© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
Sunset Boulevard enjoys a somewhat uneasy position within the noir canon, partly because it is informed throughout by a humor (however bitter) that is rare in a noir film. However, with the great noir director Billy Wilder at the helm, the great noir cinematographer John F. Seitz (who shot Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Lost Weekend) behind the camera, and a narrative structure that provides the ultimate in flashback technique, Sunset Boulevard clearly qualifies as a noir film. Like many such films, we are guided through its story by the voiceover narration of the male protagonist (in this case screenwriter Joe Gillis, played by William Holden), but this film is clearly dominated by the figure of one-time silent film superstar Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who is herself a very unconventional femme fatale, though she is a femme fatale nevertheless. Desmond’s story provides us not only with some very telling commentator on the gender politics of aging but also the biting commentary on the film industry for which this film is so well known.
Sunset Boulevard begins with a classic noir opening sequence, as if to direct viewers to view the film in that context. It opens on a shot of a somewhat rundown-looking sidewalk, with a brief musical cue that echoes Miklós Rózsa’s theme music for Double Indemnity. The camera then slowly moves downward, revealing that “SUNSET BOULEVARD” is painted on the curb, thus efficiently announcing both the title of the film and the location of this sidewalk. But the gutter next to the curb looks grimy, littered with leaves. Sunset Boulevard is a major thoroughfare in Los Angeles, running all the way from downtown Los Angeles (near Chinatown) to the Pacific Coast Highway, on the way passing through both the prestige neighborhood of Beverly Hills and the somewhat seedy neighborhood of West Hollywood, where it is generally known as Sunset Strip. We will soon learn that the film focuses on Beverly Hills, but the condition of this gutter and this sidewalk suggests that it is a decaying Beverly Hills, and not the iconic rich Beverly Hills of the popular American imagination. Thus, given the centrality of Beverly Hills as a haven for those who have realized the American dream to its fullest, the setting itself already suggests that the American dream might not be all that it is cracked up to be (as is so often the case in film noir).
The camera next pans onto and down the boulevard itself, showing lots of marred, cracked, and broken pavement. This is far from a golden avenue to paradise. It is, in fact, the road to death, as we realize when the camera suddenly shows a detachment of police racing down the boulevard, identified by Gillis’s voiceover as belonging to the homicide squad. Further, Gillis explains that a murder has been committed at one of the big mansions along the way, one that belongs to a once-famous Hollywood star. Wilder then gets in a bit of news media critique (anticipating the main subject matter of his Ace in the Hole a year later) when he has Gillis announce that he is going to explain the truth behind the events leading to this murder before the press can get to the story and distort it.
We see the body of the murdered man floating face down in the pool adjacent to the mansion, though it will still be a few moments before it becomes clear that this is the body of Gillis himself, who is thus posthumously narrating the events leading up to his own death. In this sense, he becomes a particularly overt example of the doomed men—Frank Bigelow of D.O.A. (1949) is perhaps the most obvious case—who so often populate noir films. That this sort of narration is not literally possible is no problem, of course—this is a Hollywood film, not reality. This posthumous narration thus serves as a constant reminder that what we are watching is a constructed fiction, a product of the very Hollywood system that the film is so directly about. But this motif also destabilizes our interpretation of the film, introducing an element of cognitive dissonance that runs throughout, often creating a strange sort of black comedy but always threatening to disrupt the kind of immersion in the narrative that is usually the goal of Hollywood films.
As Gillis begins to tell his story, we learn that he is a not-so-successful screenwriter who is struggling mightily to make ends meet, among other things trying to evade the repo men who are attempting to take his new car, on which he has been unable to make the payments. He tries to sell his latest movie idea (essentially a noir film set in the world of professional baseball, of all things) to Paramount, but fails when junior script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) points out that the story is basically just a trite rehash of Hunger, an 1890 novel by Norwegian Nobel Prize–winner Knut Hamsun. Growing more and more desperate, Gillis drives down Sunset Boulevard with the repo men in hot pursuit; then, to make matters worse, he has a blow-out, causing him to have to pull into the nearest driveway. This move gets the repo men off his tail, but it also takes him into the dark (and darkly comic) world that will lead to his doom.
