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5.0 out of 5 stars If you only see one noir in your life..., April 12, 2007
This review is from: Sunset Boulevard (Special Collector's Edition) (DVD)
Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)

Sunset Boulevard is noir at its best, a simple story of obsessive love gone wrong, but the characters. Oh, the characters. Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, a silent film queen who's been abandoned by the studios as talkies have become all the rage. (Swanson-- and her circle of card-playing friends in the movie-- were, in fact, silent film stars who had been abandoned by the studios after talkies became all the rage. Among the card players is Buster Keaton.) By coincidence, a young screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden, in the first of his collaborations with Billy Wilder), pulls into her garage while fleeing repo men, thinking the place is abandoned. The two meet, and Desmond convinces Gillis to do some editing on a script she's been working on. Erich von Stroheim has a star turn as Desmond's butler, a silent film director also left in the lurch. (von Stroheim was, of course, a silent film director, whose Greed is widely considered one of the best films ever made.)

With all the similarities to real life going on in this movie, it's hard to examine it without a lengthy diversion into the movie being a savage satire on Hollywood itself, but that's not what most struck me about this movie. It's Joe Gillis, possibly the least effective manipulator ever captured on a screen, a man who desperately needs to become hard-hearted to gain his independence from an ugly, overbearing relationship. It's Norma Desmond, already half-mad at the beginning of the movie, rolling the rest of the way off the cliff as she tries, just as desperately to hold on to Gillis. It's Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), torn between her growing love for Gillis and her engagement to his best friend, Artie Green (Jack Webb), coming under the withering gaze of Desmond's scorn. It's Max the Butler, so proud and so pathetic, who understands exactly where Gillis' road is headed, but is powerless to do anything about it. It's Cecil B. DeMille, who didn't have to do anything other than play himself. Satire can't work unless you've got the fundamentals in place. And in this case, the fundamentals are the characters and how they interact. And they're fabulous. Sure, Wilder and collaborator Charles Brackett wrote a great script, and Wilder, as was his wont, filmed the whole thing with precision and flair, and it wouldn't be as good a movie without those qualities. But you could put these characters, with these actors playing them, on a bare stage with a single lightbulb, and let them improvise till the cows came home, and I believe the audience would have still been deathly quiet and stock still. This is genius, pure and simple. *****
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