Sunset Blvd. - Centennial Collection Review

Billy Wilder's second most perfect film, Sunset Blvd. essentially stands for the idea that, one way or another, Hollywood will kill you. It'll devour your pride and leave you to fend for yourself among the other miscreants whose future, regardless of the applause in the interim, is as bleak as your own. The city of industry can't be bothered to worry about its victims. The calls will come as needed, but the rest is a waiting room filled with the other freaks. Rest assured, however, that if you find yourself floating face down in a swimming pool, you'll be removed as gently as possible. Even monkeys get a respectful burial here.

There's a lot of bile on display in Wilder's film. After a few successful pictures and a couple of Oscars for The Lost Weekend, the writer and director of a film still unparalleled in its pervasive nastiness directed at Hollywood seemed unconcerned with that whole thing about not biting the hand that feeds you. You can bet no one was laughing harder when the picture earned Wilder another little gold statue for its script and received nominations in every major category. From his peers, no less. The initial reaction was maybe a bit different, if no less passionate. Louis B. Mayer walked out of an early screening convinced Wilder should be run out of town with tar and feathers attached. The director responded to the mogul with the verbal equivalent of a middle finger. You can understand both men's reactions. By 1950, all movies about Hollywood hadn't necessarily been rosy portrayals, but they certainly hadn't been as abrasive as this film either. Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place, released the same year, is a nice companion piece to Sunset Blvd. in that both show a direct disdain for the town, but even Ray's film has a more isolated focus and seems filled with disappointment more than anger. Wilder aims in a different and more ambitious direction.

The decision to begin the film with first-person narration by a corpse floating in an artificial body of water is certainly a bold one. It sets the tone of macabre irreverence for the entire picture. When William Holden's struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis shares with the audience (in the third person) that he always wanted a pool, calling himself a poor dope for good measure, Wilder immediately lets everyone know how he feels about the mirage that ends up being quicksand. As we then meet a premortem Gillis, he doesn't seem all that bad. A little cynical and maybe a bit fed up with the business, but a half-decent guy all the same. Not unlike, say, Billy Wilder. The filmmaker commented frequently that it was Holden, even more than his other frequent leading man Jack Lemmon, who best conveyed the unflinching wit and cynicism Wilder was famous for, citing both this film and especially their next teaming, Stalag 17, as most close to his own heart. Holden at one point observed that his director had a "mind full of razorblades." It's Gillis here who carries that sharp demeanor. His narration is some of the tightest and most biting in all of film, and it's delivered impeccably by Holden.

The common refrain, accurately so, is that Wilder basically saved the actor's career by casting him in Sunset Blvd. Holden had a big hit early on at Columbia with Golden Boy, but between poor material and serving in World War II, he was languishing until Montgomery Clift backed out of the Gillis role at the last minute. Clift is literally unimaginable as Gillis now. He was obviously a fine actor, but Holden so owns the role that his interpretation, which seems in every way to be the "correct" one, is definitive. The character coolly unravels into an accidental gigolo before coming to terms with his fate. It's telling that when Gillis is shot he doesn't even turn around or try to run. Noir fatalism has infected the character. Like Wilder's next picture Ace in the Hole, his anti-Hollywood opus is a somewhat unconventional film noir in that there are no detectives or crimes to be solved. But if you buy into noir as a movement that's as interested in mood as plot, both films undeniably qualify. Neither could be much darker and each takes on a form of media with ferocious bulldog gusto. The unapologetic misanthropy boiling in both movies assures a noir qualification using even the most rigid of standards.

It's of interest that both Joe Gillis and Ace's Chuck Tatum stumble into their respective messes via a broken down automobile. I suppose you could try to attach some form of analysis on Wilder's part to that sort of repetition, but I think it's more representative of the crossroads that both face at that time than anything else. For Gillis, he's trying to avoid having his car repossessed, which would effectively leave him stranded in Los Angeles, so he conveniently finds an empty garage parking spot to wheel the vehicle into. It's not just any garage or any house, of course, but that of silent screen star Norma Desmond, truly inhabited by Gloria Swanson. The actress really was an Oscar-nominated force in silent pictures before the advent of sound left her behind. Prior to Sunset Blvd., she had just one screen credit, 1941's The Farmer Takes a Wife, since 1934. She's now defined by her performance as Norma Desmond, one of the eeriest pieces of acting you'll find in a major film not in the horror genre. It's no wonder David Lynch loves this movie so much (it was an obvious inspiration on Mulholland Dr.) since many of the performances in his films share that same off-kilter rhythm Swanson exhibits here.