The driveway, of course, leads to the mansion we saw at the beginning of the film, which happens to be the home of Norma Desmond, who lives in the ritzy, but decaying edifice with her “butler,” Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), who turns out also to have been her first director back in the silent film days, as well as her first husband. Gillis stashes his car in the garage, where he notices a huge foreign car with a 1932 license plate. The mansion is impressive—perhaps a bit overly so—but it is also clearly in a state of disrepair. “It was a great big white elephant of a place,” says Gillis in his voiceover, “the kind crazy movie people built in the crazy twenties.” Apparently a man with a literary bent, Gillis immediately tells us that he thinks of Miss Havisham “in her torn wedding veil” when he sees the house.
Gillis turns to leave, but is called to by Desmond, leading to one of the film’s strangest turns. For Desmond has mistaken Gillis for an undertaker who has been called to the mansion to ply his trade. The decidedly sinister-seeming von Mayerling takes charge of Gillis and sends him upstairs, calling out to him, “If you need any help with the coffin, call me.” Desmond then guides Gillis to the dead body, which has been placed on a massage table in front of a fireplace, because “he always liked fires, and poking at them with a stick.” She immediately starts describing the kind of coffin she wants, while at the same time already haggling over the price. She slowly uncovers the body—which turns out to be that of a chimpanzee.
It’s a truly bizarre moment, the culmination of a series of moments in which the film has veered more and more into the Gothic, further and further into the generic territory of the horror film. But it is also an almost surreal moment of black comedy that illustrates the complex texture of this film. Taken aback, Gillis decides to beat a hasty retreat from this house of madness. But then he suddenly recognizes Desmond and notes that she “used to be big.” She immediately—and theatrically—responds (in one of the film’s most famous moments), “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Desmond then launches into a diatribe about how the coming of sound degraded the stature of film as an art form, producing arguments that are actually not insane at all, echoing the well-known concerns of silent-film legends such as Charlie Chaplin. At the same time, despite her complaints about the way in which “words” have diminished the visual medium of film, it turns out that she herself has been working on a screenplay for years. When she discovers that Gillis is a screenwriter, she then decides to enlist his help in whipping her script into shape.
This script tells the story of the Biblical-era temptress Salome, a role that Desmond, of course, intends to play herself. Salome, though not named in the Bible, is typically identified with the daughter of Queen Herodias who danced for Herod in the gospels, pleasing him so much that he offered her any reward she wished. In response, she asked to be given the head of John the Baptist. It’s a juicy role, actually, and not a bad idea for a script, even if her story’s focus on decadent sexuality and violence means that any film based on it would clearly have to tread carefully to get past the Code censors.
That Desmond hopes to have her script directed by Cecil B. DeMille is partly indicative of the fact that she had worked with him extensively in her silent-film days (as had Swanson). But we should also recall that DeMille built much of his career on the making of Biblical epics, dating back to the silent-film era—and that he had directed the highly successful Samson and Delilah—featuring Hedy LaMarr as another well-known Biblical temptress—only a year before Sunset Boulevard.Biblical epics were, in fact, about to become one of the most important phenomena in 1950s American cinema, suggesting, in retrospect, that Desmond might not have been as out of touch with the realities of the contemporary film business as first appears. Salome herself was a prominent part of this turn to Biblical material in American film. By 1953, for example, she would get her own film, with noir goddess Rita Hayworth in the title role, using her considerable dancing skills to perform Salome’s famous Dance of the Seven Veils. This famed dance would also be featured in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), a film that features the Roman puppet king Herod as a stereotypical Oriental villain. Here, though, perhaps the most memorably Orientalist scene is the one in which Herod’s stepdaughter Salome again performs a seductively Oriental dance, then demands the head of John the Baptist on a platter as payment for her efforts, showing just how cruel and capricious Oriental temptresses can be. Salome in King of Kings is played by teenage American actress Brigid Bazlen, marketed at the time as the next Elizabeth Taylor, who would herself soon afterward play the title role in Cleopatra (1963), a spectacle film that, at the time, was the most lavish and expensive film ever made. The film also solidified the status of the Egyptian queen as perhaps the central image of the Oriental seductiveness and potential power of Eastern women in all of Western film.
