Sunset Boulevard – Billy Wilder
Norma leaves the studio convinced of the imminent production of Salome and prepares for her triumphant return. Even when she finally lapses into madness, she holds onto her conviction. After Joe’s murder and the arrival of the police and reporters, she believes that the newsreel cameras are there to film her comeback. She then descends the stairway for her final close-up. But this close-up is not directed at the filmers of the newsreel, but rather at the audience, as Norma walks past the newsreel cameras and directly toward the offscreen camera filming the scene. The texture of the image then blurs, giving her a transcendent and illusory appearance. It is supremely fitting that Norma, who has been unable to distinguish illusion from reality, should take on such an appearance. Her walking past the fictional characters and toward the audience finally establishes her as a mythic figure.
Like Double Indemnity (1944), the events of Sunset Boulevard are related through a flashback structure narrated by the male protagonist. But in this instance Wilder adds a gimmick to the structure—the narrator is Joe, who is seen floating in the pool at the beginning. In other words, it is a tale told by a dead man. This gimmick was not an original idea in itself, as evidenced by Charles Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which begins with Verdoux’s voice-over as a shot of his headstone is seen. But unlike Sunset Boulevard, Monsieur Verdoux is not bracketed by this narrative device, nor does it contain continual voice-over narration. Actually, Wilder had originally filmed a different dead narrator device, in which Joe sits upright in a morgue and tells his story to the other corpses; but the director scrapped this footage when audiences laughed during a sneak preview.
As it is, the device is audacious enough. What makes it work is Holden’s deft reading of Wilder’s crisp, cynical dialogue. Despite the publicity surrounding Swanson’s return to the screen and her undeniably powerful presence, it is Holden who provides the film with its central source of tension. The look of revulsion on his face when he gets ready to make love to Norma is chilling, and it is one of the many expressive resources Holden draws on to make his dilemma touching. Holden plays Joe as more than a callow manipulator. Indeed, his fleshing in of the character earned him recognition as a serious actor and enabled him to move away from the bland leading roles he was known for prior to Sunset Boulevard. Under Wilder’s direction in Stalag 17, Holden won an, Academy Award as Best Actor of 1953, and the actor would later appear in two subsequent Wilder films, Sabrina (1954) and Fedora (1979). Without Holden, Sunset Boulevard might have been a merely a unique collection of old Hollywood relics; with him, the film becomes poignant in its delineation of the past against the present. ”