Centennial Collection

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Jack Webb
Director:  Billy Wilder
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  November 11, 2008

“All right, Mr. DeMille…I’m ready for my close-up.”

Film ****

When 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.

With 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 talk.

This 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…?”

These 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, Buster Keaton.

Swanson 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.

Swanson 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.

At 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).

His 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.

What 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.

Joe, 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!). 

In 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.

Adding 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 evil parts.

This 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.

Sunset Boulevard was 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.

Video ***

This 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.

Audio ***

This 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.

Features ****

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.


Sunset Boulevard is an American movie staple…important, insightful, and entertaining.  Popping this new Centennial Collection DVD into your player is about as perfect a tribute to Billy Wilder as you could ask for.

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