In short, Desmond’s idea of a film featuring Salome cannot be faulted, anticipating important coming trends in American film as a whole, while at the same time resonating with the Orientalist strain that runs through much of film noir. The problem, of course, is that Desmond’s bloated script doesn’t seem to be very good—though that might be something Gillis can help her with. The real problem is that Desmond is probably not suited for the role, partly because of her age—as a comparison with Bazlen makes especially clear, though Hayworth was 35 when she played the role.
There is also a question concerning whether Desmond could adjust her acting style to 1950s norms. That style is highlighted in the film by Swanson’s bravura performance, playing Desmond as a woman who goes through real life with the exaggerated movements and facial expressions of a silent-screen actress. These exaggerations, of course, were necessary in silent film because of the absence of dialogue; Desmond has access to words (and uses them almost to excess) but adds the excessive nonverbal gestures nevertheless, creating an absurd effect. This aspect of Swanson’s brilliant performance helps to convey the sense that Desmond is a woman who is not only living in the wrong time but who has lost the ability to distinguish between fiction and reality.
Viewed as a film noir character, Desmond is clearly this film’s femme fatale, the dangerous “bad” woman set against the film’s “good” woman in the person of Betty Schaefer. It’s an almost classic noir use of paired characters, except for one major difference that sets it apart from the usual noir scenario. Schaefer is young and fresh, her future ahead of her, as is typical of the “good” girls of noir. But Desmond is no girl at all; she is more than twenty years beyond her peak as a film actress, well into middle age. Swanson, herself a top star in the silent-film days (and a favorite actress of DeMille during the 1920s) was fifty-one at the time of the making of Sunset Boulevard. She was, in short, not really all that old, though she was significantly older than Nancy Olson. Desmond is also, if one gets beyond the aplomb and the excess, still quite an attractive woman, but that aplomb and excess are hard to get beyond. In addition, Norma Desmond is not a woman who wants to be an attractive fifty-year-old; she wants to be an attractive twenty-five-year old, able to twist young men around her finger with her sexual charms. In the most obvious way, Desmond is the tragic representation of the woman who became rich and famous as a young woman valued for her sexual charms and who is now having a great deal of trouble coping with being older. Her career as a film actress simply makes her a special case of this quite common phenomenon. But, within the context of film noir, she is not just an aging film actress: she is an aging femme fatale. Her character, to an extent, answers the question: what happens to all those femmes fatales in film noir when they are twenty or thirty years older (if, of course, they survive their original noir film to begin with)?
Bogart was 46 when he did The Big Sleep, in which he is repeatedly depicted as being virtually irresistible to young women (Lauren Bacall was 22 at the time of that film). He was, in short, almost as old as Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Bogart and Swanson were, in fact, the same age, both born in 1899, which means that Bogart in In a Lonely Place—the other great 1950 noir film set within the Hollywood film industry—is the same age asSwanson in Sunset Boulevard. Yet Norma Desmond seems over-the-hill, her relationship with Joe Gillis (played by a 32-year-old actor) rather unseemly. Bogart’s Dixon Steele, meanwhile, is a rather nasty character, but he is most certainly not presented as being too old for the character played by 26-year-old Gloria Grahame.
Part of this perception of Desmond as old has to do with Swanson’s performance. She doesn’t really look old—doesn’t have a single wrinkle, in fact. But, though costuming and the power of her performance she conveys a sense of being old, of having been passed by. Viewing Desmond from the perspective strictly of her age also casts a new light on the various other femmes fatales in film noir, giving their actions an extra note of desperation. Aware that they have the sexual charm to manipulate men to do their bidding, perhaps they are also aware that they will have this sexual charm for a relatively short time. But Desmond’s predicament, while cast specifically as that of a silent film star unable to make the transition to sound, also says a lot about ageism in Hollywood in general, especially where women are concerned.