The Gillis character initially acts as a proxy for the audience regarding Norma Desmond. He too senses she's basically deranged and that the best direction from here would be reverse. Wouldn't that be too easy, though? If Wilder just let the failed star be a nutjob then the shades of the rainbow would be greatly constricted. He has a better hand than that. In some little corner of her marinated brain, Norma ends up falling for Gillis. For his part, the screenwriter probably doesn't realise the severity of the situation. He's more than content to bask in the custom-made shirts and coats and cigarette cases. It wouldn't be a Wilder film without the protagonist showing some degree of opportunism. The mistake Gillis makes is in getting accustomed to these amenities. Is it just the materiality of the situation though? His motivations are never one hundred percent clear. For instance, why does he leave the New Year's Eve party after Norma's suicide attempt to then plant roots at her house? We see no real affection on his part. If it's strictly done on the basis of shelter and gifts, why do Norma's slit wrists cause him to rush back? I don't think it's that simple.

Left for debate is the exact nature of their relationship. Gillis begins in the guest room above the garage, but a leak in the ceiling causes him to move into the main house. He doesn't seem to share the same bed as Norma, but the extent of the physical relationship we see is mostly handholding during a projection of one of her films and her later drying off his back after a swim in the pool. The implication is probably of a more intimate bond, a no-no for the 1950 censors, but it's not entirely clear how far Gillis has to go for those fancy clothes. He seems to develop a sympathy for her, for the entire situation she occupies with loyal man servant Max (the Oscar-nominated Erich von Stroheim), and it's obvious that there's some genuine affection at times between the two. There's almost a delicacy in which Wilder handles all this. We know Norma is crazy, dangerous even, but she's utterly fascinating. Swanson makes her seem so real, like the actress herself is actually preparing for that close-up. The inflection Swanson gives Norma and its weird determination at being above it all is brilliantly eerie. I also find the near-hidden humanity echoing from Norma to be both sad and touching.

Still, the viewer knows these two aren't a romantic match. Plus Gillis somehow finds himself floating in that pool. Wilder is so confident in his storytelling that he essentially slipped the audience the film's ending right from the starting gate. He moves things well enough that many viewers may forget Gillis began the film narrating from the afterlife, but he's not getting any warmer. Since we know how Gillis ends up, we have to see how he got there. She doesn't pull the trigger, but it's Nancy Olson's Betty Schaefer who kind of puts Gillis in that pool. She's the one who inadvertently breaks the gigolo's rule of behaviour by involving herself with Gillis, initially in the professional sense and then with a hint of romance. If you'll notice, though, Wilder completely lets her off the hook. There's no sobbing relay of the shooting or revenge by Norma. She gets to be the innocent bystander. Or, in keeping with the film noir discussion, one could even argue that Betty is actually the femme fatale who puts into motion our protagonist's downfall.

Wilder warns us from the beginning to not get too attached to Gillis. That image of his floating corpse hangs over the film. It just seems such an odd reveal to know the protagonist will be murdered. There were some alternate options where Gillis would be in a morgue instead, but they were ultimately discarded for the opening we see. A wise choice, I think, as there's an undeniable shock in seeing him simply submerged in the water like any other piece of trash that might happen upon the outdoor pool. Maybe he deserves it, maybe he doesn't. It's not really for the audience to decide. In some ways, Gillis gets his exit ramp through death. He's both got it made and rooting though an aimless existence with Norma. Leaving her, as we see, isn't a real option, and, even if it was, the hack screenwriter gig he previously had seems hardly an upgrade. Thus, Gillis is cornered in a very noir fashion and his fate therefore sealed.

