norma’s New Year’s Eve party. She
dresses him in the finest tails, hires an orchestra to play, has the floor where
Valentino used to dance polished, serves the finest champagne and caviar, and
yet…there’s no party. Just the
two of them.
possibly blindfully but still willfully, slips into the role of kept man.
Norma’s flamboyant need to feel forever young traps Joe in a world of
wealth and privilege, but also one with his manhood stripped.
It’s a role he wasn’t born to play, trying to make the aging Norma
feel vibrant and sexy again while forced to endure her image everywhere, even on
her own private screen (a showing of Queen Kelly, no less!).
the meantime, he begins to fall in love with a script reader turning budding
writer, Betty Schaefer (Olson), who’s helping him realize the screenplay of
his dreams. But caught between the
sweet affection of Betty and the desperate and jealous clinginess of Norma,
between his old life of hand to mouth living and his new world of luxury but
emptiness points Joe towards a tragedy of his own making, and Norma, like
Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, is left permanently freed from her
faculties, and about to depend on the kindness of strangers.
to the film’s wonderful strangeness is the aforementioned Erich von Stroheim
as Max von Mayerling, Norma’s devoted servant.
He has secretly been keeping her star alive, at least in her mind, but
that isn’t his biggest secret…that comes later, and nothing could drag it
out of me! Suffice to say, it was a
role perfectly suited for von Stroheim’s own experiences in the industry, and
a quiet, warm performance from an actor often associated with melodramatically
is a wonderful film filled with wonderful, memorable moments.
Only Billy Wilder could craft scenes of such breezy enjoyment yet such
remarkable depth at the same time. No
one ever forgets Norma’s return to Paramount, where she still seems like
royalty to those who knew her when (including the great Cecil B. DeMille,
playing himself on the set of his own picture Samson and Delilah).
She revels in being the star again, while at the same time, her moment of
glory is quietly undermined by the comments of those who sadly understand she
has no future. When the lighting
man throws the spotlight on her, she shields her eyes.
Her star, once bright, can no longer rise to the occasion.
daring in the way Wilder seemingly bit the hand that fed him.
He didn’t attack Hollywood, but courageously pointed out its
shortcomings for all to see. It was
indeed a factory of dreams, but of dreams both good and bad, and a world where
people struggled mightily for their moment of glory, and spent the remainder of
their lives trying to reclaim it. It dared to expose the reality behind the illusion.
The magician had rolled up his sleeves, and to our disappointment, there
was nothing there.
is a mostly stunning restoration effort from Paramount for a film that
wholeheartedly deserves it, but it seems to still suffer from aging artifacts
when entering the last third of the picture.
Up to that point, the crisp, clean black and white photography is
gorgeous, with sharp images, no grain or distortion, and deep blacks and pure
whites. But as it nears the
conclusion, there are more instances of shimmer caused by residue, a little more
grain, and a little more murkiness. This
DVD is a fine presentation overall, and probably the best this film has looked
in half a century…given the film’s age, the complaints are well within the
range of understandable, but still worth noting.
is a solid and clean digital mono offering…little to no noticeable background
noise, and a solid and effectively dynamic mix of dialogue and music.
My favorite effect is the eerie sound of the wind blowing through the
pipes of an organ, which add ominous exclamations to certain sequences.
A solid effort.
This double disc set is pretty well loaded. The first disc contains the feature and commentary by Ed Sikov, author of a book on Billy Wilder. The second disc has multiple featurettes on the film, the noir side, Gloria Swanson, William Holden, the score, and looks at the classic Paramount studios on the map, behind the gates, and their glorious years in the 50s. There is also a look at legendary costume designer Edith Head and a trailer.