This motif, of course, also says a lot about the status of women in American society as a whole, and one of the aspects of Sunset Boulevard that makes it a genuine classic is the way in which it so effectively employs the Hollywood film industry as a microcosm of the larger society of which it is a part. Thus, James Naremore sees Sunset Boulevard (along with Wilder’s Ace in the Hole a year later) as a “savage critique of modernity” in the mode of many noir films, which clearly suggests that the mismatch between Desmond and contemporary reality is at least partly the fault of the latter (93). Of course, Desmond and Gillis seem mismatched as well, and many have found the way she makes him a virtual prisoner—both as a writing partner and (apparently) as a sexual one—to be a key sign of her mental instability. Her treatment of von Mayerling might fit in this category as well, and it is clear that both of these relationships are, as much as anything, a matter of power in which Desmond seeks to exert control, thus compensating for the fact that so many other aspects of her life seem out of control.
For his part, Gillis rebels against Desmond’s control and flees the strange house, in the midst of a New Year’s Eve party. He returns, however, when he gets word that Desmond has attempted suicide due to his departure. This suicide, of course, can be taken as another sign of her mental instability, but it might also be interpreted as a calculated tactic designed precisely to induce Gillis to return. Gillis then settles into the role of kept man, working with Desmond on her (apparently) dreadful script, submitting to her advances, and letting her outfit him in a lavish new wardrobe. In the meantime, however, he also establishes a clandestine collaboration with Betty Schaefer, perhaps in an attempt to exert his own control over his life. Gillis works with Schaefer to try to make one of his original stories into a viable screenplay, at the same time, reigniting some of his former desire to be a legitimate creative artist. Predictably, the two establish a romantic relationship as well, so that Gillis’s relationship with Schaefer mirrors his relationship with Desmond in multiple ways, but with the power dynamics reversed. Perhaps sensing these parallels, Desmond finds out about the relationship and attempts to intervene, eventually causing Gillis to confess his role as kept man and to send Schaefer away, urging her to accept the marriage proposal of Artie Green, a struggling assistant director (played by a young Jack Webb).
Gillis thus shows his true colors by demonstrating his assumption that a woman must be with a man in order to be successful. This attitude might also explain why it is especially difficult for Gillis to be in a relationship in which the woman is the dominant partner. It comes as no big surprise, then, that he then packs his things and stalks out of Desmond’s mansion, disgusted at the demeaning role into which he has been forced there. Desmond follows him out of the house, screaming for him to stop, then shoots him when he refuses to do so. Mortally wounded, he staggers into the newly refurbished pool, bringing us back to the beginning of the film. Gillis then weirdly narrates the discovery of his body by the police and the subsequent arrival of reporters and newsreel cameras. When those cameras arrive, Desmond appears to have finally become unhinged altogether, believing the newsreel cameras to be part of a Paramount crew come to begin the filming of Salome. The film ends as Desmond, now believing von Mayerling to be Cecil B. De Mille (a misidentification von Mayerling encourages), dramatically descends the staircase and thrusts her face into the camera lens. Famously, she is ready for her closeup.
Of course, Desmond is not alone in this film in being unstable. Everything in Sunset Boulevard is somewhat destabilized by its strange narrative structure. Since Gillis presumably can’t really be narrating the film from beyond the grave, he would seem to be the ultimate unreliable narrator. In that case, just how are we to interpret anything we are told or shown in this film. And this unreliability goes well beyond the posthumous nature of the narration. Gillis is, in fact, a rather bitter and unpleasant sort and his glib dismissal of Desmond as a pathetic crazy woman should be taken with a bit of skepticism. The case of the chimp is typical of Gillis’s attitude. However, bizarre this motif might be, one can surmise that the chimp was a beloved part of Desmond’s life and that its death should not be taken as a joke. Yet Gillis continually refers to it as a “dead monkey” and makes a bad joke of the fact that, when the real undertaker arrives, he actually treats the deceased ape with dignity and decorum. “He must have been a very important chimp,” snarls Gillis. “The great grandson of King Kong, maybe.”