That Wilder brings the story full circle isn't a surprise, but his ability to keep Gillis at arm's length while viciously attacking the Hollywood subculture still seems impressive. I like that Wilder basically sees no reason to hide his distaste for the moviemaking process. The producer played by Fred Clark has nasty ulcers. Olson's script reader went throught a nose job before realising she wasn't cut out to be an actress. And the supreme irony goes to Norma Desmond's antique car. When she tries to get Cecil B. DeMille's attention for an apparently terrible Salome screenplay, the phone calls from Paramount are actually in reference to wanting to rent the car. Wilder's razorblades shine brilliantly. The extra publicity given to his home studio may not have been entirely wanted. Though Paramount in some ways comes across as sympathetic, as in DeMille's reaction, it also stands firmly as the absolute embodiment of the silent Hollywood assassin. Gillis can't get a job there. Norma is tacitly rejected after years of not working. Betty Schaefer suffered through that nose job investment for naught at the urging of the studio. You sort of get the feeling that Wilder hates everyone and everything about the business, a revelation that I absolutely love.

Despite its status as a bona fide classic, one wholly deserved, Sunset Blvd. is ideally built for those who adore Wilder's work. The acrid taste it leaves you with rewards Wilder admirers more than simple film buffs. Furthermore, the simple harshness he uses may turn off those unprepared for a film where the guy we're supposed to root for is doomed to a certain death. It's all within that diabolical Wilder mindset, though. After you accept that the shoveled smiles the rest of Hollywood tries to bury us with are fake, moving on to Wilder's broken idealism actually feels natural. In this sense, the casual nature of Holden's cynical delivery becomes the ultimate example of how to play Wilder's inherent bad will. The voiceover tips the entire hand, coming across as simultaneously resigned to a bad break and yet still angry enough to not fully let it go. Holden simply sounds like Wilder unfiltered and without an accent. At the very least you have to respect Sunset Blvd. and its director. It earns my highest marks, but perhaps you'd prefer a film about a couple who unwittingly sleep in the same bed at different times of the day. I hear they need a new screenwriter for it.

The Discs

Paramount introduces a new spine-numbered line in R1, leading things off with a bit of irony by having Sunset Blvd. as number 1 in the Centennial Collection. The two-disc set is packaged in a regular keepcase, with one disc on each side of the interior and an eight-page booklet stuck inside. The cover art seen above is for an outer slipcase box and the artwork used for the keepcase looks like this. Overall, it's quite the classy-looking package, and the disc menus are in that same consistent style.

Back in 2002, Paramount first released Sunset Blvd. on DVD and it was a real treasure of a disc. It had an informative commentary, solid transfer and even went into detail on the deleted morgue sequence that originally opened the film. As the years have passed, that Special Collector's Edition increasingly lowered in price until going out of print to accommodate this new edition. The good news is that in no way is the Centennial Collection release a disappointment or inferior. The transfer has been tweaked just a bit and given a disc of its own to fully breathe. The extras are also carried over where necessary, taking out the making-of featurette but placing the interviews from it across these new supplements. I've done a crude comparison in the picture quality below, with the 2002 release on the left and the Centennial Collection on the right (click to enlarge):

As you can see even here, the improvement seems modest at best and probably negligible for many viewers. The increased bitrate does help to mostly eliminate digital noise and the detail could be marginally better. It's perhaps a shade brighter while actually deepening the blacks slightly and, most vitally, improving contrast. If you look at the second comparison long enough, you can see that the black is more pronounced and fuller in the new edition. Certainly the quality of both is reasonably strong, but the Centennial Collection does eliminate the almost greenish tinge from some of the scenes in the 2002 disc. The 1.33:1 image is also quite clean and the transfer is progressive. This doesn't look as good as the video for either Roman Holiday or Sabrina, with a less accomplished degree of detail than those two, but it's not that far off. Paramount is consistently impressive when they make time for catalog titles and, if nothing else, these Centennial Collection re-releases should hopefully offer the best quality available in the DVD format. The difference here versus the older release may not warrant an upgrade in itself, but it could be a contributing factor.

I'm assuming the English Dolby Digital mono track is the same as the previous release. I didn't hear any major changes, but everything was clear and always at a reasonably strong volume level. No hiss or popping. Franz Waxman's brilliant score accompanies the dialogue beautifully and it's all reproduced without issue here. There are additional Spanish and French mono dubs available. Subtitles are optional for English, French, and Spanish, and are also included for the extra features

Dual-layered disc one's bonus material is limited to just Ed Sikov's well-observed commentary, a carryover from the previous release, and a short advertisement (0:37) for the most recent (and most obscene) DVD version of It's a Wonderful Life. The rest of the exhaustive goodies can be found on disc two, also dual-layered and crammed full of supplements. There's well over two hours' worth of extras here and while the quality varies, most are quite good. All the new featurettes are progressive and enhanced for widescreen televisions, with the older interviews conducted for the earlier release pillarboxed to 1.33:1. Let's flip the switch:

"Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning" (22:46) - A fairly basic overview of the film, but good for what it is. The same people are interviewed throughout these supplements and the real treat is the footage of Gloria Swanson from an interview conducted during what looks to be the 1970s.

