Sunset Boulevard is a tragedy. It is the story of forgotten Star Norma Desmond, a once-great silent movie star who has faded from the mind of the public. Norma is a delusional, prideful woman. She lives entirely in the past; in her mind, she is still that famous star. These delusions are not helped by her butler Max, who was also the director who discovered her. He feeds her madness by writing her fan mail, creating a reality in which she is still an important star. We know how the movie will end, a dead man floating in a pool, it is one of the first things we see; what we do not know is what happened and why.
William Holden stars as Joe Gillis; just like Norma Desmond, he has reached his expiration date in Hollywood. He is a lot younger than Norma, but he has not written a hit in years. Gillis is broke, unable to pay for his car or the rent to his apartment. After being chased by repo men and his car getting a flat, he makes his way into a “grim, sunset castle,” as Gillis refers to it later in the movie. It does not appear that anyone lives in this dilapidated mansion until he hears someone calling for him. It is a woman, Norma Desmond, calling to him from a window. The movie enters into a surreal, dreamlike (or maybe nightmarish) realm. Gillis is mistaken for an undertaker that is supposed to arrive and help bury Norma’s dead chimpanzee. While there, he accepts a job by helping Norma rewrite her comeback, or as she refers to it her “return,” but he knows full well that her story will not sell. He takes advantage of her wealth and her admiration for him.
This quasi-surrealist atmosphere adds to the noirish aspects of the film. Director Billy Wilder aptly captures the tragedy of the movie. There are no heroes or villains. Norma is crazy and delusional, but the audience feels sympathy for her. A famous line from the film comes from Norma when she says, “I am big! It was the picture that got small.”
Norma lives in a fairy tale, unable to distinguish reality from fantasy. She wants to recreate the life she once had. She is manically depressed and lonely, and she finds in Gillis companionship and pride. Gillis lectures Max on feeding into Norma’s delusions, but he is just as responsible. He never loves Norma the same way she loves him, but he feigns love to her indulging her and protecting her from reality. The audience can understand and sympathize with Gillis as well. Joe is exploiting Norma, but he does this to try and save his career. He ends up becoming a victim of his exploitation by becoming a prisoner to Norma, both physically and mentally.
Sunset Boulevard is an excellent film noir. Released the same year as previously reviewed In a Lonely Place, I find it interesting that both films deal with similar themes of creativity and loneliness. Like In a Lonely Place, Sunset Boulevard is an essential film noir, and just all-around a fantastic movie that you should not miss.