We should also be cautious in assuming that Desmond’s screenplay is as bad as it seems. If making a film about Salome was actually, as I have suggested, a shrewd idea, then perhaps the screenplay is not as bad as we might think. After all, the only information we have about it (other than the fact that it seems excessively long) is what we hear from Gillis, who assumes it is terrible before he even starts reading it. He is, in fact, completely dismissive of the screenplay—which he describes as a “silly hodgepodge of melodramatic plots”—from the very beginning. He clearly wants it to be bad, perhaps out of jealousy. After all, given his own failures as a screenwriter, Desmond’s success might make him look really bad. And, of course, there is also the possibility that Gillis might not recognize a good script when he sees one, given the apparently low quality of his own work.
The dynamics of the relationship between Gillis and Desmond tell us a great deal—not only about the sexual politics of such a relationship in 1950, but also about the dog-eat-dog nature of relationships within the film industry as a whole. In turn this aspect of the film calls attention to the oppositional nature of relationships between individuals—driven by capitalism’s competitive ethos—in capitalist society as a whole. This film, in fact, engages in a thoroughgoing critique of contemporary American society—but does so in such a stealthy fashion that Wilder was able to avoid scrutiny from McCarthyite witchhunters.
What is less stealthy is he film’s critique of the film industry—and not just on the way that industry tosses people aside once they have become unprofitable to it. Sunset Boulevard combines a compelling plot, dazzling performances, and thought-provoking subject matter to produce a classic commentary on the relationship between historical reality and the world of American film. This commentary, however, is complex enough that it allows for a variety of interpretations. For Robert Ray, for example, Desmond becomes a sort of allegorical stand-in for a film industry so caught up in its own values and conventions that it loses touch with the outside world. Desmond’s downfall, for Ray, suggests the folly of ignoring the outside world. Thus, the “principal moral of Sunset Boulevard remained clear: all of Norma’s carefully erected barriers could not keep the contemporary world … from breaking in. Somehow, the movies would have to learn how to accommodate the new world and all its problems. To fail to do so would be to become like Norma—mad, pathetic, and worst of all, finished at the box office” (148–49). In short, Sunset Boulevard warns that Hollywood needed to remain engaged with the rapidly changing American society that surrounded it at the beginning of the 1950s. In this sense, the film perhaps serves as a warning that Hollywood should not retreat from making politically relevant films, despite the Cold War climate of anticommunist hysteria that was just peaking in 1950.At a less obvious level, one can also see the reclusive Norma Desmond as an allegorical suggestion of America’s former isolationism, now made obsolete by America’s participation in World War II and subsequent involvement in the global politics of the Cold War.
Desmond’s mansion, which is a virtual museum filled with artifacts from the Hollywood past, serves as a powerful visual representation of this aspect of the film. Desmond, with von Mayerling’s help, has built her own little world in the huge, richly cluttered house. Almost every item in the house looks old and a bit run-down, evoking a lost past. Desmond’s solipsism is particularly indicated by the hundreds of pictures of her that fill her house and by the weekly screenings of her own films that help her continually relive the past. At the same time, the shot of rats milling about in her initially abandoned pool remind us that this house is also a sort of mausoleum, as aspect that is reinforced by the fact that it also features a vintage organ at which von Mayerling’s demented playing enhances the horror-film vibe of the film—as does the fact that the wind sometimes blows through the organ’s pipes, which generate their own creepy noises.
The immense clutter of the Desmond house can be taken to suggest Desmond’s wealth, while at the same time providing reminders that this wealth is rooted in the past. The intense materiality of the images we see on the screen might at first glance recall the great realist novels of the nineteenth century, when detailed descriptions of material settings (Balzac’s extended description of Madame Vauquer’s boarding house at the beginning of Père Goriot is a classic example) help to root the fiction in a world that seemed similar to the real world of the reader. Indeed, in the case of Maison Vauquer, what is striking about the setting is its ordinariness, establishing the boarders as people who are neither rich nor poor. Goriot, in particular, is a representative of an older time, a man whose daughters exploit and disrespect their father, suggesting the downfall of the traditional patriarchal hierarchy he represents. Indeed, Balzac’s fiction is all about the destruction of an older, more genteel world beneath the irresistible historical pressure of capitalist modernization. It would seem, in fact, to have very much the same subject matter as Sunset Boulevard, even if it is set a bit earlier on the timeline of modernity.