"The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard by Joseph Wambaugh" (14:19) - The L.A. cop turned author is allowed a nice appreciation that includes both his experiences with the film and his take on it.

"Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic" (14:28) - Mostly a piece detailing some of the reaction to its release and the subsequent reputation it's enjoyed, including the Broadway musical from several years back starring Glenn Close, who's briefly interviewed in a bit carried over from the Special Collector's Edition release.

"Two Sides of Ms. Swanson" (10:37) - Often remembered just for this role, Gloria Swanson, as we're told by her granddaughter, was far from being Norma Desmond. Swanson's co-star in Airport 1975 Linda Harrison is also interviewed.

"Stories of Sunset Boulevard" (11:22) - Full of little tidbits on the film, including the morgue prologue, and featuring comments by Andrew Sarris, the director Nicholas Meyer, and others. Probably the key interviewee throughout the extras is Nancy Olson, who played Betty Schaefer in the film, and her contribution which was carried over from the 2002 release adds a lot of legitimacy to the entire disc.

"Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden" (11:13) - A shorter and similar featurette as the one on the Sabrina release, once again discussing Holden and featuring interviews with people like Paramount producer A.C. Lyles and Stefanie Powers.

"Recording Sunset Boulevard" (5:51) - Though it's short, this is an impressive new addition that discusses Franz Waxman's score and how it finally got a soundtrack release just a few years ago.

"The City of Sunset Boulevard" (5:36) - Another brief, but enjoyable supplement, one that explores the actual street in Los Angeles and some of the locations used. Those who tend to know quite a bit about the film already may find themselves especially appreciating the more ancillary extras like this.

Morgue Prologue Script Pages - A carryover from the 2002 DVD, but nonetheless essential, this lets the viewer see the original and revised scripts that featured a different opening from the existing film. The surviving video that was actually filmed can also be viewed when applicable, but it's without any sound.

"Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Bouelvard" (14:28) - This too was on the previous DVD, and it's full frame and interlaced. Waxman's son and Elmer Bernstein discuss the composer and his career, including the famous Sunset Blvd. score.

"Behind the Gates: The Lot" (5:06) - Part of a series of small featurettes honouring Paramount and spread across the Centennial Collection releases, this particular entry focusses on the origins of the studio and the lot, which is now the only active one still found in Hollywood.

Hollywood Location Map - Kept from the earlier DVD release, this interactive feature allows the user to click on a few of the film's settings, five total including Joe Gillis' apartment and Schwab's Drug Store, and a short video clip plays with some information about each.

"Edith Head: The Paramount Years" (13:43) - This is an older piece from 2002 that talks about the famous costume designer and her career with the studio all the way back since Wings in 1927.

"Paramount in the '50s" (9:37) - This highly promotional tread through the studio's famous films of the decade is from 2000 and can be found on several DVDs, including all the Centennial Collection titles.

Original Theatrical Trailer (3:15) - A William Holden-narrated preview that's an essential watch for fans of the film.

Galleries - Three image galleries highlighting Production, The Movie, and Publicity.

Booklet - Eight pages' worth of material, but only two written. The rest are attractive-looking stills.

As of this writing, the older release can still be had several places and at a retail price that's two and a half times less than the Centennial Collection version. Considering how good the initial offering was, it's difficult to fully recommend someone replacing their existing copy, especially with the constant threat of Blu-ray looming over the horizon for DVD buyers. That being said, this new release is certainly improved - both in the video department and the supplements. The quality of the film itself is strong enough that some of its legion of fans will want the best possible version, and this is absolutely a release I'd have been happy to purchase. I'm still conflicted as to whether the improvements justify the higher price tag, which only seems high in comparison to the bargain of the older disc, but Paramount has at least made a real effort here.

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