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Sunset Boulevard: One of the Greatest Noirs Ever Made

"I am big! It's the pictures that got small!"

Sunset Boulevard opens on a crime scene. A screenwriter has been found dead in the pool of a West Hollywood mansion, and the victim begins to narrate his story.

His name is Joe Gillis. He is unsuccessfully trying to sell his flawed scripts, is behind on his rent, and fleeing two men looking to repossess his car. While avoiding these men, he turns into the driveway of the aging silent film star Norma Desmond. At first, Desmond welcomes him apprehensively, but upon learning he is a writer, she hires him to work on a script for a film she has been writing for a number of years. The script is disastrous, but Gillis is grateful for a job and even agrees to move into the gigantic house with her.

The film follows Gillis’s strange imprisonment in the manor, his odd affair with Desmond, and her progressive decline into delusion.

Sunset Boulevard has often been ranked as one of the best films of all time, and for good reason. It is a fascinating portrait of old Hollywood, diving completely into themes that are still relevant. And they are portrayed with a certain kind of subtlety.

Everything from the set design to the costuming to the lighting remind the audience of the character’s tragic failures. Desmond’s manor is severely cluttered, most of its space filled up with extravagant junk. Her maximalist décor seems to be preserved in her untouched house, which, on the outside, is decaying. On every table she keeps a sea of photographs of herself in her prime, each one carefully placed. They seem to ogle her, watching her great downfall in real time.

This set isn’t the only verse of visual poetry either. Desmond always seems to fall into angelic spotlights, standing in front of the light of a film projector or caught in the flash of a reporter’s camera. This is a terrific utilization of the light and shadow aspects of black and white films, showcasing its crisp beauty. The film is constantly reminding us of her days of fame and that Desmond does not realize they have passed. And it doesn’t let the audience forget how Hollywood works either, quickly moving on from things that it swears it loves.

It is the story of the casualties of the industry, although it may not seem like it at first from both Gillis and Desmond’s headstrong characters. The audience watches two proud people going head to head, their inflated egos possibly representing Hollywood as a whole. Yet, predictably, in the end neither of these character’s benefit from their boldness.

Gillis’s voiceover adds another layer to the film. Although it may feel cheesily outdated, it is insightful, occasionally poetic, and pulls off its tone gracefully. Its lyrical charm builds upon the grandeur the entire film aims for. It exposes the twisted nature of the relationship between the leads and how Desmond’s manipulative control transforms Gillis into a sort of pet.

The complicated characters of Sunset Boulevard are what drives its intrigue. Throughout the runtime viewers move between pity and anger for them. We even start to wonder if the characters are worth pity or if they are manipulating the audience as well as the characters around them. This makes it a fascinating study of moral gray areas and complex people.

Sunset Boulevard is an outrageous, sexual, repressive, frustrated, glamorous picture about the death of fame…and it is just as much of a masterpiece as you’ve heard.

Desmond watches one of her own films. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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