And it does.However, the noir mode in which Wilder tells this story is drastically different from the realist mode of Balzac, giving this narrative a very different flavor. Thus, if the famed description of Maison Vauquer firmly situates Balzac’s story within a realist matrix, the detailed visual presentation of Norma Desmond’s mansion in Sunset Boulevard serves almost exactly the opposite function. If the signs of decay in Madame Vauquer’s establishment suggest the ravages of time, Maison Desmond is essentially removed from time altogether. Everything about it suggests that Norma Desmond is not ordinary, that she has little in common with the viewers of the film. The clutter serves to make the mansion seem less like a regular house than like a haunted house, separating it from reality. More particularly, it is like a haunted house in a movie. It is a home that seems more like a movie set than an ordinary human dwelling. As J. P. Telotte puts it, “What the depth of Sunset Boulevard’s mise-en-scene ultimately reveals, then, is a world that has lost any real depth—a cinematic world that too easily renders its inhabitants similarly dimensionless, flat, leaves them, in perhaps a nice metaphor for the movie star, floating on a sheer surface” (Telotte 152).
Even Desmond’s friends, who occasionally visit her, seem to come from the world of movies rather than from the real world. When they come over for weekly bridge games, they seem to consist entirely of other aging film has-beens, including a cadaverous-looking Buster Keaton, played by himself. Keaton, of course, was one of the greatest of the silent-film comedians, as was Charlie Chaplin, whose Little Tramp character (along with other characters from film history) Desmond imitates in the live shows with which she entertains Gillis. Even the great Keaton was never a big success in the sound era, however. Chaplin had more success in sound film, but nevertheless famously worried that sound was damaging film as an art form.
Importantly, Desmond is not the only character in Sunset Boulevard who seems to be immersed in the world of the movies. Gillis and Schaefer, though perhaps more up-to-date in their engagement with the film industry, nevertheless view the world through the optic of that industry as much as does Desmond. In one important scene, the two young writers speak to each other entirely in lines that are essentially parodies of famous lines from movies. There is also an important scene in which Gillis and Schaefer walk on the Paramount lot, strolling down a Potemkin street. Schaefer’s comment is a perfect summary of America’s love affair with the movies: “Look at this street,” she tells Gillis. “All cardboard, all hollow, all phony, all done with mirrors. You know, I like it better than any street in the world.”
This statement contains a genuine expression of love for the movies, but it also possibly contains an implicit criticism of the seductive power of the movies to replace reality with false images. Noting how noir films frequently explore the power of the modern media, J. P. Telotte notes that such films often suggest the ways in which “modern media wield their nearly invisible, even hypnotic powers over us.” Further, he argues that the films suggest that the media have so much power that they can “shape or misshape our own identities.” He notes a number of examples, but concludes that “probably the most famous example of this impulse is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), which explores the shaping hold film has on us, how its seeming depths link up only with a false surface and can deprive us of any real experience of depth” (149).
In short, Sunset Boulevard is a highly complex film that contains a mixture not only of different moods and genres but also of different messages about the film industry, its role in American society, and the nature of American society itself. It clearly suggests something false and damaging about the Hollywood dream factory, but it also more subtly suggests that the destructive tendencies of this industry might reflect the same tendencies in the society at large, even as Hollywood also feeds those tendencies. The film’s central figure, aging femme fatale Norma Desmond, is one of the most fascinating characters in all of American cinema, and Sunset Boulevard is one of the most fascinating and complex of all noir films.
Naremore, James. More than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts. University of California Press, 1998.
Ray, Robert B. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930–1980. Princeton University Press, 1985.
Telotte, J. P. “Voices from the Deep: Film Noir as Psychodrama.” Film Noir Reader 4: The Crucial Films and Themes. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 2004. 145–160.
 The reference is to a character in Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel Great Expectations. Jilted at the altar, the old woman has worn her wedding dress ever since, retreating into madness and into a hatred of all men. This reference immediately sets up Desmond as a potential danger to Gillis.